How Long Can Older Cattle Stay in Your Herd? When Is A Cow Too Old To Breed?

Although a cow’s natural lifespan is around 20 years, most never live beyond 4 years. The average slaughter age for beef cattle is between 1 and 2 years. A dairy cow will be slaughtered for meat at 5 to 6 years old after her cost-effective milk-producing years are over.

This guide will help you decide when it’s time for a cow to be moved on.

When Is A Cow Too Old?

As a rule of thumb, dairy farms tend to cull their female cows and heifers at around 6 years of age. By this age, milk production has fallen to a level where it doesn’t make financial sense to keep them any longer.

Cows beyond 12 years old will decline in reproductive performance. The optimum level of breeding exists until the age of 8 and slightly dwindles from the age of 8 to 10. The fall in pregnancy rates became notable at age 10 and dropped off even more sharply from age 12.

The oldest cow to have ever given birth was Big Bertha, a world-famous cow who gave birth to a calf at 43 years of age.

The recent trend has been for ranchers to hold onto a cow for a season or two longer than they might have previously. This is mainly due to rising cattle costs and to avoid spending large amounts on new stock.

Longest Living Cow Breeds

1. Chianina

Chianina (pronounced key-a-nina) is an Italian breed that can live 20 or more years if used as a draft animal. It is the tallest and heaviest breed of cattle in the world. Chianina cows have small udders and don’t have high milk production. Their beef is pinkish-red and contains more protein but less fat and cholesterol than other breeds.

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2. Jersey

Jersey cows produce high-quality milk for up to 4 years. Bulls can reach up to 20 years old, but a Jersey cow can live even longer, with some exceeding their 25th birthdays. One of the oldest living Jersey cows was 37 when she died.

3. Holstein-Friesian

While some cows may live considerably longer, the average productive life of a Holstein is a noteworthy 6 years with an incredible milk-producing yield. A Holstein-Friesian cow in Wisconsin, USA, produced an average of nearly 20 gallons of milk daily. An average Friesian-Holstein cow will provide just over four gallons daily.

4. Brown Swiss

Longevity is a characteristic feature of the Brown Swiss. Although they tend to mature later than other breeds, cows peak during the 5th or subsequent lactations. Some breeds have difficulty reaching so many, but the strength of the Brown Swiss allows them to lead long, productive lives.

5. Dairy Shorthorn

Shorthorns display sound physical characteristics, good breeding, and longevity, and makes for the perfect all-rounder. Most Dairy Shorthorns achieve at least five lactations, with reports of several examples producing over 2,600 gallons per lactation at over 10 years of age.

6. Miniature Cows

Miniature cows often live to around 17 or 18 years old, which is relatively close to the lifespan of a normal-sized cow if it was allowed to complete it. Miniature cattle usually live an entire lifespan because most owners are homesteaders and use them for milk production or as pets.

When To Slaughter Cattle

Dairy Cows

Dairy farms cull their female cows and heifers at 6 years of age or when they no longer produce enough milk to be economically viable, although their meat is somewhat low-grade due to their living conditions.

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Constant movement between pens, overcrowding, and co-existence of calves and cows in dairy herds are some negative features of life as a dairy cow. These harsh conditions mean that many cows can suffer from ailments such as lameness towards the end of their life.

All this stress throughout the cow’s life causes diseases like mastitis and releases hormones that reduce the quality of the meat. Consequently, beef from slaughtered dairy industry cattle finds its way into pet food or ground beef products, such as hamburgers or sausages. Poor health in dairy cattle can even mean their meat is not fit for human consumption.

Beef Cows

Beef cattle move to feedlots where they will reach a mature weight and go to slaughter at about 2-3 years of age. Although purely pasture-raised cattle never see a feedlot, they are in the minority. About 80 percent of American beef cattle are finished in feedlots.

Compared to farmed areas, extensive farming uses small amounts of labor, fertilizer, and investment. Cattle raised by this method usually go to slaughter at around five years old.


Male calves born to dairy cows go to slaughter about 1 year after birth because the farm has little use for them. If the farmer decides to use them as veal calves, they will live for 6 months or less. A female calf that doesn’t produce enough milk to be profitable will also be slaughtered.

Veal calves do not finish weaning. After 3 days, veal calves are removed from their mothers and put alone into tiny cages or “veal crates.” The confined space restricts muscle growth and causes the tender, gray meat we associate with veal. Slaughter will start at approximately 5 months of age.

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Around 700,000 calves go to slaughter every year in the United States.


Adam has always had a fascination with farmyard animals, no doubt sparked by the farm in Devon he used to visit every summer when he was a young pup. He became close friends with the farmer’s children, two of which were about his age, and they allowed him to help out with cattle milking, herding and tagging. Being a fondly magical experience, he recently jumped at the opportunity to help the team at Cow Care Taker.

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