It is primarily due to either genetics or nutritional factors. Low feed quality or poor feed is quite often the primary reason that a cow is not producing adequate milk. But genetics also plays a big role. A cow with poor milking ability will produce less milk than a cow with good milking ability.
Stress is also a concern. If a cow is stressed from heat, cold, pain from an injury or illness/disease, discomfort or fear, she will produce less milk than a cow that is comfortable, relaxed and experiences no pain of any kind.
Unfortunately with cattle you cannot have your cake and eat it too. In other words, you can't select for high quality milk or high milk yield without compromising meat quality. You have to select for either milk or meat if you want animals that are efficient milk producers or efficient meat producers, respectively. A prime example is the difference in characteristics between Holstein and Charolais cattle. Holsteins produce the highest quality and quantity of milk, but are poor quality meat producers. Charolais are on the opposite spectrum: great at putting muscle mass on their frames and producing good quality meat (lean and tender), but poor milk producers. However that's not to say that you can't have both parties, you just have to compensate for losses at either ends of the scale. Dual purpose cattle such as Dexter or Red Poll are raised for both their milk and their meat. Are they the highest milk producers or best beef producers? No. These breeds do not have a high milk yield nor do they have a high meat yield (though the part about quality can be argued that they do have some of the best quality meat, especially Red Poll) because we have to select for both traits (milk and meat) not one over the other. But to answer your question, it really depends on how these animals are raised. I would say docility, calving ease, forage efficiency and mothering ability are other characteristics I would like my cattle to have should they have these qualities also.
It's not a matter of "who," but more a matter of "what." What would be the so-called "poor-man's cow" would probably be a breed of bovine that is considered to be dual- or trio-purpose: a breed that is capable of producing meat, milk and can also be used for draft purposes. Red Polls, Ancient White Park cattle and Devon cattle are such breeds that fit the bill.
Sad to say, the main difference is the obvious distinction in what they're bred for. A dairy cow has been specially bred to produce large volumes of milk, while a beef cow has been specially bred to accumulate large volumes of muscle (which becomes the meat people will eat). Dairy cattle do not have to have genes that would cause them to accumulate much meat on their bones, since their primary purpose is producing milk (which is why Veal, the baby calves of dairy cattle, is usually so lean). Beef cattle do not have to have genes that would make them produce milk, sine their primary purpose is to bulk up and produce a nice slab of steak. :'( Poor Angus.
The type of feed that can be used to feed cattle is normally not for increasing the quantity of milk, but rather quality. However, good-quality feed high in calcium, phosphorus, energy, protein and other essential nutrients may be able to help increase milk quantity in dairy cattle. Certainly good to excellent-quality feed will increase milk production than poor-quality feed, but feed for dairy cows can only get so high before you reach a certain point where you can't get any higher. At that point you need to rely on your cows and the genetics for milking ability in your cows to produce the maximum amount of milk in your dairy operation as possible. As to the answer to this question, there is no definitive answer since the type of forage species used for dairy feed differ from country to country, state/province to state/province.
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