June 10, 2013 by Carrie Mess
I have often had people ask me why my cows are so skinny. Online I have seen people make claims that dairy cows are skinny because dairy farmers are milking them all the time and causing their bodies to burn out. Of course I have a different take on this information. Let’s take a look at some reasons why dairy cows are skinny.
1. Dairy cows are not beef cows. While a cow is a cow in the end, the traits we have bred dairy cows for versus what we want from beef cows are different. Just like a Labrador doesn’t look like a Greyhound, a dairy cow doesn’t look like a beef cow. You won’t see a Labrador winning any races and your pet Greyhound isn’t equipped to handle freezing water. A beef cow does give milk but not the amounts that a dairy cow produces. A dairy breed won’t convert feed into muscle as quickly as a beef breed. An overly skinny cow, beef or dairy is a sign of a big problem. A dairy cow carrying too much fat will also cause a lot of health problems. Different breeds have different qualities and that plays a major role in why a cow looks skinny.
2. Dairy cows put their calories into the milk they make not fat stores. Dairy cows on our farm eat a lot of feed each day but instead of converting the feed into muscle and fat like a beef steer would, a dairy cow pours the calories into milk making. When a woman breastfeeds her caloric intake needs to be higher than it would be normally, this is because her body is using it’s calories to make milk.
3. Hair styling. The whole internet is abuzz talking about the “Fluffy Cow” craze. A fluffy cow is a beef breed that has been bred to have lots of hair. When these animals are shown they have hours and hours of time spent on them grooming their coats to be super fluffy. Fluffy hair makes them look much larger than they really are. When we show dairy cattle we do the opposite. A dairy cow is shown with the cow equivalent to a buzz cut, called body clipping. For showing a dairy cow we want the judge to see her angles and her body, extra hair would cover that up so before a dairy cow is shown she gets a full body hair cut. Beef or dairy, these show cows have hours of attention poured on them before they show to make sure that they are looking their absolute best in the ring.
So in the end when we look at why a cow looks skinny it’s important to understand the difference between what a dairy cow has been bred for and what a beef cow has been bred for. Both beef and dairy farmers use a tool called body condition scoring (BCS) to determine if their cows are the appropriate weight. Good information about using BCS to determine a cow’s level of health can be found here for dairy and here for beef.