There’s a lot of lingo in the agriculture industry. Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with. For instance, what’s a heifer? What’s the difference between a pasture and a paddock? Let’s beef up your cattle lingo.

Types of Cattle:


Bovine is the scientific name for cattle! Like dogs are canines and horses are equine. Both bovine and cattle are used to talk about groups of cows without being specific about gender.

Many people use the terms “cows” and “cattle” interchangeably. While most of the time that’s okay, they do mean different things technically. In technical terms, a cow is a female that has given birth. A cow’s job is to be a good mama to her calves. Farmers try to have their cows calve (have a baby) every year.

A bull is, you guessed it, a male bovine. Bulls are kept for breeding purposes. In the past, each cattle farm would have at least one bull of their own. However, with artificial insemination today, farmers can purchase semen from a variety of bulls instead. This is an especially big deal in the dairy industry, where cows are really the main focus.

A steer is also a male, but he has been castrated in order to promote meat quality. High levels of testosterone make an animal’s meat very unpalatable. Bull meat tends to be pretty tough, and not as good to eat.

A heifer is a young female bovine. Heifers can have two purposes; they can either be kept for breeding purposes, or they can be raised for meat, like steers. Heifer is pronounced “heff-er”.

A calf is a baby! Calf isn’t a gender specific term. Calves can be born in the spring or the fall. This decision can depend on feed sources (pasture or feedlot), where the cows calve (either indoor or outdoor), and just personal preference of the producer.

In beef operations, calves will stay with their mom for a few weeks and will nurse while learning to eat grass and other types of feed. In dairy operations, the calf will be moved to its own “hutch” or house and will be bottle fed so that the farmer can harvest the cow’s milk instead. Dairy cows create much more milk than a newborn calf needs, so this system is more efficient for them.

Feeder calf
A feeder calf is a young animal that is ready to be fed like an adult. These animals are growing rapidly and will perform very well on high-energy diets – not unlike high school students!


Here’s an example of an ad for a sire that includes EPDs.

Breeding stock
Breeding stock consists of the animals that farmers keep to produce more animals. Farmers look at many different things when deciding on breeding stock, like disposition, meat quality, mothering ability, health, and overall structural soundness. There are many traits of interest, and many of those can be scientifically measured using EPDs, or expected progeny differences. EPDs can be relatively complicated, but essentially they help farmers compare traits of various animals relative to the average of that animal’s breed. It can be very helpful in breeding for specific traits, like birthweight or calving ease.

Market steer/market heifer
By prefacing steer or heifer with “market,” a farmer is indicating that their purpose is to be sold for meat, leather, and other byproducts. This is in contrast to breeding stock, where those animals’ purposes are to be kept to reproduce.

Sire is another name for an animal that fathered another animal. You can say, “Calf 123A was sired by 890B,” or, “890B is our best sire.”

A dam is another name for an animal that mothered another animal.

What they eat:

Cattle are ruminant animals, which means their stomach has four compartments. They are the rumen (microbial fermentation), reticulum (initiates regurgitation), omasum (water absorption), and abomasum (true stomach). The rumen is the largest compartment, and gives ruminant animals the ability to absorb more nutrients from plant-based foods than monogastric animals (like humans, pigs, dogs, etc.).

Colostrum is the first milk that the cow produces. Newborn calves lack a well-developed immune system, and this colostrum holds all kinds of good stuff that help them stay healthy while their body works on creating an immune system of their own.

Feed is what farmers call the food they give their animals. Most animals eat a mix of grains (corn and soybeans), as well as some extra vitamins and minerals and lots of water. Cattle in a feedlot will primarily eat a grain-based diet, whereas other cattle might be raised on pastures and may only be supplemented with grains. Though farmers work with animal nutritionists and veterinarians to make sure their animals always get enough to eat, different farmers can feed their animals different things that are still healthy.

Feed can also be called “feeds” or “feedstuff” depending on the person and the context. Feeds and feedstuff tend to refer to a specific ingredient in the overall feed ration.

Feed ration
The feed ration is the precise amounts of multiple feedstuffs that are mixed together to provide a healthy, balanced diet for the animals. Feed rations generally have some type of forage, corn and soybeans to provide carbohydrates, as well as a protein or non-protein nitrogen source (to aid rumen microorganisms in protein synthesis), vitamins, minerals, and a plentiful water source.

If you have ever seen tall blue metal or gray cement silos, they are used for silage. Silage is fermented plant material used to feed cattle. Though you can make silage with plants like sorghum, corn silage may be the most common. Farmers will harvest the corn when it is still green. They will cut the whole plant down, chop it up, and store it away. While it’s being stored, farmers will try to ensure that no air can get in. Because of this, modern technologies like plastic wrapping and tubing have been used to make higher quality silage. Many modern farmers that use lots of silage will use silage piles, pits, or bunks.

Silage can be stored and used as a feedstuff in the winter when fresh grass is scarce. Good silage should smell sweet, and will taste sweet to cattle.

Concentrates in terms of cattle feed generally means grains. Grains are a concentrated source of carbohydrates (energy), and play a large role in feeds, especially the feeds of market animals.

Forages are plant-based feeds, like hay. If an animal is raised on pasture, it is eating forages. Some common forages would be alfalfa, clover, oats, or smooth bromegrass. In southern states, fescue becomes a more popular forage.

Feed bunk
The feed bunk is the trough where the cattle’s feed is put at feeding time.


Some cattle are raised on pastures, which are large, grassy areas where they are allowed to graze. There is science associated with this, too, however. There are calculations necessary to find how many animals a pasture can best sustain based on size, forage quality, forage amount, and amount of time cattle will be grazing it. Pasture-raised cattle may require supplemented feeds during the winter, like hay, silage, or grains.

Many farmers split pastures into smaller sub-units, called paddocks. This way, they can graze one section more thoroughly, then move to another section while it regrows.

Rotational grazing
Rotational grazing is the system for rotating cattle through multiple paddocks in the pasture. Depending on the size of the herd and the paddocks, producers may rotate their cattle daily, weekly, monthly, or any other time schedule that works for them, their land, and their cattle.

Types of Production Systems:

Seedstock producer
A seedstock producer is one that works to create superior genetics. These farmers work to create the very best animals in terms of structural soundness, muscling, stature, and feed efficiency. Instead of selling their animals to market, they might sell replacement heifers for breeding stock, or straws of semen for others to use in their herds. Seedstock producers are the roots of genetic advancement in the cattle industry. These cattle may also be known as show cattle or club calves.

Cow-Calf producer
Iowa has many cow-calf producers. These are the farmers that aren’t necessarily in the industry for genetic improvement or to sell cattle at market, but instead they produce the feeder calves that will eventually go to a feedlot. Cow-calf producers have their own breeding stock, and will decide each year if it will be more profitable to feed the calves out to market weight, or if they should sell them to a feedlot instead. This may change depending on the year and the markets.

The feedlot is where feeder calves will go to live. This is a large, fenced-in area with a large trough for feed. The cattle get to roam at their will, and will get fed every day until they are large enough to go to market. More farmers now are “feeding out” cattle in a monoslope building or another type of barn for environmental and/or feed efficiency reasons. If you have ever heard a farmer say they “feed out” cattle, chances are that they fit in this category!

Though this is becoming less common, backgrounding is a term used to describe raising a calf through its awkward “junior high” phase. Backgrounders may purchase calves that are newly weaned and will have them out on pasture until they are old enough to go to a feedlot.

Backgrounding is more prevalent in the west. Feedlot producers will pay a premium for calves raised on western pastures for a couple reasons. First, since pastures are large, the animals have to be healthy and structurally sound just to walk far enough to get enough to eat. Secondly, since these pastures have lower quality forages compared to other parts of the country, these animals will grow extremely rapidly once they are introduced to the high-energy grain diets of a feedlot.


So now you have the whole scoop on cattle lingo. Go ahead and show off your vo-COW-bulary to your friends!


2 thoughts on “Vo-COW-bulary

  1. Pingback: Why do they do that? – Early Calving | Iowa Agriculture Literacy

  2. Pingback: What Do They Mean? Corn Vocabulary | Iowa Agriculture Literacy

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