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. Dairy cows are not beef cows.
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.
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.
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.