The success of genome-wide association (GWA) studies for the detection of sequence variation affecting complex traits in human has spurred interest in the use of large-scale high-density single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) genotyping for the identification of quantitative trait loci (QTL) and for marker-assisted selection in model and agricultural species. A cost-effective and efficient approach for the development of a custom genotyping assay interrogating 54,001 SNP loci to support GWA applications in cattle is described. A novel algorithm for achieving a compressed inter-marker interval distribution proved remarkably successful, with median interval of 37 kb and maximum predicted gap of <350 kb. The assay was tested on a panel of 576 animals from 21 cattle breeds and six outgroup species and revealed that from 39,765 to 46,492 SNP are polymorphic within individual breeds (average minor allele frequency (MAF) ranging from 0.24 to 0.27). The assay also identified 79 putative copy number variants in cattle. Utility for GWA was demonstrated by localizing known variation for coat color and the presence/absence of horns to their correct genomic locations. The combination of SNP selection and the novel spacing algorithm allows an efficient approach for the development of high-density genotyping platforms in species having full or even moderate quality draft sequence. Aspects of the approach can be exploited in species which lack an available genome sequence. The BovineSNP50 assay described here is commercially available from Illumina and provides a robust platform for mapping disease genes and QTL in cattle.