Dairy Farming Regulations and Compliance

Dairy Farming Regulations and Compliance


Hi there! My name is Michael and I’m a third generation dairy farmer here in Wisconsin. Running our family dairy farm is not only a way of life for me, but it’s also how I make my living. As you can imagine, dairy farming comes with its share of challenges. One of the biggest burdens we face is keeping up with all the regulations and compliance requirements involved in our industry.

Between federal, state and local rules, there seems to be no end to the paperwork, record keeping, and inspections we have to deal with on a regular basis. While regulations are necessary to ensure food safety and environmental protection, they definitely add to the workload and operating costs. Staying compliant isn’t easy either, as the rules seem to constantly be changing. One small mistake can result in fines or even shut down of our farm operations.

In this article, I’d like to give you an insider’s view of some of the key regulatory areas dairy farmers have to deal with. My hope is that by providing more context, consumers and officials alike will gain a better understanding of our challenges. I’ll also touch on how farmers work hard to be good stewards of the land and produce safe, high quality milk. So grab a cup of coffee and join me as I take you through a overview of dairy farming regulations and compliance.

Animal Health and Food Safety Regulations

Let’s start with regulations focused on animal health and food safety, as these are absolutely critical for any dairy operation. One of the primary governing bodies is the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) which enforces a number of federal programs. Some of the top ones dairy farmers have to adhere to include:

  • National Animal Identification System (NAIS): Requires dairy farmers to identify and track where their cattle are located and when they are moved. All cattle movements must be reported.
  • -Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO): Establishes standards like testing, facilities, equipment and protocols that dairy farms and processors must follow to ensure milk is safely produced and processed.
  • -Drug Residue Prevention Program: Provides guidelines for proper use of drugs in dairy cattle. Farmers must follow milk and meat withdrawal times to avoid residue violations in the milk supply.
  • Grade A Milk Program: Specifies requirements for on-farm production of milk that will be used for fluid human consumption. Things like cleanliness, cooling, and safety of facilities and equipment are audited.

In addition to federal standards, individual states also have their own animal health and food safety departments that conduct inspections and oversight. Here in Wisconsin for example, we have to comply with regulations from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

Some of their main requirements include registration and permits for our dairy farm, following protocols for disease control and prevention, record keeping of all veterinary drug and supplement use, and participation in quality assurance and food safety certification programs. We’re also subject to unannounced inspections at any time to check for compliance.

On top of government regulations, the dairy cooperatives and processors we directly sell our milk to have additional food safety and quality standards we must meet as well. These private audits help ensure our product meets the high demands of consumers. Failures can result in milk not being picked up or even loss of contracts.

It’s no secret that dairy farming involves using some veterinary drugs for animal health. But we take great care to only use FDA approved products and follow all requirements around treatment, records, and withdrawal timeframes. The last thing we want is anything showing up in our milk that could potentially harm public health. Food safety is our top priority.

Environmental Regulations

Another huge regulatory area for dairy farming relates to environmental protection and stewardship of our natural resources like land, water and air. As someone who grew up on this farm, I have a deep personal commitment to caring for our environment in a sustainable way for generations to come.

At the federal level, two agencies that set major environmental standards we must comply with are the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Some of their main programs affecting dairy operations include:

  • -Clean Water Act: Regulates discharges into waterways and requires things like manure management plans and waste storage facilities.
  • -Clean Air Act: Establishes emissions standards for things like dust, odors and greenhouse gases from barns, manure storage and land application areas.
  • -Conservation Compliance: Mandates soil and wetland protection through practices like rotational grazing, cover crops and restricted chemical use.

Here in Wisconsin, we also have additional rules enforced by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). These can include things like nutrient management planning, permits for new/expanded facilities, ground and surface water protection measures, and record keeping of all manure application.

Complying with all these water, air and land based regulations requires a significant investment of time, labor and financial resources on our part. But I’m proud of the job we do managing manure, protecting waterways and being wise stewards of our environmental resources. We take these regulations very seriously because caring for the land is caring for our livelihood.

Some of the key practices we employ include:

  • Nutrient testing soils and manure to determine realistic application rates.
  • -Precision manure spreading equipment to place waste in optimal agronomic locations.
  • -Runoff containment structures like berms and terraces to protect water quality.
  • Constructed wetlands for additional treatment of barn runoff before waters discharge.
  • -Following open barn requirements with scrape systems for quick manure removal.
  • -Alternative digesters to capture more methane from manure before it enters atmosphere.
  • -Using buffer strips, cover crops and cross fencing for rotational grazing of pastures.

While regulations add to costs, I believe they help encourage greater adoption of practices like these that benefit both the environment and long term farmland health. Doing right by our natural resources plays a big role in the viability and license to operate of dairy farms for the future.

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Animal Care and Workplace Regulations

Another whole category of rules governs proper care of dairy cattle and workplace safety standards on our farm. Again, we take both very seriously as priorities of our operation. Some top applicable regulations include:

  • -Animal Welfare Act: Sets minimum standards for housing, feeding, watering and daily care of cattle. Things like stall dimensions must meet Cow Comfort requirements.
  • -OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration): Requires compliance with workplace safety protocols and trainings. This includes equipment trainings, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) use, hazard assessments and reporting of incidents.
  • -Migrant Worker Protection Act: Outlines protections and housing conditions for any hired labor on our farm, whether full time employees or seasonal workers.

Here in Wisconsin, we also abide by various standards from our State Department of Workforce Development involving things like workers compensation, overtime pay, rest breaks, payroll documentation. As an employer, paperwork is never ending!

On the cattle care side of things, our practices must align with guidelines around proper milking procedures, calf raising protocols, guidelines for non-ambulatory (sick) cows, protocols during extreme weather, biosecurity measures and more. Private quality assurance programs also audit our animal welfare compliance on top of government rules.

Running a safe, responsible operation where our cattle and employees are well cared for isn’t just about avoiding citations - it’s the right thing to do. Technologies like automatic milking systems, environmental controls in barns and training help make our jobs less physically demanding over time as well. Animal wellbeing and worker safety are core values on our farm.

Dairy Farm Food Labeling and Advertising Regulations

When it comes to marketing and selling our farm's milk and dairy products, there are labeling and advertising regulations we must follow too. The primary agency setting these rules is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some notable guidelines include:

  • -Food labeling laws (NLEA): Requires all key facts like product name, ingredients, nutritional content etc to appear clearly on packaging. Claims have to truthful and not misleading.
  • -Country of Origin Labeling: Specifies rules around how farms and processors indicate where food ingredients are grown/raised and processed.
  • -Food product standards: Outlines standards specific dairy foods must meet to rightfully use names like “milk”, “cheese”, “ice cream” etc which have legal definitions protecting truth in labeling.
  • -Advertising rules: Mandates advertising content including health/nutrition claims back scientific evidence and not be deceptive or make guarantees around certain benefits.

As farmers we have to carefully follow branding and packaging approvals through processors if ever wanting to directly market our farm’s milk. Claims around grass fed, non-GMO,local etc also require verification. State regulations also cover things like on-farm dairy product sales in certain areas.

While labeling may seem straightforward at first glance, getting it right is important for building consumer trust. That’s why we work closely with our marketing partners to ensure any farm brandings or promotions fully comply with all rules. Transparency supports our reputation for quality.


Question: What types of records do dairy farmers have to keep?

Answer: Dairy farmers are required to keep very detailed records on many aspects of their farm. This includes things like animal treatment records, breeding and production records for each cow, nutrient management records of soil tests and manure applications, payroll and employment records, and quality assurance program documentation.

Question: How often are dairy farms inspected?

Answer: Dairy farms can expect both scheduled and unannounced inspections throughout the year to check for regulatory compliance. Inspections may come from various governmental agencies as well as third-party auditors. For example, food safety inspections from the state department of agriculture often occur annually. But the FDA can do unannounced inspections at any time. 

Question: What happens if a dairy farm is found out of compliance?

Answer: The consequences of being out of compliance with dairy farming regulations can vary depending on the seriousness of the issue. Minor administrative violations may result in a warning letter requiring corrective action. More significant violations could bring monetary penalties per offense. Repeat or willful offenses may face daily penalties until resolved.

Question: How do small family dairy farms stay on top of constant rule changes?

Answer: It can definitely be challenging for small dairy farmers to keep up with the constantly evolving regulations. Some ways they actively stay informed and compliant include participating in local farming organizations offering regular educational workshops and seminars on new rules. Many farms also work directly with crop consultants andExtension agents who help interpret regulations. Farmers read agricultural publications and industry group updates. They build relationships with inspectors to ask questions proactively.  

Question: Do consumers pay more for milk due to regulatory costs passed on by farmers?

Answer: There is no doubt that complying with extensive regulations comes at significant financial costs for dairy farmers. Expenses associated with things like waste management systems, nutrient planning, additional labor, software/reporting, and liability insurance all cut into farmer profit margins. As small businesses, these added costs do tend to get passed on somewhat to the consumer over time through higher milk prices at the grocery store. 

Question: What policy changes would help dairy farmers with regulatory burden?

Answer: Some policy adjustments farm advocates suggest could help ease the regulatory load on small dairy producers include extending compliance timelines for major capital investments, establishing small farm exemptions for regulations not impacting food safety or the environment, streamlining duplicative state and federal reporting, offering more compliance cost-share funding for upgrades, increasing outreach from agencies to proactively help problem solve, and finding common sense alternatives to "one size fits all" rules. 


As you can see, dairy farming involves navigating an extensive web of regulations touching on areas from animal health and food safety to environmental stewardship and workplace requirements. While necessary to protect public interests, the regulatory burden puts immense pressure on small farm operations struggling to stay viable. Farmers work hard to follow all the rules and be responsible stewards of their resources. With sensible policy adjustments and collaborative approaches between farmers and officials, the goals of both compliance and farm sustainability can be better balanced. Dairy has been a way of life for generations of agricultural families, so common ground solutions are key for a thriving future industry.

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