The Difference Between Cows, Oxen, And Cattle

“The cow is of the bovine ilk; one end is moo, the other milk.” —Ogden Nash, Free Wheeling

In A Nutshell

Even the short answer is a bit complicated: Oxen and cows are both cattle, but not all cattle are cows and oxen. The umbrella term for the animal is “cattle” (or bovines), while cows and oxen have specific roles beneath that umbrella. Oxen are working animals, while cows are female animals kept solely for their milk or meat production and breeding potential.

The Whole Bushel

Cattle is the term that covers all bovines, regardless of age, gender, and purpose. Interestingly, recent DNA studies have concluded that the roughly 1.5 billion cattle that populate the world as of 2013 came from not only the same area—modern-day Iran—but from the same small herd of about 80 animals. These animals were a creature (which is now extinct) called the aurochs, a type of wild bovine much larger than most of today’s cattle. While they once stretched across Europe, Asia, and northern Africa, they were also widely hunted and numbers suffered greatly from forced competition with domestic animals. They were slowly driven to extinction, with the last specimens dying in Poland in 1627 after failed attempts at preservation by the royal family.

While there were once countless herds, it’s thought that only the single Iranian herd was ever domesticated because of the simple idea of mobility. Most early humans had a more nomadic lifestyle than cattle breeding would allow for; peoples in the Middle East who had settled in permanent areas were able to selectively breed the aurochs and create the basis for the breeds we know today. By the time keeping of cattle spread, there was already a marked difference between the wild aurochs and the domesticated cattle.

Oxen exist beneath the umbrella of cattle, and are animals that have been trained to work either in the fields or pulling things by yoke and collar. Any breed of cattle can be trained to be an oxen, but generally larger, stronger animals are selected. Oxen are typically male animals, as they rely on their size and strength to do their jobs; also, large horns play a role in the ability of the oxen. When the animal backs up, the large, sturdy horns keep the yoke from coming off over their heads.

While any cattle can be an oxen, some breeds or individuals are better suited to the task. In addition to size and strength, those looking to train oxen also look for intelligence, a willingness to learn, and how personable the animal is.

Oxen generally end up being some of the largest specimens of cattle, but that’s not because of breed. Most male cattle not selected for training (or breeding) are killed for their meat before they reach full size. Continued training of oxen also helps build muscle mass and overall size; horns will continue to grow for the entire life of the oxen. A team of oxen thought to be among the largest ever bred were Granger and Mt. Katahdin; these 1930s Maine oxen tipped the scales at a combined 4,450 kilograms (9,800 lbs) when fully grown.

Cows are female cattle that have had calves or are over 2.5 years old. (Younger female cattle who have not yet given birth are called heifers.) In many agricultural areas, cows have historically and frequently been trained to work as oxen. This way, the family has a single beast that can not only plow their fields, but reproduce and supply milk. Also, cows can still be bred while being used in the role of oxen, allowing the farmer to choose working replacements born from his own animals rather than buying new males (which would be used only for training) to replace the current working team when they age beyond their useful years. Cows that serve more than one purpose generally stay smaller than oxen, but can be more efficient in the end for small farmers.

Show Me The Proof

Aurochs—Bos primigenius
PBS Nature: Holy Cow
Wired: Cattle DNA traced back to single herd of wild ox
The Prairie Ox Drovers: Oxen Questions

  • WhiteExodus

    In the end all three animals (Cows, Oxen and Cattle) still end up in my Big Mac.

    • Akatosh

      not really, you dont know what is inside. For example, Ikea’s Beef meatballs had horse meat

      • WhiteExodus

        Dude you don’t have to remind lol

  • flicka

    I feel like I just read math.

  • Carl

    “Any breed of cattle can be trained to be an oxen, but generally larger, stronger animals are selected.”

    So if I get a bull or a cow, and train it to be a work animal only, it would be an ox? I thought oxen were a different thing altogether. Or are ox and oxen different too? I’m so clueless…. (Just a city booooooy…..)

    • Happyspanners

      An ox is a castrated bull, also called a bullock.

      • Passin’ Through

        We call a castrated bull a steer. But some people only use the term steer when the bull is young and not fully mature. Different names for the same thing.

    • ddrddrddrddr

      Oxen is the plural version of ox no?

    • Dumas911

      OX or Oxen are not the same as trained cows. They’re a totally different species. OX grow long fur coats, cows do not.

      • Carl

        that’s what I thought. I thought they were more like yaks (sorry to add more animals to the confusion), but the author seems to be suggesting that “ox” is some sort of profession any bovine can do

        • Dumas911

          Exactly. I’ve never heard of perfumes/colognes using musk from cows! They specifically call it musk OX for a reason. They’re not the same as cows. They may be cattle but not trained cows. I’ve grown up and lived on a farm my whole life.

          • Dumas911

            Ok after digging appears gly cow can be oxen. What you and I are thinking of is the Musk OX which is usually called just OX, and since most don’t call cows oxen, then that’s where the confusion is.

  • Passin’ Through

    Ox is singular. Oxen is plural.

  • JRajBali

    the thing that makes me sad is the use of the Brahman cow as the one of the main beef breeds 🙁 look it up, europeans thought the indians had the best cows for meat (because they were well cared for to produce better milk over producing meat) so they took breeding animals to australia, america and britain and now 80% of beef cattle in those countries is descended from those animals.

    • Eyan Khan

      And your point is?

      • JRajBali

        just lamenting the continuation of British imperialism and the covert and overt methods used to denigrate Indians in the past being continued as a practice of “western/eureopean/white” culture. Most likely this is a redundant question given your name, but it doesn’t bother you or strike you as insulting in the least bit to literally take an object of worship of an entire group of people and use it as a food source? On top of that, a food source whose production is seriously harming the planet? Again given your name, the answer is probably not.

        • Verified

          Well what are some alternatives?

          • JRajBali

            Meat wise? Speaking just from a sustainability stand point insects would be the best protein source. But fowl and fish are also sustainable. It would probably require everyone across the board to cut back on meat consumption. Which offers a bit of a philosophical question for people about our perception of wealth. Looking at many different cultures and especially the influence of the european empires on local practices, eating meat has become associated with prosperity (historically because of the amount of resources it takes to produce such, leaving it as something reserved for the wealthy).

          • Verified

            ooh dunno about the insects. but i do enjoy fish. but then theres mercury in that. i guess ya cant win anywhere nowadays.

          • JRajBali

            yea pretty much everything can kill you now

          • Cloudmonkey98

            Little tip, what you were saying about Muslims and Islam, IS a Stereotype.

        • Eyan Khan

          If by repeatedly saying “given your name” you mean i was not raised or do not accept a cow as a God(the whole idea seems rather too well lets just say distant),well your right i don’t but i do respect other religions and i do get where your coming from but artificial selection has increased our food resources many times and has helped us alot, so perhaps your point about continuation of imperialism is rather baseless.Plus they didn’t just take the Brahman cow i am sure they must have cross bred it with other cows to with other useful traits so in definition it is no longer the Brahman cow(i guess in a way)

          • JRajBali

            Well you’ve surprised me then because i was actually talking about you probably being raised without any respect for any other religion than islam. Also still just so uninformed. Hindus don’t believe the cow is god, the cow is revered as a representation of the giving nature of god. Like I honestly find it so hilarious how you’re trying to be condescending of my belief system and the representation that some people choose to use for the divine, when you actually have no factual knowledge outside of continued stereotypes. Hilarious! Honestly man just look into it a bit. There were 5 strains of indian cows taken and bred with the zebu (the brahman cow) that were crossed with an american heifer. In the states and england 80% of beef cattle has 3/4 heritage from the brahman. In australia specifically there’s one farm that produces 2000 head of indian breed beef.
            It still is the brahman cow by genetics, form, nature and name. I’m not against artificial selection at times but I disagree that its not continued high-horsed imperialism especially when you consider your stereotyped attitude.

          • Eyan Khan

            Talking about stereotypes are we, you chose the most negative and stereotyped image of Islam and muslims(they hate other religions),but no matter how much you want it to be true its not.Secondly instead of questioning my upbringing you should rather take a look at yours,you interpreted each of my comment(from the get go) in the worst possible manner(a classic case of a hindu with a superiority complex to islam)well I am not gonna bash Hinduism because of you.Coming to the Brahman cow again your points regarding imperialism still sound quite baseless as artificial selection has taken place all throughout history of mankind not because they showed inferiority of a certain group but because they provided benefits to the people in consideration.Considering your attitude towards cow slaughter i can imagine how hard it must be for a muslim to slaughter a cow in India(wow how respectful and tolerant of other religions you guys are!!)(and one more thing just because someone has the word khan in their name doesn’t automatically make them a Muslim,i myself have met many such people).

          • JRajBali

            Given history, even until recently, it isn’t stereotype to assume that most muslims (and islam in general) hate other religions. You actually must not know anything about history. Alright you might not be muslim so I apologize for making that assumption but my experience has been different and I haven’t met any khans (arab or south asian) that weren’t muslim. We’re arguing two completely different points. I don’t disagree with artificial selection but you can’t seem to recognize what cultural imperialism is. Even for the sake of “better” beef production (which is monumentally taxing environmentally because of these superbreeds), it still can’t be recognized that yes this cow was sacred to a group of people and the whole point of taking it for meat was to denigrate them into falling inline with the mainstream western (re: abrahamic view). And as for interpreting your comments in the worst possible manner; when they come out riddled with asinine and sarcastic comments, then how would you expect me to take them? The reason you can’t bash Hinduism is because you don’t want to have your uninformed stereotypes corrected. This conversation is boring and done.

          • Eyan Khan

            Btw i am a muslim(i was just pointing out another fact),as far as Hinduism is concerned I could criticize but i never base my arguments on religion as each has his own beliefs,well still i am unconvinced with your point about imperialism so i guess we will agree to disagree.Your views on religious tolerance are quite questionable and biased and yeah if by Arab countries you mean Saudi Arabia then it is not the only Arab country.Countries like Jordan etc have quite a tolerant attitude and btw were talking about Indian muslims whose homeland is India and have can’t practice their religion openly what do Arabs have to do with this and unlike Hinduism Islam is not limited to a particular region there are countries so again your highlighting my previous point of taking the worst example of Muslims why not give the example of Turkey,Indonesia,Kazakhistan etc?

          • JRajBali

            This conversation is just boring beyond hell because neither of us are going to agree. Not only Saudi Arabia but Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Iran, Turmenistan… I would argue that your views on religious tolerance are laughable as well so I guess we’re both bigots with biased opinions. Hinduism isn’t limited to a particular region as there are 1.2 Billion world wide and India is no where nearly as repressive as Pakistan even. Muslims aren’t oppressed from practicing their religion openly an dproudly in India, and have not been prey to ethnic cleansing like the Kashmiri Pandits, for example. And the Arab influence is islam itself that spread a culture of rape, pillage and domination. The reason it’s not limited to a particular region is because it was spread by the sword more than by peace. Turkey that doesn’t recognize its own indigenous religious communities? Kazakhstan and Indonesia I can give you as two fairly tolerant and peaceful muslim countries.

          • frankyburns

            Bali, Eyan was being reasonable and very nice to you. He sounds very agreeable where you were argumentative with a chip on your shoulder from the get-go. Now you come out and say “this conversation is boring.” Well, you will see that after that Khan disappeared. And with reason. Why would he waste his time on you?

          • Mayisha Kabir

            Indira Gandhi’s husband was a ‘Khan’ and he wasn’t a Muslim. NOW, if u don’t know Indira Gandhi that puts a little dent on the historical knowledge part……

          • JRajBali

            obviously i know Indira Gandhi, the fact that I don’t care at all about the Gandhi family aside from the patriarch makes me wonder why you bring it up?

          • Mayisha Kabir

            Okay……. I was just wondering 😛

    • Rainer Spott


      • JRajBali

        honestly, I think the Swastika is an interesting case and while its still mainly used in Hinduism and Buddhism, I think it would be hard to see exactly where it started from. Hitler was really interested in eastern occultism so I wonder if that’s where he got it from? Because it’s also been used as a good luck symbol in europe until before WW2. It’s crazy how it shows up literally everywhere in the ancient world and in places that didn’t really have contact.

        • Verified

          when i wear my mala beads i’ve had people ignorant people approach men because they dont understand the true origin of it.

          • JRajBali

            i can’t tell if you’re being tongue in cheek. what do they think it is?

        • Eyan Khan

          I dunno much about Swastika but i guess it resembles a Buddhisht symbol for peace and well Hitler he was totally peaceful and just and well the swastika was perhaps a part of his propaganda eh?

          • JRajBali

            completely juvenile and uninformed, the swastika is still mainly used in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism but it is a super ancient symbol for good luck found across many diverse ancient cultures. Origin of Hitlers use of the swastika is debatable because the hooked cross is also used in norse paganism. It is possible that he co-opted it as a good fortune symbol from the Nazis expeditions in Tibet looking for the origin of the “aryans”. The swastika was apart of his propaganda and because he used it does not automatically it a symbol of evil. It’s a symbol that we invest with power. Half the world wants to see it as evil and half the world wants to see it as good. Hitler probably used it as a symbol for his good luck and the health of his regime (only) and not the health of anyone else. His acts degraded the value of the symbol but that doesn’t make it inherently evil.

  • Tayinnawin

    Um…sure. Ok? What about the cattle dog?

  • ethan

    makes no sense


    But the real question is which one’s poo grows better mushrooms

  • Rainer Spott

    What all BULLSHIT. OXEN are just castrated bulls a.k.a. male cattle. Oxen – no balls! – are much mor peaceful and easier to handle than their tostesteron boasting brothers. Furthermore, they are tastier too.

    • Cloudmonkey98

      You really believe Wikipedia…WIKIPEDIA, over a well thought out Article, fool

  • Hadeskabir

    This makes sense only in english speaking countries. In Portugal we say that cows and bull are from the Bovine species. And that’s it. No confusing stuff like this happens.

  • Jennifer Berliner

    I thought oxen were castrated bulls

  • Jum1801

    At last! A list which is interesting, well-done and apparently error-free, and of some potential value. A true rarity in these sad days of let’s-all-make-a-list. Well done, Debra Kelly.

  • Exiled Phoenix

    I personally don’t really care as long as my steaks keep tasting good!

  • Mayisha Kabir

    This thing has confused me rather than cleaaring the difference out.

  • Yan Dong

    good explanation.

  • Alison Anderson

    Thank you for a well written and informative article.

  • Joann Ward

    Just chump change. I bet he bought it without a mortgage.

  • Mojo

    I’m dizzy.

  • Mojo

    It’s all because of Hillary… that bovine hatin’ biotch!

  • Robert E. Hays

    AN oxen? Who wrote this?

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  • rockntractor