Where Does Milk Come From?

I know a lot of people absolutely love chocolate milk, (I prefer oval-tine mixed in with mine). But even if you don’t drink it straight most of us use it to cook pretty regularly. Just because we can buy it in the grocery store behind a shiny pane of glass I still think there is a pretty big gap of knowledge regarding the ‘how’ it actually gets there. Since I was blessed to be a part of the United States Dairy Education and Training Consortium and actually work on a dairy farm during an internship, I got quite a look. I’ve seen dairy farms in New Mexico and how they typically operate in the Midwest as well. So today we’re going to discuss where does milk come from. Specifically from the parlor to your plate!

Where Does Milk Come From?

When it comes to the question where does milk come from, it’s best to start on the farm. Milk comes from cattle that are lactating. This means that for them to naturally give milk that they have recently had a calf (baby cow) and are of course cows (meaning females).


Even though the calves are given their fair share of milk, dairy cows produce plenty! This is why we can utilize it as well.

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Exterior of Milking Parlor

Milking In the Parlor

To answer the question where does milk come from, we need to look where it will physically originate. Dairy cattle will be milked a few times a day typically in what is called a parlor. Dairy cows are creatures of habit and typically expect to be milked at the same time each day so they enjoy the rhythm. They will walk into the holding area of the parlor from the barn on their own accord. Then they will find their place at a stanchion typically. There are a few different types of parlors with parallel areas to milk, a carousel etc. However, there are standard best practices in which it is harvested. The carousel of the farm I worked on held 72 cows!

Interior of Parlor, Milking Carousel


  1.  The udder is wiped down with a cloth to remove any visible debris (manure, bedding, etc.).
  2. Each teat is dipped in an iodine solution to make sure that the area is sterile.
  3. The udder is wiped down one more time to remove iodine that could contaminate the milk.
  4. They teat is next ‘stripped’. This isn’t as scary as it sounds, it just means using your hand to check the milk flow in each quarter of the udder. This ensures milkers can document anyone who isn’t feeling their best so they can receive care.
  5. The individual teat cups from the claw are attached to each quarter of the udder and the cow is milked. This uses a vacuum-like power to massage the teat through it’s rubber lining inside the metal cover and gently pull the product down into a hose. If the parlor utilizes automatic take-off then the claw will release on it’s own when the milk flow slows. If not skilled milkers will take it off at this point. This typically takes about 5-7 minutes for an average cow.
  6. After the cow has been milked the milkers apply a post-milking teat dip which is an iodine solution with a lotion-like solution so the cow’s teats are moisturized and she is comfortable.

This is a video that I took during my internship at Fair Oaks Farms of milk harvesting!

Journey From the Cow to the Bulk Tank

Once the milk has been harvested from the cow it starts it’s journey towards the bulk tank in a hose. Each hose from a claw will eventually join together into a larger hose and eventually a pipe system. This then goes through a preliminary filter. Next it enters a heat plate exchange system. The heat plate exchange system is what chills the milk below forty-five degrees through a series of metal plates.

Now it will enter the ‘bulk tank’ where all of the milk will be stored. The milk is stored here until it is siphoned into an insulated milk tanker. A milk tanker will typically come daily depending on the volume of milk to be picked up. Before milk is ever moved from the bulk tank a test is run to guarantee as a second stage of defense that there are no antibiotic residues. Once inside the tanker it can travel up to twenty-four hours without needing additional refrigeration because of how well the tankers are insulated. Most of the time it may travel a few hours at most to the processor.

Bottling of Milk

We’ve now discussed where does milk come from starting at it’s roots, so let’s take it one step further. Once at the processor it will be tested again to guarantee that the product is strictly milk. Then the milk is pasteurized and homogenized and finally bottled. Pasteurization is what will kill any harmful microbes (bacteria) that may be present. Homogenization takes the fat molecules found in milk and breaks them apart so that they create an even distribution of cream. Milk will now be bottled and shipped to your grocery store. It’s usually only 48 hours old by the time you place it in your cart.

I’ve never been to a processing facility where bottled milk was made. I have been to a cheese plant and let me tell you, it was impressive how clean and orderly everything was.

Milk’s Common Denominator

While sizes of farms and the challenges and opportunities in each region vary, one thing can be certain in discusssing where milk comes from. The milk you’re enjoying is probably from a family farm. That’s because 97% of dairy farms are family owned. They care for the animals and strive to be great stewards of the land. If that wasn’t enough 90% are also part of the Dairy F.A.R.M (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program. This guarantees that dairy farmers must adhere to the highest research based standards for cows and calves. They are evaluated once every three years by county extension agents, university personnel and co-op field staff. In addition to this there is a 3rd party verification system that inspects each farm once annually.

Regardless of where milk does come from (in terms of region) the common denominator is that regardless of where the farm is it is most likely family owned and excellent care is taken of the animals.

Want a delicious recipe I received from an actual dairy farmer? Be sure to check out these 4-Step Sweet Butter Almond Bars!

Thanks for reading!




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