Dairy Farming

Learn the Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Dairy Farming

Fewer consumers today have ever visited a farm or have family members active in dairy farming. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have questions. Following are a list of the most frequently-asked questions about dairy cows and practices on dairy farms designed to help consumers understand the science behind how milk and dairy products get from the farm to your table. 

Dairy Cows

How much milk does a cow give each day?

Most dairy cows are milked two to three times per day. On average, a cow will produce six to seven gallons of milk each day.

What do cows eat?

A cow that is milking eats about 100 pounds each day of feed, which is a combination of hay, grain, silage and proteins (such as soybean meal), plus vitamins and minerals. Farmers employ professional animal nutritionists to develop scientifically formulated, balanced and nutritious diets for their cows. Cows also need fresh, clean water.

USDA statistics show that US dairy farmers are producing almost three times more milk with about half the number of cows compared to 1960, thereby reducing the total amount of feed, water and space needed, and resulting in less manure.

Is it true cows have four stomachs?

A cow has four stomachs; the first three stomachs process feed in a way that people cannot. Because of this unique digestive system, cows have the ability to convert plants that humans cannot eat into nutritious foods like milk.

How many breeds of dairy cattle are there?

There are six main breeds of dairy cows: Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey and Milking Shorthorn. A seventh, Red and White, is a variation of the Holstein breed.

What do you call male and female dairy animals?

Males are called bulls. Females, prior to giving birth, are called calves or heifers. After they give birth, female dairy animals are called cows.

How does a cow produce milk?

All cows produce milk once they deliver a calf. About 10 months after calving, the amount of milk the cow gives naturally decreases substantially and the cow undergoes “drying off.” About 12 to 14 months after the birth of her previous calf, a cow will calve again, thus providing milk.

How long do cows live?

The life of a dairy cow varies from farm to farm and from cow to cow; some can live for as long as 20 years while others may have a much shorter life. Dairy farmers work hard to keep cows healthy for a long productive life. However, removing cows from the dairy herd is a common practice that allows farmers to bring in new, more productive cows, thus ensuring a steady supply of milk. Meat from cows that are no longer milking is a valuable source of safe and nutritious food.

Animal Care

Do dairy farmers care about their animals?

Yes. Dairy farmers are dedicated to producing high-quality milk, and that begins with taking good care of their cows. Dairy farmers work closely with veterinarians and professional nutritionists to keep their cows healthy and well-nourished. Nutritious diets, healthy living conditions, and good veterinary care are all essential when it comes to producing safe, wholesome, nutritious milk.

How do we know dairy farmers are taking good care of the cows on their farms?

In addition to carrying out their individual commitments to their cows, dairy farmers and the dairy community have created FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management), a nationwide, verifiable animal well-being program that brings consistency and uniformity to on-farm animal care and production practices. The FARM program supports farmers with education on animal care and provides the public with added assurance of proper animal care.

Why are calves put in separate pens after they are born?

Separate living quarters shortly after birth protect the health of the calf by ensuring the best individual care. Since newborn calves need time to build up their immune systems, it is better that they are not exposed to germs in the environment or germs that can be passed on from older animals. Another way farmers ensure the health of their calves is by feeding newborns two to four quarts of colostrum—the first milk the mother produces after giving birth. This special milk is usually delivered by bottle. Colostrum is high in fat and protein and contains antibodies that help build the calf’s immune system.

Why would farmers treat a cow with antibiotics?

It is important to note that dairy cows are not routinely treated with antibiotics. When illness requires that a cow be treated, antibiotics are administered according strict FDA guidelines, which include withholding milk from sale. When a cow’s milk is withheld, she is given special care and attention separate from the rest of milking herd until her milk tests free of antibiotics.

Why don't dairy cattle have access to pasture on some farms?

Access to pasture is determined mainly by geography, availability of land suitable for grazing, and weather conditions. Many factors affect the type of environment available to dairy cows. In all cases, the well-being, protection and comfort of their cows are dairy farmers’ main concerns. Many of today’s dairy farms use “freestall housing,” a type of barn that allows cows the freedom to move about at will and eat and sleep whenever and wherever they choose. In this housing configuration, feed for the animals is available in a feed alley (a clean, impervious surface), which cows can access 24 hours a day. In addition, the barns are designed to provide sunshine and fresh air.


Cows housed indoors may sleep on sand beds or mattresses made of rubber, foam or a combination of materials. Most dairy barns also use advanced ventilation systems to assure air quality. On warm days, farmers use fans and misters to keep cows cool and comfortable.

Do large farms pay as much attention to animal care as small farms?

A cow’s health is of utmost importance to every dairy farmer regardless of the size of the farm. Proper animal care leads to the production of high-quality milk. Nutritious diets, healthy living conditions and good veterinary care are essential for a healthy cow herd. Like other business owners, many dairy farm families are expanding to improve efficiency. These improvements help support families and provide consumers with high-quality, affordable milk and dairy foods. Dairy farms have also modernized and become larger to allow siblings, children or other family members to join the family business. The USDA estimates the average dairy farm in the US is about 200 cows.

Retail Milk Pricing

Why do milk prices at the grocery store fluctuate?

The price of milk at the grocery store can fluctuate due to changes in supply and demand, just like other foods. Other factors, including transportation and input costs, also can impact price. Dairy foods are still one of the most cost-effective investments you can make for your family’s health.

Who sets the price of milk at the grocery store and how much does the farmer receive?

Farmers do not set the milk price. Wholesale and retail prices are determined by a complex formula of supply and demand, along with other factors. There is often a variance in the retail price of milk from store to store, and from city to city. This is because grocery retailers, mass merchandisers, convenience stores and drug stores determine their retail prices differently, taking into account processing, transportation and marketing costs. According to recent USDA data, on average, dairy farmers receive about 30 cents of every dollar consumers spend on food.

What if my family is on a tight budget?

While food budgets are tight for many, dairy foods remain a solid value for their great taste and nutrition. Dollar for dollar, no other food offers as much nutrition as milk. At about .25 cents per 8-ounce glass, on a gallon basis, milk is a bargain when you think of all the liquid assets inside. It provides nine essential nutrients, including calcium and vitamin D, which are so important for overall health.

Are there any foods I can substitute for dairy?

There is no substitute since milk is one of the most nutrient-rich beverages you can buy. Here’s a price point comparison, for an 8-ounce serving, to other beverage items, none of which have the same natural, nutrient content as milk:


Milk: $.25
Soda: $.45
Orange Juice: $.62
Bottled Water: $.22
Sports Drinks: $.38-$.75
Energy Drinks: $1.04
Plant based (almond, soy, rice) beverages: $.50

Safety and Quality

What is raw milk?

Raw milk has not been pasteurized. Raw milk is not the same as organic milk.

Is raw milk safe to drink?

No. The word “raw milk” might sound natural and good, but raw milk is not safe. According to the Food and Drug Administration, raw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks to those who drink it.

Why? Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization is a process that kills harmful bacteria potentially found in raw milk by heating milk until it reaches 161 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 15 seconds and then rapidly cooled. This simple process is extremely effective at killing bacteria, while maintaining milk’s nutritional value. Pasteurization is just one step dairy farmers take to ensure the dairy foods you love are safe.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, along with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), recommend pasteurized milk and dairy products as the safe choice, especially for infants. It’s a matter of food safety.

Why is milk pasteurized?

Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria, such as E. coli O157:H7, Listeria and Salmonella, that can be found in raw milk (milk that has not been pasteurized). All milk intended for direct consumption should be pasteurized – it’s a matter of food safety.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend drinking only pasteurized milk. Before the invention and acceptance of pasteurization, raw milk was a common source of bacteria that caused serious illnesses such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and typhoid fever. In the 1900s, many mothers recognized this risk and would boil milk before giving it to their infants and young children.

How is milk pasteurized?

Pasteurization is a simple, proven and effective process, approved by the Food and Drug Administration that kills potentially harmful bacteria without affecting the taste or nutritional value of milk. During pasteurization, the temperature of milk is raised to at least 161° Fahrenheit for 16 seconds and then rapidly cooled. Pasteurization extends milk’s shelf life and destroys harmful bacteria. Ultra-high temperature pasteurization, where milk is heated to 280° Fahrenheit for more than 2 seconds, is used to extend shelf life in some dairy foods.

Why is milk homogenized?

All processed milk also undergoes the process of homogenization. In this process, fat molecules are broken down so they don’t separate and rise to the top of the container to form a layer of cream. This process does not involve any additives.

How is milk homogenized?

Homogenization is a mechanical process that starts with pushing milk through tubes so the fat molecules are broken down. The fat molecules are broken up to a small size so they’re evenly distributed throughout the milk, producing a uniform consistency.

Does pasteurization affect milk quality?

No scientific evidence shows any meaningful difference between the nutritional values of pasteurized and unpasteurized (raw) milk. In addition, vitamin D, which is not found in significant amounts in raw milk, is added to pasteurized milk, making it an even more nutritious product. It is important to understand that pasteurizing milk does not cause lactose intolerance or allergic reactions. Both raw milk and pasteurized milk can cause allergic reactions in people sensitive to milk proteins.

Do pasteurization and homogenization impact dairy nutrition?

All milk is pasteurized for safety and homogenized for quality, but neither process has an impact on the overall nutrition package. Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria potentially found in raw milk. Homogenization keeps the cream from separating from the milk and creates a more consistent product.

Is raw milk better for those with lactose intolerance?

No. The enzyme required to break down lactose, known as lactase, is produced in the human body and is not present in either raw or pasteurized milk. People with lactose intolerance lack this enzyme. Whether milk is raw or pasteurized is irrelevant to lactose digestibility.

Are there antibiotics in milk that reaches the food supply?

All milk – both regular and organic – is tested for antibiotics both on the farm and at the processing plant. During 2014, nearly four million tests were conducted on milk samples to detect antibiotic or other drug residues with less than 0.02% testing positive, and, in accordance with government regulations, any milk testing positive for antibiotics cannot be sold to the public.

Do antibiotics used on farms result in antibiotic resistance in humans?

Research shows that the overall health consequences of antimicrobial resistance of dairy pathogens affecting humans appears to be small, and is likely not a human health concern, as long as the milk is pasteurized. No matter the type of dairy farm, antibiotics are only given when they are necessary to treat and cure an animal’s illness. They are only given for a prescribed time to treat the specific illness. The milk from cows undergoing treatment never reaches the food supply.

Are there pesticides in milk?

No. Stringent government standards ensure that all milk is safe, wholesome and nutritious. Recent government testing found that all of the milk samples tested were free from pesticide residue.

What is bST or BGH (bovine somatotropin or bovine growth hormone)?

Cows naturally produce bovine somatotropin (bST) in their pituitary gland; it directs how energy and nutrients are used for growth in young cattle and for milk production in lactating cows. Dairy farmers may choose to use rbST to help cows produce more milk. In either situation – whether bovine somatotropin (bST) produced by the cow or by recombinant DNA technology (rbST) – no differences can be detected in the animal or the milk produced by that animal. 

Are hormones added to milk?

No. Hormones are naturally present in foods of plant and animal origin, including milk. Some farmers choose to supplement some of their cows with recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) to increase milk production, but science shows that there is no effect on levels in the milk itself.

Is rbST safe for my family?

Since rbST was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the early 1990s, its safety has been reaffirmed by the scientific community. Scientists tell us that rbST is species-specific, meaning that it is biologically inactive in humans. Also, pasteurization destroys 90 percent of bST and rbST in milk. Any trace amounts of bovine somatotropin that remain after pasteurization of milk are broken down in the human gut into inactive protein fragments, like any other dietary protein. Numerous scientific studies have shown there is no significant difference between milk from rbST-supplemented and non-rbST-supplemented cows. For this reason, the FDA has established that dairy products from cows treated with rbST do not need to be labeled.

What are some of the critical steps dairy farmers follow to improve milk quality?

There are many steps dairy farmers follow to produce high-quality, wholesome and safe milk. These critical steps start with the cow and end at your table. The steps include:

  • Healthy cows
  • Strict, on-farm milking procedures
  • Quick cooling of milk and immediate transportation to the manufacturer
  • Testing for antibiotics
Is it safe to consume dairy after the “Sell-By” or “Best-By” date?

Yes! In fact, learning how to decode labels not only ensures your family gains the nutritious benefits of dairy products, but also will help reduce food waste!

You should buy dairy products on or before the “Sell-By” date, but can safely consume them after this. Additionally, the “Best-By,” “Best if Used By” and “Use-By” dates are not safety indicators. Rather, they state when to consume products for the best flavor and optimal quality. You can learn more about the specific guidelines for using milk, cheese and yogurt beyond their “Sell-By,” “Best-By,” “Best if Used By” and “Use-By” dates here.

Environment and Sustainability

Do dairy farmers really care about the environment?

Yes. Dairy farmers live and work on their farms, so it’s important for them to protect the land, water and air for their families, their surrounding communities and future generations. All dairy farms must meet the standards for manure storage, handling and recycling set out for them by their state and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Caring for the environment is a responsibility dairy farmers share with their local community. Good environmental practices are essential to a dairy farm’s success and leave a positive legacy for future generations.


Yes. Dairy farmers live and work on their farms, so it’s important for them to protect the land, water and air for their families, their surrounding communities and future generations. All dairy farms must meet the standards for manure storage, handling and recycling set out for them by their state and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Caring for the environment is a responsibility dairy farmers share with their local community. Good environmental practices are essential to a dairy farm’s success and leave a positive legacy for future generations.

Why do dairy farms smell?

Animals eat, therefore they produce manure. Manure has an odor. Dairy farmers work hard to minimize these odors by maintaining clean facilities, following proper manure storage practices, and properly applying manure as a natural fertilizer for cropland. In some cases, farms are required to implement an odor management plan. Research and development has inspired new practices and innovative technologies to help farmers maintain clean air for everyone. Dairy farmers care about air quality; their families live and work on their farms and breathe the air, too.

What do farms do with all the manure?

Dairy cow manure is always put to good use. Most of it is spread on the fields as a natural source of fertilizer. Using manure to fertilize the soil has many advantages, including water conservation. Manure increases the water-holding capacity of soil by 20 percent, so less groundwater is needed to grow crops. Manure can also be composted and sold to local garden stores. Some farmers dry it and use it as a bedding source similar to sawdust. There are even farmers in the US who are able to turn their manure into energy using methane digesters.

What about manure getting into the groundwater?

Each farm maintains a Nutrient Management Plan, which helps to ensure that the nutrients go into the crops, not the groundwater. Government agencies have strict regulations for granting permits for dairy farms, continuous inspection and testing of the water, and recycling manure. Dairy farms rely on quality groundwater; cows need to drink clean water to produce high-quality milk.

Do dairy farms use too much water?

No, dairy farmers use water responsibly and judiciously. Many conservation technologies are in place so that as little water as possible is used. For example, water used to clean the milking parlor is reused to clean feed alleys and then to irrigate fields. Using manure to fertilize the soil has many advantages, including water conservation. Manure increases the water-holding capacity of soil by 20 percent, so less groundwater is needed to grow crops.

How have dairy farmers made strides to reduce the environmental impact of producing milk?

According to Cornell University, the dairy community has already reduced its carbon footprint by more than 63 percent between 1944 and 2007, due to improved cow nutrition, cow comfort, quality of the animals, and other improvements. Compared to farms in 1960, USDA statistics show that US dairy farms today are producing almost three times more milk with about half the number of cows. In addition, milk performed better than other beverages in the 2010 Nutrient Density to Climate Impact (NDCI) Index, which compared nutrient density to climate impact.

What is the carbon footprint of milk?

A study conducted by the Applied Sustainability Center of the University of Arkansas found that the carbon footprint of one gallon of milk, from farm to table, is 17.6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) per gallon of milk produced on US farms. The total fluid milk carbon footprint is approximately 35 million metric tons, which means that total US dairy greenhouse gas emissions are only about 2 percent of total US emissions, far lower than had been previously reported.

Do dairy farms produce a lot of greenhouse gases?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s U.S. Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emission Report, dairy production contributes less than 1 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. And dairy farmers and other sin the dairy community have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.


Greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone. Today, producing a pound of milk takes three times less methane than it did in 1924 because of the many efficiencies practiced by dairy farmers. Dairy farmers are continuing to find ways to further reduce methane emissions by feeding grains and high-quality forage and by continuing to use other tools such as genetic improvement and superior herd management, according to researchers.

Is my milk from local dairy farms?

Milk comes from family farms in local communities across the country. There are about 55,000 dairy farms located throughout the US and more than 500 fluid milk processing establishments. There are dairy farms in all 50 states, 98 percent of which are family owned. The other two percent include farms which are university-owned, company-owned (such as Purina and Hoard’s Dairyman) and corporately-owned (such as Horizon Organics).


An extensive research study found that it takes about 48 hours (2 days) for milk to travel from the farm to the grocery store. The Midwest is home to more than 9,500 dairy farms and 200 dairy food processing plants. Dairy farm families are committed to producing wholesome, nutritious milk and dairy foods. They depend on US and international markets for the milk they produce. Besides grocery stores, milk from Midwest dairy farms can be found at convenience stores and restaurant such as 7-Eleven, McDonald’s, Domino’s, and Pizza Ranch.

Do dairy farmers practice sustainable farming methods?

Yes. By combining scientific advancements and on-farm sensibilities, dairy farmers continually look for new ways to be sustainable. Examples of sustainable farming practices include crop rotation to mitigate weeds and improve soil quality, the introduction of beneficial insects to control harmful pests, no-tillage or reduced tillage crop farming for soil and fuel conservation, and the use of new products with enhanced environmental benefits. Today, approximately 41 percent of crop land is cultivated using conservation tillage techniques that leave at least 30 percent of the previous crop residue after planting. This reduces erosion, retains soil moisture and conserves fuel.

Why have dairy farms become so large and industrial?

Like other business owners, many dairy farm families are expanding to improve efficiencies. These improvements provide you with high-quality, affordable milk and dairy foods. Dairy farms have modernized to provide better cow care, improve milk quality, and use fewer natural resources. Many have also become larger to allow siblings, children or other family members to join the family business. The USDA estimates the average dairy farm in the US is about 200 cows.


All dairy farmers, regardless of their farms’ size or ownership, follow strict regulations and best management practices for the health of their families, their cows and their neighbors. The look of the family farm and the technologies may have changed, but the traditional values of caring for the land and animals continue.

Why can’t farming look like it did 40 years ago?

Farming – also referred to as production agriculture – is about feeding the world. According to US Census Bureau data, the world population in 1961 was about 3 billion people; today it exceeds 6.9 billion. By 2050, it is estimated that more than 9 billion people will inhabit the planet. In 1961, the US population was about 184 million people. In 2010, it was more than 308 million, a 67 percent increase.


If agriculture today were no more productive than it was in1961, it would require expanding farm land by more than 60 percent, or the food supply per person would be that much smaller. Today, it takes less than half as much land on a per person basis to produce our meat, dairy and poultry supply compared to 45 years ago. Increases in agricultural productivity have made this possible.

American farmers provide people with more high-quality food than ever before. In fact, one farmer now supplies food for more than 150 people in the US and abroad compared with just 25.8 people in1960 — and on less land every year. Production of food worldwide rose in the past half century, with the World Bank estimating that between 70 and 90 percent of the increase resulted from modern farming practices rather than more acres cultivated. Efficiency is one of the core elements of sustainability.

How can I reduce my food waste with dairy products?

There are many things consumers can do to reduce food waste when grocery shopping, storing and preparing foods. For example, planning meals and making grocery lists can help you avoid buying unnecessary items and decoding date labels properly also can make a big difference. Maximizing the shelf life of dairy products through correct storage and being creative with leftovers also can help you cut back on food waste.

Organic and Conventional Farms

What’s different about organic farms?

U.S. dairy farmers are committed to assuring that their animals are well cared for and that proper attention is given to the use of natural resources, no matter if the farm is organic or conventional. There are strict guidelines from government agencies for all dairy farms, including sanitation, use of veterinary products, and environmental management. Organic dairy foods must additionally meet the requirements of USDA’s National Organic Program. This includes using only organic fertilizers and pesticides, and not using rbST. Dairy foods can be labeled “USDA Organic” only if all of the additional criteria are met.

What’s the difference between organic milk and regular milk?

Research can find no difference between organic and regular milk in quality, safety or nutrition. Both contain nine essential nutrients. For example, a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association analyzed the composition of milk labeled organic, “rbST-free” and regular milk, and found that the label claims were not related to any meaningful differences in milk composition. Organic milk is one choice among many in the dairy case.

What about claims that organic milk contains no pesticides, antibiotics or hormones?

The definition of organic milk refers to farm management practices, not to the milk itself. Stringent government standards ensure that both organic milk and regular milk are wholesome, safe and nutritious. The same rigorous testing is done for all milk.

Does organic milk taste better?

The taste of milk, regardless of whether it is organically or conventionally produced, can differ slightly from carton to carton and season to season. Factors that may impact taste include location of the farm, breed of the cow, variations in cows’ feed from farm to farm, and even the time of year. Milk that is ultra-high temperature pasteurized for longer freshness may have a slightly different taste. People should do their own “taste test” to see what type of milk they prefer.

Is organic milk fresher than regular milk?

Probably not. Most milk, including organic and regular milk, is delivered to stores within a few days of milking. However, some organic milk has an extended shelf life if it has undergone ultra-high temperature pasteurization.

If I buy organic, am I doing more to help support small family farms?

There are large and small farms that produce both conventional and organic types of milk. Organic farming has more to do with farm management practices than the size of the farm itself. Of the 45,000 dairy farms in America today, the majority are smaller farms with less than 200 cows. The vast majority of US farms – big and small – are family owned and operated.

Is there a difference between regular milk, certified-organic milk and milk from grass-fed cows?

What dairy cows eat as well as their breed and stage of lactation can affect the composition of the milk, however these small differences do not impact human health. Cows on organic farms spend the grazing season (at least 120 days per year) on green pasture, and they usually benefit from supplemental feed to fulfill protein requirements. In non-grazing season, cows on organic farms eat the same type of feed that’s given to cows on other dairy farms, except the ingredients must be certified organic. USDA has a separate standard for dairy foods that are labeled “grass-fed”. Grass-fed dairy cows must get a majority of their nutrients from grazing on pasture throughout their lives, while the pasture diet of dairy cows on certified-organic farms may be supplemented with up to 70% grain.


The statistical differences are so small, they do not impact human health.