A Cow is a Cow, Right?

In my everyday life, I’m faced with plenty of interesting reverse-Green Acres moments; I sit in my classy suburban college and I engage in conversations with my peers. I find odd and unique ways to pull agricultural and rural lifestyle into my education. One example that comes to mind is my 3-D Design and Animation class. Our current assignment is to make a scene, outdoor or indoor. It’s pretty straight-forward. Most of my classmates are doing scenes from books or video games or movies.

I’m doing something a little closer to my heart. It’s a farmscape, with a rustic barn in the background and a fence. It’s simple, and depending on how confident and ambitious I feel, it may include some cows. My cattle of choice for this project are Simmentals. I love their look. They’re so distinctly…cattle-ish. They’re elegant. They’re tasty. Not sure what a Simmental looks like? Check out my friend Mike’s website here. Mike and his wife raise purebred Simmental cattle.

Anyways, this decision has spurred some interesting conversations. When reviewing my reference images among a group of peers, someone said, “Aren’t cows supposed to be black and white?” I responded that those were Holsteins, a type of dairy cattle. These are Simmentals, a beef breed that comes in different shades of red, or black, or either with some white. Someone then said, “There are different kinds of cattle?”

I had two thoughts here: 1. Us agvocates have our work cut out for us, and 2. What suburban rock did this person crawl out from under?

The conversation that followed was pretty simple. I explained that, just like in dogs, there are different breeds of cattle that have different uses and appearances. They’re generally split into two large purposes: dairy, and beef. That’s not to say you can’t interbreed the two groups (my own family used to raise Angus-Holstein crosses), and you can definitely use a beef breed for milk and vice versa; however, you’re going to get very different results. Certain breeds are just engineered to be better at one or the other.

A Holstein cowTake a look at Holsteins. Most people know them as being the “typical cow.” They’re the dominant milking breed in the United States. They’re well-known for their bold black and white (or something red and white) spots. They also tend to have a calmer temperament than some other dairy breeds.

A look at a healthy Holstein shows a fat, sassy cow with a big old……milk thing. The “bag” as a whole is known as the “udder.” The individual points on the udder where the milk comes out are called “teats.” (This feels like it’s getting a little risque. I apologize.)

Holsteins have huge udders. A healthy Holstein is well-muscled, but tends to be on the spindly side compared to its beefy relatives. They just aren’t bred to be very meaty. They aren’t any less healthy or happy, they’re just bred different for a different purpose, and their looks highlight that.

The stereotypical beef breed that people tend to hear about is the Angus. That’s because the Angus breed as a whole has done a fantastic job of setting itself apart in the world of beef, through marketing and branding. Even Burger King has “Angus burgers.” Most people may not realize that Angus is a breed of cattle, but they are familiar with the concept of Angus being a type of beef.

This Angus cow is obviously a little different than the Holstein above. She’s blockier, heavier in build, and she doesn’t have the gratuitously-massive udder that the Holstein has. She’s a good looking cow, that’s for sure, but in a completely different way than her Holstein cousin. A good place to note the difference is in the legs. The Holstein is a lot “leggier” than the Angus, and the Angus’s legs are a little bit thicker, especially the back legs. Another spot to look at is the “brisket,” which is the part of the chest that sort of sits between the front legs. The brisket is also a cut of meat. The Angus has a huge brisket; the Holstein, not so much. That is because the Angus’s body is meant to produce muscle mass, whereas the Holstein’s body is engineered to put more energy towards creating milk.

Hopefully I offered a little bit on insight for you. Hopefully, it gave you an idea of the plight I face as an agriculturalist living in the suburbs. Maybe it got you to thinking about cattle husbandry. Perhaps it made you think about what you favorite breeds are. (For the record, I like red-and-white Holsteins as dairy animals and Simmentals for beef.)

Overall, I hope someone gained some valuable information about the difference between beef and dairy cattle. Next time someone looks at you and says, “A cow is a cow, right?” you’ll know how to respond!


9 thoughts on “A Cow is a Cow, Right?

  1. I love your “Cow 101” mini class. I just hate those “Eat more Chikn” commercials with the holstein cows. Good Work!

    • Thank you, Jim! It was a pleasure to write. I guess I take for granted how much I know about agriculture, it was fun to have that discussion with some of my suburban peers.

  2. I love that you have chosen Simmentals, that is what I raise too! Both red and black ones. Agvocacy take place one small step at a time. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks, Crystal! I just love the look of Simmies. And I agree, every conversation and every encounter makes a difference. Thanks for swinging by and commenting, and thank you for what you do for agriculture!

  3. Keep the education of ag going. I have to explain many times that hay is not straw. Maybe I’ll blog on that one. I did do a post on how wet hay bales can spontaneously combust. I can revive that one too.

    PS: we raise Simmies too.

    • Thanks for commenting, Judi! And thank you for sharing your agriculture story. There are all sorts of tidbits about ag (and large parts of ag) that folks don’t understand, it’s up to us to fill in the blanks.

  4. Kelly, I found you on I Am Agriculture Proud, and I love this post. I was raised city, when our daughter started riding horses was when I started learning things like the difference between hay and straw…”You mean there is more than One kind of hay??” Yup, I asked that. I had no idea. I now live on 5 acres and raise chickens as a hobby. I sell some eggs to help recoup feed costs. anyway, one day when I took my dog to the vet, somehow we got talking about chickens and someone asked what breeds I have, and one of the vet techs said, “What? There are Breeds of chickens?? I thot a chicken was a chicken!” So, I explained the difference between meat birds and egg layers, and brown eggs/white eggs etc. etc….. too funny…..

    • It’s always interesting to see what folks “think” they know about agriculture; it’s usually harmless, but there’s always that person that seems shocked or surprised by a fairly insignificant agricultural fact. It makes me laugh. Thanks for sharing your story and thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment!

  5. Pingback: Understanding Livestock Breeds « kellymrivard.com

Tell me what you're thinkin'!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s