Which Type of Dairy Farm is Right for You?

By Dairy Farming Hut

Cows, Goats, Sheep

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Dairy farming can be a profitable venture, but it comes at a cost. Factors that drive its success include the amount of land, feed, and time allocated to raising dairy cattle. Dairy Farmers must also take into account the risk of spreading disease in their herds, have measures in place to limit this concern, and invest in products necessary for day-to-day operations.

To understand those costs and know which type of farm is right for you, you need to learn more about the different types of dairy farms. Several categories of dairy farms include free stalls, pasture-based, and drylot.

Understanding the ins and outs of different types of dairy farms is important if you're planning to become a farmer someday. Knowing what you are getting into will also make choosing one over another much easier.

Let's discuss each type so you can make an informed decision.

1. Free-Stalls Dairy Farms

cows in freestall dairy farm

Free-stall dairy farms have been a fixture of American agriculture for more than 150 years. The first free-stall barns were built as feedlots in the late 1800s to house cattle being raised for beef or dairy production. Today, free-stall barns are used to house herds of any kind of livestock, including horses, goats, and other small animals.

Free-stalls Dairy farms are often located in rural areas and have lower operating costs because they do not require significant investments in infrastructure. In addition, they are cool temperature-wise as they have adequate ventilation that maintains perfect conditions even in summer. Due to the excellent airflow, free stalls also protect the cows from harsh winter conditions.

Though the quality of milk produced by free-stall farms is lower than commercial milk production, they can be an essential source of income for farmers who may not have access to other markets or have the resources to compete with larger dairies.

Free-stallers also benefit from lower transportation expenses, as well as marketing opportunities such as farm tours. Many free-stall dairy farms also offer educational programs and events for the public.

In addition, free-stall dairy farms are becoming increasingly popular as sustainable alternatives to commercial dairy production. Cows are usually kept in groups, each with its own area to graze, drink and socialize.

2. Pasture-Based Dairy Farms

A pasture-based dairy farm is a type of operation that capitalizes on the benefits of grazing cows. This includes giving cows access to fresh air and sunshine and letting them eat grass and other plants.

In contrast, a factory-based dairy farm keeps the cows in cramped conditions and feeds them large amounts of grain. The result is that factory-based farms don't provide enough nutrition for the cows, and that means they produce lower-quality milk.

Pasture-based dairy farms are often more ecologically friendly and efficient than conventional dairy farms because they rely on the natural grazing cycle and feeding to boost milk production. This is more of a traditional approach to dairy farming where the animals are given an "all-access" pass to graze in the fields and brought back to be milked or when the weather is harsh.

Cows grazing in pasture

Pasture-based dairy farms offer a variety of health benefits for consumers. For example, grass-fed dairy products have higher levels of vitamins and minerals compared to conventional dairy products due to the growth process of the pastured animals. These products are also lower in calories and fat, making them a good option for those trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy diet.

3. Drylot Dairy Farms

Drylot dairy farms are ideal for drier climates with vast landscapes. On drylot farms, cows are provided ample shade and shelter in their graze areas. Some are also equipped with fans with misters for extra comfort (from the harsh climate) for the cows as they graze.

drylot dairy farm

Cows in drylot dairy farms are walked to and from the milking parlors twice or thrice daily and let to free reign as much as they want in their covered shelters afterward. Some drylot dairy farms have structures constructed away from the barn in the outdoors, so the cows benefit from the shade.

4. Housed Dairy Farms

Housed dairy farms are cow-calf operations that confine the cows in barns or large buildings called "year round" or "continuous" housing systems. These farms can be open or closed, with a high degree of control over the environment. The main advantages of housed dairy farms include a more consistent production environment and uniform milk quality.

In addition to the standard benefits of housing, these farms also have lower energy costs due to reduced heat requirements. Housed dairy farms are most commonly used for dairy cattle production. They are more prevalent in small-scale dairies because they allow for greater control over the environment, including temperature and humidity.

Moreover, housing allows for easier access to milking equipment, which reduces labor requirements. There's also less risk of disease transmission between cows and other animals on the farm, such as horses and sheep. Other added elements to ensure the cows' comfort in housed dairy farms include:

  • Bedding and feeding areas
  • Grooming areas
  • Socializing areas
  • Cow showers with sprinklers

While housed dairy farms have some advantages, there are also a few disadvantages. For one, they require more space than open-range dairy operations. They also tend to use more feed and water, which may increase costs compared to open-range systems.

Lastly, there's a greater chance of disease outbreaks in a confined environment like this one, which requires additional monitoring and preventive measures to maintain the health of animals.

5. Experimental Dairy Farms

Experimental dairy farms are those that are constantly trying out new methods and technologies to see what works best for their farm. They are always looking for ways to improve milk production, cow health, and farm efficiency. Experimental dairy farms often have the latest and most beneficial equipment and are always up-to-date on the latest research.

These farms are constantly testing new methods and technologies to improve milk production. For example, they may use robotic milking machines or unique feed formulas. They may also experiment with different techniques of cow management.

Some experimental dairy farms also invest in testing new methods of producing economical dairy foods. In addition, experimental dairy farms collaborate with agricultural research institutes and universities to identify innovative breeding and treatment methods. Such precision technology-intensive farms are at the forefront of major dairy research, such as the introduction of drought-resistant grass.


  • Center for Environmental Farming Systems. (2020). Retrieved October from https://cefs.ncsu.edu/
  • CBC/Radio Canada. The farmer in the Dell® uses a computer to milk the herd | CBC news. CBC news. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/the-farmer-in-the-dell-uses-a-computer-to-milk-the-herd-1.771763
  • Marcum, S. (2022). Shoenberg Farms. Retrieved from https://www.shoenbergfarms.com

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