How Is Dairy Farming Different From Ranching? (Explained)

By Dairy Farming Hut


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Humans have been consuming meat and milk for more than 2 million years. The only significant change that has occurred is the way we get it. Although it is now easier than ever to get meat and dairy, the question is still how do farmers accomplish this. So let's explore the differences between dairy farming and ranching.

The main difference between dairy farming and ranching is the type of cows used. Dairy farms use cows that are slender and can produce up to ten gallons of milk per day. Cattle ranchers use cattle that are big, muscular, and can store lots of fat, such as the Black Angus.

Read on to discover the difference between the cattle, the space required per cow, the equipment needed, and the daily schedules of these two types of farming.

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Ranching Vs. Dairy Farming – The Differences

Many confuse the words ranch and farm as being the same, but they are not. A farm is described as land primarily used to grow and produce a variety of crops or dairy. Ranches are more specific and only specialize in one type of farming, beef and or horses. Ranches are large areas of land with divided pastures used to feed livestock.

Although the words are commonly confused, ranches and dairy farms are similar as both deal with livestock. So what are their other differences?

What Do The Farms Produce?

Cattle ranching produces beef sold in restaurants and grocery stores for human consumption. The beef is also sold to other manufacturing facilities to produce beef products, such as jerky and leather. Dairy farms produce milk sold in grocery stores or to other manufacturing facilities that make dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.

Different Size Cattle

The cows used for ranching and dairy are very different in size.

Beef cattle are larger and more muscular to produce more meat, while dairy cattle are shorter and leaner. Dairy cattle have the ability to produce high quantities of milk.

The Farm Hands

Dairy cattle must follow a strict dietary schedule so that they can produce the highest quality and large quantity of milk. This requires the farm hands to deal with the cattle throughout the day to feed them, clean machinery, and maintain the stalls in the dairy.

Ranchers have more freedom as they spend most of the day checking on the herd, fixing fences, and delivering water to the livestock. Ranchers do, however, cover large distances to have sufficient grazing for the livestock.

The Cost Of Feed

Dairy farmers feed their cows expensive high-quality hay and other feed so that their cows produce quality milk and have the correct nutrients they need.

Ranchers mainly rely on naturally grown grass to feed their cows.

Produce Availability

Dairy farming is done consistently throughout the year to supply the growing demand for milk. Ranching only allows for the cattle to be sold once a year before any returns can be seen.

The Different Cattle Used In Dairy Farming And Ranching

Many will differentiate between the different cows by the color of the hide. Brown and black cows are referred to as beef cows, and black and white spotted cows are for dairy. But these are just the characteristics of two breeds of cow. The brown or black cows are Black Angus, which produce top-quality beef, and the black and white spotted cows are Holstein cows which produce high-quality milk. 

Many other breeds are just as well suited to dairy and beef farming and share similar traits. Dairy farmers and ranchers carefully select their breeding herds to get the cattle's best build, lifespan, weight, and health.

This is done to ensure that the cow's genetics are strong and that they will yield good returns. So let us explore these characteristics that make good cattle.

The Correct Cattle Terminology

There are five cow categories, and these are the correct terms for them.

  • Cow - a cow is a female domestic cow (bovine) that has given birth to a calf.
  • Heifer - a heifer is a female bovine that is yet to give birth to a calf
  • Steer - a steer is a male bovine that has been castrated and cannot reproduce
  • Bull - a bull is a male domestic cow (bovine) that has reached puberty and can breed
  • Calf - a male or female bovine baby

Beef Cattle Characteristics

Beef cattle are built solid and stocky, and they have the ability to store fat. They have rounded bodies with short thick necks and large shoulders and backs, similar to bodybuilders or contestants on the world's strongest man challenge. The bulky muscles and stored fat make great-tasting meat; the meat is lean with large amounts of marbling.

The typical diet for beef cattle is a combination of grasses. In addition, they will feed on some grains when they are older to assist in fattening them up. Beef cattle can be slaughtered between 12 and 24 months, but many ranches will wait till 30 to 42 months so that they have sufficient fat and marbling in their meat.

Heifers, cows, and steers are all used to produce high-quality beef. Beef cows produce milk to feed their calves, but the quality and quantity are insufficient for dairy farming.

Dairy Cattle Characteristics

Many think dairy cows look skinny or underfed, but that is just how they look. They have lean and thin bodies with an angular shape compared to beef cattle. Dairy cows are more like long-distance runners that can eat all they want and not gain weight.

All the dairy cows' energy goes into producing milk. They do not need to bulk up or store fat as they do not need to walk long distances for grazing. They live in free-stall barns or open pastures with food, water, and shelter to keep them happy and comfortable. Dairy cattle feed on a diet of grains and grass.

Dairy cows have large udders that can produce 7 to 10 gallons of milk per day. They are generally milked two to three times per day to relieve excess milk production. Dairy cows can only produce milk if they have calves which typically happens once a year. A dairy cow will be milked for 300 days a year with 60 days of rest. During the resting period, the cow will be ready to calve again.

Dairy bulls are used to inseminate the cows, but they can be used to produce beef if they no longer carry the strongest genes.

The Average Size Of A Dairy Farm And A Beef Cattle Ranch

The size of the farm is a key factor in how many heads of cattle can be sustainable on the piece of land. Although this is different in all parts of the world, the United States has set up guidelines to maintain a sustainable farming future.

Dairy Farm Size

Dairy farming requires land to keep the cattle well-fed and safe. This is around 1.5 to 2.0 acres per head of cattle. Dairy farms in the US range from 50 to 1200 head of cattle, with an average of 900 cattle per farm. This will require 1,800 acres of land for the cattle to walk and graze on.

There are currently over 40,000 dairy farms in the US, with the bulk being in California, Wisconsin, Idaho, and Texas. But dairy farmers do not only produce dairy if they have excess land. They will grow other feeds and grains that can be sold or used in the colder winter months. This allows for alternative sources of income for the farm.

Beef Cattle Ranch

By definition, a farm is considered a ranch at 450 acres, but this will vary depending on the State. There are, however, successful ranches that are 200 acres in size all the way to the King Ranch, with a whopping 825,000 acres. The 1.5 to 2.0 acres per head of cattle is the same in ranching. This will give enough space for grazing. Although, beef cattle do cover larger areas than dairy cattle when it comes to grazing pastures.

There are more than 700,000 cattle ranches in the US, using 614 million acres of land for grazing. That is 27% of the land in the US. This is to cope with the demand for local and exported beef. Ranches sometimes grow their own crops, but this is more State specific.

The Different Equipment Used On Dairy Farms And Cattle Ranches

Dairy farms and cattle ranches work with cattle, so they will have similar equipment, such as tractors, bailers, feeding, and water troughs. However, each has its own specialized equipment that is used. Below are the lists of equipment used on dairy farms and cattle ranches.

Dairy Farm Equipment

Dairy farms must provide shelter for the livestock, but they require specialized equipment to make the cows, process the milk, and store it.

  • Mist Cooling – A mist cooling system is needed to maintain a cool ambient temperature for the cows.
  • Feeding equipment - The feeding equipment will cut the grass and grains into usable sizes. This will be done with several machines, such as green fodder cutters, chaff grinders, and fodder grinders.
  • Pasteurizers – A milk pasteurizer will heat the milk and maintain the temperature for a specific time. It will then stir and cool the milk. This is to kill any bacteria that may be present in the milk.  
  • Separator - Separates the cream from the milk.
  • Milk Storage Tank – The tank where the milk will be stored after pasteurizing
  • Milking Machine - This machine extracts the milk from the cows. They work with vacuum and milk much more efficiently than by hand.
  • Cattle Rails – The cattle rails separate the cows and guide them into their milking pens.

Cattle Ranch Equipment

Ranching cattle do not always require them to sleep in a barn or pen, so shelter is not as necessary, but it is provided if needed. Below is the specialized equipment that is required on a cattle ranch.

  • Fencing Equipment - Fencing equipment is needed as the cattle will move from one pasture to the next. This will require new fencing to be erected or old fencing repaired.
  • Ropes -  The cattle must be caught to be checked in the event of branding or injury
  • Branding Iron – The cattle must be branded as they will be left to graze on large fields. The cattle can easily be identified if they venture into another rancher's land.
  • Transport Trailers – The cattle may be moved to other sections of the ranch that are too far apart, or if the cattle are going to auction
  • Ranch Hands or Cowboys will move the herd to new pastures, brand, and care for the cattle.

The Difference In Daily Routine On A Dairy Farm And Cattle Ranch

Farming is hard work with long days that offer very little time for oneself. Dairy farming and cattle ranching are not for the faint-hearted; they are hands-on approaches to everything. Below are the basic daily schedules on these farms.

Dairy Farming Basic Daily Schedule

Dairy farming start before the sun rises. Below is the schedule for a typical dairy farm.

  • 05h00 – First milking session
  • 07h00 – Cows are fed according to the amount of milk they have produced
  • 09h00 – Cows are left to relax and socialize
  • 12h00 – The cows are fed
  • 14h00 – The cows are left to relax and socialize
  • 15h00 – Cows are given a checkup before the next milking session
  • 17h00 – Second milking session for the day
  • 19h00 – The cows are fed according to the amount of milk they have produced
  • 21h00 – The cows are placed in the barn for the rest of the evening

Cattle Ranching Basic Daily Schedule

Cattle ranching has an early morning that starts before the sun appears on the horizon. Below is the basic schedule for cattle ranching.

  • 04h45 – Feeding and saddling horses
  • 05h00 – Count and check the livestock. If the cattle are on another pasture, the ranch hands will ride to them.
  • 09h30 – Move the herd to a new grazing pasture
  • 14h00 – Return to the ranch
  • 16h00 – Feed the horses
  • 17h00 – Stable horses and round-up cattle that are at the ranch in their pens


Ranching and dairy farming share many similarities, but each has its own set of challenges. They both require early mornings and hard work throughout the day to supply the ever-growing demand for their products. Space is the name of the game if there is any sense of profit to come from all the hard work.

On average, 1.5 to 2.0 acres of grazing land are required per head of cattle. So the more cattle you have, the larger the farm or ranch.

Ranching is by far the easiest to start off with, as minimal specialized equipment is needed. Whereas with dairy farming, the equipment is vital to the profitability and success of the farm. Regardless of the size or equipment needed, dairy farmers and ranchers deserve more praise for their work to provide us with the vital nutrition we need.

So to all the farmers, big and small, thank you!

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