Terminology and behaviour

A female before her first calf is a heifer, and after she's calved (usually by three years old) she's a cow. Mature cows look slightly different to heifers, with a larger head, a less-dished face and a more angular body. In horned breeds their horns tend to go up, often forming a lyre shape.

An entire male is a bull. Bulls develop a very large, broad head, heavy muscles all over (and especially on the neck) thick bones and very large feet. In horned breeds the horns tend to be thick and turned down. The voice becomes high and yodelling, although they can also make a low crooning "bull-roar", as well as the many other sounds all cattle make (see below). A bull will sometimes herd females to keep them together and away from rivals. Bulls will taste the urine of other cattle (including males and calves), presumably to keep track of who is fertile. It is said that some bulls can tell when all their females are already pregnant -- and will then break out in search of more... When put in a new place, bulls (and sometimes other dominant adults) will kneel, and rub their faces and horns along the ground. They usually choose a bank of loose peat or clay and end up with their faces covered in mud.

However, most male domestic cattle are castrated, to make them easier to handle and to avoid unplanned calvings -- also, bull-beef tends to be rather too lean. A castrated male is a steer (or bullock) -- when fully mature called an ox. Mature oxen are very rare in the UK nowadays because steers are nearly always killed for beef when quite young (between two and three years old). Oxen are usually taller than bulls or cows, and are good for draught (pulling ploughs or carts). Steers look much like cows or heifers, but as they mature into oxen they begin to develop higher, muscular withers (shoulders), and large heads with a more convex profile. In horned breeds their horns develop much like those of cows. Although unable to mate properly, steers do show interest in bulling females and will mount them.

Baby cattle are called calves (singular calf); a new-born calf is a bobby or poddy calf. New-born calves are often left lying hidden for the first few days, with the mother coming to suckle them two or three times a day. The mother will usually stay in sight of the hiding place, but will take care not to look towards it in case she gives her calf's location away (it can take many hours to find such a calf in rough vegetation). If disturbed when hidden, the calf will run away, but will usually run in a circle and hide again near where mum left it. If a calf first encounters humans like this (without the mother present) it may be very nervous of people to start with, as it sees them as predators -- but if the mother is there too, the calf is more likely to accept people as part of the herd. By the time a calf is a week or so old, it can easily keep up with its mother, and is less likely to be left hidden. When first introduced to the herd, a new calf will be greeted by each of the older animals. Older calves play a lot together, and will sometimes keep in a creche group in the charge of one or two cows.

Cattle is the plural for all of them -- but like "people" and "swine" it has no proper singular.

Cattle become sexually mature in their second year (depending upon how much food they get), but continue to grow until four or five years old. A heifer or cow bulls (comes into season) about every three weeks until she gets in calf. When bulling, she will enthusiastically seek a bull, sometimes breaking out of her field to get to him -- and back again later! Bulling females have an urge to mount other cattle, and other cattle have an urge to mount bulling females -- of course if a bull is available he will mount and mate her. If not, she will mount and be mounted by other females or steers. A dominant bull will keep other cattle away from a bulling female. As in humans, calving is after a pregnancy of nine months. The cow will be fertile again two or three months after calving, so will usually calve about the same time the next year. If in calf again she will stop producing milk about three months before the next calf. If not in calf, she can go on giving some milk for two or three years -- but the maximum production is in the first nine months. This is why dairy farmers arrange for their cows to calve every year (all commercial milk production therefore involves the parallel production of surplus animals). In subsistence cultures (and perhaps in the wild) cows may calve only every second year, as it takes a lot of extra food to continue to produce milk through pregnancy.

If cattle feel under extreme threat (or when challenging each other), they will sometimes roar aggressively, standing sideways, holding their heads near the ground, drooling with their tongues out, and perhaps pawing the ground. Other adults in the herd (especially bulls and steers) who hear the roar will come running (see below for more cattle sounds).

If new cattle are introduced to a herd, the animals will fight for dominance, and if closely matched, these fights can be serious, often churning up the ground. Most fights in mixed herds are between cows, because (domestic) strange bulls rarely meet each other, and younger steers and heifers don't dare challenge the older cows. Bulls reared together do not usually fight any more than other cattle. Herds without older animals (such as bunches of equal-aged steers or heifers) can be rather unruly -- they are young, excitable, and each is eager to be the boss. If cattle who know each other are separated for more than a week or so they also fight -- probably to remind themselves of who is dominant.

Cattle have very good eyesight, although like most mammals they have limited colour vision (they are red/green colour-blind). They readily recognise different humans and recognise each other by look and smell. We have seen ours react to our faces looking from a passing car (a car they do not normally see). Lost cattle become very distressed, and search for their herd. We have watched one lost cow (when ranging on the New Forest) scenting along the ground like a hound and sniffing each cow-pat she found, then eventually running off in one direction -- where sure enough, the rest of the herd was soon found. If they cannot find their own herd, lost cattle will usually join strange cattle rather than remain alone. A herd will usually keep in sight and earshot of each other -- close together in scrub or other dense vegetation, but perhaps more scattered in a level, open field.

"Cows moo"... Yes, but cattle also make many other sounds. Small calves bawl for their mothers, and the mothers make a low moo when calling for their calves -- this call is also used by other cattle when greeting each other. All cattle moo very loudly when excited by the prospect of food, by other cattle, or when distressed -- and each animal has its own voice and style of moo, which the other cattle (and their humans) can distinguish. Cattle will moo to each other as the herd begins to move, presumably to help keep them together. Bulls make a low crooning "bull-roar", especially to females out of reach (this is the sound imitated by the "bull-roarer" , a flat stick swung round the head on a string). Bulls also make a coughing sound when herding females, an impatient grunt when trying to mate, and a high yodelling call when challenging other males. Older cattle (of both sexes) roar in aggression (see above). They also snort sharply in alarm, like horses and some other ungulates. When investigating strange things they sniff at them, then make a quieter version of the alarm snort -- you may hear (and feel) this when meeting cattle over a gate.

Many cattle terms have been used differently or more loosely in the past. Heifer could once mean any young animal reared for beef, and bullock can be used similarly. Beast, which now means any largish animal, once referred mainly to cattle. There are also many other terms in occasional, historical or local use. For example, stirk is a yearling steer or heifer (especially in northern Britain). The word ox can also be used more generally: ox-cart, ox-liver, ox-tail, ox-heart and ox-tongue all refer to any adult cattle. Neat was a general term for any cattle, now usually only in "neat's-foot oil", used for treating leather. The feet have low-melting-point oil, rather than the high-melting-point fat found elsewhere in the body of cattle (such as suet, the fat around the kidneys). This is because like most four-legged mammals (and birds), there is a heat exchange system ("counter current circulation") in the blood vessels of the limbs, to reduce heat loss in cold weather. The system allows the extremities to remain near the temperature of the surroundings (the extremities are effectively "cold-blooded") -- and so if neats had fat in the feet it would go too stiff when cold. Being originally tropical, humans do not have such an effective system -- this is why we so easily get chilled hands and feet, and even frost-bite.

Cattle are often referred to as grazers (eating plants such as grass off the ground), but although they do prefer to graze most also readily browse (eat trees and shrubs). They eat long and short vegetation in different ways. Like other ruminants (sheep, deer, camels, antelope etc) they have no front teeth in the upper jaw -- the lower teeth meet a hard pad. There is then a toothless gap behind the front teeth and pad, and grinding cheek teeth at the back. Unlike horses, their lips are not mobile, but hard and stiff -- it is their long muscular tongues which are used for manipulating vegetation. For long grass or tree-leaves, they curl their tongue around the vegetation, grip it with the front teeth and pad, then pull sideways or backwards. For short grass, they grip it directly with the teeth and pad, and pull it upwards and forwards with a small jerk. From these different actions, you can sometimes tell from a distance how tall the grass is. They will occasionally browse spiny plants (such as gorse Ulex spp) by chewing directly with their cheek teeth. Cattle can eat quite short grass (much shorter than commonly thought -- perhaps 1 cm, 3/4 inch), but horses and sheep can nibble it even shorter. Cattle are very even grazers -- they prefer to eat 5 cm or so (2 or 3 inches) repeatedly off the longer vegetation until a whole field is all the same length -- in contrast, horses start with the shortest grass, only moving to longer grass if there is not enough short grass left.

Like many herbivores, cattle test new food carefully, in case it's poisonous. If given a novel palatable plant, they will sniff, lick and nibble it for several days -- if they do not feel ill in that time, they will then eat it keenly. If they do feel ill, they will never eat it again -- they may also copy each other in eating or avoiding plants. In this way, they can usually avoid eating dangerous amounts of poisonous plants, but can remain adventurous in their diet, making the most of everything available. Our cattle will happily eat many plants which would be deadly in large amounts -- including for example hemlock (Conium maculatum), and cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). However, this strategy does not always work. Some plants have cumulative poisons which do not make cattle feel ill to start with (such as acorns, Quercus spp or ragwort Senecio spp), and these can harm the animals after weeks or months. Also, if already feeling ill, cattle will sometimes refuse wholesome food such as grass or hay, presumably because it seems to be that which is making them feel bad. Another plant which sometimes poisons cattle is hemlock water-dropwort, or water hemlock (Oenanthe crocata), which grows in soft, damp ground. This has small amounts of toxins in the leaves and stems, but much larger amounts in the roots, which are like bunches of white carrots. Only the leaves and stems are usually accessible, and cattle learn to eat them safely. If the starch-rich roots are eroded or churned out of the ground, they recognise the taste as a normally safe one and may then get poisoned. For this reason, we remove this plant from our pastures along the river banks wherever it is not firmly rooted (elsewhere it soon disappears, as it does not like being grazed).

If a heifer calf is twin to a bull, she is usually affected in the womb by his male hormones. This is because in fraternal (dizygotic) twins in cattle, the two placentae usually fuse and the calves' blood then mixes. The heifer is born as an infertile partial intersex, a freemartin, and although she will look female, in build and behaviour she will develop like a steer (see Lemon ). A few cells from the twin calves also swap (they become microchimeric), and this is one way of diagnosing a freemartin -- male cells (with a Y-chromosome) can be found in her body and blood. The bull-calf twin is normal, as are heifer-heifer and bull-bull twin sets. Freemartins hardly ever happen in other mammals, but they do occur in other cattle species such as bison and buffalo. Identical (monozygotic) twins are very rare in cattle, and of course are not mixed-sex.

Horned breeds are born without horns, but the horns begin to grow immediately, and continue to do so throughout their lives -- the length and shape depends upon the sex and breed. Commercial cattle of horned breeds are usually disbudded as calves -- their horn buds are burnt out under anaesthetic to help avoid later injury to people and other cattle. In some cultures the horns are trimmed, decorated or trained into strange shapes. Cattle without horns are called polled -- some breeds or strains (like our British Whites) do not grow horns, and so are naturally polled. A few naturally polled cattle have tiny horny growths in the skin where their horns would be, which are called scurs.

Some coat colours and patterns have particular names. A white stripe along the back is called finching, and this may extend over the tail as in Gloucester cattle, or over the head as in the Hereford and Simmental breeds. The black-and-white or red-and-white pattern characteristic of the Friesian, Holstein, Ayrshire and related breeds is called pied. A broad white band around the middle with solid-coloured front and rear is called belted or sheeted. A pattern occurring in many breeds (such as Irish Moiled, Longhorn and Beef Shorthorn) is colour-sided (sometimes called lineback), with broad white finching and belly but coloured feet, sides and head. The British White and White Park pattern (with the colour limited to ears, feet, eyelids and nose) is an extreme pale form of this, and like other colour-sided patterns is found in many unrelated breeds around the world. Chestnut-brown cattle are called red (like red squirrel, red fox and red ochre) -- some breeds (such as Sussex, North Devon and Red Poll) are solid red with a cream or white switch (the hairy end part of the tail). Some other words are used as in dogs or horses: brindle is mixed black and red hair, and roan is white mixed into other colours. Although most modern breeds are quite uniform in colour and pattern, in the past many breeds were much more varied. The colour of wild cattle was probably similar to that of the Jersey: the females (also the steers) brown, shading to darker-brown points, the calves uniform brown or reddish and the bulls black-brown with cream finching.

The descriptions above apply to taurine cattle. The indicus cattle (for example the Zebu and Brahmin types) are rather different in shape. They have humps on the withers, larger dewlaps and a generally more angular appearance than most taurine cattle. Although treated as separate subspecies (or sometimes species), the two types interbreed quite readily, and both (and mixtures) are now widespread in the world, with indicus types being mainly tropical and subtropical. Both are derived from an extinct wild species, the aurochs (plural aurochs or sometimes aurochsen). The Heck cattle are a modern breed created from various old European breeds to look like aurochs, though they are much smaller -- aurochs were 2 metres or so (6' 6") tall and bulls weighed around a ton.

Several other cattle species have been partially or fully domesticated, including two types (possibly species) of water buffalo, the yak, the gaur (domesticated as the mithun), and the banteng (domesticated as Bali cattle). Most of these other species survive as very rare animals in the wild, as do several which have been domesticated recently or not at all, such as the European bison or wisent, the American bison (called buffalo in America), two types or species of African buffalo and the kouprey. Some hybrids are also domesticated, such as yak/cattle, bison/cattle, and mithun/indicus cattle (interestingly it seems that mithun cannot hybridise with taurine cattle, suggesting that they are more closely related to the indicus type). True buffaloes cannot hybridise with bison or the other cattle. Bison will hybridise with domestic cattle only under artificial conditions, with the first-cross calves having to be born by Caesarian section (because the full-term calf does not trigger birth properly). Most of the wild species above are (or were) a good bit larger than domesticated cattle. There are also several small deer-like buffalo, the anoas.

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