Even though cattle may look similar, they’re not all the same. Beef and dairy cattle are used for different purposes and require different levels of care. Cattle can appear in various colors, patterns, and sizes. In fact, no two patterns are the same!

Dairy cows are used for milk production and are always female. They can only produce milk if they’ve had a calf. Beef cattle can be male or female and are used for meat consumption. Before a cow has her first calf, she’s known as a heifer. She becomes a cow after she gives birth.

If male cattle are castrated, they’re known as steers. If they are intact, they are called bulls. Typically, only the steers are used for meat production. Cows, steers, and bulls can all be beef cattle, but only dairy cows can be used to produce milk.

Now that we know the different terms, let’s look at other differences between these two types of cattle.new hoof divider

Visual Differences Between Beef Cattle and Dairy Cattle

Beef vs Dairy Cattle - Visual Differences
Image Credit: Left – BrunaT, Shutterstock | Right – CUTWORLD, Shutterstock

At a Glance

Beef Cattle
  • Origin: India, China, Middle East
  • Size: 1,400–2,400 pounds
  • Lifespan: Natural lifespan of 15–20 years, shortened to 1–2 years on a cattle farm
  • Domesticated?: Yes
Dairy Cattle
  • Origin: Netherlands
  • Size: 1,400–2,000 pounds
  • Lifespan: Natural lifespan of 20 years, shortened to 4.5–6 years on a dairy farm
  • Domesticated?: Yes

new hoof divider Beef Cattle Overview

Beef Cattle
Image Credit: AnitaBozic, Pixabay

Characteristics & Appearance

Beef cattle have stocky, muscular bodies. They have short necks, thick backs, and round legs. Their colors vary depending on the breed, but common colors include black, white, cream, red, brown, and tan. These are hardy animals that can withstand harsh weather conditions.

Beef cattle eat hay, grass, and feed grain. The females produce milk, but just enough to feed their calves. These animals spend their days grazing in pastures until they reach their maximum weight potential and muscle mass. Then they are sent to slaughterhouses.


The primary and most common use of beef cattle is to produce meat. Steaks, roasts, prime cuts of beef, hamburgers, and more all come from beef cattle. But they can supply so much more than just meat.

Only 60% of the animal turns into beef that can be sold and consumed. The rest becomes by-products. These are the skin, bones, organs, and fat of the animal. These can be used for other things.

  • Leather: This is made from cowhide and is used to make clothing, furniture, sporting equipment, and more.
  • Gelatin: This is made from the tissue of the animal and is used in anything with a jiggly consistency. Jell-O, gummy candy, and marshmallows are made from gelatin.
  • Medicine: Ointments, adhesive bandages, and certain organ transplant medications are made using beef by-products.
  • Other items: Nail polish, dish soap, glue, toilet paper, tires, and dog food all come from beef by-products.

new hoof divider Dairy Cattle Overview

cow in the field
Image Credit: Pixabay

Characteristics & Appearance

The most common dairy cow is the Holstein, known for its black and white coloring and patterns. Depending on the breed, other dairy cows can be brown, tan, white, or golden.

Their energy is used for producing milk and they require a large amount of it. Dairy cows produce between 7 and 9 gallons of milk a day. Their bodies are thin with long necks and visible backbones. Their legs are narrow. Since they aren’t meant to produce meat, they aren’t stocky like beef cattle.

Dairy cows eat grass and grain, but they also eat the remnants of other products. For example, orange pulp from making orange juice and canola meal from making canola oil. The cows can get nutritional benefits from these products that would otherwise be thrown away.


Dairy cows are used for milk production, which is also used to make dairy products. Cheese, ice cream, butter, yogurt, and more are made because of dairy cows.

Dairy cows have to repeatedly get pregnant to keep producing milk. Older cows eventually can’t become pregnant anymore. When it is no longer profitable to keep the dairy cow, they will be sent to slaughter. Since they are usually much older than beef cattle when this happens, the meat they provide will be of lower quality. Instead of being used for prime cuts of beef, they are used for hamburgers, ground beef, and ground chuck.new hoof divider

What Are the Differences Between Beef Cattle & Dairy Cattle?

Dairy cattle produce milk that is far greater than the needs of their calves. They’ve been purposely bred to produce great quantities of milk. This is a stark contrast to beef cattle that only produce enough milk for their offspring to consume. The Holstein breed of dairy cattle produces milk with a large amount of fat content.

Dairy cattle are more sensitive to heat than beef cattle, so they are usually kept in cooler areas with large amounts of rainfall. Beef cattle can be kept across larger areas because they can tolerate hot weather.

Farming either type of cattle is expensive both in monetary and environmental terms. The feed, land, water, and farming equipment used to make beef and milk production have the highest environmental impacts of any type of food farmed in the United States.

The average price of a dairy cow is between $900–$3,000. The average price of a beef cow is $2,800.

Holstein cow
Image Credit: Piqsels

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Which Is Right for Your Farm?

Taking cost into consideration may be the first place to start when you’re deciding to raise cattle. Farming either dairy or beef cattle or both will enable your farm to be profitable and supply you and your family with your own milk, dairy, and meat products.

The breeds that you choose for each purpose will depend on your land space and the quality of care that each breed requires. All cattle grow to be large, but some are larger than others.

Your climate is also something to consider, as dairy cows don’t tolerate hot weather well.

Dual-purpose cattle will supply you with both meat and milk, but since they aren’t bred specifically for one purpose, they won’t produce the same amount of each product as specific meat or dairy cows. If you need to maximize your space, farming these cattle may be an option.

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Featured Image Credit: Top – WolfBlur, Pixabay | Bottom – Clara Bastian, Shutterstock