It’s a question not often contemplated: if they weren’t raised for milk or meat, how long would cows live naturally? Like other animals that are part of the food system, how long cows live is usually determined by the meat and dairy industries. Most often, cows’ lifespans are cut drastically short.
Do Cows Die of Old Age?
Beef or dairy cattle do not typically live long enough to die of old age or natural causes. The reality is that cows and bulls do not often live out their lives naturally because they are farmed in the hundreds of millions for milk, meat and leather.
If well-cared for, however, cows living at sanctuaries can actually reach much older ages.
How Long Do Cows Live Naturally?
Cows can naturally live as long as 15-20 years, sometimes even more. Though it is far from the norm, the oldest recorded age for a cow is 48 years and nine months. The name of the cow who lived to this age was Big Bertha.
How Long Do Dairy Cows Live?
Dairy cows usually live to be six years of age at most, when they can no longer produce milk, and are usually sold to beef producers for slaughter. The dairy industry usually drives cows to maximize milk production, so meat produced from dairy cows is often used in cheaper meat products.
While the connection between the dairy and beef industries may not be immediately intuitive, the two are inseparably connected. U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that dairy cows made up 9.1 percent of the federally inspected commercial cattle slaughter in 2022. Some “downed cows” are killed while still on dairy farms however, before they can be sent to slaughter and sold for human consumption.
How Long Do Cows Raised for Beef Live?
Between the ages of six months and one year, cattle are sent to feedlots to be raised until they reach market weight. While facilities with a capacity of 1,000 animals make up only five 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 2-4 years old.
How Long Do Bulls Live?
How long bulls live can vary. Bulls are male cows, which is why infant males are referred to as “bull calves.” Bulls raised for beef are generally castrated at a young age and called “steers” thereafter. Like their female counterparts in beef operations, known as “heifers,” steers are killed at 2-4 years old.
The farming industry also uses intact bulls for breeding purposes. In some instances, bulls are kept on farms for breeding with cows. They are referred to as “natural service bulls.”
Female cattle are also frequently impregnated by artificial insemination in animal agriculture, so many breeding bulls have their semen extracted unnaturally — up to several times a week — for this purpose.
Other castrated bulls may be used in the breeding process as well. Known as “teaser bulls,” these individuals are used to identify when cows are fertile. Alternatively, teaser bulls are used as the mount for breeding bulls during semen collection.
How Long Do Calves Live?
How long calves 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, but are most likely 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. Other male calves are quickly sold for veal or beef production.
Veal calves are killed at around 16-18 weeks of age.
How Are Cows Slaughtered?
Once transported to the slaughterhouse, in some cases traveling long distances through extreme weather conditions without food or water, cattle are killed for meat.
The animals are first typically restrained in a chute, where they are stunned. Due to the fast pace of the slaughter process however, this doesn’t always work. Some cattle are left conscious as they proceed to the next step, their bodies 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.
Why Do Some Cows Live Longer Lives?
Ample Housing and Space
As the Open Sanctuary Project highlights, how much space cows need depends on various factors such as their age, health and the climate they live in. Importantly, cows require both outdoor and indoor space. This provides them with the chance to roam and graze, as well as a place to get away from the elements when necessary.
Farm sanctuary recommendations for adequate outdoor pasture vary; some suggest no more than two cows per acre, with 1-2 acres per cow being preferable. (An acre is over 43,000 square feet.) For indoor areas, recommendations include sizes of around 30-80 square feet per cow.
Cows raised for dairy and meat have more limited space allowances, particularly in intensive systems. In a 2020 study, researchers surveyed space for cows on UK dairy farms. It found that the “total space” per cow, which included indoor and outdoor areas, ranged from around 5-13 square meters — just 54-140 square feet.
Lots of Clean Water
As large animals, cows need lots of water. An animal weighing 1,200 pounds needs approximately 12 gallons of water a day. If the cow is lactating, they will need twice that amount.
As the world heats up in the climate crisis, some farming operations are struggling to meet cows’ water needs. Ranchers in some areas of the U.S. have needed to haul water to grazing spots in distant locations during droughts because the cattle’s usual natural water sources have dried up.
Plenty of Food to Graze
Cows are ruminant animals, meaning that their bodies are able to digest roughage. Making sure cows have access to grass for grazing is important. Cows also need lots of hay, particularly in the winter months when outdoor forage foods, such as grass, clover, alfalfa and fruits may be thin on the ground.
However, cows’ diets on industrial farm operations also include a significant amount of animal feed made from corn and soy — and many of them are not free to graze at all once they reach feedlot or confined dairy operations.
Grooming is an important part of cows’ lives; it keeps their coat and skin healthy. In a natural setting, individuals will use rough surfaces like trees to groom themselves. In farming systems where they are kept indoors, this is not possible.
Grooming also serves a social function for cows that mechanical brushes cannot fulfill. Cows groom each other by licking the head and neck of a fellow individual, known as allogrooming. Allogrooming helps with bonding and other social needs.
The Someone Project, a Farm Sanctuary-sponsored research initiative, also points out in a white paper that, if given the chance, dairy cows spent more time grooming other cows who were injured or sick. The findings could indicate that licking is a way of soothing discomfort in social groups. In intensive farming, these kinds of natural behaviors are denied cows.
Rich Social Life
The Someone Project’s white paper explores the cognitive, social and emotional lives of domestic cows. It concludes that “[t]he available scientific research indicates that cows lead rich, socially complex lives; experience a range of emotions; and rely on one another for comfort.”
Ensuring that cows are able to socialize and enjoy relationships with each other is therefore important in helping them live happier lives. Limiting their exposure to stress and pain where possible is also critical for their well-being. The companionship of other cows can help with stress, as the white paper highlights that research shows cows “stay calmer and less stressed when accompanied by fellow cows even during stressful situations.” Once again, on industrial farms, this kind of companionship is usually not facilitated or valued — and stressful and traumatic scenarios for cows abound.
Health Care and Disease Prevention
Like other living organisms, cows are susceptible to disease. Farming practices, such as keeping cows in crowded environments, can increase their chances of exposure to disease, enabling the transmission of bacterial diseases like bovine TB and brucellosis.
Once diseases are present, farming practices can also facilitate their spread to different locations through, for instance, transporting cows to sell or move them. This is true for bacterial diseases and other ailments like lumpy skin disease and theileria, which are transmitted by insects like ticks. Moreover, cows can get diseases from eating contaminated foods.
Rescued cows may have a variety of health challenges due to their background. Dairy cows have been bred to produce unnatural amounts of milk, leading to increased health issues like lameness, emaciation and mastitis, a painful swelling of a cow’s udders.
Ideally, cows should have regular health checks to ensure any medical issues are detected and treated as early as possible. Unfortunately, on industrial farms, this level of care is not incentivized, since cows die or are killed so young anyway.
The Bottom Line
In the book “Allowed to Grow Old,” which features photographs of rescued animals living at sanctuaries, Isa Leshko documents farm animals who have been given the rare opportunity to live to a more natural age.
Because most farm animals, including cattle, are slaughtered at just a few months or years of age, we do not typically encounter them in their later years — let alone imagine what an elderly cow might look like. 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 not had the chance to visit an animal sanctuary may be surprised to see how long cows can live if given the chance and proper veterinary care.
Tracy is an environmental journalist based near London, UK. Her background is in creative writing, and she's currently a staff writer at The Canary and freelances elsewhere.