Is Dairy Farming Seasonal? (An In-Depth Look)

By Dairy Farming Hut

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We see milk on the shelves all year round when we go to the shop. But, since cows are mammals like humans, the question begs if they produce milk all year long or if they produce milk seasonally. And if they produce milk seasonally, why is milk always available?

Dairy farming can be seasonal or year-round. Seasonal dairy farming embraces the seasonal cycles of forage growth and cows' estrus cycles, meaning there is a dry period in winter. Year-round dairy farms rotate their herds so that there are always lactating cows they can milk.

Milk lovers genuinely interested in the welfare of dairy cattle are more likely to approve of seasonal dairy farming over its alternative. Cows at seasonal dairy farms are more likely to have a better quality of life because they enjoy pastures and cow socialization more regularly. Additionally, these cows are likely to live longer and be healthier.

Dairy Farming Is, By Nature, Seasonal

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Dairy farming done organically is seasonal because of cows' estrus cycles and natural forage cycles. But, of course, people have manipulated these cycles and crops for financial gain, so many, if not most, dairy farms operate all year round.

The advantage of year-round dairy farming is the financial gain for the dairy farmer. But unfortunately, the cows at these establishments do not enjoy a long and fulfilling existence. Instead, they are often housed under harsh conditions and sold for beef when they are no longer profitable milk producers.

Seasonal dairy farming is a lot more bovine-friendly. While the dairy farmer still aims to make a profit, it is not at the expense of the herd's welfare. On the contrary, the milk produced by seasonal dairy cows is "happier" as the cows spend more time out in the pastures, eating more organically and spending time with their calves.

Seasonal Vs. Year-Round Dairy Farming

Seasonal dairy farming differs from year-round dairy farming in that there is a two-month (60-day) period where milking ceases. This period falls over the winter months when pregnant cows rest before calving in the spring. It also coincides with the seasonal changes of the pastures.

Year-round dairy farming doesn't cease. While each cow should still have two dry months (i.e., no milking), the calving times of the dairy cows are staggered, so there is a constant supply of milk. In some of these dairies, cows don't get to see pastures or the outdoors at all. Instead, they remain confined, fed dry forage, and even get injected with hormones to boost their milk production.

The table below summarizes some key differences between seasonal and year-round dairy farming.

Dairy Cattle Requirements

Seasonal Dairy Farming

Year-Round Dairy Farming


  • Pasture-fed
  • Organic
  • Healthier, more natural diet
  • Dry forage and maybe pasture-fed
  • Not organic
  • Unnatural diet
  • More need for medicine
  • Hormone-treated for increased milk production (rBST)


  • Calving happens in late winter and spring.
  • Cows could be naturally or artificially inseminated.
  • If artificially inseminated, AI occurs 2 to 3 months after calving.
  • Each cow has a 12-month calving cycle.
  • The calf can spend more time with its mother.
  • Calving happens throughout the year.
  • Cows are artificially inseminated.
  • Artificial insemination happens 2 to 3 months after calving.
  • Each cow has a 12-month calving cycle.
  • The calf is removed from its mother within hours or days and bottle-fed.


  • Cows spend the days out in the pasture unless they are being milked.
  • Depending on weather conditions and predators, the cows might spend nights in a shed or pasture.
  • Cows rarely spend time outdoors.
  • Spend most of their time tethered, in a grated pen, or in a holding camp.
  • Many don't get a chance to lie down.
  • Stand on concrete floors all day, every day.


  • Pasture-fed cows are milked twice a day between grazing.
  • Their dry period is usually January and February before calving in spring.
  • These cows are milked two or three times a day.
  • Each cow is milked for 10 months, with a 2-month dry period before calving.

Life Span

  • Pasture-fed cows that enjoy a "natural" lifestyle can live about 20 years.
  • Cows in year-round dairy farms have a life span of about three to four years because they are sold for beef when their milk production decreases (i.e., not profitable enough).

Table 1: Comparison of Seasonal and Year-Round Dairy Farming

14 Advantages Of Seasonal Dairy Farming

While seasonal dairy farming isn't as lucrative as year-round farming (but only by a small margin), it has excellent advantages for the cows, the pastures, and the dairy farmer, of course. The benefits include the following:

  1. Calving is concentrated to a springtime window, so the calves can be raised together in large groups. Additionally, the veterinarian can come to the farm once and vaccinate or treat the cows, reducing callout charges.
  2. Then, the calf-raising facilities can be left vacant for eight months or longer, allowing for improved sanitation and almost no disease carryover.
  3. Feeding in winter is easier. Since dry cows don't eat as much as lactating cows, they need less forage. Additionally, dry cows need maintenance-quality feed, which costs less than high-quality feed for lactating cows. Seasonal herds can eat their winter feed under a break wire in the pastures, and their manure will fertilize the paddock for the next season.
  4. Fewer calving problems because the cows are better exercised from walking to the pastures.
  5. Grain costs are lower.
  6. Housing requirements are minimal. Depending on the region and severity of winter, seasonal cows can spend winters in the pastures. This way, most of their manure stays in the paddocks, and less time is needed to haul manure out of the housing.
  7. Increased profit per cow due to lower input costs.
  8. Less equipment is needed.
  9. More family time and less operator stress in winter months for dairy farmers.
  10. Nutritional needs and pasture growth can be synchronized. For example, during spring, the grass is at its most rapid growth stage, which coincides with the seasonal herd's peak foraging needs.
  11. Only one herd of lactating cows needs to be managed. Even if the herd is significant, they can be fed one grain mix since cows' dietary needs are similar. By not having a dry herd and a lactating herd simultaneously, time spent on handling and management will be reduced.
  12. Pastures are used optimally.
  13. Repairs and maintenance can be done on the vacant milking parlor during winter. This should alleviate the need for downtime during peak milking periods.
  14. Since all cows are in the same stage of estrus, heat detection will be easier. Standing heats will be more readily apparent through observing their interaction, and detection will only be necessary for three months of the year. Additionally, since calving is concentrated, there will be no barn checks for calving cows for 10 months of the year.

The Financial Considerations Of Dairy Farming

During peak pasture time, most pasture-based dairies will experience peak milk production and profit. This profitability has been observed in pasture-based dairy systems in New Zealand, encouraging many year-round dairy farmers to contemplate switching to seasonal dairy farming. This is because many expenses are spared on dry forages for the dairy cows with seasonal dairy farming.

However, seasonal farmers have the following financial implications to consider:

  • They need to ensure they have a herd of calving cows in spring. If not, they must get some in (through purchase or swapping with another farmer).
  • Milk prices reach their peak during a seasonal dairy's dry months. In contrast, the demand for milk, and thus its selling price, is lower during peak milking times.
  • The demand for milk differs between regions and may vary from the statewide market.
  • Seasonal farmers might not benefit from the local cooperative's incentive programs since they do not produce milk consistently throughout the year.
  • Cash flow will be limited during the dry months, so seasonal dairy farmers must plan their finances accordingly. This is especially important if they have employed the services of credit providers that need to be paid monthly.
  • Since seasonal dairy farming is compressed into 10 months, it requires effective management and financial planning. It is an intense period with little room for mistakes.
  • From a laborer's point of view, a seasonal farm that wants to keep its good laborers must be prepared to pay them during the dry months. Otherwise, they could experience a high turnover of staff.


Many year-round dairy farmers contemplate changing to seasonal farming because of the lower operating costs. Of course, seasonal dairy farming has its financial drawbacks because these dairies do not produce milk for two months of the year. However, with good management and financial planning, it is a more ethical way to farm with dairy cows.

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