Humans, Cattle and Milk Production

I suppose that it isn’t surprising that many people who’ve been raised in cities often don’t know a great deal about such things as milk production, having never been around cattle. So it was with a question I recently saw and answered that was along the lines of, “Why can’t humans continually produce milk like cows and other animals?”

To begin with, the question is based on an incorrect premise. Cows and other animals don’t continually produce milk. It is easy to see why a city person might think otherwise if they’ve never been around a dairy farm or private farm to see what is involved.

Mammals, including humans, begin lactating or producing milk when the female becomes pregnant. Milk is designed to be a rich source of nutrition for the young. In the case of cattle, a female that hasn’t yet had a calf is called a heifer. The farmer breeds her with a bull and when she is pregnant, she begins to produce milk. She is also a cow and no longer a heifer when she becomes pregnant. 

However, she doesn’t produce milk indefinitely. After a time, the milk production wanes and the farmer again breeds her with a bull so she can produce more milk.

This isn’t greatly different than a human female. She begins lactating during pregnancy, but not continuously. If she has the stimulation of the mammary glands, usually through breastfeeding in humans and milking in cows, she can produce milk for quite a while. In some cultures, it isn’t uncommon for women to breastfeed their children until the children are 2 or 3-years-old or older. In a few cases, human children were still breastfeeding beyond the age of 6. The woman is producing milk the entire time. In fact, in some places, there are professional nursemaids who breastfeed the children of other women. This is how stimulation plays a big role, too. If a woman gives birth and doesn’t continue breastfeeding or doesn’t breastfeed in the first place, she’ll stop lactating and will ‘dry up’. 

Cows are the same way. Stimulation is necessary but even with stimulation, the cow doesn’t produce milk forever. She must be periodically bred for milk production to continue.

One of the biggest differences between women and cows in regard to milk production is the amount of milk produced, however, this isn’t surprising, either. A calf requires a great deal more milk than a human infant, so cows produce more milk.

Incidentally, this brings up a peeve of mine. People often refer to bovines as cows. Only female cattle that have had a calf are cows. The collective term for a group of bovines is cattle, not cows. A heifer is a female that has never had a calf. She isn’t a cow until she becomes pregnant. Bulls definitely aren’t cows and will never become pregnant, so they will never be cows. Steers are neutered bulls, so they will never be cows, either. Yet, I’ve heard people refer to a field full of cattle as being grazed by cows. Words do mean things.

Anyway, the point is that milk production isn’t continuous and endless in any mammal, including cows and humans. In order to continuously produce milk, they must occasionally be bred.

  • Did you know that for a cow to produce milk, she must be bred periodically?

    • Yes
    • No
    • I didn’t know the difference between a heifer, cow, bull, and steer


What do you think?


Written by Rex Trulove

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    • Few fields in the US that are occupied by cattle contain a bull either. A farmer can make quite a bit of money if he has a bull and often takes him from place to place to breed cows and heifers for a price.

      In the US, most cattle in fields are steers that are raised as meat. I’d say that accounts for probably 80% of the beef in the US. The US does produce a lot of milk, but there are relatively few fields that are all cows.

      • Although there are both beef and dairy herds in the UK, I think it is true to say that dairy outweighs beef. We are simply not as big a meat-eating country as the US – we don’t live on quarter-pounders!

        On the other hand, milk production is in decline because many farmers can no longer make a profit from selling liquid milk – the supermarkets will not pay a price that is economically feasible for the farmers. A lot of milk is now going into cheese production, which is a huge industry in this country with dozens of cheese varieties on offer.

        • Cheese is a big industry in the US, too, particularly in states like Wisconsin. In 2018, the USDA listed the number of milk cows in the US at about 9,400,000 head. These produced about 217.5 million pounds of milk. A lot of this was exported (close to a million pounds) The USDA doesn’t list the amount of milk in gallons, for a few reasons, but a gallon of milk weighs about 6.5 pounds. Of milk production, about 1.1 million pounds are used to make cheese in the US each year. Our in-store milk prices have remained stable for the last few years at about $3.99/gallon.

          You’re right, though, the US raises a substantially larger number of beef cattle yearly. There may be a bit less than 10 million head of milk cows, but there is over 93 million head of beef cattle in the US per year. The amount of meat that we export is staggering. However, China and India produce far more beef cattle than the US does.

          In comparison, according to the British National Beef Association, there are about 9.3 million head of beef cattle in the UK and 1.6 million head of milk cows. The UK also exports a lot of beef, mostly to Europe. The UK exports about 24,000 tonnes of beef per year.

        • Interestingly, according to the NBA, the average amount of beef and veal consumed in the UK is about 18.4 kg or 40.5 pounds per person per year. Americans eat about 55.6 pounds of beef per year, per person, and this number is increasing. The surprising part is that there isn’t a huge disparity. Americans only eat about 15 pounds more beef per year per person. I would have thought that the number would be much higher.

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