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.
Take 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!