At the forefront in Europe and worldwide
Dairy cattle sector

Des élevages répartis sur tout le territoire
Des élevages répartis sur tout le territoire - Crédit : CNIEL

 Substantial productivity gains over the last 20 years

The French dairy cattle sector primarily hinges on the 82,000 dairy farms that produce 96% of national milk output, with the remainder coming from dairy goat farms (2.5%) and dairy sheep farms (1.5%)

In the wake of EU policy introducing milk quotas in 1984, the number of dairy farms was cut threefold in the space of 20 years, and the downtrend has continued at 1.5-2% in recent years. Over this same period, national dairy herd numbers fell 30% down to 8.3 million head in 2010, including 3.8 million dairy cattle.

Holstein remains the dominant dairy breed (65% of national herd numbers), but several other breeds, like Montbéliard (17%) and Normande (11%), remain popular due to their trait combinations and productivity performances in a variety of farming settings.

Thanks to substantial productivity gains offsetting the decline in national herd numbers, France was still able to output 22.8 million tonnes of milk in 2010, and thus hold onto its place among the top 7 producers worldwide. Official milk recordings data confirm the strong rise in dairy yield figures ― and genetic improvement has played a central role in the performances achieved.

National milk recordings figures show that mean herd yields (enrolling 2.5 million cows, i.e. 67% of the national herd) have been on a steady upward curve over the last 20 years. In 2010, mean herd yield reached 9,797 kg/yr mean adult-equivalent lactation yield (up +30% since 1990) with milk fat content at 3.99% and milk nitrogen content at 3.4%.

For the 1.7 million Holstein cows recorded in 2010, mean annual lactation yield even hit 10,751 kg/yr, sealing an increase of over 3,000 kg over the last 20 years ― ⅔ of which is down to genetic progress.

 Dairy farms covering the whole of France

National dairy output comes from across all of France, and can be mapped to what is traditionally known as the ’dairy horseshoe’ ― a zone extending from greater north-western France (37,000 dairy farms producing 55% of national output) to the north-north-east (12,000 farms producing 18%), then round the Franche Comté and across the Alps and back to the Massif Central (16% of production by 17,000 farms, practically all at altitude in mountain zones).

This simplified map actually covers a very diverse range of production settings and configurations. Dairy farms north of the Loire output 330,000-plus litres of milk per year, and are often run as businesses with 2 to 3 labour units, essentially family members. In contrast, dairy farms south of the Loire are almost always smaller one-person farm holdings where output averages out at between 200 and 250,000 litres a year.

The national average is around 290,000 litres of milk per farm, with around one in four farms producing over 400,000 litres a year. Looking at the wider picture, French dairy farms appear less intensively clustered compared to other EU Member States, with a higher number of farms that tend to operate at a smaller scale than in Northern Europe (400,000 litres/farm/p.a. in the UK and the Netherlands, and even up to 1 million litres/farm/p.a. in Denmark).

This France-specific configuration has been shaped by government and agricultural industry policy to facilitate the development of family-run, human-scale farms enabling young dairy farmers to start up new businesses across the territory, even in difficult and disadvantaged areas.

Given the diversity and productivity of French breeds, which are adapted to a very broad range of production conditions and farm objectives, this policy direction also places livestock farming at the centre of spatial planning and rural development policy.

 Production governed by ultra-stringent quality requirements

The French dairy sector is not just characterized by the outstanding productivity of French herds but also but the exceptional quality of its products.

The combined impetus of government authorities, animal health protection groups, and livestock breeders themselves has enabled French herds to be officially recognized as tuberculosis-free since 2000, bovine leucosis-free since 2004, and bovine brucellosis-free since 2005.

Since the early 1970s, the monthly price-amount of milk purchased from each dairy holding has been capped according to its quality, which is control-checked by regular tests (at least 3 times a month) analyzing a set of 8 physical, bacteriological and chemical criteria. This system thus rewards each farmer for their efforts to improve the quality of their milk.

These control-check recordings on dairy output from every farm in the nation are performed by 17 accredited labs across the country that are all fully independent from the dairy businesses they are testing.

In addition to checking that dairy output is free of inhibitors (antiseptic and antibiotics) and pathogenic bacteria (including Brucella and Listeria, among others), the analyses are also focused on milk leukocyte content (indicators of udder infection) and butyric acid bacteria spores (which become harmful at the cheesemaking step). The labs also naturally run tests on the milk fat and nitrogenous fractions.

Stringent standards have been set on factors such as germ counts (less than 100,000/mL) and leukocyte counts (less than 400,000/mL).

Every year, over 23 million elemental analyses are performed for the quality-indexed milk payment system, on top of the 60 million analyses performed under the official milk recordings system. In sum, a total of over 83 million elemental analyses, which averages out at over 1,000 milk quality testing analyses per year on every dairy farm in France.

 A dynamic dairy industry

Mirroring the trends in dairying output, the milk processing industry has also extensively modernized and intensified over the last two decades. However, despite these trends, the cheese and dairy industry has managed to remain highly diversified, unlike in other major dairying countries where collection and transformation tend to be monopolized by just one or two big companies.

Another stand-out feature specific to the French cheese and dairy industry is that breeder cooperatives are still a major stakeholder, as they are responsible for collecting 55% (i.e. 12.5 billion litres) and transforming over 35% of national output.

Around 57% of the nation’s milk output is processed by the ’big-five’ private-sector businesses or cooperative organizations (Sodiaal, Lactalis/Besnier, Bongrain, Laïta and Danone) that all rank among the world leaders in their sector, pulling in a domestic turnover of 1 to 4 billion euros. With a turnover of over 14 billion euros, Lactalis has climbed to world number 1 in dairy products.

Almost a quarter of national milk output gets collected by a network of 2 to 300 medium-sized private-sector or cooperative businesses with local roots spanning the entire national territory. By enabling the development of Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée [AOC; controlled designation of origin] and increased market value for small ruminant milk (goats and sheep), this diversity has played a major role in keeping agriculture thriving and profitable, including in the tough mountainous regions.

Over three-quarters of the nation’s milk is earmarked for consumer-packaged goods: around 36% is converted to cheeses, 21% to cream and butter, 11% to drinking milk, and 8% to fresh produce for the yogurt and milk desserts aisle. The remainder of production is used in industrial channels: milk powder (13%), whey, caseins, and so on.


Key figures

  • World’s 7th milk producer
  • World’s 2nd exporter of dairy products (in value traded)
  • 82,000 farm businesses
  • 8.3 million head of dairy cattle
  • 3.8 million dairy cows
  • 290,000 liters milk output per farm, on average
  • 22.8 million tons of milk produced
  • 2.5 million cows registered in the national milk recordings scheme
  • 9,797 kg adult-equivalent lactation yield (national average under milk recording)
  • 1,000 milk quality analyses per farm, per year
  • 55% of production collected by dairy farmer cooperatives
  • 75 % of milk output is earmarked for consumer-packaged goods

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