History of the Danish dairy industry

Denmark is practically the ideal country for dairy production. Our climate and soil provide optimum conditions for dairy cattle farming.

In spite of our northerly location we enjoy relatively high temperatures during spring and summer as well as a mild climate. Rainfall is evenly distributed across the year, and the soil is very fertile. As a result, dairy cattle have been raised in Denmark for millennia, and milk, butter and cheese have formed a natural part of the Danish diet for just as long.

Archaeological excavations and finds from the stone age show that more than 4,000 years B.C. the first Danes began to burn down forests in order to cultivate land and to keep livestock. The first cattle were probably wild oxen caught and kept in a close. The Vikings kept cows, and medieval frescos show women churning butter. From early on, dairy products formed part of the farmer’s tithes to his king, church and lord of the manor. During the 16th and 17th centuries the Danes became increasingly skilled in dairy production, e.g. King Christian IV’s letters show that the court farms were well informed about dairy layouts and equipment.

Developments gained further momentum in the 18th century, particularly in the manors. Here production was stepped up in order to meet the growing demand from the towns where the population as well as the standard of living were rising. Following the introduction of the agrarian reforms at the end of the century ordinary farmers joined in. Especially butter was produced for resale and in the mid-19th century growing volumes found their way to foreign markets.

In 1882, a group of Jutland farmers decided to join forces to set up a dairy on a co-operative basis. This would allow them to rationalise dairy operations, to afford buying modern production equipment and to hire skilled dairy professionals. This in turn enabled them to supply high-quality products and to fetch higher prices.

The farmers committed to supplying their entire milk production to the dairy in return for a claim on the profits according to their milk supply. Consequently, a rich farmer with many cows would take home more money than a farmer with a small herd, but at the general assembly they would be equal: one man - one vote. The co-operative movement was democracy at work.

The co-operative idea soon spread across the country and in 1900 there were more than 1,000 co-operative dairies in Denmark. Without any sort of central management or control they managed, in a matter of just few years, to reshape a large share of the agricultural production, and the dairy industry found a setting, which has largely applied ever since.

Denmark still has some privately-owned dairies, but 97% of the milk is now supplied to co-operative dairy companies. Danish cows produce far more milk than we can consume in the domestic market, so more than 2/3 of the total Danish milk pool go into export products. This share places us among the world’s top five dairy exporting nations.

Hjedding Dairy still exits - now as a museum. If you want to know more about the history, please click here.  (Webpage opens a new window)

If you are interested in visiting the museum please click here (Visit Denmark - webpages opens in a new window).