Early embryonic development is largely dependent on maternal RNAs and proteins synthesised during oogenesis. Zygotic transcription is an essential event that occurs at a species-specific time after fertilisation. In the absence of zygotic transcription the embryo dies since it can no longer support requirements for successful embryo development. Molecular genetics of gene expression during early embryogenesis, especially in the bovine species, remain one of the unsolved questions in modern biology. Earlier studies suggested that embryonic transcription in cattle begins at the late 4-cell or 8-cell stage. However, more recent studies suggest that bovine zygotes and 2-cell embryos are both transcriptionally and translationally active. Moreover, changes in chromatin structure due to acetylation of core histones and DNA replication play important roles in the regulation of zygotic/embryonic gene expression. This review will summarise results of recent studies about the timing and mechanisms of zygotic/embryonic gene expression in cattle. In addition, terminology in the literature regarding gene expression during early embryogenesis will be clarified. These terminologies include: ‘zygotic/embryonic gene expression’, ‘maternal to embryonic transition in control of development (MET)’ and ‘zygotic/embryonic genome activation (ZEGA)’.