Caring for our Animals

Dairy farmers are committed to the health and wellbeing of their animals. After all, their cows are their livelihood. Did you know that dairy cows eat around 20 kg of food every day? Read on to discover more interesting facts about dairy cows, including who’s who in the herd, different breeds and how farmers care for them.


Dairy farmers are committed to the health and wellbeing of their animals. After all, their cows are their livelihood.

Dairy farmers follow strict food safety requirements that ensure the cows stay healthy and produce high-quality milk.

Each dairy cow is identified with a unique ear tag that helps the farmer to monitor her regularly. Farmers keep records for each cow, including feed information, health issues and medical treatments. Farmers are highly skilled at identifying sick cows, and cows are closely observed each day. Any change in their health and wellbeing is noted and they’re treated immediately. They also receive regular health checks and preventative treatments.

Sick cows are separated from the rest of the herd until they’re healthy again. These cows are still milked but the milk is kept separate and thrown away. Dairy farmers must keep their milking equipment and sheds clean so cows can be milked in a hygienic environment.

Dairy cows also receive regular health checks and preventative treatments. They are closely observed each day, prior to and during each milking. Any change in their health and wellbeing is noted and they are treated immediately. 

Routine care of individual cows includes:

  • inspections to check for complete recovery after giving birth
  • twice-daily observations during milking
  • comprehensive disease prevention treatments including vaccinations
  • participation in national disease-control programs.

Milking and handling cows in a calm, stress-free environment is important. Routine practices that reduce stress include: 

  • allowing cows to remain in their natural social order when coming into the milking shed
  • providing an environment that respects normal cow behaviour and their responses to light, noise and smells
  • preventing injury to animals by keeping farm facilities such as laneways, fences, troughs and the milking shed in safe working order.


Cows need a balanced diet that gives them enough energy to keep their bodies working and to produce milk. What a cow eats affects how much milk she gives, so farmers need to ensure that their cows have a nutritious diet.

Cows eat about 20 kg of nutritious food a day – equivalent to 103 baked potatoes or 720 slices of bread!

They also need to drink a large amount of water because milk is mostly made of water. Cows can drink about about 100 litres of water (a bathtub full) in a day.

There are five main types of food in a dairy cow’s diet. These are:

  • Pasture: plants grown in grazing paddocks that can be a mix of grasses such as ryegrass or protein-rich legumes such as clover. Fresh pasture is the largest part of an Australian dairy cow’s diet.

cartoon image of clover

  • Hay: extra pasture that’s been dried, cut and made into bales to feed to cows later.

cartoon image of hay

  • Silage: pasture that’s been cut and stored while it’s still green to retain the nutrients.

cartoon image of silage

  • Grains: cereals such as wheat and barley provide more energy than pasture and help cows make more milk. Grains can be crushed and mixed with vitamins and minerals to form pellets. These are usually given to cows at milking time.

cartoon image of pellets and barley

  • Forage crops: special crops are sometimes grown for the cows to graze on during summer, including lucerne, maize (corn), millet, turnips and oats.

cartoon image of maize, oats and lucerne

After each milking session a cow is typically rotated to a new paddock so she can enjoy fresh pasture. This rotation system allows grass to regrow and ensures that cows are always eating the best grass.

Farmers often need to purchase additional feed to supplement what they can grow, especially during periods of climate variability and drought, which can affect water use and pasture growth. Purchased feed can represent over 30% of dairy farm costs – the largest single cost incurred by most farmers.


A dairy herd is typically made up of four groups of cattle:

  1. Cows - the females, who give birth to calves and produce milk. Most of the cattle in a dairy herd are cows.
  2. Bulls - the fathers of the dairy herd. Only a few are needed on a dairy farm though these days most dairy farms use artificial insemination instead.
  3. Heifers - young female cattle, they’re the ‘teenagers’ of the herd and haven’t had calves yet. They’re the second biggest group in the herd.
  4. Calves - baby cattle. Female calves grow into heifers and then milking cows. Male calves may be sold for veal production or raised to become breeding bulls.


There are many breeds of cows in Australia, with Holstein, Jersey and Aussie Red the most popular – and they all have distinctive characteristics.


  • Holstein cows originally came from the Northern Europe. Many breeding animals now come from North America. 
  • These cows are mainly black and white. 
  • The most popular breed in the world and in Australia; nearly 1.4 million of Australia’s 1.65 million dairy cows are Holsteins.
  • Holstein cows produce large quantities of milk; some Holsteins produce 10,000 litres in a year. That’s equal to 5000 two-litre milk cartons (14 cartons every day!)
  • Holsteins are one of the largest dairy animals. Cows can stand over 1.5 metres tall and weigh over 600 kg, while bulls stand over 1.8 metres tall and weigh over 1000 kg (about the same as a small car).

holstein cow


  • Originally came from the island of Jersey (in the English Channel between England and France) and were brought to Australia in 1829.
  • These cows are fairly small, and fawn in colour, with black tips on their muzzles, ears, feet and tails. 
  • The second most common breed in Australia. 
  • Jersey milk is especially creamy, making it ideal for making butter.
  • Jerseys are the smallest of all dairy cows and can weigh up to 500kg.

jersey cow

Aussie Red

  • Bred in Australia by combining Scandinavian Red genetic lines with other Australian Red breeds such as the Illawarra and Ayrshire.
  • These cows are medium-sized and mainly red in colour, with white markings.
  • An extremely hardy breed that produces milk with a high protein content and medium milk-fat content.

Aussie red cow


  • Developed in the Illawarra region of New South Wales by crossbreeding a number of breeds. They were recognised as a new Australian cow breed in 1910. 
  • Rich red in colour with a little white on the flanks.
  • Illawarra cows produce large quantities of milk; many Illawarra’s produce more than 40 litres per day.

illawarra cow

Brown Swiss

  • Originally from Switzerland. 
  • One of the most common breeds in the world.
  • Solid brown in colour, varying from very light to dark.

brown swiss cow


  • Originally from the Isle of Guernsey, a tiny island in the English Channel. 
  • Fawn in colouring with white markings.
  • Milk is a distinctive golden colour.
  • On average a Guernsey produces 22 litres of milk per day.
  • By age three a Guernsey cows weigh 600 kg.

Guernsey cow


  • Originally from the County of Ayr in Scotland and imported to Australia in the 1850’s.
  • Colour varies from light to deep cherry red, mahogany, brown, or a combination of these colours with white. Some are all white.

Brown and white coloured cow


About 12 to 24 hours after birth, calves are weaned off their mothers but are still given milk to drink. The first milk they’re given comes straight from their mother and is called colostrum. This is a special type of milk packed with nutrients and antibodies to help the calf develop and to build its immune system against diseases and unhealthy bacteria. Rearing young calves in a clean, warm environment away from the adult herd helps protect them from many diseases and parasites.

Colostrum is milked into a bucket and fed to the calf in a bottle with a large rubber teat. Some calves are fed milk from a special feeder called a calfateria that can feed several calves at the same time. Calves are given free access to fresh water and introduced gradually to solid foods specially designed for young calves are over the first few weeks of life. The calves soon learn to eat grass and often get to eat the best pasture on the farm to help them grow strong.

Boy hand feeding calf with bottle