A Few Differences Between Beef Cows and Dairy Cows

This Red Angus cow has the muscularity, smoothness and femininity we like to see in beef cows.

This stylish and productive Red and White Holstein is as near to perfect as a dairy cow can get.

I was 23 when I moved to central Virginia, and one of the first things I noticed were the beef cows. They were everywhere! I was familiar with dairy cows from our family trips to Pennsylvania, but growing up in Ohio, I had never seen beef cattle in a field. The ground in northwest Ohio, vestiges of the Great Black Swamp – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Black_Swamp – is some of the most productive in the world. It’s devoted to crops. As grazing animals, cattle are found in regions where the land is more rolling, and susceptible to erosion, where cropping isn’t as viable, like here in central Virginia.

While there are fewer dairies than there were when I first moved to the region, there are still a lot of beef cattle. Beef cattle are second only to poultry in driving the agricultural economy is Virginia. https://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Virginia/Publications/Annual_Statistical_Bulletin/Annual%20Bulletin_18.pdf

So if you’re driving down the road in central Virginia, and you see some cattle, how do you know if they’re beef or dairy animals? This little rundown will help you become the “Well, Actually… Road-trip Guru”.

Based on numbers AND on management, you’re far more likely to see beef cattle than dairy cattle in central Virginia. First off, there are more beef cows in this region (in 2018, estimated to be 633,000 beef cows vs. 87,000 dairy cows in Virginia), and secondly, beef cows are raised almost exclusively on pasture. Dairy cows are usually housed indoors, at least when they’re “in milk” (which isn’t all year).

Pro-Tip - Don't Be A Jerk

Don’t become all sanctimonious if someone refers to all domestic bovines as “cows”. It’s not indicative of in their inability to understand basic biology. It merely reflects the sad reality that there is no commonly used word in our language to denote a single, non-gender-specific bovine unit. Such a word exists – “neat” – as in Neat’s-foot oil, but no one outside the crossword puzzle community uses it. If you wish to make it your mission to correct this oversight in our language, you have my full support. https://www.wordnik.com/words/neat

When looking at livestock – any livestock – I think most people see the colour of the animal as being the most notable attribute, but livestock producers think in terms of shape and movement as identifiers of breed and use. Obviously colour can be helpful in identifying cattle breeds, but trying to assess an animal’s utility and value based on colour alone can be problematic. The phrase “Form follows function” exists for a reason.

With beef animals, male and female, genetics and management are focused towards efficiently and economically developing muscle, which will ultimately end up as “center of the plate” protein.

In dairy, it’s all about the cows, and the milk they produce. And not surprising, this results in some very different looking animals.

Beef Cattle

Most beef operations in Virginia are what we call “Cow/Calf” operations. Cows have their calves, and raise them to about six months of age. At that point, the calves are weaned, and usually sold. (See the post on Beef Industry Basics for more detail.)

Most of the beef cows here in central Virginia, are black, most likely Black Angus, or Angus Cross (written Angus X). Our strong regional preference for black cattle goes back to the days when trucking cattle long distances wasn’t as viable an option as it is now, and most of our calves went to Pennsylvania, eventually on to the “white tablecloth” markets of the East Coast. Black Angus cattle were synonymous with quality, and while that’s still largely true, copycats have lessened the Black Angus’ hold on the market. With changes in the transportation (can you say “West Virginia Turnpike”?) and communication structure, it’s far easier to sell animals into western markets, where they’re not quite as adamant about “black hide”.

But no matter what colour, our main emphasis in beef cows is musculature and soundness. We want them to be stocky, but not so much that they have problems calving. And we want them to be able to move about efficiently enough so they can graze, but we’re also not looking for long-distance athletes, like our western range cattle.

So our Eastern beef cows are muscular, and some may even be fat. And they’re usually shorter than dairy cows, but that’s not always true – some beef cows can get pretty tall.

And since she lives outdoors year round, she gets a pretty good winter coat. Ideally, it should be clean and velvety, not muddy or shaggy.

And while black is still strongly preferred by buyers, some of us have gotten away from the black cattle, because lighter coloured cows are more heat tolerant, and therefore more economical to manage. Lighter coloured animals spend more time grazing (which is pretty much by definition in the sun), and therefore consume more calories to convert either to additional weight, or to make more milk for their calves.

A good hair-coat helps this beef cow maintain her condition over the winter, with enough fat reserves to produce milk for her spring calf.

Other than Black Angus, you’ll see Red Angus, Charolais, Simmental, and a few Hereford in this region. Beef animals usually solid coloured, with maybe some white on their faces.

Another thing might notice in beef cows is a fairly wide swing in fat cover over the seasons. We don’t highly regulate their intake – their diet – over the year, so they can get pretty chubby when the weather is pleasant, and the grazing is good, and they’ll “fall off” over the winter, as they use us a lot of that stored energy – fat – to help them manage the cold.

A BCS – Body Condition Score – chart can serve as a guide as to what we’d consider normal body weight in beef cows. It’s pretty common for a cow to be a BCS 6 in October, and drop to a BCS 4 by March. The cow’s age, and whether or not she has a calf factors into it as well – a calf can “pull down” a cow pretty quickly.


It can be challenging sometimes to assess the body condition of cows who have dairy influence (that’s the word we use – influence). Different breeds lay down fat differently, and you can easily think that the thin cow you’re looking at might not be getting enough to eat, but she may actually just be a dairy cross.

A beef cow’s hair-coat can tell you a lot about whether she’s struggling or not. Hair-coat can be a good indicator of animal well-being. With most conventional beef cattle, their winter hair should be clean and velvety. If she’s thin, and her hair is shaggy and muddy, she may be being asked to work too hard.

And we’d like to see her fully shed out by the middle of May, with a short, sleek, shiny coat to take her into summer.

These three beef cows are glad to be back out on pasture after weeks of eating only hay.

Calving is another area where beef cows are entirely different than dairy cows. First off, most beef cows in an owner’s herd calve within a fairly short period of time -the “calving window” – typically something on the order of 45 day or 65 day, though there are some producers who go shorter or longer. Having all the cows calve at the same time simplifies management, as well as marketing. Producers don’t have to check cows as often once they all calve. And these uniform groups will hit all their medical, fertility, maturity, and feeding marks at the same time, for instance, they’ll all be ready for that first round of vaccines at the same time, they’ll be weaned as a group at 6 months.

Here in Virginia, we’re split between spring-calvers, and fall-calvers, with some producers, us included, doing both. Our spring calves are born in March, and our fall calves in October.

This Red Angus cow somehow got herself designated as the babysitter to this group of beef calves.

In our area, beef calves are almost exclusively born outside, on pasture. Beef calves are born quickly, and they’re up and nursing within an hour or so from start to finish. Beef calves are usually tiny and lively, and are aggressive nursers (that’s the term we use) – traits that allow them to survive predator pressure, which still exists in a lot areas (mostly from domestic dogs).

Beef cows are attentive mothers, some to the point of being combative. Most producers like to place ear tags in newborns, and many a cattleman has been injured by cows who think that their calves are being threatened.

Another thing we look for in a beef cow is a “tidy” udder. A smaller, tighter udder is easier for a calf to nurse off of – an incredibly important trait if our cows are going to raise their calves without any human intervention.

Beef calves stay with their mothers until they’re about six months of age, when the whole group is weaned, and the calves typically sold.

Dairy Cows

Compared to a beef cow, a dairy cow is tall and angular. You could say “bony”, but that wouldn’t be quite right. Where a beef cow is bred to store her excess calories, a dairy cow diverts that extra energy into milk production. Dairy cows aren’t genetically programmed to lay down fat like a beef cow. She does have a fat cover, but it can be hard for a lay person to tell the difference between a thin dairy cow and a dairy cow that’s in proper condition.

Dairy cows don’t get the heavy hair-coat that a beef cow gets. They’ve been housed indoors for many generations, and most of the genetic traits that are geared towards keeping warm have diminished. They get a winter coat, but it’s not as extreme as the winter coat that beef animals get.

These Holstein dairy cows live indoors, and dine on TMR - Total Mixed Ration

But beyond appearance, management is where you’ll see the difference between a beef cow and a dairy cow.

In the US, most dairy cows live indoors, protected from temperature extremes, at least while they are “in milk”. And instead of grazing, most dairy cows are fed TMR – Total Mixed Ration – a mixture of concentrate – grain – and chopped forage, formulated by a dairy nutritionist.

The lactation cycle is the same in all cattle, but it’s more highly monitored and managed in dairy cows. In the US, dairy cows are typically milked for 300 days, starting shortly after they calve. They’re then “dried off” for two months, in preparation for their next calving, which starts their next lactation cycle.

For milk production, she has a huge udder – she produces much more milk than a calf can possibly drink. And since she’s milked by a machine, it’s important that the shape and angle of her teats be correct. We want her udder symmetrical, and well-attached.

Holsteins – the Chik-Fil-A cows – are the predominate dairy breed throughout the country, though there are of lot of other dairy breeds – colour breeds – in use.

These dairy cows are bedded down in a free-stall barn, where they eat, and hang out with their friends.

While beef producers want their cows to calve within a tight “window”, most dairies want their cows to calve year round. This helps to level the total milk output of the farm – you don’t want all your cows hitting peak production at the same time, and you don’t want all your cows to be “dry” at the same time.

Calves are managed differently on a dairy farm than they are on a beef operation. Many of the practices implemented on a dairy are a reflection of the fact that dairy cows have been highly managed for generations, and many of the maternal qualities and instincts present in beef cows are no longer present in dairy cows.

Dairy cows are selected for their milking ability, with little “selection pressure” towards calving ease, mothering ability, or predator avoidance, like we see in beef cows. And some of those characteristics can be seen immediately at birth.

While some dairy cows may be attentive to their calves, many are indifferent. In addition to that, many dairy calves are slow to get up, and not as aggressive about getting that important first meal, the colostrum that primes their digestive system and immune responses.

So as soon as they’re born, dairy calves are placed in separate housing, either in stalls, or in calf hutches, and are bottle fed colostrum. This management practice serves several purposes. First, it ensure that calves are adequately fed. Secondly, it ensures that their health can be closely monitored.

One thing we often see in beef animals that would be a huge problem in dairy animals are calves that only nurse on quarter, or one side. Most beef calves eventually figure out that there are four teats, but some remain one-tit wonders, at most an annoyance in a beef cow, but health-threatening in a high-production dairy cow.

These Holstein calves live in huts, where they're ensured proper amounts of feed, and their health is carefully monitored. They'll move to group hosing in a few weeks.

You’ll see other classes of cattle here in Virginia – rodeo stock, show cattle, “stockers” and “fats” – but by knowing the basic differences between beef cows and dairy cows, you’ll not only increase your likelihood of emerging victorious at any road-trip trivia, you’ll begin to recognize what standard animal management looks like here in central Virginia.

Speaking of Road-Trip Trivia - I've made a TL;DR version of this post, perfect for helping to settle some of those "Drive in the Country" debates! Scroll to the bottom of this page to find out how to get get your copy.

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