Dairy Farmer Career Profile

There's more to this job than milking cows

Farmer and vet inspecting cows feeding from trough on dairy farm
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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 in a variety of tasks including feeding, administering medication, managing waste, operating milking equipment two to three times daily, and other daily duties.

Life on a Dairy Farm

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 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.

Career Options for Dairy Farmers

Dairy farmers may be self-employed or work for a large corporate entity. 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 milk producing states.

Education and Training for Dairy Farmers

Even if they inherit the family farm, most 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.

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.

Career Outlook for Dairy Farmers

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.