Selecting cattle for beef and milk production can be a challenge as in the mid 1900s dual purpose livestock was less valued. Breeds like the Devon and the shorthorn were prized for dual purpose uses but became just Devon (or shorthorn) and milking Devon (or milking shorthorn) due to a call for specialization.
However even the beef cattle milk heavier than some other beef breeds and dairy cattle can be slightly beefier than other dairy cattle. It’s still possible to get an animal to do both as well as those breeds long valued for dual or triple purpose Brown Swiss, Ayrshire, Charolais, Simmental and Limousin are but a few breeds.
Set show winnings aside when looking for your dual purpose characteristics unless they happen to have what you are looking for. A beef animal you want muscle. Muscling over the topline, shoulders and rump especially as this provides your beef. For a dairy animal you want a healthy udder that is symmetrical all four quarters should appear the same size. If one is greatly larger or smaller it can indicate a problem which affects production.
Additionally look for, if the cow is milking, the “milk vein” which runs along her belly. If you look at heavy producing dairy cows online or in magazines there will be a noticeable vein’ on the belly and although beef cattle don’t have this to the extent that dairy cattle do, it is a reliable indicator of good milk production. Remember even those people raising beef calves need milk production! Plenty of milk raises big, beefy calves that sell well and feed out better. The farms that have calves with heavy weaning weights on grass have cows that milk! Choose an individual that is eating eagerly. Good appetite and ‘attacking’ the pasture means more production – they weigh more from a beef standpoint as well as take more nutrition in from a milk production standpoint than the one who doesn’t eat as well.
Remember that this is your foundation cow or cows. She will be your milk producer but will also produce calves that ideally become beef or replacement milkers. More than not you will probably be buying calves which allows you to raise them your way, but do pay attention to those calves’ mothers! If you find a cow that has these traits getting a daughter increases the chances of getting the kind of cow you want. Finding a dual purpose cow can take effort but allows maximum use of your resources.
Although for home production you don’t have to have a purebred it does allow you to have a predictable look and size. If you’re purchasing from someone close to home inquire about having her serviced either by their bull or artificially this eliminates your having to keep a bull.
Along with physical characteristics temperament is important. A good temperament makes a difference between an animal that is enjoyable to work with and one who wants to hurt you. Animals can have bad days too but selecting for temperament is a high importance for a homesteader.
Another option many are going to is the smaller breeds such as Dexters that produce milk and beef but in a smaller size. This can be a good choice for smaller pastures where more limited space is a factor.
Handle her often and rub her belly and udder even as a calf when there is no developed udder. You want to teach her that this is normal – if you wait until she calves and try to milk her she may be less than agreeable and kick or walk on you. If she’s already used to being handled this is just another day. For those not wanting to bottle feed calves an easy way to milk is milking out three quarters, leaving one full then letting the calf nurse that quarter. Be sure to milk first as the calf won’t be picky!
A homestead cow for milk and beef production can take some effort to find but she does exist. Good care and handling means she will provide milk and offspring that will feed your family for years to come. Many of these dual purpose origin breeds can live well into their teens with good management so it’s a long term investment! When you find one treasure her.