Dairy Farming FAQ

We’ve teamed up with dairy farmers, veterinarians and other experts to provide real answers to commonly asked questions about dairy farming, cows and the environment.


Cow Care

Dairy farms — whether large or small — make animal care a top priority. Farmers care for their cows by providing a nutritious diet, good medical care and healthy living conditions because they depend on the animals for their own livelihood. It’s typical for farmers to spend the majority of their operating costs on the care of their cows.

The dairy community takes any claim about animal mistreatment very seriously. Any evidence of animal abuse should be immediately reported to the appropriate state and local authorities whose job it is to investigate those claims.

The National Dairy F.A.R.M. Program is a nationwide, verifiable animal well-being program that brings consistency and uniformity to on-farm animal care and production practices. More than 98% of the domestic milk supply comes from farms that participate in the National F.A.R.M. program.

The well-being, protection and comfort of cows are top priority on all farms. Access to pasture is determined by geography, land availability and weather conditions. Many of Ohio and West Virginia’s dairy cows live in freestall barns, a type of climate-controlled barn where cows are free to move about as they choose. Barns are commonly equipped with fans, misters, curtains and soft bedding like sand, mattresses or waterbeds.

Dairy cows eat about 100 pounds of feed and drink 30-50 gallons of water (about a bathtub full) each day. Their feed is specially formulated by a dairy nutritionist and is typically a combination of hay, grain, corn silage (the entire corn stalk chopped) and proteins (such as soybean meal), plus vitamins and minerals.

Learn more about what cows eat.

Most dairy cows are milked two to three times per day. On average, a cow will produce 6-10 gallons of milk each day.

No! Cows begin producing milk once they give birth to a calf. Most dairy cows have their first calf around 2 years of age. They are milked for about 9 or 10 months after they give birth and are then given a resting period for 2 to 3 months, until they give birth to their next calf. This break, also known as a “dry period,” is necessary to maintain the health of the cow and her udder. Similar to humans, cows are pregnant for nine months before they give birth.

No! Today’s milking parlors utilize the latest technology for safety, comfort and productivity for both the cow and the person milking. Dairy cows are milked at least twice a day by an automatic machine that gently and safely removes just the right amount of milk. It doesn’t hurt at all, and the cows look forward to being milked.

Cows do occasionally get sick and sometimes require medicine — just like we do. Large-animal veterinarians prescribe antibiotics only when needed. When a cow gets medicine, her milk is withheld from the market and does not enter the food supply until the medicine withdrawal time has been met.

Sick cows are typically housed separately from the herd so they can be closely monitored and wear leg bands to make sure they are not milked with the rest of the herd.

Meat from cows that are no longer productive for milking is a valuable source of safe and nutritious food. All dairy cows sent to market are inspected by U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarians and are subject to the same federal food safety regulations as other cattle.

Calf Care

Calves represent the future of the farm, so dairy farmers work extremely hard to keep them healthy, which is why newborn calves are moved to clean individual pens like hutches or special calf barns within 24 hours of birth. Newborns have vulnerable immune systems, so it is important to protect them from germs in the environment or diseases that can be passed on from adult cows.

For the first 2-3 months of their lives, most calves live in individual pens. These pens have ample space for the calf to freely move about and protect them from other members of the herd and bad weather. Individual housing also allows farmers to monitor each calf’s health and ensure they’re receiving good nutrition.

Newborn calves are fed colostrum (a mother’s first milk) within the first 24 hours of birth to ensure they get all of the antibodies, nutrients and minerals needed for a healthy start. For the next 2-3 months, they will drink either milk or specially formulated milk replacer. They also have access to fresh grain and water.

After 2-3 months, calves are weaned off milk and fed a diet of grain, hay and water. Calves are picky just like most children, so most calf grain is coated in molasses to make it sweeter and taste better.

Cows’ horns are a safety concern to humans as well as other cows. Dehorning is a practice used for decades to help reduce the risk of injury.

Dairy farmers follow procedures established by the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners when they disbud the horn material from calves. “Disbudding” of non-developed horn buds is a fairly simple procedure that is typically conducted the first few weeks after a calf is born.

Sustainability

Dairy farms of all sizes are committed to doing their part to help preserve the planet. A farm’s environmental impact has more to do with proper management practices than the number of cows on the farm.

Both large and small dairy farms are finding new ways to reduce the energy they use, conserve water and develop renewable energy sources. Due to innovative practices in cow comfort, improved feed and genetics, and modern barn design, the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 shrunk significantly, requiring 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007.

Innovation and improvements in cow comfort, cow nutrition and health, and breeding have helped U.S. dairy farmers produce more milk, more efficiently. While U.S. milk production already has the lowest carbon footprint per gallon of milk in the world, dairy farmers are continuing to search for ways to be more sustainable. In 2013, many farmers received an energy audit to identify the equipment and practices that can make their operations more efficient. Others are using new methods to recycle water, convert cow manure into renewable energy, and improve cow comfort and care. Due to innovative practices in cow comfort, improved feed and genetics, and modern barn design, the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 shrunk significantly, requiring 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007.

While it’s true livestock are the top source of methane emissions in the U.S., methane represents a relatively small portion of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at 10.2%. U.S. dairy only accounts for about 2% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions from feed production through post-consumer waste.

Managing Manure

Dairy cow manure is a local, natural fertilizer that returns critical nutrients to the soil to nourish future crops that all farmers can use. Farmers remove manure from barns to a temporary storage, which can include a pit, tank or holding pond until it can be used for fertilizer. Federal, state and local clean water laws regulate how manure is applied on cropland, so nutrients are absorbed by crops, not groundwater. Dairy farmers also are required by law to keep detailed records about many aspects of the farm, including how they store and recycle manure.

Alternatively, some dairy farms use anaerobic digester systems to manage their manure. These systems convert manure into clean, renewable electricity, which can power their farms, their homes and their community.

Federal, state and local clean water laws regulate how manure is applied on cropland and when, so nutrients are absorbed by crops, not groundwater. Farmers monitor weather and ground conditions to determine ideal application times, making sure they don’t apply it when manure runoff might be likely. They may also plant buffer strips of thick heavy grasses on crop fields or install catch basins to keep manure out of streams and the water supply.

Dairy farmers regularly clean their barns and recycle manure to help control odor in the community. Additionally, dairy farmers follow a nutrient management plan to store manure properly. Dairy farmers also invest in new technologies to further protect and improve air quality.

Water Quality

One way dairy farmers protect nearby streams, rivers and lakes is by planting buffer strips of thick heavy grasses and plants on crop fields to prevent manure runoff. Dairy farmers may also install catch basins to keep manure out of streams and the water supply. In addition, state and local government agencies regularly inspect and test the water on dairy farms.

Dairy farmers use water responsibly and often recycle it to use on their crops or to clean their milking parlors and barns. Most dairy farms recycle water an average of 3 to 5 times! For example, water used to wash the milking parlor each day can be captured and reused to flush manure away in the barns, then recycled again to irrigate crop fields.

Water management is a priority for dairy farmers across the country. They always look for new ways to be sustainable and often recycle water for use on their crops or to clean their milking parlors and barns. Many farmers conserve water by fertilizing the soil with cow manure, which increases the water-holding capacity of soil by up to 20%. This reduces the groundwater needed to grow crops.

Data from a nationwide study indicates U.S. dairy is responsible for only 5.1% water use and less than 2% of the U.S. total carbon footprint.

General

About 95% of America’s 36,000 dairy farms are family-owned. Ohio and West Virginia are home to nearly 1,800 dairy farms.

Yes! Dairy farmers do more than just produce milk — they create jobs, contribute to their communities and help drive the economy. Nationally, the dairy industry creates nearly 3 million U.S. jobs and has an overall economic impact of more than $619 billion.

The total economic impact of dairy products produced and sold in Ohio is $23.8 billion, which generates 115,512 jobs for Ohioans. In West Virginia, the total economic impact of dairy products produced and sold is $1.5 billion, which generates 9,800 jobs for West Virginians. 

About 95% of all U.S. dairy farms are family-owned. Many dairy farms today, large and small, are organized as a company, typically an LLC which is owned by the family.

Farms that choose to increase in size typically do so because the number of family members they support has grown. Often, a family farm supports multiple generations of the same family. Siblings, cousins and grandparents have pooled their resources, and the results are larger farms that employ more people, contribute to the economy and offer more choices. 

All dairy farmers work hard to ensure dairy cows are healthy by providing them with comfortable living conditions, nutritious diets and good veterinary care. In addition to this, farmers who choose to be organic must maintain specific standards set in place by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

In terms of quality, safety and nutrition, there’s no difference between organic and regular milk. The difference is how they are produced on the farm. Strict government standards ensure that both regular and organic milk are wholesome, safe and nutritious.

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