What is a Dairy Farm?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A dairy farm is an agricultural facility dedicated to raising and maintaining animals kept for their milk. Classically, a dairy farm houses cows, although it is also possible to raise goats, sheep, yaks, and other animals for their milk. The goal of a dairy farm is to produce high volumes of good quality, safe milk and milk products, and to export them to the surrounding region.

Some dairy farmers raise goats for their milk.
Some dairy farmers raise goats for their milk.

Humans have been keeping animals for their milk for centuries, but the dairy farm didn't really catch on in a big way until people figured out how to handle milk safely. Historically, many communities had a few milk animals which were handled and driven communally, and establishments such as abbeys might keep animals for the purpose of making cheese and other goods for sale. Individual farmers and landholders generally made their own milk and cheese as needed from their cows, sheep, and other animals.

Dairy farms use cows to produce milk and other dairy products.
Dairy farms use cows to produce milk and other dairy products.

With the advent of storage tanks, pasteurization, refrigeration, and roads accessible to milk trucks in the 1800s, the modern dairy farm began to evolve. Most dairy farms today have large numbers of animals, in the hundreds or thousands as opposed to the dozens found on small farms through the early 20th century, and they produce huge volumes of milk.

Dairy farms may keep a bull on hand.
Dairy farms may keep a bull on hand.

The farm includes pasture and shelter for the animals, along with areas for sheltering cows while they labor and give birth. Dairy farms usually keep a bull on hand, or order semen for artificial insemination to get access to especially good bloodlines, and they also have a facility known as a milking parlor, where the cows are milked. Historically, this was done by hand, but modern milking parlors usually utilize milking machines. The milk is transported in sterile tubes to tanks so that it can be tested for pathogens before being pooled on a milk truck. The milk truck takes the milk to a central location for processing.

A classic dairy farm will house cows, although some will also have goats, sheep, yaks, and other animals that produce milk.
A classic dairy farm will house cows, although some will also have goats, sheep, yaks, and other animals that produce milk.

A dairy farm may also have fields for the purpose of growing fodder, to cut down on costs for the farm. Farms which serve special markets like people seeking organic products can also be found.

Modern dairy farms have milking parlors that use milking machines.
Modern dairy farms have milking parlors that use milking machines.

Small dairy farms may make their own cheese, butter, yogurt, clotted cream, and other dairy products for sale in the community. This requires special skills and additional licensing and inspections, leading many farmers to prefer to sell their milk to dairy cooperatives or specific manufacturers of products like cheese rather than handling it themselves. When consumers in the store buy Milk Brand X, they are usually buying milk from a large number of farmers who sell their milk to Milk Company X, rather than milk from cows belonging to that particular brand.

Some dairy farmers produce milk by-products such as butter and cheese.
Some dairy farmers produce milk by-products such as butter and cheese.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Sporkasia

Has anyone been on a dairy farm tour? They are fabulous. Most children like petting the young calves. I was fascinated by how the entire process works.

Some of the dairy farm equipment is genius, yet so practical and simple when you think about how it works. I wonder how much thought and effort went into devising functional milking machines.

Animandel

Dairy farm technology has helped make the industry more stable for some farmers, but it is still a tricky way to make a living. I guess that can be said of any type of farming. I can remember reading some years back about what was called the dairy farm crisis. The so-called crisis was that so many small farms were going bankrupt.

Drentel

As much milk as people drink and as high as the price of milk can rise, you would think dairy farmers would be making more money. I'm sure some of the big farmers are doing very well, but in the area where I live, I see dairy-farm-for-sale signs all the time. Many of these farmers can't make ends meet.

The bottom line is that dairy farmers have to be creative to stay in business. Not many small dairy farmers can depend on making a living only by producing milk.

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