What Does a Dairy Farmer Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills & More

A day in the life of a dairy farmer: Agricultural experience and education, mechanical skills, analytical skills to maintain health and production strength of cows, physical strength for strenuous, repetitive tasks

The Balance / Lara Antal

The primary duty of a dairy farmer is to manage dairy cows so that they produce maximum quantities of milk. Most farms have a staff to be supervised ranging from a few employees to several dozens, so personnel management skills are also beneficial to a dairy farm manager.

Dairy Farmer Duties & Responsibilities

The job generally requires the ability to do the following tasks:

  • Feed cows, administer medication, and clean waste
  • Operate milking equipment to milk cows
  • Ensure that all farming and milking equipment is properly maintained
  • Work in conjunction with large animal vets to provide herd health management, veterinary treatments, and routine vaccinations
  • Consult with animal nutritionists and livestock feed sales representatives to create feeding plans that yield maximum milk production levels

Dairy farmers care for cows that supply milk and oversee the harvesting of their milk. Some dairy farmers own their cow herds, as well as the land that the farm is on. Others work on large farms owned by corporations in the food and agriculture industries. Some farms, especially small operations, grow and harvest feed for their cattle on site. They may also breed and raise their own replacement heifers.

Dairy Farmer Salary

A dairy farmer's salary can vary depending on the location and size of the farm. The average pay here is for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers. (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't break out dairy farmers specifically.)

  • Median Annual Salary: $69,620
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $135,900
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $35,560

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017

Dairy farmers must deduct a number of expenses from their net profits to determine their final profits or salary for the year. These expenses include the cost of labor, insurance, feed, fuel, supplies, veterinary care, waste removal, and equipment maintenance or replacement.

Education, Training, & Qualifications

Experience: Direct, hands-on practical experience working on a farm with dairy cows is an important prerequisite for becoming a dairy farmer. There is no substitute for learning the business from the ground up. Most dairy farmers either grow up on a farm or apprentice with an established operation before venturing out on their own.

Many aspiring dairy farmers also learn about the industry early on through youth programs. These organizations, such as Future Farmers of America (FFA) or 4-H clubs, give young people the opportunity to handle a variety of farm animals and to participate in livestock shows.

Education: Even if they inherit the family farm, most dairy farmers hold a two- or four-year degree in dairy science, animal science, agriculture, or a closely related field of study. Coursework for such degrees generally includes dairy science, anatomy, physiology, reproduction, crop science, farm management, technology, and agricultural marketing.

Dairy Farmer Skills & Competencies

To be successful in this role, you’ll generally need the following skills and qualities:

  • Mechanical skills: Dairy farmers must be able to operate and maintain complex machinery.
  • Physical strength: The job involves strenuous, repetitive tasks, such as lifting and bending.
  • Analytical skills: Critical to the success of a dairy farmer is the ability to assess the health and production strength of its cows, as well as the factors that influence that.
  • Interpersonal skills: Dairy farmers may need to supervise laborers and other workers, and they also may need to work with vets and nutrition specialists to coordinate care and feeding of the cows.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that job opportunities for farm and ranch managers will decline 1 percent through 2026. This reflects the growing trend towards consolidation in the industry, as small producers are absorbed by large commercial operations.

Work Environment

As is common with most agricultural management jobs, work occurs outdoors in varying weather conditions and extreme temperatures. Working in close proximity to large animals also makes it imperative that dairy farmers take proper safety precautions.

Dairy farmers may be self-employed or work for a large corporate entity. Some farmers, especially smaller self-employed producers, are part of cooperatives such as Dairy Farmers of America. Cooperatives can negotiate competitive rates as a group and have special access to guaranteed markets for their milk.

Work Schedule

The hours a dairy farmer works may be more than a typical eight-hour work day, and night and weekend shifts are often necessary. The work generally begins before dawn each day.

Comparing Similar Jobs

Those interested in dairy farming may also consider other career paths with these median salaries:

  • Agricultural Engineer: $74,780
  • Animal Care and Service Worker: $23,160
  • Agricultural Worker: $23,730

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017