Dairy Cow Care

It All Starts with Top-Notch Animal Care

For Farmers: Cows Come First

Dairy farmers know that their commitment to providing you and your family with safe, wholesome, nutritious milk all begins with top-notch care of their cows. This includes providing them a nutritious diet, regular medical care and comfortable living conditions.

The vast majority of dairy farms are family-owned. Most dairy farmers are caretakers of the land from their parents, grandparents, or even great grandparents, and plan to pass it on to the next generation. Through the generations, dairy farm families have looked for ways to improve as stewards of their dairy cows and the land.

What is a Dairy Farm?

If you think all farms are alike, you might be asking, “What is a dairy farm?” Dairy farmers raise cows on a dairy farm for the purpose of producing milk. Feeding the cows and seeing to their health and comfort is a top priority for the farmer. Milking the cows is the single most important function. Cows have to be properly milked, which includes inspecting and washing the cows udders and using milking equipment to gently remove the milk. Many dairy farmers milk cows two to three a day.

Dairy farm view

Dairy Farm Fact: Dairy farms come in all shapes and sizes with 97 percent being family owned and operated. Core to all of them is producing a safe, wholesome milk supply.

What is a Dairy Cow Called?

Not all cows are raised for the same purpose, so it’s okay to ask “What is a dairy cow?” Dairy cattle are bred for their ability to produce milk from which dairy products are made. Female cows become dairy cows after they have had calves and are producing milk. Before they have calves they are called heifers. In the United States, there are seven different dairy cow breeds.

Where Do Cows Live?

Many dairy farmers either raise their dairy cattle on pasture, in open-sided “freestall” barns or in open lots with shady areas depending on the climate and other geographic considerations. In freestall barns, dairy cows eat, drink, sleep and move around whenever and wherever they like. Stalls are filled with soft sand, dry compost or mattresses filled with rubber or water so the animals have a dry and comfortable bed. Fans, automatic misters, shelter and ventilation systems keep cows content in cold and hot weather. Milking is usually done in a special area called a “parlor” set up with milking machines.

Freestall Barn

Dairy cow fact: The environment offered by freestall barns maximizes cow comfort by providing the cows with comfortable, clean and dry resting areas and access to food and water, while protecting them from the heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter.

What Do Cows Eat?

Wholesome milk starts with a cow’s healthy diet. Did you know that dairy cows have a four-chambered stomach? This makes them ruminants. A cow can digest the nutrients in many types and parts of plants that people can’t eat. The feed consists of a combination of forage, like hay or corn silage, grains (corn, wheat and barley), and protein sources, such as soybean meal, plus vitamins and minerals. To keep dairy cows healthy, dairy farmers work with animal nutritionists to combine ingredients into recipes that meet the nutritional requirements of their cows. Dairy cattle also need access to fresh, clean water.

Farmer in Freestall Barn

Dairy cow fact: A cow producing milk eats about 100 pounds of feed each day. That’s why it’s important for them to have a scientifically formulated, balanced and nutritious diet to help her produce wholesome, nutritious milk.

How Do Cows Produce Milk?

Females, prior to giving birth are called calves or heifers. After they give birth, female dairy animals are called cows. All cows produce milk once they deliver a calf. Dairy cattle are milked two to three times a day. About 10 months after calving, the amount of milk the cow gives naturally decreases, and she begins to dry off, allowing her a rest period before giving birth. A cow will conceive again about two to four months after having a calf, meaning her next calf will be born about 12 to 14 months later, at which time she will rejoin the milking herd.

Cow with newborn calf

Dairy cow fact: A dairy cow produces milk once she delivers a calf.

How Are Calves Cared For?

A dairy cow begins giving milk once she delivers her first calf at about two years of age. Dairy cows have a calf about once a year. Taking care of calves is important to dairy farmers because calves represent the future. When a cow is ready to give birth, the cow goes to a maternity area to ensure comfort and safety. Calves are usually moved to a calf hutch shortly after birth. This protects them from germs that can be passed from the environment or other animals while their immune systems mature. It also allows for individualized feeding and health monitoring.

Dairy farm girl bottle feeding a calf

Dairy cow fact: Calf hutches allow farmers to provide individualized feeding and health monitoring to calves to keep them healthy.

How Are Cows Kept Healthy?

Veterinarians routinely visit dairy farms to conduct check-ups, administer vaccinations and treat illness. Farmers and their workers observe the dairy cattle every day, so they quickly notice if an animal becomes ill. The veterinarian is called for a consultation if needed.

If a dairy cow becomes sick, she is often treated with antibiotics to help her recover. A dairy cow being treated with antibiotics is either separated from the milking herd or clearly identified so that her milk is not mixed with that of the healthy dairy cattle. This insures her milk does not enter the food supply until the antibiotics have cleared her system.

To ensure there are no antibiotic residues in the milk, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that every truckload of milk – organic and regular – is tested for commonly used antibiotics when it arrives at the dairy processing plant. Any milk that tests positive is rejected, and the farmer is financially responsible for the tanker of milk.

Veterinarian Check-up

Dairy cow fact: Dairy farmers rely on veterinarians to conduct general checkups to maintain the health of their herd.

How Industry Keeps Antibiotics Out of Milk Infographic
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