Commodity: Dairy Cattle

If you have already read the page about beef cattle, you may think you know everything there is to know about cows. While dairy cattle look similar to beef cattle on the outside, there are differences. Let's learn more about dairy cattle.

milking long ago with milk cans
Milking Today with technology

Dairy Cattle History

Dairy cattle did not arrive in the U.S. until 1624. That year, they were brought to the Plymouth Colony (which is Massachusetts today). Until the early 1900s, dairy cattle were primarily used to supply milk directly to the farmer. But at the beginning of the 20th century, more people began to move into cities. Farmers needed to increase production to provide dairy products to people who did not have the room or ability to raise their own cattle. Advancements in technology, including automated milking machines, helped make this possible.

Today there is at least one dairy cattle farm in each state in the U.S. Wisconsin and California are the leading milk producers. Minnesota ranks seventh in number of milk cows.

Many Kinds of Dairy Cattle

There is more to cattle than cows. Here are some terms you should understand about dairy cattle.

dairy Calf


A baby dairy animal

Holstein cow and calf


A female dairy animal that has given birth.

Midwest Dairy


A female dairy animal that has not given birth.

Holstein bull in meadow


A male used to breed cows and heifers

Dairy cow - black and white


A male dairy animal that is only used for meat.

Many Uses for Dairy Cattle

So many different dairy products start out as milk from dairy cattle. These dairy products are sold all over the world, including milk itself, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, butter, cottage cheese, among others.

Dairy products are very nutritious. Together, milk, cheese, and yogurt provide nine essential nutrients, including calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamins A, D and B12, riboflavin, and niacin. Calcium is a major nutrient that helps build strong bones.

Girl with glass of milk
State of MN

Dairy in Minnesota

Every state in the United States has at least one dairy farm. California is the largest dairy state, followed by Wisconsin. Minnesota is the seventh largest milk-producing state in the U.S. The average dairy cow in Minnesota produces 19,700 pounds of milk each year. That is nearly 2,300 gallons of milk!

Raising Dairy Cattle

Producing milk starts with the cows. In order for cows to be able to give milk, they have to have a calf first. Dairy cows are milked two to three times a day and will produce eight or nine gallons of milk each day. In order to produce that milk, a dairy cow eats approximately 100 pounds of feed a day. That feed typically consists of hay, grain, proteins (such as soybean meal), vitamins and minerals, and silage.

Silage is plant material used to feed cows when pasture land is not available, which in Minnesota is in the winter. It can be made from all parts of the plant (grain, stem, leaves). Corn is often used in Minnesota, while different kinds of grasses are used in other places. The silage is fermented, which keeps as many of the nutrients as possible in the plant material. Silage is kept in a large airtight bag or a silo. You may have seen silos when driving through rural area. They are very large. Cows will also drink 30 gallons of water each day, which is equivalent to a bathtub filled with water.

black and white cow close up
dairy Calf

Once a cow has given birth, it begins to produce milk. The cow can be milked for about 300 days. Then it needs to rest up to prepare to have another calf. After that calf is born, the cow again produces milk.

Did you know that milk from the cow is never touched by human hands? It is taken from the cow using a milking unit. This might be a milking machine. Today there are 88 farms in Minnesota that use robots to get milk from their cows! Then the milk is transferred to a tank where it is cooled to 41 degrees (milk comes out of the cow at 100 degrees). A truck comes and picks up the milk and takes it to a milk processing plant. At the plant, the milk is pasteurized and homogenized.

The pasteurization process makes sure that there are no harmful bacteria in the milk. During pasteurization, milk is heated to a high temperature for a very short time. This process does not change the nutritional value of the milk. Homogenization involves breaking down the fat molecules so they will not separate and rise to the top of the container and form a layer of cream. Milk is tested for harmful microorganisms at least nine times before it gets to you to make sure it is safe.

This may sound like it takes a long time to get the milk from the cow to you. But in fact, it is very fast. The process of getting milk from the cow to the grocery store takes about 48 hours. Milk travels less than 200 miles to get to your grocery store.

Milk Truck

Dairy Fun Facts

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    It takes three cups of broccoli to equal the calcium in one cup of milk.

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    Cows do not sweat. That is why they prefer to stay in the shade and drink lots of water.

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    Vanilla is the most popular ice cream flavor in the U.S. What is your favorite flavor?

Ice Cream Cone
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