A dairy farmer cares for his cow

Animal Care Is Our Business

From providing shelter and nutritious food to around-the-clock care, tending to dairy cows is a labour of love. When you love working with animals, providing the best possible care comes naturally. Here’s how Canadian dairy farmers are helping their animals thrive.

Good care, good business

Providing excellent care is one of the most important job requirements when you’re a Canadian dairy farmer. Dairy farmers understand when a cow is at her most productive and when she’s feeling under the weather.

Dedication is a must and considerable knowledge is key. That’s why Dairy Farmers of Canada invests in research to ensure our dairy industry’s practices stack up to the science. We help Canadian dairy farmers stay abreast of animal science research and on-farm innovations to give our dairy cows a better quality of life. The best part? Happy, healthy cows make better milk.

Knowing who’s who

Canadian dairy farmers are experts at identifying every one of their animals. They know the ancestry of every cow. When a farmer buys a cow from another farm, he or she can access genetic and genomic data as well as a production analysis specific to that cow. Knowing as much as possible about every cow is essential to animal health and welfare. It helps dairy farmers keep the herd strong and productive.

A day in the life of a Canadian dairy cow

Canadian dairy cows are on average milked twice daily. On farms with robotic milking technology, each cow decides when to be milked. Some cows prefer to be milked 3 times a day, others more, and others less. It takes approximately 6 minutes to milk a cow. So how does a cow spend the rest of the day? Here’s what the average day looks like for a Canadian dairy cow:

6 hrs for eating + 8 more hours for chewing her cud (food returned to the mouth from the stomach for further chewing)
11 hrs for resting and lying down – she may multi-task by also socializing with other cows or chewing her cud
4 hrs for sleeping – with all that time spent resting and lying down, this girl doesn’t need much beauty sleep!

Barn sweet barn

Cows enjoy the comfort and safety of the indoors. The barn is where the cows can access food and water, lie down, and socialize with herd mates. Here in Canada, barns are adapted to our four-legged friends and our harsher climes. Barns don’t need to be heated as cows don’t mind the cold, but they require proper ventilation in order to control humidity and provide fresh air.

Farmers typically define their barn type based on the milking technology in use. The 3 principal barn types are: free-stall, tie-stall, and robotic milking.

In free-stall barns, cows move between different sections of the barn for milking, lying down, drinking, and eating.

In the traditional tie-stall barn, each cow has her own stall with bedding and free access to food and water in her individual manger. In this setting, it’s the farmer who moves between cows to milk them. These cows are more often let out to the pasture in nice weather.

In barns equipped with robotic milking technology, the cow decides when and how often she will be milked. These barns offer the same amenities for feeding, drinking, and lying down as free-stall barns.

Most barns feature stalls which provide insulation, warmth, and dryness. Stalls offer a soft surface for resting as well as the necessary space for a cow to enjoy natural and comfortable postures, like standing up or lying down. Alternatively, some farms aim to replicate a pasture setting indoors, with no stalls at all. This is called a deep-bedding pack barn. By composting manure, this type of barn offers a large comfortable surface for cows to roam and rest on.

A barn with a view at MacInnis Brothers Farms in St. Peter’s Bay, Prince Edward Island.
A barn with a view at MacInnis Brothers Farms in St. Peter’s Bay, Prince Edward Island.

What’s for lunch?

A dairy cow’s diet is composed of forage (pasture, silage, or dry hay), grains (barley, corn, or soy), and mineral and vitamin supplements for optimal health. To feed their animals year-round, Canadian dairy farmers grow perennial crops such as alfalfa and grass, which are legumes that add nitrogen to the soil, enriching its organic matter. The long roots of these crops help stabilize the soil and transfer carbon from the air to the soil as they naturally die and decompose, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Canadian dairy farmers also work closely with nutritionists who help formulate diets that work best for their specific cows. This includes choosing the right vitamin and mineral supplements to ensure all cows enjoy a well-balanced diet.

To help Canadian farmers find the best balance for herd health, producing milk, and the environment, Dairy Farmers of Canada continually supports research and access to the latest scientific knowledge. Balancing these elements is what we call feed efficiency.

Cow comfort, in sickness and in health

Although Canadian dairy farmers do their best and work with veterinarians to control and prevent illness from affecting their herd, animals sometimes get sick.

Canadian dairy farms must prove they work alongside a veterinarian before being allowed to sell milk. 

If a cow falls ill, dairy farmers and their veterinarian work together to provide proper care, which can include antibiotic treatment. When a cow is treated with antibiotics, the cow will continue to be milked as per her physiological needs, but her milk will be discarded. When a cow is given antibiotics, farmers adhere to a withdrawal period outlined by Health Canada which ensures the cow gets the care she needs and that the milk we consume is free of antibiotics.

A dairy farmer takes care of calves in a group pen
Nancy Wert tends to calves in a group pen at Stanlee Farms in Ontario.

Growing up dairy

As calves are born with a weak immune system, they need extra care and attention. Farmers ensure their calves receive the important antibodies found in the colostrum (the first form of milk produced by the mother following birth) within 4 hours of being born.

On many farms, calves are first bottle-fed and housed in individual hutches. As they get older and their immune system matures, they are weaned and transferred to group pens with other calves of the same age and size. A calf will finally become a cow at around 2 years old. However, a cow will only give milk once she’s given birth to a calf of her own.

A dairy farmer feeds a calf
Feeding a calf at Philippot Farms in St. Claude, Manitoba.

Our commitment to animal care

Through the proAction initiative, we’ve set standards and measurable goals for our industry in 6 key areas, one of which is animal care. We believe that to be proud of our industry, we must have a stake in shaping better animal care policies and be held accountable for our practices. Through constant dedication to improving our methods, we can contribute to a better quality of life for our animals.


Dairy Farmers of Canada and the National Farm Animal Care Council. “Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle.” dairyfarmers.ca


Laura Solana et al. “Associations between lying behavior and lameness in Canadian Holstein-Friesian cows housed in freestall barns.” journalofdairyscience.org


Shane St. Cyr. “Rumination data delivers cow health knowledge.” progressivedairy.com


Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Canadian Dairy Network. “Canadian Dairy Research Portal.” dairyresearch.ca


What’s next?

Discover the proAction initiative

See how Canadian dairy farmers are putting their commitments in action, from animal care to environmental sustainability.

Learn more
Dairy cattle care from A to Z

Download the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle, the fundamental resource for every Canadian dairy farmer.

Our legacy for future generations

Explore our commitment to the environment, from improving dairy farming practices to ensuring future generations can provide for themselves.

Learn more

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