Most Cows Don’t Die of Old Age

how long do cows live

Cattle can live for many years. But like other animals used in agriculture, their lifespans are most often cut drastically short by the meat and dairy industries. 

Cattle are commonly referred to collectively as “cows,” but this actually refers only to female cattle. Males are called “bulls” or “steers.” In this article, we will answer the question of how long do cows live and address how this might differ from those that are not used for human consumption.

Do Cows Die of Old Age?

Farmed cattle do not typically die of old age or natural causes. They are either slaughtered once they have reached a profitable market weight, or killed before reaching the slaughterhouse if they are deemed unfit for human consumption.

If well cared for, other animals—such as those living at sanctuaries or as companion animals—may live much longer, and possibly die of old age. Take for example Sweet Pea, a Scottish Highland cow who, after having been used to breed calves for many years, was brought to Farm Sanctuary at the age of 22 along with another cow who had reached 16 years old.

How Long Do Cows Live? 

Cattle can be long-lived animals. The grim reality, though, is that cows and bulls do not often get to live out their lives naturally because they are farmed in their hundreds of millions for milk, meat, and leather.

How Long Do Cows Live Naturally?

Cows can naturally live as long as 15-20 years, sometimes even more. 

How Long Do Dairy Cows Live?

Dairy cows are usually slaughtered at approximately six years of age, or when they can no longer produce milk. The dairy industry pushes the bodies of cows to the brink—for some until they are unable even to stand or walk. This level of deterioration means that meat produced from dairy cows is often used in cheaper meat products including ground beef.

While the connection between the dairy and beef industries may not seem immediately clear, in fact, the two are inseparably connected. In 2018, 21 percent of the commercially sold beef in the U.S. was produced from dairy cows. Some “downed cows” are killed while still on dairy farms though, unable even to be sent to slaughter and sold for human consumption.

How Long Do Beef Cows Live? 

Between the ages of six months and one year, cattle are sent to feedlots to be raised until they reach market weight. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while facilities with a capacity of 1,000 animals make up only 5 percent of U.S. feedlots, these large feedlots are producing 80-85 percent of the country’s cattle. Cattle raised for beef will typically be slaughtered by the time they reach 2-3 years old.

Some have advocated a switch to slaughtering cows for meat at an older age. Eve Fox writes for Modern Farmer, “Beef from a four- or five-year-old, grass-fed cow will have a distinctly beefy flavor, unlike the comparatively bland flavor of meat from a younger, feedlot-finished cow that is fattened as quickly as possible on a diet of corn, regardless of the fact that its stomach is not designed to digest such a high-starch grain.”

Though the argument is made here (and elsewhere) as a matter of taste preference rather than animal welfare, it also brings up difficult ethical questions. While waiting to slaughter animals could result in fewer animals being killed as babies, it could also mean prolonged suffering in factory-farm conditions.

How Long Do Calves Live? 

The length of time a calf will live in animal agriculture depends, in part, on whether the animal is male or female. Female calves born into the dairy industry are sometimes sold to be raised for meat, if they cannot produce enough milk, but will most likely be used as dairy cows. When no longer able to produce milk, often at about six years old, dairy cows are sent to slaughter. 

While both male and female calves are raised for meat, some males born on dairy farms are killed soon after birth because they are considered unprofitable by the industry. Others are quickly sold to be raised for veal or beef production. 

Calves raised for veal are typically separated from their mothers at three days old or less and then confined to small hutches or pens, known as “veal crates,” where the young calves are restrained from most movement. This largely limits muscle development and produces the gray, tender meat that veal producers aim for. These calves are killed at around 16-18 weeks of age.

What Is the Maximum Age of a Cow?

Cows can live up to 20 years, and possibly 25 years. Though it is far from the norm, the oldest recorded age for a cow is 48 years and nine months, according to Guinness World Records.

How Are Cows Slaughtered?

Once transported to the slaughterhouse, often having endured travel over long distances and through extreme weather conditions without food or water, cattle are killed for meat.

The animals are typically restrained in a chute where they are stunned. Due to the fast pace of the slaughter process, this does not always work and some cattle are left conscious as they proceed to the next step: their heavy bodies being hung from a hind leg and transported down the slaughter line. Next, their throats are cut so that the animals bleed out. As their bodies are “processed” for meat, their skin is also often removed and used for leather.

Cows Need Our Help

In the book “Allowed to Grow Old,” containing photography of rescued animals living at sanctuaries, Isa Leshko documents farmed animals who have been given the rare opportunity to live to a more natural age than they would experience in animal agriculture.

Leshko told We Animals Media that farmed animals are now bred and raised to reach market weight earlier than ever before, even though what is considered market weight has increased over the years. Because most farmed animals, including cattle, are slaughtered at just a few months or years of age, and we do not typically encounter them in their later years, Leshko believes that her collection of images invites “reflection upon what is lost when these animals are not allowed to grow old.”

Many people who have had the chance to meet rescued cows at sanctuaries may be surprised to see the ages they can reach after rescue and veterinary care.