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Dairy Council

Farm Life

Working with Nature

There are over 3,000 dairy farms in Northern Ireland, all are family-owned and many have passed through several generations.

Our dairy farmers recognise they are custodians of the land with a responsibility to make sure our natural resources are well managed. Animal welfare is very important and taking the best possible care of their cows is a top priority for Northern Ireland dairy farmers. 


Chef Gemma Austin tells us about the work of Northern Ireland dairy farming families

Did you know?

  • Holsteins are the most common breed of dairy cow in Northern Ireland

  • A cow will eat approximately 100kg of grass a day, which is the same weight as a large man

  • Cows have 4 stomachs

  • Cows are herbivores (this means they only eat plants and grass)

  • Cows' complex digestive systems allow them to turn grass and other plants which are inedible to humans into milk

  • Cows use their long tongues to twist grass up from the ground

  • No two cows have exactly the same colour markings

  • When cows eat, small amounts of grass are brought back into the mouth and chewed, this is called ‘chewing the cud’

  • Cows have 32 teeth for chewing (which is the same amount as the average human!)

Animal welfare on NI farms

Animal welfare is extremely important on dairy farms in Northern Ireland. Dairy farmers must ensure cows maintain a good level of health, happiness and wellbeing.

Dairy farmers in Northern Ireland must comply with legislation covering animal health and welfare, and must be aware of current and emerging welfare issues. Dairy farmers must comply, for example, with the latest Code of Practice issued under the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011.

The Code of Practice sets out the standards expected of farmers in Northern Ireland, and covers issues such as Stockmanship, Milking, Nutrition, Housing, Animal Health, Transport and the Five Freedoms. 


Codes of practice are set to ensure that those responsible for the care of animals (stockmen) on dairy farms are experienced and trained in caring for animals. Some of the expectations for stockmen include that they must be fully familiar with the Codes of Recommendation for the welfare of cattle and with the Five Freedoms. They must also be able to recognise and react to various situations which may arise regarding the welfare of cattle and must keep full and accurate stock records.


Codes of practice set for milking cover issues such as dairy farmers providing acceptable levels of hygiene, effective, safe and hygienic milking machinery/facilities and the effective monitoring of milk tests. The codes of practice also state that cows must be regularly milked to avoid discomfort.


Codes of practice in relation to nutrition state that dairy farmers must ensure cattle receive a balanced diet and a fresh supply of water. Farmers must also be aware of the traceability of cattle’s food, and all foodstuffs must comply with current UK and EU legislation.


Minimal standards are set for dairy farmers on how dairy cows are housed. Codes of practice include expectations on issues such as the size, temperatures, insect and vermin control, and hygiene of accommodation for cattle.

Animal Health

Dairy farmers also have to follow codes of practice for the health of their dairy herds. The Codes state that all cattle should be kept in good health and checked regularly for any signs of illness or distress. Farmers should also be aware of the Five Point plan and follow set procedures for the prevention, detection and control of mastitis (a disease characterised by the inflammation of the udder).


Although the welfare of cattle after leaving the farm is not directly under the control of the farmer, dairy farmers must ensure that they entrust the care of their livestock only to persons they consider capable of safeguarding their welfare. It is expected that the dairy farmer ensures cattle are properly looked after when being transported at all times. 

The Five Freedoms

The Five Freedoms are the key to good stockmanship on dairy farms. Under the Five Freedoms it is expected that dairy farmers ensure cattle are free from: 

  • Hunger and thirst (by providing fresh water and a nutritious diet)

  • Discomfort (by providing good shelter and a comfortable resting area)

  • Pain, injury and disease (by prevention and effective diagnosis and treatment)

  • Fear and distress (by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering)

  • Express normal behaviour (by giving them sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind)

More information on The Northern Ireland Animal Welfare Dairy Cattle Code of Practice is available on the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) website.