Believe it or not, most of the hamburger you eat comes from what are typically perceived to be dairy breeds- Holsteins, Jerseys, etc.- as opposed to what we traditionally think of the breeds that beef comes from- Angus, Hereford, and so forth. About 20% of the beef in the United States comes from culled dairy cows or “fed” dairy calves, meaning cows that were intentionally fed for beef production.
When a dairy cow reaches 5 to 6 years of age, her milk production typically drops off. At this point, a farmer will most likely make the choice to replace her in the herd with a younger heifer that will produce more milk. When a cow is culled, she is either sold to another dairy, or, more commonly, she enters the human food supply as beef. These cows make up 6% of the beef industry in the U.S. These cows are a major source of lean ground beef. Their carcass quality is lower than that of fed beef or dairy cows. They may have lesions from injections that have to be trimmed out, and they often have less marbling, or fat, in their meat. Marbling is what makes a steak high quality.
A more valuable source of beef from dairy breeds is from fed calves, typically Holsteins. Dairy bull calves have long been used for veal production- calves are processed around 5 months of age. Increasing in popularity, however, is the feeding of Holstein steers to market weight. These cattle are raised just as beef breeds would be, beginning on stocker operations where they spend a few months on grass before being fattened in a feedlot. Their market prices have risen over the years as they become more of a staple in the beef industry.