dairy; milk; salmonella; livestock

Dairy production: How to run a dairy farm

There is a general impression that it is easy to run a dairy – cows spend the day grazing and they only need to be milked every day. But dairy farming is much more complicated than this.

A dairy could be run in a relatively simple way, but it needs a considerable amount of capital investment in terms of animals and infrastructure.

A simple budget may show that the operation could be profitable, but often these calculations are based on perceived prices for only two items – feed and milk.

The labour input is extensive as cows have to be fed and milked twice a day. Feeding calves and heifers also requires additional labour.

These tasks have to be performed every single day of the year. And some management decisions have short-, medium- or long-term effects.

For instance, the effect of a change in feed will be visible in milk yield within a few days, but the effect of decisions about selecting bulls will only be seen in 4 to 5 years.

Also read: Get the best from your new bull

Here are some things that have to be considered before starting a dairy:


  • You should have a reliable daily market for the milk produced before you start a dairy.
  • If there are only a few cows to milk, you could sell the milk directly to the community. Before you’re allowed to do so, you have to get permission from the local health authority.
  • If more cows are to be milked, you could sell the milk to a commercial buyer.
  • But this can only happen if the milk buyer has a demand for milk and your farm is on an existing milk pick-up route.
  • If there’s an oversupply of milk, commercial buyers would probably not be keen to take on new producers.


  • There are 4 main dairy cattle breeds – Holsteins, Jerseys, Ayrshires and Guernseys.
  • Some producers use cross-bred cows because they believe these animals are hardier and more fertile.
  • Even though all 4 breeds perform well in the various production systems, Jerseys are generally used in grazing systems and Holsteins in zero-grazing systems.
  • The genetic merit and origin of cows have a significant impact on their milk yield and ability to survive.
  • It’s better to use local animals that have adapted to the environment.


  • The feeding programme is determined mainly by resource availability.
  • Hence a grazing system can only be considered if sufficient water is available in summer for supplementary irrigation.
  • The Western Cape of South Africa has hot, dry summers and cold, wet winters. Here, primarily winter-growing cereal crops such as oats, barley, wheat and triticale can be cultivated for roughage.
  • These crops are then stored as hay or silage.
  • To do this, several implements such as tractors, silage bunkers, hay sheds and so on are needed.
  • Feed can also be bought.
  • All these operations will increase the feeding cost of cows.
  • In a zero-grazing feeding system, cows are kept in open camps or are housed indoors.
  • Rations are mixed on the farm every day and fed to cows.
  • Specific equipment such as a hammer mill, feed mixer wagon and feed troughs are required for such an operation.
  • If water for irrigation is readily available, pastures can be irrigated from rivers and dams that are fed from the mountains.
  • Since cultivated pastures are not established every year, the production cost of pasture is lower than that of other roughage.
  • The feeding quality of most pastures is also better than most cereal crops.
  • A simple production system would be to have cows grazing cultivated pastures while receiving a concentrated feed in the milking parlour.
  • If pasture production is inefficient, cows should be fed additional roughage as hay or silage. This will increase the cows’ feed costs, even though it increases the farm’s carrying capacity.
  • A dairy operates on simple principles – cows should, on a daily basis, receive sufficient quantities of a suitable diet and be milked twice a day.
  • The feeding programme must be relatively constant.
  • Cows need about 5 days to adapt to a new diet.

Also read:
The secret to making good silage
Get the most out of natural or planted pastures


  • Cows need a fixed routine in the milking parlour, and a quiet, calm environment, because their yield is reduced if they’re stressed, or handled roughly or noisily.
  • Never use a whip in a dairy.
  • Cows are usually in 1 of 2 production stages – in milk (lactating) or dry (non-lactating).
  • The number of non-lactating animals should never be more than the number of cows in milk.
  • Cows are usually milked for about 300 days, after which they are dry for about 60 days before they calve again.
  • Cows that require more time to get pregnant again could be milked for longer than 300 days, but the dry period should not be shorter than 50 days.
  • Remember, a longer calving interval reduces the lifetime yield of cows.
  • Heifers and bull calves are born during the period when cows calve.
  • Bull calves could be raised for beef or for breeding purposes.
  • Heifers are raised to replace the cows that, over time and for various reasons, are culled from the herd.
  • Cows are usually culled because of mastitis (an infection in the udder that will impair the quality of the milk and the cows’ yield), infertility, low milk yields, injuries or diseases.
  • The standard of management has a profound effect on the productive life of cows.
  • The longer cows stay in a herd, the more profitable the dairy will be.


  • The number of cows to be milked determines the design of the milking parlour.
  • A few cows could be milked by hand.
  • A movable milking machine consisting of a vacuum pump and 2 milk buckets could be used if there are more cows.
  • A large number of cows (more than 30) should be milked in a milking parlour.
  • This could be a simple building, but it must have clean running water and washable floors and walls.
  • Cows should be milked under hygienic conditions, as milk is a perishable product intended for human consumption.
  • If the milking process is unhygienic, cows could get mastitis.
  • Mastitic milk could also be harmful for people as it contains pathogens.


  • Running a dairy has the potential to be highly satisfying, and attainable targets can be set.
  • To achieve this, the right decisions should be taken, in plenty of time, and management should ensure that they are put into practice.
  • One disadvantage of the industry is its long-term nature.
  • It takes five to 10 years to establish a decent dairy herd.
  • Many producers are also discouraged by milk buyers’ pricing structure.
  • Producers have little say about the way milk prices are structured, and at the same time they’re exposed to rising production costs that are beyond their control.


  • This article was written by Dr. Carel Muller and first appeared in Farming SA.

share this