Dairy Farmer Career Profile
The primary duty of a dairy farmer is to manage dairy cows so that they produce maximum quantities of milk. To accomplish this goal, dairy farmers may be involved with a variety of tasks including feeding, administering medication, managing waste, operating milking equipment two to three times daily, and other daily duties.
Some farms, especially small operations, may grow and harvest feed for their cattle on site. They may also breed and raise their own replacement heifers. Most farms have a staff to be supervised ranging from a few employees to several dozens, so personnel management skills are also of benefit to the dairy farm manager.
Dairy farmers work in conjunction with large animal vets to provide the best in herd health management, veterinary treatments, and routine vaccinations. They may also interact with animal nutritionists and livestock feed sales representatives as they create ration plans that yield maximum milk production levels.
The hours a dairy farmer works may be long, and night and weekend shifts are often necessary. The work generally begins before dawn each day. As is common with most agricultural management jobs, work occurs outdoors in varying weather conditions and extreme temperatures. Working in close proximity to large animals also makes it imperative that dairy farmers take proper safety precautions.
Dairy farmers may be self-employed or work for a large corporate entity. There has been a steady trend in the industry towards large farms, with the USDA reporting an 88% drop in the total number of dairy farms (decreasing from 648,000 in 1970 to just 75,000 in 2006).
Some farmers, especially smaller self-employed producers, are part of cooperatives such as Dairy Farmers of America. Cooperatives can negotiate competitive rates as a group and have special access to guaranteed markets for their milk.
California is the largest milk-producing state in the U.S., so a large number of dairy farm positions are available there. Wisconsin, New York, and Pennsylvania are also large traditional milk producing states with strong employment opportunities.
Education & Training
A growing number of dairy farmers hold a two or four-year degree in dairy science, animal science, agriculture, or a closely related field of study. Coursework for such degrees generally includes dairy science, anatomy, physiology, reproduction, crop science, farm management, technology, and agricultural marketing.
Direct, hands-on practical experience working on a farm with dairy cows is an important prerequisite for becoming a dairy farmer. There is no substitute for learning the business from the ground up. Most dairy farmers either grow up on a farm or apprentice with an established operation before venturing out on their own.
Many aspiring dairy farmers also learn about the industry in their younger years through youth programs. These organizations, such as Future Farmers of America (FFA) or 4-H clubs, give young people the opportunity to handle a variety of farm animals and to participate in livestock shows.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) salary survey indicates that farm and ranch managers earned a median wage of $60,750 annually ($29.21 hourly) in 2010.
A 2011 survey by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA/ERS) estimated that the average farm would bring in a net income of $82,800. It represented a 17% gain over the 2010 net income of $71,000 per farm.
The same USDA/ERS earnings report expected a sharp 57% rise in net profits for dairy producers despite rising costs for feed. This spike is primarily due to the steadily increasing gains in wholesale milk prices (at a rate of 20%). This sort of increase might explain SimplyHired.com’s average salary listing of well over $100,000 for dairy farmers.
Dairy farmers must deduct a number of expenses from their net profits to determine their final profits or salary for the year. These expenses include the cost of labor, insurance, feed, fuel, supplies, veterinary care, waste removal, and equipment maintenance or replacement.
The BLS predicts that there will be a slight decline in the number of job opportunities for farm and ranch managers. It reflects the growing trend towards consolidation in the industry, as small producers are absorbed by large commercial operations.
Despite this decrease in the number of total jobs, industry earnings are expected to rise (based on steadily increasing wholesale milk prices over the past few years). During the next decade, the dairy industry should remain a reasonably stable and profitable farming option.