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Farming dairy cattle


Many dairy cattle are housed during the winter period, when grass is not growing.

Some herds may be housed all year-round (known as ‘zero-grazing’). The RSPCA does not support systems housing dairy cattle all year round.

Two types of housing system are generally used:

  • Loose housing - where cattle can freely move around inside a building, which is at least partly bedded to give a lying area.
  • Cubicle housing - where the building has lots of separate ‘cubicles’ (at least one per cow), divided by barriers, and cows can freely enter, lie-down in, and leave them.

On some farms cattle may also be provided with additional ‘loafing’ areas for exercise.


  • Cattle are moved to a collecting yard for milking. From there they enter the milking parlour, of which there are a number of different designs. 
  • Robotic milking machines are used on some farms. These automatically connect to the cows' teats, and can be used to provide the cows with a ‘self-service’ facility to allow them to choose when they want to be milked. This also allows the stockperson more time to observe the animals.

Working lifecycle of the dairy cow

  • Dairy cattle normally have their first calf at two years of age, and will be milked two or three times per day for 10 months with a two month rest before calving again. 
  • In the UK, the average working lifespan of a dairy cow is around four lactations (milk-producing periods), and hence many dairy cows are culled when they are relatively young.
  • A typical dairy cow can produce 6,000 to over 12,000 litres of milk (10,560 and 21,120 pints) in a single lactation (milk producing period) of 305 days.


In the UK, around 95 per cent of dairy cows are the black and white Holstein breed. Other breeds include the British Friesian, Jersey, Guernsey, Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Montbeliarde and Dairy Shorthorn.

Number of dairy cattle

In 2013, the UK dairy herd comprised of nearly 1.78 million cows¹.

¹Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (2014) EBLEX UK Yearbook 2014: Cattle. Warwickshire: EBLEX

Find out about the key welfare issues affecting dairy cattle.