The most obvious way to classify cattle breeds is according to their specialty. Based on this approach, cattle breeds fall into three categories:
Dual-purpose cattle were the historic norm in many parts of the world. Cows would be kept for dairy purposes, while surplus calves would either be trained for draft work or fattened for beef.
However, the Industrial Revolution with its large population centers required a smaller number of farmers to produce larger quantities of animal protein. This led to the rise of specialized beef and dairy breeds, beginning with the advanced breeding techniques of Robert Bakewell of English Longhorn fame.
Today, many cattle producers raise either beef or dairy cattle, but dual-purpose breeds still have a loyal following on smaller farms and homesteads. Each option has its own advantages and disadvantages.
As you might have guessed, beef breeds were specialized for the purpose of meat production. The dominant breed of the beef industry in the United States is the Angus, along with its close relative the Red Angus. The Hereford is also quite common, as it is a satisfactory beef animal in its own right and it can be mated to the Angus to produce the Black Baldy steers desired for feedlot production.
However, some beef breeds are used to produce beef less directly through the process of crossbreeding. These are usually large, lean animals, such as the Chianina and the Charolais. Crossbreeding one of these beef breeds to an Angus produces a particularly large steer with a high beef yield, but with the added benefit of juicy, flavorful marbling. The Brahman is another example of a beef breed primarily used in crossbreeding, in this case to impart heat tolerance and parasite resistance to the offspring.
While beef breeds vary, common characteristics of this group include:
- Docile temperament.
- No horns.
- Small udder.
- Uniform coloring.
- Low maintenance requirements.
- Fast growth.
- Heavy muscling.
- Tender beef.
A specialized beef breed is an obvious choice for those who intend to produce commodity cattle for the sale barn, whether those are calves or stockers for finishing. Many producers who direct market grassfed beef to direct market also favor the beef breeds.
Dairy cattle are raised almost exclusively for dairy production, of course, although they are commonly crossbred to beef bulls to produce calves suitable for meat.
Dairy breeds are also used for draft work, as they are atheltic and intelligent, plus readily available across the country.
Characteristics of dairy breeds include:
- Active nature.
- Large udder.
- High maintenance requirements.
- Rapid maturity.
- Light muscling.
- Extremely lean beef.
Commercial and agripreneurial dairying typically requires a specialized dairy breed.
Dual-purpose breeds are those suitable for both milk and meat purposes. Many are ideally suited to draft work, as well.
In some cases, the entire population of a dual-purpose breed is suitable for any purpose desired. In other cases, separate bloodlines are maintained for different purposes. It is also worth mentioning that many breeds considered specialized in North America are actually dual-purpose worldwide.
While these breeds vary widely, characteristics of dual-purpose cattle frequently include:
- Variable appearance.
- Active nature.
- Very low maintenance requirements.
- Robust health.
- Slow growth.
- Heavy muscling.
- Moderate production levels.
- Milk high in protein and butterfat.
- Very lean beef.
Dual-purpose cattle generally perform poorly in commodity production systems due to their variability and their relatively low production levels. Those who intend to direct market beef or milk may have better success with dual-purpose breeds, although the lower production levels and unusual color and flavor of the milk and meat can be challenging. Where dual-purpose cattle really shine is in the backyard homestead, where a versatile animal that does not overwhelm the family with excessive levels of production is ideal.
Choosing a Breed of Cattle
Are beef, dairy, or dual-purpose cattle right for you? Learn how to assess your needs, then discover 40 common cattle breeds of all three categories. Free sample pages are available.