A heifer is a young cow, typically one that has not yet given birth to a calf. These cows are an important part of herd dynamics, since they represent replacements for older cows. In the dairy industry, they are desired, since they will eventually produce milk. In the meat industry, the gender of young cattle is not as important, since they are generally destined for slaughter in either case, although some heifers may be retained to produce more calves.
Cattle in general are widespread throughout the world, and a number of complicated terms are used to refer to cows in various life stages. A bullock, for example, is a young bull, and he may grow up to be a bull or ox, or he may be neutered to become a steer. Adult female cattle are often referred to as cows, and ranchers and farmers may have additional specific terms to define the animals that they work with. These terms can get a bit confusing outside the industry, and some cattle terminology requires rather graphic explanations.
The exact use of the term “heifer” varies. In some regions, the term is used to describe a cow who has not yet calved, up to the time of giving birth. One in the last weeks of pregnancy will sometimes be called a springing heifer. In other regions, a cow may be referred to by this term even through her first lactation, after which she is considered a fully adult cow. In some areas, the term “first calf heifer” is used to describe a cow that has produced a single calf.
The handling of young cattle varies, depending on the end destination of the animals. Cows are generally sexed at an early age across the cattle industry, with most bull calves being castrated so that they are easier to handle. Young female cows have potential economic value, since they can produce calves and milk. A dairy producer generally breeds heifers as quickly as possible to determine whether or not they produce adequate milk.
In regions of the world with programs that sponsor young farmers, such as 4-H or FFA, many people like to raise heifers as a project. A young cow is generally more amiable and easy to handle than a bullock. When she reaches full size, she may be auctioned off at a livestock auction, which can be an interesting learning experience, or the student may breed her to expand the scope of the project.