Dairy production: Another route to dairy farming

Question: I’m a beef farmer, but am interested in starting a dairy. Do you have some advice?

Not many new farmers consider going into dairy production, but if you already farm beef cattle, it may be a good idea to start dairy ranching.

The demand for milk in developing countries is expected to increase by 25% by 2025. This is the result of population growth and the fact that consumers are spending on a greater diversity of food to meet their nutritional needs.

Small-scale dairy farming is not thriving everywhere, yet dairy ranching can form an integral part of resource-poor cattle production systems. In such systems, milk production can contribute to household food security and the sale of milk can be an extra source of income.

These are some of the findings of a dairy cattle survey by South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Animal Production Institute and the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The research indicates that only 10% of communal and developing farmers keep cattle for milk production. This presents a great opportunity for developing farmers who want to get into dairy.


Marsia Grobler, a breeding and genetics researcher at the ARC, who was also involved with the survey, says that dairy ranching is a traditional milking system where the cow is milked with the calf at foot in an “extensive system”.

Grobler says that this form of farming is conducted commercially in Latin America. In Brazil, crossbred animals are used in pasture-based dairy ranching systems and account for about 80% of total milk produced in that country. They even have milk parlours designed to allow the calf to suckle before milking.

Also read: How to run a dairy farm


  • An extensive ranching system is not much different from a beef cattle set-up, but the cattle shouldn’t graze far away from the homestead, as they must be milked at least once a day.
  • Health requirements are slightly different as the cattle are more susceptible to diseases such as mastitis, milk fever and ketosis.
  • Infrastructure would depend on the aim of the business, the number of cows being milked and their production levels.
  • Grobler said some country’s might disapprove of hand-milking if the milk is sold to the public.
  • It would be important to set up cooling facilities, especially if production increased to a level that it couldn’t be sold over a short period of time.


  • For dairy producers, one of the biggest challenges is milk quality control.
  • Grobler said it is crucial to produce a safe product for human consumption, without antibiotic residue or high bacterial contamination.
  • There is a great need to develop preservation methods, particularly for small-scale milk producers in remote areas, as milk is a highly perishable product.
  • They have the additional problem of accessing markets before their product deteriorates.
  • Other challenges include a lack of basic services such as electricity and good quality water. Water is needed not only for cattle to drink but also for cleaning equipment.
  • Dairy production is a labour-intensive, all-year commitment.
  • If 1 milking is missed, cows can develop mastitis, which leads to a loss of income.
  • Treatment can be expensive and there is a risk of losing cows.
  • The herd has to be kept free of brucellosis and tuberculosis and should be tested regularly.

Also read:
Testing your herd for brucellosis (contagious abortion)
What to do if your herd tests positive for brucellosis
How to prevent and treat brucellosis in your herd


  • “This is still one of the biggest problems. It’s even a problem for some commercial farmers at the moment and needs further investigation,” Grobler said.
  • She recommended starting by packing milk in 2 litre plastic or soft drink bottles and selling it to neighbours.
  • This is a good option if cooling and transport facilities are not available.
  • Alternatively, a commercial milk buyer could collect the milk on the farm.


Grobler said an extensive, dual-purpose ranching system is a good starting point for farmers who already keep cattle, where dairy ranching can supplement the farming income.

“Don’t change over from an extensive beef system to an intensive dairy regime, but rather capitalise on the beef cattle to produce milk as well as raising a calf,” she said.

Farmers could gradually change to a dual-purpose crossbred animal. Keep well-adapted cattle, instead of immediately replacing them with high maintenance, high-input and poorly adapted dairy cattle.

The study found that the most common dairy and dual-purpose breed types used for milk in the communal sector include Nguni, Brahman and Afrikaner. In the emerging sector milking cows consist mainly of Drakensberger, Brahman and Bonsmara.

Also read: Milking indigenous cattle breeds

  • Start small to get used to the dairy routine and establish a market.
  • Farmers should avoid buying expensive equipment at first, and milking can be done by hand, if necessary.
  • Limit production costs by setting up a dairy ranching system that uses rotational grazing as part of feeding.
  • This grazing system is also recommended for highly erodible land that’s less suitable for continuous cultivation.
  • There is a growing international trend for grass-based dairies, where dairy ranching can play a very important role and shows promise for local rural communities, she says.


  • This article was written by Wilma den Hartigh and first appeared in Farming SA.

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