September 19, 2016

Beef vs. Dairy Cattle: What's the Diff??

When you see a cow, just any cow, have you ever stopped and thought what type of cow that might be?

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.

Dairy Cattle


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.

Montbeliarde cow
They are one of the several dairy breeds that have the classic "thin" characteristic that is really obvious for most dairy cattle. Jerseys,  Guernseys, Ayrshires and Brown Swiss also have this characteristic, and it's not actually because they are undernourished. But other dairy cattle like Fleckvieh or Montbeliarde are actually a little more fleshy, mainly because milk production isn't the only thing they are raised for, though they are classed as "dairy" breeds.

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.

Dairy cattle have been selectively bred to produce more milk than what would be considered "normal" in cattle that are more suited for living in settings that make them able to survive with very minimal human interference. No, it's not to do with these cattle eating or being injected with excessive growth hormones and steroids, it's all to do with genetics. When cattle are selected for higher milk production, the inverse occurs with selection for muscling and fat deposition. Muscle building and milk production is naturally genetically opposed in most animals, including humans. Thus a farmer cannot focus on enhancing one trait without sacrificing the quality of the other.

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.

Jersey bull
Dairy Holstein bull
Dairy bulls are also more "feminine" looking than your typical beef bull. By that I mean they don't have the muscling like you would find on a powerful-looking Angus or Simmental bull. They do have the typical masculine muscling of the neck and shoulders, but they are not developed in the rear, and that's all to do with the selection of milking genetics over muscling. You can see muscling lacking in the rear of both the Holstein and Jersey bulls pictured here.

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.


Body/Skeletal Structure


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."

Udder Size


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.

Coat Colouration


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!!

Jersey cows
Few dairy cattle are all black. You would only find such dairy cattle if they were Holstein-Jersey crossbreds, or Holstein-Angus crossbreds; the latter unlikely to be found in the dairy herd because of lower milk productions than either Holstein or Holstein-Jersey crosses.

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.

Beef Cattle


Fatness and Muscling


Hereford cattle
Unlike dairy cattle, beef cattle are what farmers like to call "very fleshy." They are blocky in appearance with muscling over both their shoulders and rump. Unlike dairy bulls, beef bulls tend to have equal muscling over the entire body.

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
Where dairy cows have more trouble putting down fat, a lot of beef cows can have problems with having too much fat. But they can also be just as prone to being too thin.

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.

Body/Skeletal Structure


Hereford cow
Beef cows tend to take on a little more "masculine" build about them due to their muscling. If you look at the difference in face between a Jersey cow and an old Hereford, you can see just how much more rugged, tougher and rougher-looking that old Hereford cow looks than that cute Jersey. If you were to try to befriend one of these girls, my bet would be that you'd head straight for the little Jersey and avoid that big mean-looking old white-face cow as much as you can!

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.

Angus cow

Udder Size


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.

Coat Colouration


Texas Longhorn bull
Beef cattle tend to have a much wider variety with coat colours and patterns. You can find almost everything from speckles to brindle, to all white and all black. Except for pink with green polka-dots…

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
There are also other beef cattle with other colours. Many of them are mixed-bred with multiple breeds in their gene lines, so coat colouration and patterns make for an interesting mix. Texas Longhorns (above) and Florida Cracker cattle, two breeds that come from the original Spanish Criollo cattle that Columbus brought over in the late 15th century, are two such breeds that have fascinating colour patterns, ranging from solid to very speckled and roan.

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.
Simmental bull

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.


Dual-Purpose Cattle


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)

Red Poll















Normande















Shorthorn












Pinzgauer














Dexter















American Milking Devon

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