How Milk Mooooves

By Kari Carlson
AgFirst Farm Credit Bank

The dairy industry has been in the news quite a bit lately, so I thought I'd write about how it works. Have you ever wondered how milk actually gets from Bessie to the grocery store, or how prices are set? It's sort of complicated, but let me try to explain.

Dairy cows, many of which are black and white Holsteins, produce about six to eight gallons of milk a day, which is more than 2,300 gallons a year. Holsteins' milk is made up of 87.7 percent water, 3.7 percent milk fat, and 8.6 percent skim solids. Dairy cows are usually milked twice a day using mechanical vacuum milking machines, and the milk flows from the cow through glass or stainless steel pipes into a refrigerated milk tank. There, it is cooled to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Within just a few hours, the milk is pumped into a refrigerated truck and taken to a processing plant. Before it is unloaded, it is checked for antibiotic residue and, if all is clear, is pumped into refrigerated tanks at the plant.

Next, the milk goes through a series of events - separation of the heavier milk fat from the lighter milk to produce cream and skim milk; pasteurization, which heats the milk to high temperatures to kill harmful bacteria; and homogenization, the process that reduces the size of fat globules into tiny bits that are dispersed evenly throughout the milk. Homogenization gives milk its rich, white color and smooth texture. The milk is then cooled back down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and pumped into coated paper cartons or plastic bottles, ready to be sent to retail outlets. These steps, all taken with safety and quality in mind, ensure that we, the consumers, receive a fresh and wholesome product.

As far as how prices are set, many dairy farmers are paid under the Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) program. The objective of the program is to maintain orderly marketing conditions and assure that we, the consumers, have an adequate supply of wholesome milk at all times. An FMMO is a regulation issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that sets the minimum price, by geographic region, that processors and handlers are allowed to pay to dairy farmers for milk. About 70% of U.S. milk production is regulated by FMMOs. The price that farmers are paid has been volatile for years, which has created a chain of boom and busts felt from the pastures to the grocery store.

I hope my explanation of the milk production process makes sense. Thanks to the farmers and processors who produce our milk and other dairy products. We all reap the benefits. Now, go buy yourself a gallon! After all, what goes better with your favorite sweet treat than an ice-cold glass of milk? Come to think of it, a tall glass would be good right about now.

Dairy: Background. 19 March 2009. 4 June 2009
Dairy: Policy. 20 March 2009. 4 June 2009
Federal Milk Marketing Orders. 27 May 2009. 4 June 2009
Milk Cows and Milk Production. 4 June 2009

Special thanks to the folks at the University of Wisconsin’s Dairy Marketing and Risk Management Program, whose Web site provided me with great information and data for this article. For more information about the dairy industry, check out their site at



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