Have you ever wondered how a field of grass or bale of hay is transformed into one of nature’s most perfect foods? If you asked one of America’s hardworking dairy farmers, he’d take you on this journey of how milk is made on his farm, then pasteurized and bottled for supermarket dairy cases all across the country.
The story of milk starts with dairy cows: Nine million of them live on America’s 50,000 dairy farms, producing an incredible 23 billion gallons of milk each year. Those are big numbers, for sure, but most dairy farmers actually work with herds of 100 cows or fewer on small, family-owned farms. There, farmers encourage their herd to spend most of each day doing exactly what cows are meant to do: Eat! Dairy cows feed on up to 40 pounds of grass, hay and corn every day, and are milked in milking parlors two to three times a day, every day of the year. Pump-like milking machines make the process faster, more efficient and safer, as the milk is never touched by human hands.
After the cows are milked, farmers move the fresh milk through a piping system to a refrigerated holding tank, where it’s quickly cooled to 45° F and tested for safety and quality. Every 24 to 48 hours, the milk is transferred to an insulated transport tank that delivers it to a local processing plant. Upon arriving, samples of the fresh milk are tested again to ensure they’re free of added water or antibiotic residues (in fact, milk is tested an average of 17 times throughout the production process). Producing the best milk possible is important for hardworking dairy farm families. Not only is providing safe, wholesome, high-quality milk the right thing to do, farmers risk fines and other penalties if they don’t meet stringent quality standards.
To produce dairy that’s delicious, nutritious and safe, fresh milk is processed in three major steps. First is standardization, which uses powerful spinning and screening machines to divide the milk into skim and cream portions. A portion of the cream is then added back to create full-fat (whole), reduced-fat (2 percent) or low-fat (1 percent) milk varieties. (Fat-free or “skim” milk is produced at the initial separation stage.)
Pasteurization is next: The milk is flash-heated to 161° F, which increases its shelf life while killing any potential disease-causing microorganisms that might be present. Finally, the milk is forced through small holes under very high pressure during a process called homogenization, which distributes fat evenly throughout the milk and prevents cream from rising to the top.
After homogenization, the transformation from the farm to a tasty, nutritious beverage is nearly complete. Packaging is the final step where milk is bottled and shipped to local grocery stores and supermarkets.
Meanwhile, back on the farm, the cows are still grazing, the farmers are still working and the cycle begins once again. Makes you look at your morning bowl of cereal a little differently, doesn’t it?
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