An experiment was conducted to examine the response of three genotypes of beef cows to contrasting levels of nutrition supplied from grazed pasture. Twenty-two Hereford × Friesian (HF), 20 Aberdeen Angus × Friesian (AF) and 24 Welsh Black (WB) spring-calving beef cows with their Charolais-cross calves were used in 4 years consecutively. During the summer grazing period they grazed permanent pasture maintained at either 4 to 5 cm (short) or 7 to 8 cm (tall) sward surface height. Sward height treatment significantly (P < 0·001) affected cow and calf live-weight gain (0·498 v. 0·041 (s.e.d. 0·0405) kg/day and 1·12 v. 0·90 (s.e.d. 0·021) kg/day for cow and calf live-weight gain on the tall and short swards respectively). The live-weight gains of the HF and WB cows were similar, but the AF cows gained less weight on the tall sward and lost weight on the short sward. Calf live-weight gain reflected cow milk yield, with the calves from HF and AF cows having similar live weight gains (1·06 and 1·02 kg/day respectively) and those from WB cows having lower gains (0·95 kg/day; P < 0·001). The effect of sward height on calf live-weight gain was greatest in the WB-born calves because of the lower milk yield from WB cows. Body chemical composition changes of cows were predicted from live weight and body condition score, using prediction equations derived from separate groups of cows which were slaughtered at a range of body compositions for determination of chemical composition. Energy balances, calculated from changes in chemical composition, showed the AF cows to have the lowest energy balances with the WB cows the highest. Calculation of energetic efficiency and land use efficiency of weaned calf production taking account of annual food requirements indicated that the HF cows were most efficient, and the WB cows least efficient. The effect of increasing nutritional environment (as represented by sward height treatment) was such as to increase energetic efficiency for all genotypes, but land use efficiency was increased for HF and AF cows, and decreased for WB cows. These results indicate the factors such as size of cows, milk yield potential and pattern of nutrient partitioning can influence energetic land use efficiency of weaned calf production, and that important interactions between genotype and nutritional environment can occur in different measures of efficiency.