What is the difference between beef and dairy cattle?

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The big difference is the purpose. Beef animals are primarily for production of beef; dairy animals are for the production of milk. Some breeds are dual purpose, meaning they are both dairy and meat animals. The days of dual purpose breeds being utilized for both purposes are gone, at least in America. Some dual purpose breeds have even been split, with one branch going to diary and one going to beef. The Shorthorn breed is one example.
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