• Kate Ayers

Delivering dairy goodness from farm to fridge

Coffee’s partner in crime, cereal’s other half, a cracker’s best friend - what do these tasty combinations share? These snacks all contain undeniably dairy products.

In 2018, Canadians consumed 65.9 litres of milk per capita, Statista’s website says. On average, each person also ate 14.5 kilograms of cheese, 3.3 kilograms of butter and 10.2 kilograms of yogurt, the Canadian Dairy Information Centre website says.

But who are the people at the farm level who help make this dairy production possible?

When you think about farmers, you may first picture the stereotypical “Old McDonald” persona with straw hats and pitch forks.

However, to meet demand, all agricultural sectors, including the dairy industry, have become increasingly technical and progressive. In fact, over half of all Canadian farmers have attended university or college. About 28.7 per cent of Canadian farmers are female. And more young farmers are entering the industry.

What do dairy farms look like?

While some consumers may believe that factory farms are the norm and mega companies rule the agricultural landscape, 97 per cent of all Canadian farms are family owned. Farms are often passed down from generation to generation.

In total, Canada has 10,371 dairy farms, which are home to over 1.4 million head of cattle. Quebec has the highest number of farms, followed by Ontario, says the Canadian Dairy Information Centre website. On average, a Canadian farm has 83 cows and farmers milk these cows two to three times a day. Each cow produces about 29 litres of milk each day.

Gone are the days when farmers would kneel alongside a cow with a bucket to milk her by hand. Now, farmers have sophisticated equipment and technology to automate and quicken the milking process. These advancements make dairy operations more efficient, sustainable and above all, ensure cow comfort (More on animal welfare and cows’ production cycles in future posts – stay tuned!).

How is raw milk transformed into consumable products?

So, now that we know who is helping the cows produce milk, the next step is learning how your milk travels from farms to processing plants – the facilities that package fluid milk and transform milk into other products.

Bulk milk graders pick up raw fluid milk from farms. These graders are certified by provincial dairy organizations and ensure that the milk they transport meets Canada’s highest quality standards. Graders check the milk’s temperature, odour and appearance, and send samples to a lab for testing. These samples also verify that the milk is antibiotic-free! Farmers face stiff penalties if their milk does not meet certain criteria. They then grade the milk before transferring it from the farmer’s milk tank to a stainless-steel tanker for transport. Depending on the size of the farm and storage capacity, milk graders and their trucks may visit farms each day or every other day. The last step is to deliver their loads of milk to processing plants.

Canada has three main dairy processors that process 90 per cent of our country’s milk - Saputo, Agropur and Parmalat. These companies buy fluid milk from provincial cooperatives (farmers are members of these cooperatives), pasteurize milk and then make it into a range of products you enjoy. These products are then sent to grocery stores.

Typically, the milk picked up from a farm in the morning is in a processing plant by days end, regardless of when it was picked up, says Michael Barrett, the CEO of Gay Lea Foods. “Even milk that is transferred from Ontario to Quebec, for example, is in the plant by days end, and processing starts. About 90 per cent of the milk picked up at the farm is used within 24 hours.

The travel time for cheese depends on the type. Cheese curds, for example, are processed from fresh milk daily. Fun fact - the squeakier the curds, the fresher they are! Fresh cheeses such as ricotta and mozzarella are processed daily. Cheddar ages for three weeks before it is cut. All cheeses are produced in a 40-pound (18.1-kilogram) block, aged and then cut, Barrett says.

The Canadian Dairy Commission sets the price of milk products including fluid milk, yogurt, butter, cheese, ice cream and milk ingredients, says Kevin MacLean, a dairy farmer from Napanee, Ont. Processors purchase products at that set price and then market and price their manufactured product to the retailer. The retailer, or grocery stores, set the final price for their products on the shelf, he says.

Milk is considered a staple food because it provides energy and protein. In my family’s household when I was growing up, we had milk at every meal. Milk brings back nostalgia of sitting around the dinner table with family, setting out Santa’s milk and cookies on Christmas Eve, and making silly milk mustaches. Today, milk is still a staple ingredient in my daily meals and it’s a perfect post-workout recovery drink. A tall, cold glass brings comfort and can arguably quench any thirst.

In addition to milk, Canadians can savour the creamy rich goodness of cheese, butter and ice cream - just to name a few.

Last year, the top domestically consumed dairy products included: - Fluid milk

- Cheese

- Cream

- Yogurt

- Butter

But these cookie-dunkin’, spoon-lickin’, toast-lovin’ items not only satisfy our cravings and pack a nutritious punch, dairy products contribute a significant amount to our country’s economy.

In 2018-2019, Canadian dairy farmers’ herds produced 92 million hectolitres (92 billion litres) of milk, the Canadian Dairy Information Centre website says. This volume would fill 36,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools!

In total, Canadian dairy products contributed $6.64 billion to the country’s gross domestic product last year.

In addition, the dairy industry supports over 42,000 jobs, the 2016 census of agriculture data shows.

So, next time you head to your local grocer, make sure to choose dairy products that have the blue cow logo.

This little blue cow means that the product is made with 100 per cent Canadian milk and milk ingredients. The logo also means that you are choosing a quality product that supports Canadian farmers and local businesses, which is a pretty sweet deal!

Where do astronauts stop to get a drink?

The Milky Way!!

Article reviewed by Kevin MacLean and Michael Barrett to confirm accuracy of information. Sources:










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