Day in the Life

So you want to work on a dairy farm…Help Wanted!

Minimum qualifications include:

  • Willing to work 16-18 hours per day, 365 days per year;
  • Familiar with technology applications for modern agricultural businesses;
  • Capable of performing multiple tasks at a moment’s notice and often simultaneously.

If you ever thought “working the land” as a dairy farmer would be a bucolic and relaxing experience, think again! Being a successful dairy farmer requires knowledge of advanced agricultural technology, educational preparation and business savvy. Many in this profession learn about agriculture through a curriculum program at a college or university. But without a doubt, being a Washington dairy farmer requires at its core a dedication to and understanding of a vocation that is as much a way of life as a way to make a living. Very few people begin their day at 4 a.m. and work until 9 or 10 p.m. However, this is the 24/7/365 reality for Washington’s 450 dairy farm families. In order to keep their herds happy, healthy and producing the highest quality milk possible, dairy farmers must put their cows before everything else. Early in the morning, dairy farmers begin the first milking of the day. It takes less than five minutes to milk a cow using today’s automated milking machines; but when the average Washington dairy farm is home to about 540 cows, milking the entire herd, on average, lasts anywhere from four to six hours. After milking the cows, farmers must work quickly to store the milk at a cool temperature. This preserves its fresh taste and also prevents the multiplication of natural bacteria that can affect its taste and wholesomeness. From the receiver jar, the milk is pumped into a holding tank where it is cooled from 95 to 39 degrees Fahrenheit. And these holding tanks need to be substantial, as the average Washington cow can produce 90 glasses of milk each day.

(Cows can be meddlesome at times!)

Clean cows, clean equipment and clean farm facilities are critical for quality milk production. After each milking, the cow’s udders are washed, the milking machines are cleaned and the milking parlor is scrubbed and rinsed. The milk holding tank and pumping equipment are kept sterilized to ensure that no outside germs contaminate the milk. Barns and animal holding areas are also cleaned daily to protect the health of the cows. The entire milk handling system has been designed to ensure that neither human hands nor air touches the milk from the moment it leaves the cow until you open your carton at home. As most dairy cows eat about 75 pounds of food and drink about 35 gallons of water each day, a big part of the day’s work consists of providing plenty of nutritious food and clean water to the cows. A cow’s feed is carefully planned by an animal nutritionist to optimize the health and milk productivity of the cow. Cows also don’t chew their food when they first eat it. Instead, they gulp it down and then chew it later during the day in a process that's called rumination, or “chewing their cud.” Cows spend about six hours a day eating and eight hours a day ruminating. Each cow produces about 30 pounds of liquid and 65 pounds of solid waste each day. Accordingly, another major focus of activity on the farm consists is providing for the appropriate management and utilization of animal wastes. Cow wastes are very rich in nutrients, and liquid waste (urine) is typically reused as a natural fertilizer to replenish the soil and help grow higher quality crops. A machine called a separator extracts the solid waste (manure) from the liquid waste. After drying and composting, the solid waste has become odorless and biologically inert; it is used on-farm as bedding for cows or used off-farm for landscaping and other purposes. Liquid waste is sent to an on-farm storage facility, called a lagoon, to allow residual solids to separate from the liquid. Liquid waste can then by applied to crop fields – both those belonging to the dairy and nearby non-dairy farms. Washington state law prohibits the discharge of any manure-contaminated water from a dairy; this requirement is backed up by state inspection and enforcement. Part of a dairy farmer’s day also includes checking the health and well being of the herd. This includes physical examinations, as well as checking milk production records – since the development of a health or other problem in an animal will often be reflected first in her volume of milk production. Most dairy farmers become so accustomed to their animals’ daily behavior that they can often “sense” when something is wrong. And, as part of the rigorous quality control process, the milk itself is also checked for impurities like antibiotic residues at several stages. If impurities are found, the entire tanker load of milk is destroyed before it can enter the human or animal food chains; while the source farmer is fined for the value of the entire tanker load of lost milk. Multiple infractions can result in the revocation of a dairy’s license to produce milk. Each cow has her own set of records which are updated each time she is milked (usually, twice a day). If the farmer feels the cow is not performing up to her usual standards – or if she shows any signs of ill health – a veterinarian will be called to the farm. Herd management practices like these help make dairy products some of the healthiest and safest foods you can eat. When it's time for the next milking – usually 12 hours after the first one – the whole process begins all over again. And with one final clean-up, the farmer can call it a day! See firsthand how Washington dairy farmers live day-to-day at Washington Farmer Spotlight.