How Cows Are Milked

To many, a dairy farm is a place with lots of cows to produce milk. The process behind how the milk gets from the cow to the gallon in the refrigerator is hazy, but it somehow happens. To clear up the process, let’s delve into the hard work of dairy farmers with one of their best-known processes: milking. Is it done how you imagine? 

Probably not. 

While work begins early in the morning—much earlier than most of us would care for—the day doesn’t begin with one lone figure making his way to the barn, plopping a bucket underneath a cow and a stool under himself to begin milking each cow by hand.  

This method works for a small group of cows, but milking by hand is not an efficient practice when there are hundreds of cows waiting for their turn.  

Cows are milked two to three times a day. Producing more milk than ever before, milking by hand could take up to an hour for just a few cows. Instead, cows are sent to the milking parlor, where workers milk multiple cows at a time, taking less than 15 minutes per cow.  

In a traditional parallel parlor, which has two rows the cows can stand on separated by workers in the center, dairy farmers herd cows into the room. Once the cows move to an open spot in the row, their udders are cleaned with iodine and workers attach suction tubes to gently pull the milk from the teats. The suction from the pumps attaches to the udders and detaches once complete. The udders are cleaned one more time before the cows leave.  

To reduce the time spent milking and cleaning the parlor, some dairy farms use a rotary milker, where cows essentially wait to ride a carousel. Workers stay in the center of the revolving parlor to attach the pumps and clean udders, while cows simply step on, circle the parlor, and step off the contraption to go about their day. 

Another milking method is robotic milking. Cows are given access to robotic milking systems in their barn 24 hours a day, choosing when it’s time to be milked. Building off past data, meaning the robots get better with time, equipment identifies the cow once she enters the stall according to the tracker she wears, cleans and sanitizes the udder, gently collects the milk, and releases the cow from the stall when she is done milking, possibly giving her a treat of pellets. This lets the cow milk the normal 2 or 3 times a day, but it also means she can milk more if needed, giving farmers more time to work on other tasks. 

However they are milked, the milk travels by pipe and collects into a bulk tank, where it is stored and kept cool until it can be tested and transported to a processor. Read this for more information on milk’s journey, which explains milk safety practices like pasteurization and processes like homogenization. 

How much about milking did you know?