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What are Some Different Types of Cattle?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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When most people think of cows, a large, amiable black and white animal probably comes to mind, but there are in fact a wide number of types of cattle, with almost a thousand cattle breeds being raised all over the world for a variety of purposes. Those black and white cattle you're thinking of, by the way, are dairy cattle from the Holstein breed, one of the most widely raised dairy cattle breeds in the world. Cows come in a range of shapes and sizes, for all sorts of purposes, and many people are working to preserve rare cattle breeds, along with the centuries of farming heritage that they represent.

Two major subspecies of cattle are domesticated: Bos taurus taurus, or taurine cattle, and Bos taurus indicus, or zebus. Taurine cattle are adapted for the cooler climates of the Northern Hemisphere, while zebus are better suited for hot, dry climates like those found in Africa. This has actually caused problems among some well-meaning aid organizations, which have exported taurine cattle to Africa to help people with famine conditions, only to discover that these cattle are not suited to the environment, requiring many more resources than zebus and ultimately proving to be more trouble than they are worth.

Types of cattle are generally broken up by purpose. Beef cattle, as you might imagine, are bred to yield large amounts of high quality meat, while dairy cattle have been bred to deliver copious milk with a high butterfat content. Draft cattle are bred to be working animals, pulling plows, carts, and other farm equipment. Multipurpose cattle can perform two or all three of these tasks, depending on the breed.

Some well known examples of beef cows include: Angus, Limousin, Longhorn, North Devon, Wagyu, and Hereford. Popular dairy breeds, in addition to the Holstein, include Brown Swiss, Jersey, Ayrshire, and Milking Shorthorn Cattle. These types of cattle all tend to be more lightweight than beef cattle, and many of them are smaller, as well. Jerseys in particular are renowned for their milk and gentle temperaments.

Belgian Blues, Charolais, Lourdais, Welsh Blacks, and Red Polls are all examples of mixed-use cattle. You can also found cattle bred specifically for sport, such as the cattle used in bullfighting and bullriding. A number of breeders have also developed zebu/taurine hybrids, taking advantage of the best traits of both subspecies to create especially strong, flexible types of cattle.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon993703 — On Dec 07, 2015

I have been on a farm my whole life, my family owns a ranch and a dairy farm so I have had the privilege of getting to know both beef and dairy cattle and what their habits are.

Dairy cattle can be both male and female, but the females are the only ones that can produce milk after the calf is born. It is the same way in beef cattle. Beef cattle tend to live longer and produce more offspring in their life time, unlike dairy cattle. Along with that, beef cattle tend to be a hardier animal that can take hot summers and colder winters without having a shed to be in. Dairy cattle have to remain on a set schedule; otherwise they will drop in their milk production. Beef cattle are not as picky on what they eat, unlike dairy cattle, who will eat enough to say alive if they do not like the type of hay put in front of them.

By wildrose — On Feb 22, 2013

@anon19548: All milk cows are indeed female. That's what the word "cow" refers to: a mature female bovine that has given birth to at least one or two calves. A cow that has done that is more than capable of giving milk. But, there are also males in dairy cattle too. There are such things as dairy bulls and dairy steers, not just dairy cows.

And no, beef cattle are not all male. Beef cattle also come in female as well. Beef cows, beef heifers, beef bulls and beef steers are all genders of beef cattle.

A heifer is an immature female bovine which has never given birth to a calf before. A steer is a castrated male bovine. A bull is an intact male bovine, used only for breeding cows and heifers. A calf is a general term for an immature bovine that is less than a year of age, generally.

@wavy58: Sounds like your neighbors either had Hereford or Simmental cattle. The weaning process for cows can be stressful, but it's all part of raising cattle.

@healthy4life: Many "zebu" are found in the southern USA, into Mexico and South America. Brahman cattle are primarily of these type, though the Brahman is a result of several East-Indian breeds used to create an American "zebu" type breed. And no, all of these are not found in just Africa either. You'll also find them in South Asia like India, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, etc.

@orangey03: I've heard a lot of TLs can also be very docile and safe to be around, a lot safer than your uncle's animals, which sound almost like typical rodeo stock.

By orangey03 — On Nov 26, 2012

@Oceana – That is the Texas longhorn. My uncle is a cattle breeder, and this is the kind he maintains.

They are scary looking. Some of them are aggressive, and they aren't shy about using their horns. My uncle has always told me to stay out of the pasture when they are in it.

In fact, he has had the horns of the most aggressive ones trimmed and filed down. He did this so that he could get into the pasture when he needed to and so he could round them up without getting injured.

By Oceana — On Nov 25, 2012

I've only seen cattle in pictures, since I live in the heart of a city. There is one really scary looking kind with extremely long horns. What is that breed called?

By healthy4life — On Nov 25, 2012
I have seen miniature zebu cattle for sale as pets. I guess since they eat less than regular sized cows, people can afford to feed them.

I have read that they will lay out in the hot sun during the middle of summer. They really hate cold weather, and they have to have shelter during it.

They are perfect for Africa because of all the heat and the lack of food. I can't imagine why anyone would have thought that sending big cows to Africa could have helped! Zebus cattle are made for life in such a hot region.

By wavy58 — On Nov 24, 2012

It's strange for someone living in the country, but I never even saw those black and white dairy cows until I was about twelve years old. I went to my cousin's dairy farm, and that's where I saw a large herd of them.

My neighbors had always raised those reddish-brown cows that I believe were a type of beef cattle breed. They were always selling calves, and then the poor mother would moo for days and nights. I lost a lot of sleep because of this.

I was surrounded on three sides of my house by cattle growing up. What's funny is that after I got married and moved, my new neighbors had a pasture surrounding my land, and I was once more surrounded by cattle!

By anon83258 — On May 10, 2010

a heifer is a cow that hasn't had a baby before.

yes! all milking cows are females, cows are females. beef cattle can be male and female

By anon79998 — On Apr 25, 2010

what exactly is a heifer?

By anon44171 — On Sep 05, 2009

There are two types of cattle: beef and dairy.

There are male and female gender in both.

All female cattle give milk, but female dairy cows outproduce female beef cows.

By anon19548 — On Oct 14, 2008

Are all milking cows female? I am confused about the sex of cattle. Are beef cattle male?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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