According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Arizona’s dairy industry hit $790 million in cash receipts in 2020 making it the top agriculture commodity in the state (it flips back and forth with beef), this despite all the current challenges with the food supply chain now. And, since June is Dairy Month, we’re celebrating this fine, family-run agriculture industry.

How many active Dairy Farms are in Arizona? While at their peak we had more than 100 family-owned commercial dairies, we now have less than 40 family-owned dairies. With nutritional and genetic improvements, our families can supply plenty of dairy products even with fewer cows.

A recent interview with Wes Kerr of Kerr Dairy and Kerr Family Farms in Buckeye, Arizona helped us understand what it takes to run a dairy. He was our guest on KTAR’s Rosie on the House.

Some fun facts

  1. What’s the largest and smallest operation? Compared to the Midwest, even the smallest dairy in Arizona is large. Our largest dairies can run about 12,000 active milk cows. Our smallest dairy farm is 850 milking cows. In the Midwest, it’s not unusual for a dairy to have no more than 150 cows. For Arizona, the cost to farm means families must go big for “economy of scale,” a proportionate saving in costs gained by an increased level of production and/or larger herds.
  2. How do they raise their herd? With the latest nutritional and technological innovations in dairy cow management. Today’s dairy cows even have pedometers attached to each cow so farmers can track every step a cow takes. The data is uploaded every 15 minutes and a farmer, based on a cow’s activity, can determine exactly what’s happening with her. The data also allows them to predict problems.
  3. What breeds are best? The two most common breeds are the Holstein and Jersey in Arizona. Jersey cows have a higher fat content. Holstein is the most common breed and is known for its black-and-white spots.
  4. How old before they start producing? On average, dairy farmers usually aim for their heifers to become pregnant at around 15 months of age so that they give birth when they are around two years old. A cow must be in lactation to give milk, so a milking cow must give birth to a calf each year.
  5. How much can a cow produce in a day? It varies, but about 10 gallons a day. Another way to look at it: milk production per cow averages approximately 24,000 pounds per year, and she can be milked 305 days per year. This is approximately 75 pounds daily, which averages 2,000 pounds per month, or 465 ½ gallons per month. Ultimately, a healthy cow will produce 15,000 to 18,000 gallons of wonderful milk in a lifetime. A cow's udder can hold 25 to 50 pounds of milk.
  6. How many years will a good cow produce? 5 to 7 years.
  7. How many gallons does that equal over the life of the cow? 15,000 to 18,000 gallons in her lifetime.
  8. What kind of feed do dairy cows require? I’ll leave that to a nutritionist. But in general, a typical cow needs 100 pounds of feed each day of a combination of hay, grain, silage and proteins, vitamins and minerals. Dairy farms contract with nutritionists to prescribe just the right diet. And, it’s different for every stage of a dairy cow’s life. They eat better than you and me. One dairy farmer told me every bite counts and that they “feed for health.” The outcome is amazing milk production.
  9. To put this in understandable terms, a cow that eats only grass produces about 50 glasses of milk a day. A cow that eats grass, corn, and hay, mixed with nutrients like vitamins and minerals, can make about 121 glasses of milk a day.
  10. What is done with all the manure? Dairy farms are daily managing manure including cleaning their pens. They recycle the manure for compost and other purposes. Some even employ methane digesters that can produce methane gas from the manure to generate electricity.
  11. How do you keep Arizona cows cool? Very carefully. Special barns, water misters, and fans help keep the cows cool. If they are heat stressed, they're not healthy and they will not produce as much milk. Arizona dairy farmers care about their cows and go to great lengths to keep them healthy and cool in Arizona.

From Cow to Cup of Milk - The path of the milk from the cow to the grocery store.

  1. What are the steps? The many steps begin with milking the cows and storing the milk in stainless steel storage containers that immediately chill the milk to 37 degrees Fahrenheit. Milk is collected from the farm every 24 hours in large tankers that keep the milk cold during transportation. At the processing plant milk is pasteurized and homogenized before packaging to get ready for the grocery store.
  2. Where is the milk pasteurized and what does that mean? At a milk processing plant. In Arizona, one example is the United Dairymen of Arizona, a Co-op owned by the family dairies. At this facility, the milk is pasteurized and bottled. Pasteurization is the process in which packaged and non-packaged foods are treated with mild heat (<100 degrees Celsius) to eliminate pathogens and extend shelf-life. The process is intended to kill pathogenic bacteria and make food safe to eat.
  3. What’s the difference in whole, 2%, & skim milk? The amount of fat is the only difference between them. Half the calories in whole milk come from fat and one-third of the calories in 2 percent milk come from fat. We learned a fascinating detail about whole milk from Wes Kerr during the radio interview that you’ll have to tune in to hear.
  4. How is the expiration date calculated and how long after the expiration date is milk still ‘good’ for? If you can store your milk for about five days after the sell-by date, subtract the current date from the sell-by date, add five, and you have the number of days your milk will be good for. For example, if I buy milk today that has a sell-by date of Aug 27, it will be good for 15 days, or a little over two weeks. Of course, the nose test works too.
  5. What brands do we look for to know we are supporting local dairy farms? 93% to 97% of the milk sold in our Arizona grocery stores comes from our Arizona family dairies. We have our well-known family local brands such as Danzeisen Dairy and Shamrock Dairy. But that gallon of whole milk you just bought this week also came from a local dairy, it just doesn’t have the farm dairy brand name slapped on the side of the package.

Want to learn more? Select the button below and listen to Arizona Dairy farmer Wes Kerr give more interesting details about Arizona’s Diary Industry. P.S.: You can purchase some of their local-raised meat on their website

Sources: Arizona Farm Bureau, United Dairymen of Arizona, Arizona Milk Producers and Arizona’s dairy farmers.