Dairy farming

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Agriculture

Dairy farming is a class of agricultural, or an animal husbandry enterprise, for long-term production of milk, which may be either processed on-site or transported to a dairy factory for processing and eventual retail sale. Most dairy farms sell the male calves born by their cows, usually for veal production, or breeding depending on quality of the Bull calf, rather than raising non-milk-producing stock. Many dairy farms also grow their own feed, typically including corn, alfalfa, and hay. This is fed directly to the cows, or is stored as silage for use during the winter season. Additional dietary supplements are added to the feed to increase quality milk production.

About dairy farming

Dairy farming has been part of agriculture for thousands of years, but historically, it was usually done on a small scale on mixed farms. Specialist scale dairy farming is only viable where either a large amount of milk is required for production of more durable dairy products such as cheese, or there is a substantial market of people with cash to buy milk, but no cows of their own.

Centralized dairy farming as we understand it primarily developed around villages and cities, where residents were unable to have cows of their own due to a lack of grazing land. Near the town, farmers could make some extra money on the side by having additional animals and selling the milk in town. The dairy farmers would fill barrels with milk in the morning and bring it to market on a wagon.

Before mechanization most cows were still milked by hand. At milking time they brought the vacuum pump, and the automatic milking machine.

The first milking machines were an extension of the traditional milk pail. The early milker device fit on top of a regular milk pail and sat on the floor under the cow. Following each cow being milked, the bucket would be dumped into a holding tank.

This developed into the Surge hanging milker. Prior to milking a cow, a large wide leather strap called a surcingle was put around the cow, across the cow's lower back. The milker device and collection tank hung underneath the cow from the strap. This innovation allowed the cow to move around naturally during the milking process rather than having to stand perfectly still over a bucket on the floor.

Surge later developed a vacuum milk-return system known as the Step-Saver, to save the farmer the trouble of carrying the heavy steel buckets of milk all the way back to the storage tank in the milkhouse. The system used a very long vacuum hose coiled around a receiver cart, and connected to a vacuum-breaker device in the milkhouse. Following milking each cow, the hanging milk bucket would be dumped into the receiver cart, which filtered debris from the milk and allowed it to be slowly sucked through the long hose to the milkhouse. As the farmer milked the cows in series, the cart would be rolled further down the centre aisle, the long milk hose unwrapped from the cart, and hung on hooks along the ceiling of the aisle.

The next innovation in automatic milking was the milk pipeline. This uses a permanent milk-return pipe and a second vacuum pipe that encircles the barn or milking parlor above the rows of cows, with quick-seal entry ports above each cow. By eliminating the need for the milk container, the milking device shrank in size and weight to the point where it could hang under the cow, held up only by the sucking force of the milker nipples on the cow's udder. The milk is pulled up into the milk-return pipe by the vacuum system, and then flows by gravity to the milkhouse vacuum-breaker that puts the milk in the storage tank. The pipeline system greatly reduced the physical labor of milking since the farmer no longer needed to carry around huge heavy buckets of milk from each cow.

Innovation in milking focussed on mechanising the milking parlour to maximise throughput of cows per operator Thiel, C; Dodd [1983]. Machine Milking (in Eng). UK: NIRD. ISBN 0 7084 0116 3. , which streamlined the milking process to permit cows to be milked as if on an assembly line, and to reduce physical stresses on the farmer by putting the cows on a platform slightly above the person milking the cows to eliminate having to constantly bend over. Many older and smaller farms still have tie-stall or stanchion barns, but worldwide a majority of commercial farms have parlours. Newer innovations include automatic take-off systems, which remove the milker from the cow when the milk flow reaches a preset level, computer to measure the production of each animal while it is milking, and computer chips that identify cows individually when they walk into a parlour so their feed intake and milk output can be monitored. These last three are becoming more common because of their value on large farms where it is hard to monitor each cow individually.

In the 1980s and 1990s robotic milking systems were developed and introduced (principally in the EU) [2000] in Hoegeveen: Robotic Milking, proceedings of the international symposium, Lelystad, 17-19 th August 2000, Meijering (in Eng), Wageningen Pers. ISBN 9074134874. . Thousands of these systems are now in routine operation. In these systems the cow has a high degree of autonomy to choose her time of milking within pre-defined windows. These systems are generally limited to intensively managed systems although research continues to match them to the requirements of grazing cattle and to develop sensors to detect animal health and fertility automatically (www.ecow.co.uk).

History of milk preservation methods

Keeping milk cool helps preserve it. When windmills and well pumps were invented, one of its first uses on the farm besides providing water for animals was for cooling milk, to extend the storage life before being transported to the town market. The naturally cold underground water would be continuously pumped into a tub or other containers of milk set in the tub to cool after milking. This method of milk cooling was extremely popular before the arrival of electricity and refrigeration.

When refrigeration first arrived, the equipment was fairly small and did not have the ability to rapidly cool the large volume of milk that was entering the storage tank in a short period of time. This problem was resolved through the development of the ice bank. This is a double-walled tank design where water and cooling coils fill the space underneath and around the milk tank above.

All day long, the small compressor and cooling system slowly draws heat out of the water, while a second pump continuously circulates the water around the coils. Ice eventually builds up around the coils, until it reaches a thickness of about three inches surrounding each pipe, and the cooling system shuts off. When the milking operation starts only the milk agitator and the water circulation pump blowing water across the ice and the steel walls of the tank are needed to rapidly reduce the incoming milk to a temperature below 40 degrees. But because the ice is not permitted to build up until it touches the milk storage tank, the milk does not get cold enough to also freeze.

This cooling method worked well for smaller dairies up to about 40 cows, but for large numbers of animals a better system was needed to rapidly cool the incoming warm milk. This is usually done using a device known as a plate chiller, which is a heat exchanger. Alternating stainless steel plates cause the milk to flow in a thin sheet across the plates, while cold water is circulated in a thin sheet on the other side of the plates. Flattening out the milk flow permits quick. even cooling for all the milk, compared to a round tube where the centre core does not cool as rapidly as the walls.

The plate chiller has high cooling demands, and for many farms this involves a step back into the past, back to the days of windmills and milk-can cooling, except now a large volume of naturally cold underground water is continuously streamed through the plate chiller to quickly bring down the milk down to the temperature of the underground water at about 50 degrees F. The water is usually not just dumped back into the ground again, but reused for washing and other purposes.

But the milk still is not as cold as it needs to be, so the milk storage tank is still used to do further cooling, to bring the milk down to 40 degrees. But with the development of high-power 3-phase electrical service, ice-bank chillers are typically no longer used. Instead the milk storage tank is a direct-cooling system with cooling coils embedded in the walls of the tank, that quickly pull the heat out and dump it across a large array of possibly several different high-horsepower compressors and condensing units. Once the milk has achieved 40 degrees F after milking is finished, only one or two cooling units need to run occasionally to maintain the correct temperature.

The milking operation

Original hand milking processes

Until the late 1800s, the milking of the cow was done by hand. In the United States, several large dairy operations existed in some northeastern states and in the west, that involved as many as several hundred cows, but an individual milker could not be expected to milk more than a dozen cows a day. Smaller operations predominated.

Milking took place indoors in a barn with the cattle tied by the neck with ropes or held in place by stanchions. Feeding could occur simultaneously with milking in the barn, although most dairy cattle were pastured during the day between milkings. Such examples of this method of dairy farming are difficult to locate, but some are preserved as a historic site for a glimpse into the days gone by. One such instance that is open for public tours is at Point Reyes National Seashore.

With the availability of electric power and suction milking machines, the production levels that were possible in stanchion barns increased but the scale of the operations continued to be limited by the labor intensive nature of the milking process. Attaching and removing milking machines involved repeated heavy lifting of the machinery and its contents several times per cow and the pouring of the milk into milk cans. As a result, it was rare to find single-farmer operations of more than 50 head of cattle.

Modern milking parlor operations

Farmers use any number of styles of milking parlors to milk dairy cattle. Many older farms have stanchion or tie-stall facilities, where the milkers are brought to the cows and the milker bends down to apply the milking machine to the cow. More modern farms use recessed parlors, where the milker stands in a recess such that his arms are at the level of the cow's udder. Recessed parlors can be herringbone, where the cows stand in two angled rows either side of the recess and the milker accesses the udder from the side, parallel, where the cows stand side-by-side and the milker accesses the udder from the rear or, more recently, rotary (or carousel), where the cows are on a raised circular platform, facing the centre of the circle, and the platform rotates while the milker stands in one place and accesses the udder from the rear. There are many other styles of milking parlors which are less common.

In herringbone and parallel parlors, the milker generally milks one row at a time. The milker will move a row of cows from the holding yard into the milking parlor, and milk each cow in that row. Once all or most of the milking machines have been removed from the milked row, the milker releases the cows to their feed. A new group of cows is then loaded into the now vacant side and the process repeats until all cows are milked. Depending on the size of the milking parlor, which normally is the bottleneck, these rows of cows can range from four to sixty at a time.

In rotary parlors, The cows are loaded one at a time onto the platform as it slowly rotates. The milker stands near the entry to the parlor and puts the cups on the cows as they move past. By the time the platform has completed almost a full rotation, another milker or a machine removes the cups and the cow steps backwards off the platform and then walks to her feed.

Milking machines are held in place automatically by a vacuum system that draws the ambient air pressure down to 15 to 21 pounds of vacuum. The vacuum is also used to lift milk vertically through small diameter hoses, into the receiving can. A milk lift pump draws the milk from the receiving can through large diameter stainless steel piping, through the plate cooler, then into a refrigerated bulk tank.

Milk is extracted from the cow's udder by flexible rubber sheaths known as liners or inflations that are surrounded by a rigid air chamber. A pulsating flow of ambient air and vacuum is applied to the inflation's air chamber during the milking process. When ambient air is allowed to enter the chamber, the vacuum inside the inflation causes the inflation to collapse around the cow's teat, squeezing the milk out of teat in a similar fashion as a baby calf's mouth massaging the teat. When the vacuum is reapplied in the chamber the flexible rubber inflation relaxes and opens up, preparing for the next squeezing cycle.

It takes the average cow three to five minutes to give her milk. Some cows are faster or slower. Slow-milking cows may take up to fifteen minutes to let down all their milk. Milking speed is only minorly related to the quantity of milk the cow produces - milking speed is a separate factor from milk quantity; milk quantity is not determinative of milking speed. Because most milkers milk cattle in groups, the milker can only process a group of cows at the speed of the slowest-milking cow. For this reason, many farmers will cull slow-milking cows.

The extracted milk passes through a strainer and plate heat exchangers before entering the tank, where it can be stored safely for a few days at approximately 3°C or around 42°F. At pre-arranged times, a milk truck arrives and pumps the milk from the tank for transport to a dairy factory where it will be pasteurized and processed into many products.

Animal waste from large dairies

Dairy CAFO - EPA
Dairy CAFO - EPA

As measured in phosphorus, the waste output of 5,000 cows roughly equals a municipality of 70,000 people. In the U.S., dairy operations with more than 1,000 cows meet the EPA definition of a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation), and are subject to EPA regulations. For example, in the San Joaquin Valley of California a number of dairies have been established on a very large scale. Each dairy consists of several modern milking parlor set-ups operated as a single enterprise. Each milking parlor is surrounded by a set of 3 or 4 loafing barns housing 1,500 or 2,000 cattle. Some of the larger dairies have planned 10 or more series of loafing barns and milking parlors in this arrangement, so that the total operation may include as many as 15,000 or 20,000 cows. The milking process for these dairies is similar to a smaller dairy with a single milking parlor but repeated several times. The size and concentration of cattle creates major environmental issues associated with manure handling and disposal, which requires substantial areas of cropland (a ratio of 5 or 6 cows to the acre, or several thousand acres for dairies of this size) for manure spreading and dispersion, or several-acre methane digesters. Air pollution from methane gas associated with manure management also is a major concern. As a result, proposals to develop dairies of this size can be controversial and provoke substantial opposition from environmentalists including the Sierra Club and local activists.

The potential impact of large dairies was demonstrated when a massive manure spill occurred on a 5,000-cow dairy in Upstate New York, contaminating a 20-mile stretch of the Black River, and killing 375,000 fish. On Aug. 10, 2005, a manure storage lagoon collapsed releasing several million gallons of manure into the Black River. Subsequently the New York Department of Environmental Conservation mandated a settlement package of $2.2 million against the dairy.

Use of hormones

Approximately 22% of dairy cows in the US are injected with recombinant growth hormones known as recombinant BST or rBGH to maintain slightly higher milk production. The use of rBST is regarded as controversial due to its effects on animal and possibly human health. While the European Union, Japan, Australia and Canada have banned rBST due to such concerns, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains that no "significant difference" has been found between milk from treated and non-treated cows.

Management of the dairy herd

Modern dairy farmers use milking machines and sophisticated plumbing systems to harvest and store the milk from the cows, which are usually milked twice or thrice daily. During the warm months, in the northern hemisphere, cows may be allowed to graze in their pastures, both day and night, and are brought into the barn only to be milked. Many barns also incorporate tunnel ventilation into the architecture of the barn structure. This ventilation system is highly efficient and involves opening both ends of the structure allowing cool air to blow through the building. Farmers with this type of structure keep cows inside during the summer months to prevent sunburn and damage to udders. During the winter months, especially in northern climates, the cows may spend the majority of their time inside the barn, which is warmed by their collective body heat. Even in winter, the heat produced by the cattle requires the barns to be ventilated for cooling purposes. Many modern facilities, and particularly those in tropical areas, keep all animals inside at all times to facilitate herd management. Housing the cow can be either loose housed or stalls (called cow cubicles in UK).

Holstein cows on a dairy, Comboyne, NSW
Holstein cows on a dairy, Comboyne, NSW

In the southern hemisphere milking animals are more likely to spend most of their lives outside on pasture.

There is little research available on dimensions required for cow stalls, and much housing can be out of date, however increasingly companies are making farmers aware of the benefits, in terms of animal welfare, health and milk production.

The production of milk requires that the cow be in lactation, which is a result of the cow having given birth to a calf. The cycle of insemination, pregnancy, parturition, and lactation, followed by a "dry" period before insemination can recur, requires a period of 12 to 16 months for each cow. Dairy operations therefore included both the production of milk and the production of calves. Bull calves are either castrated and raised as steers for beef production or raised for veal. As the size of herds has increased, the conditions in which large numbers of veal calves are raised, fed and marketed on larger dairies also have provoked controversy among animal rights activists.

Dairy farming in the world

In the United States, the top four dairy states are, in order by total milk production, California, Wisconsin, New York, and Idaho. Dairy farming is also an important industry in Florida, Minnesota, Ohio and Vermont.

In Pennsylvania, the dairy industry is the number one industry in the state. Pennsylvania is home to 8,500 farms and 555,000 dairy cows. Milk produced in Pennsylvania yields about US$1.5 million in farm income every year, and is sold to various states up and down the east coast.

The world's largest exporter of dairy products is New Zealand. Japan is the world's largest importer of dairy products.

There follows two lists of countries by milk production (MT = million tonnes).

Table 1: World production not including countries in the European Union.

Rank Country Production (MT/yr)
1 Flag of India India 96.1
2 Flag of the United States United States 67.2
3 Flag of Russia Russia 32.8
4 Flag of Brazil Brazil 23.3
5 Flag of the People's Republic of China China 16.8
6 Flag of New Zealand New Zealand 14.6
7 Flag of Australia Australia 10.6
8 Flag of Mexico Mexico 9.8
9 Flag of Turkey Turkey 9.5
10 Flag of Japan Japan 8.4
11 Flag of Canada Canada 8.0
12 Flag of Argentina Argentina 8.0
13 Flag of Switzerland Switzerland 3.9
14 Flag of South Africa South Africa 2.6
15 Flag of South Korea South Korea 2.4
16 Flag of Norway Norway 1.6


a  Source, unless otherwise noted: 2005 OECD Agricultural Outlook Tables, 1970-2014, OECD, 2003, < http://www.oecd.org/searchResult/0,3400,en_2825_293564_1_1_1_1_1,00.html>. Retrieved on 29 October 2007 

The EU is the largest milk producer in the world, with 143.7 million tonnes in 2003. This data, encompassing the present 25 member countries, can be further broken down into the production of the original 15 member countries, with 122 million tonnes, and the new 10 mainly former Eastern European countries with 21.7 million tonnes.

Table 1: Milk production data for EU countries.

Rank Country Production (MT/yr)
1 Flag of Germany Germany 28.5
2 Flag of France France 24.6
3 Flag of the United Kingdom United Kingdom 15.0
4 Flag of Poland Poland 11.9
5 Flag of the Netherlands Netherlands 11.0
6 Flag of Italy Italy 10.8
7 Flag of Spain Spain 6.6
8 Flag of Ireland Ireland 5.4
9 Flag of Denmark Denmark 4.7
10 Flag of Sweden Sweden 3.2
11 Flag of Austria Austria 3.2
12 Flag of Belgium Belgium 3.1
13 Flag of the Czech Republic Czech Republic 2.7
14 Flag of Finland Finland 2.5
15 Flag of Hungary Hungary 1.9
16 Flag of Portugal Portugal 1.9
17 Flag of Lithuania Lithuania 1.8


a  Source, unless otherwise noted: Production of cow's milk and milk deliveries to dairies, European union by country, MDC Datum, 2003, < http://www.mdcdatum.org.uk/MilkSupply/euproduction.html>. Retrieved on 29 October 2007 

Dairy competition

Most milk-consuming countries have a local dairy farming industry, and most producing countries maintain significant subsidies and trade barriers to protect domestic producers from foreign competition. In large countries, dairy farming tends to be geographically clustered in regions with abundant natural water supplies (both for feed crops and for cattle) and relatively inexpensive land (even under the most generous subsidy regimes, dairy farms have poor return on capital). New Zealand, the fourth largest dairy producing country, does not apply any subsidies to dairy production.

The milking of cows was traditionally a labor-intensive operation and still is in less developed countries. Small farms need several people to milk and care for only a few dozen cows, though for many farms these employees have traditionally been the children of the farm family, giving rise to the term " family farm".

Advances in technology have mostly led to the radical redefinition of "family farms" in industrialized countries such as the United States. With farms of hundreds of cows producing large volumes of milk, the larger and more efficient dairy farms are more able to weather severe changes in milk price and operate profitably, while "traditional" very small farms generally do not have the equity or cashflow to do so. The common public perception of large corporate farms supplanting smaller ones is generally a misconception, as many small family farms expand to take advantage of economies of scale, and incorporate the business to limit the legal liabilities of the owners and simplify such things as tax management.

Before large scale mechanization arrived in the 1950s, keeping a dozen milk cows for the sale of milk was profitable. Now most dairies must have more than one hundred cows being milked at a time in order to be profitable, with other cows and heifers waiting to be "freshened" to join the milking herd. In New Zealand the average herd size, depending on the region, is about 350 cows .

Herd size in the US varies between 1,200 on the West Coast and Southwest, where large farms are commonplace, to roughly 50 in the Northeast, where land-base is a significant limiting factor to herd size. The average herd size in the U.S. is about one hundred cows per farm.

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