Cows? Cattle? Are all cows female? What about bulls and steers—are they cows? Do only males have horns?
Let’s start with a little terminology:
- A cow is a female that has had at least one calf.
- A heifer is a female that has not yet had a calf; she becomes a cow after her first calf is born.
- A bull is a male that is able to breed.
- A steer is a male that has been castrated and is not able to breed. The majority of our marketable beef comes from steers.
So, when a calf is born, it is either a bull (male) calf or heifer (female) calf. At Hoehn Bend Farm, we tend to refer to our females as “the cows” (even though the heifers and calves might be with the cows) and call the entire herd “cattle”. But we are not always that precise, and might say, “let’s go see the cows” when we would be headed to a pasture that has cows, heifers, and steers all grazing together.
The terminology becomes important, though, when we put one of our bulls in with “the girls” for breeding. We need to be certain that the youngest heifers (those too young and small to be able to safely bear a calf) are separated from the rest of the females at that point. We have all natural breeding—no artificial insemination or use of hormones at any time. In 2013, all of the pregnant “girls” (cows and heifers) had their calves out in the pasture, at various times of the day. One calf was even born during a brief thunderstorm—neither Mom nor the calf seemed to mind at all!
Our cattle are members of the smallest breed of cattle—Dexter cattle, an Irish heritage breed that is becoming more popular in the United States because the meat processed from Dexters results in smaller portions of beef. This is appealing to customers who want to eat beef, but not sit down to a 12-ounce steak. Dexter cattle are a “dual-purpose” breed, meaning they can be used for milking or for beef. We are not a dairy, but rather raise all natural, grass-fed beef. (Originally in Ireland, Dexter cattle also served a third purpose as draft animals!)
Also, Dexter cattle—either males or females—can have horns, but we prefer working with a herd that does not have horns. Most of our animals have genetics that result in calves without horns. Dexter cattle can be born in one of three colors (black, red, or dun)—most of our animals are black, but every year we have more red cattle as well.
We touch and scratch our cattle as much as they allow. Some like neck rubs a great deal! Some of the cows will eat alfalfa cubes right out of your hand. The black cattle have purple tongues and that is often quite a surprise. During the cooler months of the year, the cows are fed in the barn and that provides an opportunity to be close to them and watch them eat. Who would think that watching and listening to cows eat would be soothing and relaxing? But their mealtime is a very peaceful time at the farm!