Farm to Table: An Insider's Look into the Process

  • Article
  • September 25, 2015

Milk comes from a cow: but how does it end up at your local store?

Here’s an insider’s look into the process. In the two days (on average) it takes for milk to travel from the farm to your local dairy case, it goes through several steps to ensure its freshness and purity. In fact, those steps make milk among the most regulated foods you can buy at the store.

It begins on the dairy where farmers and their team take good care of their cows. This means ensuring cows have the right amount of nutritious food, plenty of fresh, clean water, and comfortable bedding and housing. These factors help keep cows healthy. Farmers also keep their cows comfortable all year long by providing water misters and fans in the summer and curtains in the winter to protect animals from the wind and snow.

When it’s time to be milked, the cows enter the milking parlor. While there are different styles of milking parlors, farmers use best practices to ensure the safety of your milk. One way they do that is by using mechanical milkers. This technology, which has been in place on most U.S. farms since the 1920s, are more sanitary and comfortable for the animal than milking by hand. Regardless of the farmer parlor style, human hands don’t touch the milk.

As the milk is collected, it’s the same temperature as a cow’s body: About 100 degrees. The milk then travels to a tank where it is quickly cooled to 45 degrees or less to ensure quality and safety.

Insulated milk trucks visit dairy farms on a regular basis (including several times throughout the day, every day, depending on the size of the farm) to pick up the milk and take it to a processing plant. There, milk is further tested for quality and safety.  

At the processing plant, the milk goes through several steps, including:

Standardization: Milk goes through a process called standardization, which separates skimmed milk from the cream. Once the two are separated, they can then be rejoined with different fat percentage levels.

Pasteurization: After standardization, the milk is quickly heated, which kills any potential disease-causing bacteria that may have been in the unpasteurized milk.

Homogenization: Finally, milk is homogenized: the fat in the milk is broken into smaller particles so it doesn’t separate and rise to the top.

Additionally, milk may be fortified with vitamins A and D to make it more nutritious.

At this point, the milk is bottled before heading to the store!