Cows of many colours

Here’s another guest blog I wrote for Canadian Beef Blog recently:

A cow is a cow is a cow, right? Not exactly.

Yes, they’re all the same type of animal but there are many different breeds. For example, even though they’re both dogs, there aren’t a lot of similarities between a small white Bichon Frise and a large German Sheppard! The same principles apply to cattle.

To complicate things further, did you know that different breeds are used for different things on the farm? In Canada, farmers raise cattle for dairy production – those whose main job is to produce milk for human consumption – and for beef production, animals that provide us with meat and a wide range of other by-products. This includes products like cosmetics, deodorant, crayons, printing ink, asphalt, candles, soaps, shaving cream, detergents, plastics, pet food, toothpaste and many more!

The iconic black and white spotted cow, for example, which is what many people automatically think of when they picture these animals, is a dairy breed called Holstein, the most popular milk-producers in Canada.

Dairy cows tend to have thinner coats of hair and are leaner with less muscling than beef breeds, as they put all their energy into making milk.

In comparison, beef cattle breeds are more muscular and only produce enough milk for one calf each year (although occasionally, some do give birth to twins!).

Globally, experts estimate there are over 250 different breeds of beef cattle, but fewer than 20 are used in commercial beef production. Some beef farmers will raise purebreds but most have herds that consist of crossbred animals – combinations of more than one breed – to get the best qualities of each breed.

Some of Canada’s most popular beef breeds are Angus, Charolais, Hereford, Simmental, Limousin, Maine-Anjou, Salers, Gelbvieh and Shorthorn. They range in colour from black (Angus), to various shades of brown (Hereford, Simmental and Limousin) to white (Charolais).

These breeds are originally from Britain and European countries like France, Switzerland and Germany, and they are known for their ability to produce well-marbled, tender and flavourful beef.

Many consumers will be particularly familiar with the Angus breed – a popular marketing program has been built around Black Angus (there are Red Angus cattle too so I have to be careful here to make that colour distinction!) beef in North America that highlights its quality attributes.

In addition to the photos in this post, there’s a short video on a website called Virtual Farm Tours that shows examples of what some of the most common beef breeds look like. It’s at – click on beef cattle farms, then cow and calf farm. It’ll also give you an idea of how beef cattle are raised…but we’ll get into that in more detail in an upcoming blog post. Stay tuned!

Photos courtesy of Ontario Agriculture Photo Library (except the Holstein one – that one’s mine)

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