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The Early History and Developments of the American Dairy Industry

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

When you look at the dairy industry today, many dairy farms participate in the production of the milk distributed across the country, but this wasn’t always so. In the early days of dairy farming, most of the milk produced was for home and local use. What this means is that the dairy products produced and distributed during the early 1900s were solely for use by the family of the farmers and any other local families or businesses that they tended to. Take Shoenberg Farms, for example, its dairy operations were centered on providing sustenance to the National Jewish Hospital’s patients. Today, dairy farms are not necessarily built for such purposes but for the sustenance of the population as a whole.

USDA Dairy Division

As dairy farming became more prominent toward the end of the 1890s, the Bureau of Animal Industry of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the Division of Agrostology and the Dairy Division in 1895 in an effort to improve the quality of American dairy products. These scientists were tasked with studying the effects of the forage grasses on the flavor, quality, and odor of milk and milk products. Most of the work created by the division was to collect the information and inform the dairy farming society of its findings. Several articles aimed at dairy farmers were released, including “The Dairy Herd: Its Formation and Management” circa 1904.

USDA Dairy Division Scorecard

With the Meat Inspection Act of 1890 and subsequent amendment in 1906, Congress gave the authorization to the USDA to send inspectors out to enforce the standards of sanitation and hygiene throughout the meat and dairy industries. The USDA Dairy Division inspectors were given a dairy industry-specific scorecard to use when visiting the dairy farms, which recorded the health of the herd, cleanliness of the cows, the cleanliness of the tools utilized in the milking process, the cleanliness of the employees, and the handling of the milk. In an effort to supply grounds for experimentation, the Bureau of Animal Industry purchased a farm in Beltsville, Maryland, in 1910. In 1916, the Department of Agriculture leased the Grove City Creamery in Grove City, Pennsylvania where experimentation for manufacturing butter, condensed milk, cheese, and other dairy products took place.

Contributions of Dr. Charles E. North

It was not just the federal government seeking research and regulation for the dairy industry, the private sector was also on a campaign for improved dairy as well. Most notably, Dr. Charles E. North, a physician, public health officer, inventor, and agricultural scientist was at the forefront of the movement. His significant accomplishment for the private sector and dairy industry as a whole created a system of sanitation in which clean milk could be produced from any farm.

North’s sanitary system consisted of:

  1. Healthy cows

  2. Careful grooming of the cows

  3. Clean hands and clean clothing

  4. Clean, dust-free barns

  5. Thoroughly washed and sanitized utensils

  6. Prompt and effective cooling for milk

From North’s system came advertised campaigns that showed the importance of sanitation measures, especially the cooling of milk.

Dairy Industry Reorganization

Dairy specialist and Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace gave his support to expanding the Dairy Division into the Bureau of Dairying in 1924. In 1926, the expansion came with five major divisions - Division of Dairy Research Laboratories, Division of Market Milk Investigations, Division of Breeding, Feeding, and Management, Division of Dairy Herd Improvement Investigations, and Division of Dairy Manufacturing Investigations and Introduction.

By 1954, the Bureau of Dairy Industry was abolished, with its functions transferred to the Agriculture Research Service. All of the non-regulatory functions were assigned to the Dairy Husbandry Research Branch and regulatory functions to the Meat Inspection Branch.

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