Cows have a much shorter lifespan then humans. Everyone knows that. And pretty much everyone already knows that cows actually have a pretty brutal, short life most of the time.
Raised solely for their meat, or put to work producing milk for their entire life before being put down, it’s kind of a rough gig being a cow.
It does make you wonder how long they could possibly live if they were given the maximum amount of care like we give our pets. It’s a good question: so, how long do cows live on our homesteads?
A cow that is given lots of care and not slaughtered might live to be 20 years old or a little older. Most cattle that are raised for beef exclusively will be slaughtered before they’re even 3 years old, while most dairy cows are slaughtered at around 6 or 7 when their milk production declines.
The fact of the matter is that if we are keeping animals to produce useful products or nutritious food for our family or for other families, they probably aren’t going to enjoy a very long life.
However, if you want to give a dairy cow a happy retirement or just have a few cows running around as pets on your homestead, they can live a lot longer than you might think. Keep reading and I’ll tell you everything about it…
What’s the Average Lifespan of a Cow?
This depends on the purpose the cow is being raised for, but generally it is only a few years: much shorter for beef cattle, a little longer for dairy cattle. In all cases, far less than their natural expected lifespan.
How Long Do Beef Cows Live?
Beef cattle don’t live very long at all, typically no older than 3 years, and many are slaughtered at 2 years or even younger.
Broadly, anytime a cow is raised for beef it will be slaughtered once it reaches a certain weight and shows adequate characteristics for finishing, typically a certain fat percentage.
Veal, that is young cow or calf meat, might be slaughtered at even less than a year old!
How Long Do Dairy Cows Live?
In commercial use, typically between 5 and 6, though some might go the distance and reach 7 years old.
Dairy cows, as a rule, will live longer than beef cattle, though they will only rarely get to enjoy a long life and a happy retirement after they stop producing milk.
Commercial dairy cows are kept under an absolutely brutal milking regimen and given little to no rest between pregnancies in order to keep them cranking out milk.
No matter how they are treated, most dairy cows will see greatly reduced volume and quality as they age, and it is at this point that dairy cows are usually shuffled off to be slaughtered in order to recoup more of the owner’s investment.
That being said, a dairy cow that is treated well and milked conservatively, far more common on smaller farms and on homesteads like ours, can still live quite a long life.
What is the Impact of Lactation Cycles on Cow Lifespan?
There’s a link between the lactation cycles and productivity of dairy cows and lifespan. Across most dairy breeds and particularly high-producing domestic cattle breeds like the Brown Swiss, Jersey and Holstein, high production of milk is linked to a shorter overall lifespan.
Determining the precise impact of this factor on a cow’s lifespan can be challenging, because high-production cows typically burn out or dry up quicker than other breeds.
This means they’ll be slaughtered or culled sooner, what these cows also show a markedly higher instance of negative health effects and diseases the more lactation cycles they go through.
A cow that comes down with a particularly bad case of mastitis, for instance, might need to be euthanized.
Similarly, the chances of birth defects likewise increase over time, many of which can have fatal complications.
How Long Do Cows Live Naturally?
Cows live a surprisingly long time if they’re given good care, not overworked, and generally treated right.
It’s hardly unusual for a heritage breed of cow to live around 18 years- old enough to vote! – but many cows can live to reach 20 or even beyond. This isn’t entirely common, but it’s not at all unheard of either.
This is something to keep in mind if you want a cow as more or less a farmyard pet on the homestead, because it is a huge commitment for an equally huge animal that will need tons of food and expensive healthcare over the course of his life!
Barring accident or severe injury, this is one relationship that will last for a significant portion of your life.
Does the Cow’s Breed Affect Lifespan?
Something else to consider is that you’re different cow breeds also have different lifespans, typically.
Surprisingly, many of the more conservatively bred crossbreeds and hybrids tend to live much longer than the older heritage breeds, even ones that are much closer to wild or ancient cow stock.
This is thought to be due to genetic diversity issues and susceptibility to sickness.
For instance, the ever-popular Angus or Shorthorn are known for profitability, but they also tend to have very short lifespans no matter how they are treated, with many not living past 7 or 8 years of age even in the best circumstances.
A nod to this overall genetic weakness is in the mortality rate of their calves, with Angus calves showing an average mortality rate of around 15% prior to weaning. Not great!
Compare this with the Limousin breed, which will live much longer with good care, experience significantly less rates of debilitating sickness and also show less than half as much calf mortality across most circumstances.
It seems like an open-and-shut win for the newer crossbreeds, but keep in mind that based on your production objectives or other goals, you might still be better off going with one of those legacy breeds that doesn’t live quite as long.
You’ll have to do a little math to see if the money makes sense!
What are the Factors Affecting Cow Lifespan?
Lots of factors affect a cow’s life span. The most basic are the purpose they are being raised for as discussed above, but also their overall care, diet and environment.
Cows that are allowed to live a more or less normal life on a pasture, eat grass, enjoy healthy supplemental food and generally be treated well will invariably live longer, all other things equal.
Cows that are packed into crowded conditions, not giving much exercise and basically kept alive, all other considerations be damned, will not live as long.
But there are many other nuanced factors to consider too, and you should if you want to run a profitable cattle operation.
The lineage of a cow is critically important to prevent illness and other negative health outcomes, particularly skeletal defects, birth defects, other diseases and so forth.
Similarly, cows that are known to experience difficult, protracted births typically don’t live as long as cows that can give birth easily, so keep that in mind if you have a mom in the herd that always struggles to birth.
What are Some Breeding Strategies to Improve Overall Herd Lifespan?
The single most important thing you can do to improve the lifespan of your herd when breeding is to introduce some genetic diversity in the form of males from other herd, or even other breeds.
It is a simple puzzle: the fewer forks in the tree, genetically, that your herd has the more diseases they will be vulnerable to and genetic maladies they are likely to experience.
Don’t forget to consult with your veterinarian. Vaccinations are essential for keeping many preventable, and also fatal, bovine diseases at bay.
Your vet, assuming they’re specialized in cows, can also give you lots of good advice on keeping your cows healthy no matter what sort of breeding program you’re engaged in.
Also, a practical consideration concerning breeding is to provide calving assistance for cows.
Whether you have mommy cows that can easily give birth without your help or not, it will always go a little smoother and there’ll be fewer risks of serious injury if she is given assistance.
Your cows can live for a surprisingly long time, assuming you don’t slaughter them, but whether you’re keeping them as pets more or less or putting them to work, you should always take steps to maximize their health and lifespan.
Tim is a farm boy with vast experience on homesteads, and with survival and prepping. He lives a self-reliant lifestyle along with his aging mother in a quiet and very conservative little town in Ohio. He teaches folks about security, prepping and self-sufficiency not just through his witty writing, but also in person.
Find out more about Tim and the rest of the crew here.