About Dairy Cows
Dairy farming has been part of agriculture for thousands of years. Dairy cows are bred specifically to produce large quantities of milk.
Dairy cows are required to give birth to one calf per year to continue producing milk. They are usually artificially inseminated within three months of giving birth.
These high milk producing cows are only productive for an average of 3 years, after which they are culled and the meat is normally used for beef.
Commercial dairy systems
Commercial dairy cows are kept in herds that can vary in size from fewer than five cows to several thousand in large commercial farming systems.
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Global milk production
There are around 250 million cows producing milk across the world. The European Union is the largest milk producer and has about 23 million dairy cows. This compares with 10 million in North America and over 6 million in Australia and New Zealand. Milk production is also on the increase in South-East Asia, including countries not traditionally noted for their milk consumption, such as China, which now has over 12 million cows producing milk.
Higher milk yield
Over the last fifty years, dairy farming has become more intensive to increase the amount of milk produced by each cow. The Holstein-Friesian, the type of dairy cow most common in the UK, Europe and the USA has been bred to produce very high yields of milk. Around 22 litres per day is typical in the UK. The average yield in the US is even higher at over 30 litres per day. Milk production per cow has more than doubled in the past 40 years. If they were producing just enough to feed their calves, as nature intended, this would be about 3 or 4 litres a day.
Grazing and housing
In the UK most dairy cows still have access to grazing on pasture for part of the day in summer, but more cows are being kept indoors for longer, or even all year round. This is known as ‘zero grazing’, and is increasingly used in North America and parts of the UK for large and high yielding herds.
Where they do not have access to pasture, cows are often housed in sheds. Some sheds have outdoor yards.
Intensive dairy farming results in an increasing number of welfare problems for dairy cows.