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How Long do Cows Live?

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Cows mature at a different pace than humans do. It’s like they’re living on a different timeline- you know, the whole dog years concept. An easy way to extrapolate the cows’ age in human years would be to look at when a cow reaches puberty. It takes people about 12 years to reach puberty, while it only takes a cow 1 year to reach puberty. This timeline puts things into better context:

Living on different timelines – Cow years are different from people years

When a cow reaches seven or eight she definitely begins showing signs of aging. Old age is a cruel friend affecting all species.

How many Years does the average Cow live?

The average Dairy cow will live 5 to 7 years. This number depends on different factors:

Some factors that affect a cows age:

  • Genetics – Some cows have great genes and longevity runs in their family
  • Health – Did the cow have a major health problem when growing up, this will affect her in her later years.
  • Nutrition – Similar to people, food plays a large role in determining health and quality of life. Quality nutrition is a must
  • Environment – All external factors for a cow’s life generally play a role in determining longevity, stress, how she was handled, etc.
  • Weather – Extreme weather can be hard on cows, minimizing the severity of the elements is key to helping cows live longer.
  • Breed – The breed of cow plays a role in determining how long a cow will live. Some breeds are stronger and more predisposed to aging more gracefully.

The Oldest Cow

Interestingly, the oldest known cow was Big Bertha who lived to be 48 years old living from 1945-1993. She also held the record for most babies, having 39 calves.

What was the secret to Big Bertha’s longevity? Her owner fed her whiskey to steady her nerves when she was around people- maybe it helped to reduce her stress levels.

Her story is a fascinating example of bovine achievement. To say that most cows can accomplish living that long would be a mistake though, Big Bertha was an exception rather than the rule, an outlier.

The average age of cows would be represented on a bell curve

Cows can live 18-20 years or even 48 years, but it’s not normal or average. People can live to 120 but it’s not the norm.

The average age of cows can be depicted in a bell curve format. Outliers do not predict the average but are represented on the extremities of the curve.

Knowing the maximum age cows can live is fascinating, it represents possibilities.

Breeding Healthier Cows

Longevity in dairy cows has actually improved tremendously in the past 20 years. Instead of breeding for only milk production, dairy farmers are focused on breeding healthier, longer lasting cows by selecting males with better health and longevity traits. Genes really do make a difference in how long a cow will live.

Genomics, (genetic testing) is helping to bring positive change to cows’ lives.

With genomic testing, we know more about a cow’s DNA than any time in history. As more and more cows are tested, we can know which cows have the best genes for longevity- which cows will live longer. In knowing which cows have a predisposition for longevity, breeders can mate cows to bulls with good genes to help breed cows more cows can have these good traits. It is helping to speed genetic progress which helps all dairy cows as a whole.

A lot of genetic progress has been made to help improve a cow’s longevity and quality of life.

Before genetic testing, a cow’s traits used to be determined by visual appearance and data collection on mothers and daughters (which took years to get accurate data). Now a cow’s genetic traits can be determined by genomic testing which gives trait data including longevity and health. Accurate data in a short time.


(Left) Compare the cow from 1935 to the modern-day cow (Right), you can see the amount of genetic progress.

The modern cow, on the right, is stronger and more balanced which contributes to a longer life. The modern cow has a wider chest, is deeper in heart girth, stronger in her backbone, walks on a more correct set of feet and legs and is much stronger in her udder attachments. All these physical traits play a role in a cow’s longevity and quality of life

The Natural Life of a Cow

But what would the cow’s age be if she lived her life naturally in the wild? Compared to cows at the farm, a cow living in the wild would not necessarily be happier or live longer.

A good example would be deer- it is hard to measure what a cows age would be in the wild but we can assume shorter. Deer, for example, living wild and free have shorter lives:

“The life span of a whitetail deer can be from 6 to 14 years in captivity. In the wild, the majority of deer don’t make it to that age because of disease, hunting and automobile collisions. The average life span for wild whitetail deer is 4½ years (Lopez et al 2003). Males have an average life span of 2.9 years and females have an average life span of 6½ years (Lopez et al 2003).”

Life in the wild is not easy. Elements- wind, rain, snow, dry weather- food availability, and predators are just some of the major things animals in the wild have to deal with.

Cows wouldn’t have easier lives in the wild – most likely they would be more stressed- and their lifespan would not necessarily be longer than a cow’s life on a farm.

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