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Animal Care and Handling

September 2014

A cow’s health is of the utmost importance to dairy farmers, because proper animal care leads to the production of high-quality milk. Nutritious diets, wholesome living conditions and good medical care are all essential for a healthy herd. Idaho’s dairy farm families are committed to responsible and ethical animal treatment.

The dairy industry has in place a number of initiatives that demonstrate our commitment to animal well-being. In 2009, the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program was launched. FARM is a nationwide, verifiable animal well-being program that demonstrates U.S. milk producers are committed to the highest quality standards.

Animal scientists and dairy farmers continually explore ways to improve the comfort of dairy cows. Typical practices on modern farms include:
Food & Shelter

Dairy cows have access to feed and fresh, clean water 24 hours a day. Many dairy farms use “free-stall housing,” which is a type of barn that allows cows to eat, drink and rest whenever and wherever they choose. These barns let in fresh air while providing protection from rain and snow.
Farmers employ professional nutritionists to develop a scientifically formulated, balanced and nutritious diet for their herds. The ingredients in cow feed vary by season and geography, but they are typically hay (alfalfa or grass), grains (corn, wheat and barley), protein sources (soybeans and canola) and vitamins and minerals.

Health & Medical Attention

Dairy farmers’ commitment to providing high-quality milk begins with taking good care of their herds.
Cows receive regular veterinary care, including periodic check-ups, preventative vaccinations and prompt treatment of illness.
Milk from a cow being treated with antibiotics is separated to ensure it does not go into the milk supply.
All milk is strictly tested for antibiotics on the farm and processing plant. Any milk that tests positive is disposed of immediately and does not get into the food supply. In such cases, the farmer responsible for the milk is required to pay for the full tanker of milk.

Tail Docking

Historically, some dairy farmers have cropped the tails of their animals to promote cleanliness, similar to what people do to some breeds of dogs.
The National Dairy FARM program endorses switch trimming, which is the removal of the hair at the end of the tail for hygiene purposes.
In recent years, animal scientists and veterinarians have re-evaluated research on tail docking; some have concluded that tail docking should be phased out.


Dehorning is a practice used for decades to help reduce the risk of injury to cows and people.
Dairy farmers use a variety of dehorning techniques. “Disbudding” of nondeveloped horn buds is a fairly simple procedure typically conducted within the first few weeks of a calf’s life.
For a cow with developed horns, dairy farmers and veterinarians using best industry practices will ensure the comfort and safety of an animal through sedation or anesthesia.


Calves grow up to become the cows that produce milk, so farmers make it a priority to get them off to a healthy start.
Calves are separated from their mothers to ensure the best individual care and monitoring of both animals, especially in the first 24 hours.
During the birth, dairy farmers, their employees and/or their veterinarians keep a close eye on the animals to ensure a healthy delivery.

Animal Handling & Transportation

On a daily basis, cows move on their own from their pens and fields, as well as to and from the
milking parlor.
While most dairy cows spend their lives on a single farm, they may be transported when they are bought and sold. They are handled carefully in a manner that minimizes stress.

Milk Quality

From the dairy to you, milk goes through strict quality controls to ensure freshness, purity and great taste. Dairy is one of the most regulated and inspected industries in agriculture.
Milking equipment is thoroughly cleansed before and after each use to preserve a sanitary environment.
Milking equipment delivers milk directly from the cow to a refrigerated holding tank to preserve freshness and safety. The milk is then quickly transported to processing plants for continued freshness and safety.
Some dairy farmers choose to use rBST as a tool to help cows produce more milk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as other leading health organizations, have concluded that there is no significant difference between the milk from cows that are treated with rBST and milk from cows that are not treated with rBST. For details, visit

Somatic Cell Count

All milk naturally contains some somatic cells, which are white blood cells that fight infection.
Somatic cell counts are used as a general gauge of the cow’s well-being and stress level; higher counts do not necessarily mean there is an illness.
Farmers and milk processors routinely test their milk for somatic cell counts (SCC) in accordance with standards set by the state and federal Pasteurized Milk Ordinance regulations.
Milk processing and pasteurization eliminate most somatic cells; however, these cells are a perfectly safe part of milk.
The State of Idaho self imposes more strict standards for SCC than U.S. requirements.

For more information or technical references, contact National Milk Producers Federation ( or Dairy Management, Inc. (