Beef Cattle Vs Dairy Cattle

Beef Cattle vs. Dairy Cattle

Beef Cattle vs. Dairy Cattle

You’ve probably seen herds of cattle while driving around PA Dutch Country (even if was just from a distance), since there are over 275,000 bovine animals in Lancaster. Not all those cattle are the same, however—some are raised specifically for milk production and some are raised specifically for beef. Think you know the difference? Read on for more interesting facts about beef and dairy cattle, and soon you’ll be able to tell the difference just by looking at them!

Don’t forget—a “cow” is technically the term for a female bovine that has already had at least one calf (“heifer” is a female that hasn’t had a calf yet). The proper term to refer to all bovine animals is “cattle.”

Dairy Cattle
Beef Cattle

Breeds and Markings

One of the major differences between beef and dairy cattle is related to their appearance. There are only 6 major breeds of dairy cows in the US: Holstein, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Ayrshire, Jersey, and Milking Shorthorn. Therefore, if you can know your dairy cows by sight, then you can generally recognize a beef cow by default. Brown Swiss are the only breed in the US that can be raised for beef or for dairy, and are known as a dual-purpose breed. Dairy cattle are usually thinner and leaner—they are NOT emaciated or malnourished, but rather their energy is focused on producing milk instead of on building muscle. Dairy cows (adult females) will have larger and more pronounced udders than beef cows, since they can give up to 8-10 gallons of milk each day. Beef cows, on the other hand, only produce enough milk for their calves, roughly 1-2 gallons each day. Beef cattle are usually stockier—fatter and more muscular, since their energy is focused on growing muscle and fat.


In generally, cattle diets are carefully regulated by the farmer, to provide the nutritional needs of each herd in any given season. They are similar for beef and dairy herds, but have subtle differences. Many beef cows and steers start out being grass fed in the pasture, sometimes supplemented with hay or silage (compacted, fermented, high-moisture grass or alfalfa). After beef calves are weaned, they are given a balanced diet of corn, hay or silage, and the supplements to boost their growth until they’re market ready. Dairy cattle have a diet that usually consists of hay, grain and other silage.


Cattle Grazing Care

Dairy cows can only lactate after they've had a calf, so they must be bred periodically in order to continue to produce milk. Dairy cows may be bred with a beef bull or a dairy bull, depending on the market standards and also what the farmer is hoping to attain. Young male dairy calves will likely be sent elsewhere to be raised for beef, unless they are a superior male, in which case they may be kept on to breed dairy cows in the future. Young female dairy cows will be kept as part of the herd. Beef cattle are generally sent to market around 2-3 years old. Some cows and bulls may be kept back in order to maintain the herd. Dairy cows have to be milked twice a day, so the herds usually stay close to the barn. Beef cows do not have to come in to the farm as often as dairy cattle, so the herds are often further away from the farm for several days at a time, with a smaller structure to take shelter in if need be. Out west, cattle that are out along the highway or in wide open spaces are likely beef cattle.

Showing Cows

Showing Cows

Most 4H clubs offer cow showing for young aspiring farmers. Competitions take place at fairs on the local level, or in larger competitions at the state and national levels. Show cows can be beef or dairy cows—and each have their own categories with differing criteria. Dairy show cows usually have their hair clipped short to show off their angular bodies and bone structure, while beef cows have longer hair in strategic places to help them seem more “filled out” or muscular. When showing beef cows, the handler uses a tool called a showstick to get the cow’s feet into place, while dairy handlers use the halters to get their cow into place. There’s even a difference in the uniform for the handlers: beef showmen usually wear jeans and a button up shirt, while dairy showmen wear a white shirt and pants, with a belt and boots that may match the coloring on their cow (usually black or brown).

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