Inside the milk machine: How a dairy farm works

When you pick up a pint of milk from the shop, you probably don’t consider how it got there. Of course, we all know that milk comes from cows, but what about the hard work that goes into raising, feeding and milking them? How It Works went to visit Knaveswell Farm in the beautiful Dorset countryside, to find out how a dairy farm is run and lend a helping hand in the milking shed.

Dairy production has come a long way since the days of milking by hand. These days, machines are used to help the farmer milk several cows at once. This speeds up the milking process to produce an average of 15,837 pints (9,000 litres/2,377 gallons) from each cow per year.

Most farmers don’t have it so easy though, and during our visit we found out first hand about the long and demanding daily routine of feeding and milking required. Then, at the end of each day, the milk is collected from the farm and distributed around the country to be bottled and sold, or used to make other products such as ice cream and butter.

It’s not just milk that is produced on a dairy farm, though. Male cows are reared for their meat to provide the farmer with an extra source of income, and crops are grown as a source of food for the livestock. An organic farm will stick to using natural fertilisers, such as the cows’ dung, and nothing else to nourish the crops, while a conventional farm might use pesticides and artificial fertilisers to aid growth.

Running a dairy farm is certainly time-consuming and labour-intensive, so next time you pour milk on your cereal, spare a thought for the cow and dairy farmer that got it there.

Dairy farmer. How a dairy farm works

A farmer’s day

5:00am – The farmer herds up the cows ready to be milked. Milking can take one to three hours, depending on the size of the herd.

8:00am – After milking, the cows are fed. In summer they graze on grass outside and in winter they are fed silage indoors.

11:00am – Any dung produced by the cows indoors is cleared out and spread on the fields as fertiliser.

12:00pm – The farmer checks the health of the herd and then manages the crops and food stocks.

4:00pm – The milking process begins again. A typical dairy cow will produce 30 litres (eight gallons) of milk per day.

6:00pm – The herd is fed again, then beds down in the barn during winter, or goes back into the fields during summer

Milking shed. How a dairy farm works

The milking process

When it’s time to be milked, the cows assemble outside the shed and enter one by one on either side. Once they are standing at a milking station, the farmer cleans their udders and extracts some milk to check that it is free of blood and other impurities. Next, the cluster of teat cups is attached, and the cow is left to be milked.

It can take a couple of minutes for pulsating air to squeeze out all the milk, then when no more is left, the suction stops and the teat cups automatically detach. As the cow’s teats take a further 30 minutes to close up again, an iodine dip is applied to prevent infections. Then the rest of the milking equipment is thoroughly cleaned and sterilised too.

If a cow is sick, their milk is kept separate from the rest and either thrown away or fed to the other animals on the farm. Nevertheless, the milk in the bulk tank is still tested each time it is collected, to make sure there are no antibiotics or other impurities present. If there are, then the entire supply must be thrown away as it is unfit for human consumption.

Feeding machine. How a dairy farm works

Hi-tech feeding

When it comes to getting their daily dose of protein pellets – the supplements that add important protein, vitamins and minerals to the cow’s diet – each cow receives their own tailor-made portion. This is controlled by an automatic feeding station, which uses antenna to recognise each cow based on signals received from a transponder strapped around its neck.

The transponder is also linked to the milking machine, and records the amount of milk the cow produces each day. The feeding station uses this data, plus information about when the cow last had a calf, to work out how many protein pellets it should receive to improve milk production. As well as making things easier for the farmer, this system is also useful for monitoring the cow’s health. The weight of the food left in the trough after feeding is used to work out how much the cow has eaten. If they are not eating enough then the farmer is notified, as this could be a sign of poor health.

To find out more about how a dairy farm is run, including exactly how a milking machine works and the life and diet of a dairy cow, pick up a copy of Issue 73 of How It Works. It’s available from all good retailers, or online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device.

Plus, if you think you’ve got what it takes to become a dairy farmer, you can have a go at managing your own farm with Farming Simulator 15, available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. Visit the Farming Simulator website for more information.