How do Cows Make Milk? - Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Diane Sieverson

Diane has taught all subjects at the elementary level, was the principal of a K-8 private school and has a master's degree in Measurement and Evaluation.

In the US, if someone is drinking a glass of milk, that milk probably came from a cow. This lesson will teach you about dairy cows, what they need, and how they make the milk you drink before it ever gets to your grocery store.

Kinds of Cows that Make Milk

Imagine coming in from playing outside on a hot summer day. For lunch, your mom gives you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich along with a tall glass of cold milk. You're thirsty so you take a big gulp but probably don't think about where the milk you're drinking came from.

Holstein (pronounced HOLE-steen) cows are the most common kind of dairy cow in the US because they make the most milk. They are white with black spots and each one has its own unique pattern, like when you tie-dye a shirt! But they aren't the only kind of cow that is used as a dairy cow. Other kinds include Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, and Jersey cows.

Holstein cow

Why Cows Make Milk

Cows are mammals, just like humans. All mammals make milk to feed their babies. In order for her body to make milk, a mother cow must have just given birth to a calf. This birth tells her body that it's time to make milk, which humans can collect and process for drinking themselves.

So long as a cow is being milked regularly, she will continue to make milk for about 10 months, even if she gets pregnant again during that time. Farmers will usually stop milking the cow a couple of months before the birth of the new calf, and then the whole process starts over again.

Just like you, cows need food to get the nutrition their body needs to work well, including making milk. Cows eat things like alfalfa hay, straw, pellets made out of soybeans, and cottonseeds. They can eat about 100 pounds of food each day, which is as much as a miniature horse weighs!

Dairy cows eating hay
Dairy cows eating hay

How Cows Make Milk

Cows break down food a little differently than you do because their stomachs have four sections instead of one.

  • First, cows eat their dinner and it goes into the first section of their stomach where it mixes in with water.
  • In the second section, the food gets squished into small balls that are called cud. The cud goes back into the cow's mouth so it can chew it a little more.
  • Then, it goes into the third section of the stomach where the water gets squeezed out.
  • Finally, the food is broken down in the fourth section so the nutrients can be taken in by an organ called the small intestine.

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