A cow is a cow is a cow, right? Not so fast! There is a difference between the cattle that become steak and those that give us ice cream?

As with horse or dogs, different breeds of cattle have certain characteristics. Farmers and ranchers breed herds based on some of those traits — like build, lifespan, weight and overall health. Each type of cattle comes in a wide variety of colours. We often think of brown and black cattle as beef cattle and black and white-spotted cattle as dairy cows. Those just happen to be characteristics of two different breeds. Black Angus cattle are known for producing high-quality beef. Holstein cows are known for producing high-quality milk.

Even though there are a lot of breeds of both beef and dairy cattle, each type shares some common traits. So, how do you know which is which?

Know Your Cattle Terms

Here is a quick guide on the correct terms to use for cattle.
• Cow: A cow is a female bovine who has given birth to a calf.
• Heifer: A heifer is a female bovine who has not given birth to a calf.
• Steer: A steer is a male bovine who cannot reproduce. (He’s been snipped.)
• Bull: A bull is a male bovine who can reproduce. (He’s intact.)
• Calf: A calf is a baby bovine, male or female.

Beef Cattle

Beef cattle are like weightlifters. They are stocky because their energy goes toward building muscle and storing fat. This makes for tasty meat — you want lean meat with marbling for texture and flavour.
Their strong legs help them navigate life on the pasture so they can graze. They have stocky, rounded bodies with short necks, thick backs and muscular shoulders and rumps.
Typically, beef cattle eat a combination of grasses and grains, with more of an emphasis on grass, especially when they’re young. Beef cows produce milk, but only enough to feed their calves.
Heifers, steers and cows are all used to produce meat. Meat that comes from steers and heifers is usually higher quality.

Some of the cattle breeds you may know are:
Wagyu - a Japanese beef cattle breed
Black Angus – a Scottish original cattle breed
Angus – a Scottish original cattle breed

Dairy Cows

Dairy cows are more like marathon runners. They are thin and lean with a more angular shape. Some people think dairy cows look underfed, but that’s just their build.
Their energy goes into producing milk rather than building muscle and storing fat. In fact, those two characteristics — producing milk versus producing mass — are usually mutually exclusive in cattle, which is why there’s a difference between beef and dairy cattle.
Dairy cows live in pastures or barns called free-stall barns. Both provide shelter, fresh water, food and a comfortable place for the cows to rest. Because they don’t have to navigate as much terrain for grazing, they are built more slightly.

One thing that is the same across both kinds of cattle — the farmers who care for them put a lot of time and effort to ensure their animals are healthy, well fed and well cared for.