How much does a cow weigh? With all the different breeds, it’s more complicated than you might think.
Humans domesticated cattle around 10,500 years ago. Farmers raise these ungulates worldwide for meat, milk, and labor. Today, there are over one billion head of cattle worldwide.
- Cow: Adult female that has produced a calf
- Bull: Male animal
- Steer: Male animal that has been castrated and cannot breed
- Heifer: Young female that has not produced a calf
- Veal: Calves that are raised to 475-500 pounds
What Is a Breed?
People categorize cattle into different breeds, but no clear, universal definition of a breed exists. In his 1947 book, “Modern Breeds of Livestock,” Dr. Hilton Briggs described a breed as “a group of animals with certain distinguishable characteristics due to breeding and selection.”
In 1999, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations adopted this definition of a livestock breed: “Either 1) a subspecific group of domestic livestock with definable and identifiable external characteristics that enable it to be separated by visual appraisal from other similarly defined groups within the same species or 2) a group for which geographical and/or cultural separation from phenotypically similar groups has lead to acceptance of its separate identity.”
The loose definitions and characterizations of breeds mean it is virtually impossible to determine how many cattle breeds actually exist today. Some claim the number is under 100. Others contend there are several hundred to a few thousand. Some posit that it is close to 10,000. With no standardization of what constitutes a breed, it is impossible to say with certainty.
There are 70-80 cattle breed registries in the United States, but there are multiple registries for essentially the same cattle in some cases. So, again, it is difficult to nail down the number of U.S. breeds with certainty.
However, out of the 70+ breeds in the U.S., less than two dozen breeds influence the nation’s cattle industry. That is not to diminish the importance of the other breeds to a family, business, or locality. Still, relatively few breeds dominate the landscape of the U.S. cattle industry.
Here’s a list of key players and rising stars in U.S. cattle breeds. We’ve categorized each cattle breed as beef, dairy, or dual-purpose. Some breeds cater to niche markets. For instance, while people increasingly favor milk from Brahman cows, and some slaughter Jersey cattle for beef, these practices aren’t common enough to label these breeds as dual-purpose.
We’ve also mentioned each breed’s place of origin and the approximate weights of bulls and cows. Remember that these weights can vary due to numerous factors, so consider them typical approximations for the breed.
|Breed||Beef/Dairy||Origin||Bull Weight (pounds)||Cow Weight (pounds)|
|Milking Shorthorn||Dairy||Great Britain||1,800-2,200||1,100-1,400|
|Texas Longhorn||Beef||United States||1,200-1,500||900-1,200|
Most Common U.S. Breeds
Angus (also known as Black Angus or Aberdeen Angus) is the most widespread beef breed in the United States. The breed is quite popular for its tender and flavorful meat due to its natural marbling. Angus cattle also require little maintenance during the calving season since the cows have excellent maternal qualities. The breed utilizes feed effectively and can tolerate cold weather conditions. This all combines to make Angus one of the most profitable beef breeds for U.S. farmers and ranchers.
The most common dairy breed in the United States is the Holstein. This black-and-white breed has become the image-bearer for the nation’s dairy industry. Holsteins have the highest milk production of any U.S. cattle, making them the most profitable dairy breed. One Holstein cow can produce up to nine gallons of milk per day. That’s why an estimated 90% of all dairy cattle in the United States are Holsteins.
Cattle By State
Cattle are found in every U.S. state. Texas has the most cattle of any state, accounting for roughly 13% of the nation’s total cattle inventory. Texas is so tied to the cattle industry that the Texas Longhorn is the official large mammal of the state.
The total U.S. cattle inventory dropped three percent in 2022, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Largest and Smallest Cattle Breeds Worldwide
As you can see in the table above, there can be a wide range of weights between different breeds. The world’s largest and smallest breeds take that diversion to the extreme.
The largest cattle breed in the world is the Chianina. Calves weigh 100-110 pounds at birth. Talk about a big baby! Mature bulls can weigh up to 3,500 pounds. People originally bred it for its massive size, primarily for draft work. Now, it’s primarily a beef breed. This ancient Italian breed is also among the world’s oldest. In ancient Rome, artists used Chianinas as models for sculptures, and they featured prominently in Roman ceremonies and festivities.
The smallest cattle breed is the Vechur. This dwarf breed averages around 280 pounds at maturity. This Indian breed has come close to extinction, with only a few hundred individuals left in the world.
Most Expensive Beef Breed
In the world of elite beef, most people know of the Wagyu breed. This Japanese breed was initially bred mainly as a draft animal. Its intermuscular fat cells provided increased energy for these animals to perform all manner of agricultural work.
Later, it was those fat cells in the muscles, what most of us know as marbling, that made Wagyu some of the most sought-after beef in the world. Variations of Wagyu, including the famed Kobe beef, can sell for hundreds of dollars per pound. However, no Wagyu beef cut qualifies as the world’s most expensive beef. That honor goes to one specific steak that is only available from one restaurant in France.
The vintage Côte de Boeuf (beef rib) from Boucherie Polmard in Paris is quite probably the world’s most expensive cut of beef. One steak costs over $3,200!
What breed yields such an expensive cut? The Blonde d’Aquitaine is the exclusive breed used for this exorbitantly-priced steak. The breed is found in Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States. However, farmers and ranchers should not expect such a return on their cattle. This singular restaurant in Paris goes to absurd lengths to prepare these pricey steaks.
The Polmard family farm raises the cattle free-range to maintain low-stress levels for the animals. Only one butcher in the country can handle the meat. After slaughtering, they chill the meat to -45 °F, blowing super-chilled air at a speed of 47 miles per hour. The meat then ages for a remarkable 15 years before serving.
Even with the extravagant price tag, there is a long waiting list for those who wish to dine on the world’s most expensive beef.
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