Cows can naturally live for as long as 15-20 years. As cows are mainly bred for human consumption, though, their lifespan is much lower. Dairy cows are usually slaughtered when they are about six years old. On average, beef cows are slaughtered when they are between 1 to 2 years old.
Now that you know how long cows live on average, let’s take a closer look at some of the factors that can determine a cow’s lifespan, including the breed of cow, the cow’s purpose, the environment they live in (factory farming vs. pasture), and find out the answers to some commonly asked questions.
Dairy Cows vs. Beef Cows vs. Miniature Cows
In the USA, there are 7 major dairy breeds. These include Holstein, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Ayrshire, Jersey, Red and White, and Milking Shorthorn.
Regardless of breed, the age that dairy cows live until is most strongly related to their production levels. Generally, high production cows do not live as long as lower production cows, but they are more profitable.
While in theory longevity of 10 lactations is possible, this is unlikely, mainly due to low production. In fact, in the USA, the average herd life of Holstein is fewer than 3 lactations. There is also the risk of infertility, mastitis, or lameness occurring, which can all affect the age a cow lives until.
Once a dairy cow is no longer able to be used for milk production, it is sent to slaughter. As dairy cows are usually pushed to their limits to meet high production demands, their meat is considered lower quality. They are therefore sold for less money and their meat is used in cheaper products such as processed meat, which is considered lower quality. Approximately 20% of beef consumed in the USA comes from dairy cows.
Beef cows undergo three stages before slaughter: cow-calf operations, backgrounding, and feedlot operations.
Cow-calf operations involve a farmer or rancher keeping a permanent herd to produce calves for later sale. Backgrounding begins after weaning and ends upon placement in a feedlot. Feedlot operations are designed to increase the amount of fat gained by each cow as quickly as possible.
This entire process usually takes between 1 and 2 years, so beef cows, therefore, live an average of 1 to 2 years before slaughter.
Miniature cows are kept as pets or used in small farm operations. They, therefore, tend to live for as long as their natural lifespan allows, which is typically around 18 years.
They are popular with smaller farms and homesteads for several reasons. They can produce just enough milk for the farmer’s or homesteader’s needs; take up little space (just half to one acre of pasture each), are 25-30% more feed-efficient; require less work; and don’t require heavy fencing. Of course, they make great pets too thanks to their cuteness and sweet, gentle temperament.
Grass-Fed vs. Non-Grass-Fed Cows
The lifespan between grass-fed and non-grass-fed cows differs. But before we get to that, the first thing you need to know is what these two terms even mean.
Technically, all cows are “grass-fed” because, for the first few months of their existence, all cows graze on grass and spend time in pasture. Some cows then go from pasture to the feedlot where they eat foods other than grass. Here, they are fed a diet high in grain, while others do not go to the feedlot and remain in pasture. Feedlot cows have a lifespan of between 14-18 months.
Those cows that are 100% grass-fed (and therefore grass-finished too) – i.e. cows that have access to pasture their entire lives and are only pasture-and-forage-fed instead of grain-fed – live longer. They can live up to 24 months before they are sent to slaughter.
Considering the enormous amount of land and time that is required – not to mention that not all states have the appropriate climate for outdoor grazing all year long – this isn’t the norm in the USA.
It’s also good to know the definitions of organic and free-range too. Organic cows are cows that are only fed certified organic feed, which does not have antibiotics or added growth hormones, and are allowed unrestricted access to pasture. Free-range cows are uncaged, have outdoor access, and are free to roam.
The lifespan of both free-range and organic cows does not differ from the average lifespan for typical dairy and beef cows. This is between six years old for dairy cows and 1 to 2 years for beef cows.
There are many cattle breeds, including Angus, Ayrshire, Dexter, Brangus, Brahman, Beefmaster, Brown Swiss, Charolais, Highland, Jersey, Guernsey, Zebu, and Simmental to name just a few.
Because cows are bred for human consumption and are slaughtered once they are no longer productive or once they have reached a suitable age to be slaughtered and sold as meat, the breed of cow does not have much of an effect on how long it can live.
However, there are exceptions. Kobe cows, for example, are slaughtered at an average age of 32 months. This is because it takes longer for the meat to mature to what is considered an ideal quality and texture. The same can be said of Wagyu cows that have a similar slaughter age of around 30 months.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many calves can a cow have in a lifetime?
On average, a cow gives birth every 12 to 14 months. Considering that the average lifespan of a dairy cow is between 4-6 years, a cow can have two to four calves in a lifetime.
Do cows die if not milked?
If a cow goes too long without being milked, it can cause bruising, udder injury, sickness, and even death. This is because milk will build up in her udder, causing it to become full and may lead to infections. This only applies to dairy cows, with high milk production and not beef cows.
Can cows live without humans?
Dairy cows are bred for one purpose: to make milk. This means that without milking the cow will eventually get an infection and die. Beef cows would likely survive just fine without humans and be able to consume enough to meet their needs, though they will require extra feed in the winter.
Would cows go extinct if we didn’t eat them?
As a large percentage of cows are able to survive in the wild, cows would not go extinct if humans didn’t eat them.
What is the record for the longest a cow has ever lived?
The oldest cow that has ever lived was known as Big Bertha. She lived for 48 years and 9 months (17 March 1945 – 31 December 1993). Big Bertha, who has a Droimenn (Friesian Holstein), was born in Ireland and produced 39 calves in her lifetime, which is another record she held.