As the term “cow” is used colloquially to refer to any domestic cattle, regardless of age, gender, breed, or type, it can be confusing to figure out which term should be used to correctly refer to all the different types of cattle.

If you want to know the differences between a cow and a heifer, it’s best if we first define these terms, and then we can take a look at the key differences between them.

What is a Heifer?

A heifer is a young female cow that has not yet given birth to any calves.

Usually, once a heifer is one year old, she is bred with a bull. Once a heifer gives birth, she is then referred to as a cow. If a heifer is older than two and has never calved, she may then be referred to as a heiferette.

Heifers can be bred, used for milk production, or sold for meat.

What is a Cow?

A cow is a female bovine that has given birth to at least one calf. Therefore, at one point, all female cows were heifers.

Cows are also used to milk production, meat and breeding too.

4 Key Differences Between Cows and Heifers

Reproduction

Cows are able to reproduce and typically have between 2 and 6 calves in their lifetime, though this very much depends on whether they are dairy cows or beef cows – and thus their lifespan – as well as whether the cow is primarily used for breeding or not.

On average, dairy cows live longer (5-6 years) compared to beef cows that are typically slaughtered for meat after 1-2 years. Breeding beef cows, on the other hand, can continue to reproduce until 8-12 years old

Heifers are immature and are therefore unable to reproduce until they reach puberty and are bred, which usually occurs by 12 to 14 months of age.

Milk Production

Milk can only be produced once birth has been given, which means that heifers are unable to produce milk until they are bred with a bull and have had their first calf.

Once a cow has given birth, she can produce milk for about 10 months before she is able to have another calf and produce milk again. This is known as a cow’s lactation period.

Physical Appearance

A good way to tell the difference between cows and heifers is to take a quick look at them.

As you might expect, heifers look similar to cows but they also lack certain characteristics that only a more mature animal can have. These include the thick middles and more prominent hips of cows.

Vulva

The vulva, which can be found below the tailhead, is the main reproductive organ of the cow and is more prominent as it protrudes outwards.

Heifers, on the other hand, do not have prominent vulvas. It only increases in size when a heifer that has been bred is about to calve.

What is the Best Way of Distinguishing Between a Cow and Heifer?

The fastest and easiest way of distinguishing between a cow and heifer is simply by looking to see if an udder is present. Cows have very developed udders whereas heifers have teats but no visible udder.