Bull vs. Cow: How to Tell Them Apart

All bulls are cows, but not all cows are bulls. Confused? Don’t be! Bulls are male cows that are sexually intact and capable of breeding, while a “cow,” in specific parlance, is a female cow, one that has had at least one calf.

Texas longhorn cattle
Texas longhorn cattle

Sheesh, this lingo is enough to drive you half-mad. Why don’t we just call cows male and female? You can, but that isn’t going to get you any respect among your fellow homesteaders and other bovine professionals.

Anyway, if you want to keep your cows and bulls straight, you must be able to tell them apart. So, how can you tell a bull from a cow?

Bulls are most easily identified by their reproductive organs. Male cows have two testicles located near the base of the tail and a visible penis, or sheath, on their underside. Other physical characteristics are helpful, but might not allow for a positive ID.

No major surprise here. The same trick that works with all mammals works to with cattle to tell the boys from the girls. Just check the underside from a safe distance. Simple, but not always easy.

Anyway, there’s more you’ll want to know about telling bulls from cows, and I will tell you all about it down below…

Can’t You Just Look for Horns?

I know what you’re already thinking, because it is the same thing I thought for some time: can’t we just look for the horns to tell bulls from cows at a glance?

You can, but it just isn’t a sure thing. You see, both bulls and cows can have horns, at least in some breeds. So this method is far from foolproof.

What’s more, some breeds are what is known as “polled” or bred to grow no horns at all.

Among these cows, some might, down the line, spontaneously grow horns in certain generations, meaning it is possible to have a bunch of cows with no horns at all, or even a cow that has horns and a bull that doesn’t.

That said, when both males and females have horns, the horns of the bull are almost always larger, thicker, longer and far, far more impressive weapons compared to the ones cows have- though they can still be pretty impressive.

Aren’t Bulls Cows, Too?

Yes, but not according to our strict and cattle-specific gendered terminology. Cows are female cattle, and bulls are male cattle.

But “cow” is also a generic term for all bovine animals, regardless of their gender, and “cows” is the plural form of the same. You might correctly if not accurately refer to a bull as a cow (but not vice versa).

Said another way, all bulls are cows (generically) and you might even call your bull a cow, but cows (lady cows) are definitely not bulls. I’m thinking it might have been wiser to just call all female cows heifers, now…

When in Doubt, Just Check the Reproductive Organs

Like I said up above, briefly, the best way to find out if you are dealing with a bull or cow is to check their reproductive organs.

Bulls have boy parts- a penis and testicles underneath- while cows have girl parts- a big, obvious udder and a vaginal opening on their backside.

It might feel a bit odd to start checking your cattle like this, but it is the most certain way to tell the difference.

Specifically, bulls don’t have anything that really resembles an udder, but you should be cautious to avoid mistaking a bull’s testicles for a cow’s udder and teats.

Bulls are Bigger and More Muscular

Let’s say that, at a distance, you are still trying to pick your bull out of a crowd. How else might you spot him?

One of the best ways, assuming he is mature and grown, is to look for sheer size and muscle. Bulls are, all things equal, much larger and more muscular than cows.

That’s because his nads are intact and so he will benefit from the physiologically supercharging effects of testosterone!

Yes, genetics and individual characteristics do matter, but we are talking rules of thumb: You can easily spot a bull most times by their broad, bulging withers, thick neck, and stout appearance.

Cows, on the other hand, are usually smaller and much less muscular by comparison, though by most breed standards, they’re still huge animals.

Bulls Typically Weigh More

Another clue to help you identify bulls from cows is their weight. Bulls usually weigh more than cows because of their greater muscle mass and bone density.

A typical mature bull can weigh anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 pounds, and some exceptionally huge breeds can reach 3,000 pounds- or even more!

Meanwhile, our adult cow generally weighs between 1,000 and 1,800 pounds, and 1,800 pounds is near the very top for most breeds.

That’s a big difference, and one that’s easy to spot once you’ve seen some live examples still “on the hoof.”

Bulls are Usually Much More Aggressive

Every, single person reading this right now has heard the old aphorism: if you mess with the bull, you get the horns.

Yes, yes, I just said above that bulls might not actually have horns, but the expression is referring to a bull’s attitude generally.

An intact male bull is, as a rule, significantly grumpier, more standoffish, more territorial and flat-out more aggressive than a typical female cow.

While it’s true that there are some bulls from specifically docile species that might be more or less agreeable to your interactions, there’s a reason that bulls are typically kept contained by themselves when it isn’t mating season.

And speaking of mating season, if you want to see a bull turn into a psychotic engine of destruction, just wait till he gets a whiff of a cow in heat.

He probably won’t even let you come near him or his ladies! So when you notice a particularly large cow stamping around, huffing, puffing and acting plumb mean, you can rightly presume that it is a bull.

Bulls Usually Have Deeper Calls

Cows make a variety of calls, not just that stereotypical moo or lowing sound.

They make a variety of grunts, chuffs, and other noises to communicate among themselves, tell people and predators to back off, and signal to potential mates that they are ready to get busy.

This is one factor that isn’t always totally reliable, but in my experience it usually is: whenever a cow is vocalizing, listen closely. Bulls will most of the time have a deeper, rougher and bassier sound compared to cows.

And once again, this just makes sense. Males in most animal species usually have louder or more intimidating vocalizations. Cows are no different.

Watch for Mating Season Behavior

Hopefully this is something you’ve figured out before it comes time to let your cows mate so you can naturally expand the size of your herd, but just in case you haven’t you can keep an eye out for mating behaviors in bulls.

Bulls are the ones that do the mounting, while cows are the ones that get mounted.

What About Steers? Do They Look Like Cows?

Steers and bulls are not synonymous. A steer is a bull that has been castrated, meaning he’s had his testicles removed.

This is typically done to prevent inadvertent breeding, to make the bull more docile and easier to handle, and sometimes for the purposes of improving overall meat quality.

Now, based on what we’ve learned so far we know that without the testicles there is no production of testosterone. Without that testosterone, a bull isn’t going to turn into the huge, jacked and very literal beefcake that he normally would.

This means that a steer has a much softer and somewhat smaller appearance overall, much closer to that of a cow.

But that said, you can still usually tell the boys from the girls in this case by looking for the presence of a penis, and also for an overall larger, stockier frame.

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