If you haven't, you should!
There are two main types of modern cattle that exist in the world: Beef Cattle, and Dairy Cattle.
There are some very distinct hard-to-miss characteristics that exist between these two types. These characteristics are primarily body shape and level of fatness, and even coat colouration.
Fatness and Muscling
|Pair of Holstein dairy cows|
You can't miss them: Big, boney, black and white, sometimes out grazing in a field, often housed in a big, spacious climate-controlled barn. These big cows are actually Holstein cattle, and these dairy girls are of the Dairy Cow type.
Admittedly these cattle do look like they haven't received enough nutrition, but I recommend you to not confuse the "dairy look" with cattle that truly are malnourished and emaciated. The reason dairy cattle have that real boney appearance, like you see in the pictures here, is because of their breeding.
This is why you'll notice that cattle with dairy–especially Jersey and Holstein–genetics in them, even those that have been crossed with beef cattle for more "enhanced" muscling while keeping the high milk, have little muscling in the rear (they're often called "funnel" or "hatchet" butts) and retain that "thin" look no matter how well they are being fed.
Basically, a dairy cow receiving good nutrition will put what nutrition is left over from maintaining her own body into producing milk. What's left over from that is put into fat deposition and some muscling. For dairy cattle, putting fat on is the very last priority, and will only do so if the feed their getting exceeds their needs.
|Dairy Holstein bull|
Ironically, what a dairy bull lacks in muscle and size they make up for in attitude. They can be very dangerous, primarily because of the high levels of testosterone in their system and their lack of fear of humans.
Overall structure of dairy cattle is rather "feminine." By that I mean that they have fine tapering heads and a small and long, fine neck.
Dairy bulls also tend to have a little finer head than your typical beef bull. Their heads are not as deep and wide across the forehead; they look more "cowish" than "bullish."
Dairy cow udders are ruddy huge. Holsteins are especially well known for their very large udders, because they produce the most milk of any cattle breed known to human kind.
The udder of a cow actually only gets bigger as she gets older. So, the older the cow, the bigger the bag. Calling an ornery cow an "old bag" would have legit standing if it's an old gal who knows you better than you think, and is giving you trouble because of it!
But seriously, a dairy cow actually has enough capacity to produce five to eight times that of a beef cow. Holsteins have been known to produce 8 to 10 gallons per day.
Some old dairy cows (those that get 10 years old and older) can have udders that are so big their ligaments deteriorate and hang lower to the ground. It's a wonder they manage to get around; but potential for injury and infection is certainly there. But those cows, when their udders get full of milk, certainly manage and have gotten used to being as well-endowed as they are.
Dairy cows actually have a fairy wide variety of coat colouration like beef cattle. But, with Holsteins, Friesians and Holstein-Freisians (same/similar breeds) making up 95 percent of the global dairy cow herd, the classic black-and-white-patch coat colouration is considered the standard. They also make up most of the pictures of dairy cows in this blog post!!
But how about the long-lashed brown cow? With those big brown eyes and short but dainty face? That would be a Jersey, the second-most popular dairy breed in the world.
It's actually not too common to find dairy cows with colours like brown, red, red-and-white, blonde, black speckled, roan, white, yellow, tan, grey, or brindle-black. They do exist, but they're not nearly as common as the Holstein.
Fatness and Muscling
Beef cows are just as "easy fleshing" as beef bulls, but they tend to develop more fat over their body than muscle.
Bulls are more muscle: Cows more fat.
Beef cows are also quite blocky. You can literally draw a rectangle from the shoulder to the rump and it won't look wonky like if you tried with a dairy cow.
|Red Angus-cross cow|
with Angus crossbred calf
When a bovine is "too thin" it's not based on the size of the abdomen. It's more about if the ribs, spine and hips are more visible than they should be. For instance, a beef cow that is considered thin is one that you can visibly see at least four ribs protruding out.
Beef cows look tough and rugged for a reason. For one, they're not going to be as reliant on humans giving them everything they need like a dairy cow will be. They need to be tough and be able to look after themselves and their calf; they need to be as tough and durable as their wilder ungulate cousins the bison, deer, and elk to do well in an equally tough environment.
The muscling and fat helps them move around and get to where they need to without running into much trouble. Beef producers, with their breeding stock, pay attention to good feet and legs for that reason, and consequently have far fewer lameness problems than dairy producers do.
Beef cows have small udders. They aren't as noticeable like in dairy cattle, and often with a lot of hair especially when they're out with their thick winter coats.
A beef cow only produces 1 to 2 gallons of milk a day, and it's mainly for their suckling calf. Beef cows aren't selected for high milk because they're not needed for their milk to meet the demand of the dairy-hungry human population. But they do need to produce enough milk to raise a strong and healthy calf.
|Texas Longhorn bull|
Angus cattle, especially in the United States, make up a large majority of the beef cattle population, so you will find a large majority of beef cattle that are solid black.
|Aberdeen Angus bull|
Herefords are hard to miss as well, and are unique in their own way. They are often a reddish-brown with white faces, white over the neck, white legs below the knees and hocks, and a white belly. Some don't have as distinct a white colour pattern as the old-type Herefords, and some don't have white over these areas except for the head. But don't get these confused with the modern-day Simmentals.
Simmentals are often white-faced as well, but not like Herefords. They come in black, red, brown, and less commonly grey, yellow, tan, or light brown. Many Simmentals also don't have the white face, and instead are a solid colour all over.
Interestingly, there are also cattle that are raised for both beef and dairy; these are commonly known as "dual-purpose" cattle. Dual-purpose cattle often look closer to the "beef cattle" model than the dairy, simply because they are equally selected for both good milk and good beef.
These cattle are the "in-betweens" of beef and dairy cattle because they are middle of the road. They don't have the very large udders like the Holstein, yet produce more milk than a typical beef cow; and they don't have the boney dairy look, because they are also raised for meat.
Coat colouration is almost as variable, but because there are fewer breeds in this category than either dairy or beef, they can be more easily classed with the beef crowd than the dairy. Shorthorn tends to fall into this category Some dual purpose breeds include:
Fleckvieh (closely related to Simmentals)
American Milking Devon