Calf to cow

For this week, I picked out a column from months ago that appeared in the Tomah Journal newspaper.

ASK YOUR SCIENCE TEACHER                 by Larry Scheckel

This week’s question was asked by: a youngster on the school bus


When does a calf become a cow?


There’s a whole herd of terms to describe the bovine barnyard population. Calves are born after a gestation (pregnancy) period of about 9 months. The birth of a calf is simply called calving.  A calf can stand up within a few minutes of being born. They typically start to suckle within an hour. A calf is able to follow its mother around after one week.

Calf is a term used from birth to weaning. Weaning is the removing of the suckling calf from its mother. Calves are ear tagged within hours of birth, so the mother can always be identified. In some places, such as Europe, it is a legal requirement. Calves are vaccinated and males are castrated within 2 months (ouch).

A heifer is a young female calf from birth until she has a calf of her own. When the heifer becomes a mother, usually after about age two or three, we call her a “cow”. A castrated male is called a “steer”. He is destined for the meat market (a really big ouch). Cattle that end up on our table are referred to as “beef cattle”.

A “bull” is an adult male that has not been castrated. His job is to impregnate the cows, sort of a one-on-one procedure, or to provide sperm for artificial insemination.

A cow or heifer that is near calving time is referred to as a “springer”. A “fresh cow” is a cow or first-calf heifer that has recently given birth. We say the cow has “freshened”.

Young calves slaughtered for human consumption provide veal. In the old West, an orphan calf that had lost its mother was termed a “dogie” as in “get along little dogie”.

A new mother cow will try to hide her infant calf. The newborn calf can’t keep up with the herd. We noticed this on our Oak Grove Ridge farm in Crawford County. Our cows were put out to graze in some pastures that were partially wooded. We Scheckel boys had the task of counting the cows as they came in for milking about 5 PM. If one was missing, we knew we had to go search for it in the woods.

Wisconsin has 1.3 million dairy cows living on 10,000 dairy farms. That’s an average herd size of 130 cows. Wisconsin is number the one producer of cheese in the United States, but number two behind California in milk production.

It only makes sense. The people population of California is about 38 million and Wisconsin is around 5.8 million. So California has almost seven times the population of Wisconsin. Shipping costs are high, so it is best to produce milk where the people reside.

Holsteins are the most popular breed in Wisconsin accounting for 90 percent of the total. Holsteins give the most milk. I am partial to Brown Swiss. Brown Swiss have the most beautiful eyes.

Oxen are castrated adult male cattle. They are trained to work and castration makes

them gentler. Early American farmers used oxen as draft animals, able to haul heavy loads, plow fields, move logs, thresh grain by trampling, and pull out stumps when clearing land. Oxen were often yoked in pairs. Oxen sported horns, which allowed them to back up and not have the yoke slip off.

It was oxen that got our pioneers westward on the Oregon Trail. Horses and mules were harder to handle, spooked easily, and needed good grass for grazing.

Oxen were slower, but more reliable, and much tougher than mules or horses. They could survive on rather poor grass. Oxen were easily trained, docile, and obedient. A man or older boy led the oxen with a leash. Contrary to the depiction in movies, those hardy people did not ride in the wagons and schooners; they walked from Missouri to Oregon and California.

Any breed of cattle can be trained to be “oxen”, but some breeds and individuals were selected for their size, intelligence, and willingness to learn. Both male and female cattle were used for what we call “oxen”. Oxen gave milk to those early farmers and west bound travelers. They could be bred to produce more oxen, giving the farmer replacements rather than buying new stock. At the end of their life, oxen provided food for the family.

So when does a calf become a cow? A calf becomes a cow when she has her own calf.

Assistance and suggestions by Dr. Steve Doll, DVM.

Email questions and comments to:


Scholars put the percentage of pioneer wagons pulled by oxen at one-half to three-quarters.   The cost of a yoke of oxen during the last half of the 1840s varied from a low of $25 to a high of $65.

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