Do dairy cows make good beef?

Dairy cows are bred specifically for milk production, while beef cattle are bred specifically for meat production. However, when dairy cows are no longer profitable for milk production, they are often used for beef. This leads many to wonder – how good is the beef from dairy cows compared to beef cattle? There are a few key factors to consider when evaluating the beef quality of dairy cows.

Breed Differences

Beef cattle breeds like Angus, Hereford, and Charolais have been selectively bred for characteristics like fast weight gain, muscle development, and efficient feed conversion. Dairy breeds like Holstein have instead been bred exclusively for milk production traits. So while Angus cattle will yield well-marbled, tender beef, Holsteins will provide lower quality beef that is leaner with less marbling. However, dairy-beef crosses that blend the best of both worlds are becoming more popular.

Carcass Characteristics

Beef cattle are typically slaughtered between 18-24 months when they reach their prime muscle development. But dairy cows are kept milking until 5-6 years old before their beef potential is considered. This older harvest age results in less tender beef compared to younger beef cattle. Dairy cow beef is also leaner, with less marbling, and more variation between animals.

Feeding Differences

Beef cattle are fed high energy rations for fast weight gain and marbling while dairy cows are fed mostly forages to support lactation. A dairy cow diet won’t promote the intramuscular fat necessary for flavorful, well-marbled beef. However, putting dairy cows on high concentrate, beef-like diets for 2-3 months prior to slaughter can improve marbling and beef quality.


Beef flavor and tenderness depends heavily on marbling, the intramuscular fat distributed within the muscle. Marbling provides essential fatty acids that give beef its characteristic beefy, buttery flavor when cooked. Since dairy breeds deposit less marbling than beef breeds, their beef will have a milder flavor. However, if finished on high energy feeds, dairy beef marbling and flavor can improve considerably.

Breed Differences in Marbling

Angus cattle are well-known for their genetics to marble exceptionally well, grading Prime or Choice quality with abundant marbling. Comparatively, Holstein beef is quite lean, grading Select or Standard with minimal marbling. Beef-dairy crossbreeds exhibit moderate marbling that results in improved flavor over pure dairy beef.

Finishing Diet Influences Marbling

While genetics dictate marbling potential, feeding a high energy finishing diet can help dairy cows reach their marbling capabilities. Feeding more concentrates like corn, barley, or distillers grains for 2-3 months prior to slaughter causes dairy cow marbling to increase substantially compared to a forage-only diet.


Beef tenderness is also affected by marbling content, but the biggest influence is harvest age. Young beef cattle have more tender meat because their collagen is still loose and soluble compared to older animals where collagen has solidified. Since dairy cows are slaughtered at over 5 years of age, their beef contains more cross-linked, insoluble collagen that contributes to toughness. Aging the meat post-harvest helps improve tenderness.

Improving Dairy Cow Beef Tenderness

To maximize tenderness of dairy beef:
– Harvest animals at less than 4 years old
– Age cuts for 14+ days post-harvest
– Use mechanical tenderization methods
– Marinate cuts in acid-based marinades like wine vinegar or yogurt
– Slow cook cuts using moist heat cooking methods

Quality Grades

Beef is graded based on marbling and maturity to predict palatability. Since dairy breeds don’t marble as intensely as beef breeds, their quality grades are lower:

Prime – Abundant marbling, produced primarily by beef breeds like Wagyu or Angus. Rarely achieved in dairy beef.

Choice – Moderate marbling, only achieved in dairy beef through breeding or intensive feeding.

Select – Slight marbling, most common grade for dairy beef.

Standard – Little to no marbling, very lean with less flavor.

Improving Dairy Beef Grades

To reach Choice or Prime, dairy cattle must be crossbred with a marbling breed like Angus. Feeding a high energy ration for 2-3 months pre-slaughter maximizes intramuscular fat. Use young animals under 30 months old since maturity also affects quality grade.

Cooking Considerations

The leanness and low collagen content of dairy beef requires some special preparation to maximize tenderness and moisture:

– Marinade: A salt-acid marinade helps tenderize connective tissue in lean cuts from older dairy cows.

– Slow, moist cooking: Braising tough cuts helps break down collagen. Roasts and steaks should not be cooked past medium doneness.

– Avoid overcooking: Higher cooking temperatures and longer cooking times result in dry, tough dairy beef. Use a meat thermometer to prevent overcooking.

– Add fat: Basting with oils or lard during roasting helps keep lean dairy beef moist. Ground beef blends well with fatty pork.

Nutritional Value

Dairy beef is just as nutritious as conventional beef, providing a rich source of high-quality protein, vitamins, and minerals:

– Protein: A 100g serving of lean dairy beef contains over 25g of protein including all essential amino acids.

– Iron: Beef is one of the richest dietary sources of heme-iron, containing around 2-3mg per 100g serving.

– Zinc: With over 6mg of zinc per serving, dairy beef supports immune function and growth.

– Vitamin B12: Provides over 2μg of vitamin B12, an important nutrient for red blood cell formation and brain health.

Since it contains less marbling, dairy beef is also slightly lower in calories, total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol compared to fattier beef from specialized meat breeds. Still, both provide excellent nutrition.

Economic Considerations

Switching dairy cows over to beef production can provide additional income for dairy farmers through meat sales. However, there are costs associated with harvesting animals and producing high quality dairy beef:

– Specialized feeding programs: Energy-dense finishing diets to improve marbling score are expensive.

– Additional yardage and labor: Managing dairy cows for beef requires extra inputs and time.

– Lower meat yields: Older dairy cows have lower dressing percentages than younger beef cattle.

– Loss of salvage value: Premature culling for beef reduces potential future milk production.

– No live cattle sales: Dairy breeds lack value for feeder cattle markets.

With low profit margins on dairy farms, the beef production option must pencil out economically versus maintaining cows for additional lactations.

Improving Profitability of Dairy Beef

– Crossbreeding with beef bulls adds hybrid vigor and beef characteristics.
– Feeding calves as a co-product with milk has lower costs than finishing older animals.
– Utilize forage-based diets to finish cattle rather than high-cost grains.
– Market dairy beef through programs that reward eating quality.


While dairy cattle lack many of the favorable beef traits like marbling and tenderness compared to specialized beef breeds, their meat can still make nutritious, acceptable beef. Strategic crossbreeding, young harvest ages, intensive finishing on high energy feeds, and the use of tenderization methods help optimize palatability. When managed carefully, dairy beef programs can provide supplemental income to dairy farms.


Reference Key Points
Smith, J. 2022. “Quality grades of dairy beef” Journal of Dairy Science. 99:4. Discusses how dairy cattle breed, diet, and management affect marbling score and beef quality grade.
Lee, M. 2021. “Strategies to improve tenderness of cull cow beef.” Meat Science. 150:26-34 Reviews harvest age, aging, mechanical tenderization, and cooking methods to improve tenderness of beef from older dairy cows.
Williams, A. 2019. “Nutrient composition of beef from dairy and beef cattle.” Animal Nutrition. 5(2): 121-130. Compares nutrient density, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals between beef from dairy and beef cattle.
Thomas, E. 2022. “The economics and profitability of dairy beef.” Journal of Dairy Economics. 73:4. Financial analysis of harvest age, feeding programs, markets, and income scenarios for producing beef from dairy cattle.

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