When you think of a milk cow, you probably first think of a white and black dairy cow with a full udder.
But if you have a beef cow on your farm and are looking for ways to cut down on your grocery bill, you might consider milking her.
Is this even possible?
It’s safe to drink milk from a beef cow, just like drinking milk from a dairy cow. While dairy cattle and beef cattle have been bred over the centuries for different purposes, both produce high-quality milk.
Read on to learn more about the history of drinking animal milk and the differences between beef and dairy cattle.
Drinking Milk from Mammals
Technically, we can drink milk from virtually any mammal.
It’s just not always the easiest or smartest choice.
In the West, most dairy products come from cows, followed by a small amount of goat products.
This is not the case worldwide.
In different parts of the world, milk products and their consumption are determined by the climate and the mammals who live there.
For example, some common animals used for milk in other countries include:
- Water Buffalo
Almost all of the dairy animals used are ruminants.
Ruminants have four-chambered stomachs designed to take high-fiber, low-nutrient grass and forage and turn it into energy.
The nutrient-dense milk creates a way for humans to gain essential vitamins and nutrients from pastures with plants we can’t eat.
Cows, goats, and sheep were domesticated between 10,000 B.C. and 8000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent as part of animal husbandry.
Since then, people have selectively bred these dairy animals to get the right temperament and milk output.
Like all mammals, milk is only produced after giving birth.
Cows are bred to have one calf per year, and then they are milked for 300 days before a break from milking until their next calf.
During this milking time, they produce enough milk to feed their calf.
If they are a dairy breed, they produce an abundance humans can use to turn into cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and other dairy products.
Differences Between Dairy and Beef Cattle
Dairy cows and beef cows have been specifically bred to have specific characteristics.
The primary purpose of each is right in the name.
Dairy cows have been selectively bred to increase milk production, while beef cattle have been bred for high-quality meat.
Dairy cows are thinner and leaner.
Their main energy is directed toward producing milk, which is why they are lean and don’t put on as much weight as beef cows.
Producing milk and producing mass are mutually exclusive in most cattle breeds, leading to the stark contrast between dairy and beef cows.
Dairy cows produce 8 to 10 gallons of milk per day and have large udders.
To keep them comfortable, they need to be milked two to three times a day.
Bull calves won’t grow up to produce milk, so they are either raised for reproduction or beef.
The meat from dairy breeds is leaner than the meat from beef breeds.
Dairy cows are fed a balanced diet of mostly grains and grasses.
They have access to pasture, but they also are kept in barns more often than beef breeds.
Since they don’t have to navigate the terrain as often as beef cows, they also have a smaller build.
Beef cows are on the opposite end of the spectrum.
They’re big, stocky, and muscular.
Whereas dairy cows’ energy goes toward milk production, beef cows use their energy to build muscle and fat, which is great for their meat quality.
Beef cows produce milk when they have a calf, but at a much lower daily amount of one to gallons per day.
Beef cows are bred with the primary goal of maintaining herd size rather than producing milk.
Not all heifers are bred, as the meat from steers and heifers is higher quality than the meat from cows.
This is because beef cows need to use some of their energy for milk production, so it isn’t being used to bulk up.
Beef cows are left to graze most of the time, but they also have access to grains to round out their diet.
Nutrient Makeup of Cow’s Milk
The nutrients in a glass of milk from a beef cow are similar to the nutritional makeup of dairy cattle.
They both contain a balance of:
- Vitamins A and B12
The difference in milk is that with dairy cows, there is more consistency in the balance of nutrients, while beef cows have greater variation.
For example, beef milk has a fat range of 2.5 to 6.5% and a protein percentage range of 3 to 4%.
Dairy cows have a smaller fat range of 3 to 3.9% for Holsteins, the main dairy breed, and 4.3 to 5% for the Jersey dairy breed.
The variation is likely due to genetics.
Beef breeds meant only for putting on body weight aren’t known for their milk production.
Dual-purpose breeds for beef and milk have greater variation in their fat content.
Consuming Safe Milk
Milk bound for the grocery store undergoes several processes to guarantee safety and quality.
This includes homogenization and pasteurization.
Homogenization prevents the fat from separating from the rest of the milk.
Fat is equally distributed throughout the liquid, so each sip is the same.
Pasteurization is the process of heating the milk up to kill bad bacteria.
Drinking raw or unpasteurized milk is not recommended, as the potentially harmful bacteria remain.
If you are planning on drinking your cows’ milk at home, buy a home pasteurizer to process it first.
Common Cow Breeds
There are dozens of cow breeds used across the world for various purposes.
In the United States, a few main breeds are used for beef or dairy.
- Black Angus
- Red Angus
- Texas Longhorn
- Red and White Holstein
- Brown Swiss
- Milking Shorthorn
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