The Dairy Industry in Colombia

Ginna Carolina Reyes, Department of Animal Sciences, Universidad Nacional de Colombia and Visiting Student, Department of Animal Sciences, The Ohio State University

Colombia is located in the northwest part of South America, and it has an area of 440.831 square miles (1’141.748 km2) and is in a privileged geographical location because of its proximity to the equator line. Colombia is located in the tropical zone of the planet, and its climate is the result of a three branched subdivision of the Andes mountain range and the sea coasts of the Caribbean and Pacific with high humidity and the Alisios winds. The rainy seasons are bimodal, being from April to June and August to November. The country is very pleasant as it enjoys constant sunlight throughout the year, with the same number of hours during the day and night. There are six natural regions, each having unique characteristics; however, the zones with potential for meat and milk production have been classified into five specific regions: Caribbean (beef and dairy), Andina (mostly dairy), Orinoquia (beef), Valles Interandinos (beef and dairy) and Altiplano Cundiboyacence (only dairy).  Each region has characteristic flora and fauna, but it is possible to classify these regions into two major areas having similar conditions such as: temperature, precipitation, altitude, and soil type (Table 1).

Table 1.  Eco- region classification of Colombia.


Hot land
(Tropic high)

Cold land
(Tropical low)


>22°C (72°F)

<14°C (57°F)


< 800 mm (31 in)

600-2600 mm (24 to 102 in)


4 to 1250 msnm

1750 to 4200 msnm

Soil type

Alkali and alkaline sodium

Acid soils, volcanic slabs

Land Use and Cattle Inventory

The majority of the land in Colombia is used for livestock (Figure 1). Within approximately 32.2 million hectares, there are 3 types production distributed: beef cattle (13.7 million head), dual purpose cattle (8.2 million head), and specialized dairy cattle (1.5 million head).  The total number of cattle in Colombia in 2011 was approximately 23.4 million (15.5 female and 7.9 male).  About 90% of the cattle are the Brahman (Cebu) breed and crosses with Brahman, used for milk and meat production. The remaining 10% of the breeds are Holstein, Normando, Brown Swiss, Jersey, Simmental, Angus, and Charolais. 

Reyes 1
Figure 1. Soil use in Colombia (right) and use of soil for livestock (left) (DANE, 2011).

Characterization of the Dairy industry in Colombia

Colombia is fourth in milk production of the 19 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Brazil, Argentina and Mexico occupy the top three positions, respectively. Of the total livestock in Colombia, about 41% are dedicated to milk production, 55% are dual purpose, and 45% are specialized dairy. The total production in 2011 was about 14,452 million lb of milk. Of the total milk produced, only 53% is processed in the industry, while the remaining 47% is purchased by intermediaries for bulk sale to industry (26%), processed on farm (10%), consumed on farm (8%), or used for other purposes (3%).  Milk product consumption for Colombians in 2011 was 320 lb per person per year of milk fluid equivalents (Figure 2). Comparatively for the same year in the US, production was 196,245 million lb of milk, equivalent to 58.5 lb per cow and consumption was 604 lb per person per year for all milk products. In 2011, Colombia exported roughly $5.45 million of milk products, while imports for the same year totaled $44.4 million.  Major imports included milk powder (52.9%), whey (36.4%), cheeses (6.2%), and other products, such as yogurt, butter, and fluid milk (4.5%), primarily from Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.  The price of milk in Colombia in January 2012 was approximately $0.48/Liter ($21.82/cwt) in USD (Figure 3), while the price of milk in the US for the same date was about $0.36/Liter ($16.36/cwt) in USD.

Reyes 2 
Figure 2. Consumption vs. production of milk in Colombia from 1999-2011
(Adapted to memorias foro internacional de la leche, 2011).

Reyes 3
Figure 3. The trend of milk prices (cents/Liter) for different countries
(Adapted to memorias foro internacional de la leche, 2011).

It is cheaper to produce one liter of milk in the US than in Colombia. With the cost of milk production in Colombia being very high, it is impossible for Colombian producers to compete in international markets.  Even though productivity in Colombia is growing, the producer is constantly seeking other alternatives to increase production in order to enter the global marketplace. However, maximizing production is challenging as the model of production in Colombia is mostly pasture based. In addition, the cost of supplementing concentrates is more expensive than in other countries, as the US is the major producer of corn in the world.  Also, the roads and transportation infrastructure in Columbia are more than 60 years old.

Dual Purpose System

Dual purpose animals comprise the majority of the total cattle inventory in Colombia. Most of the cows in this system are for milk production, or produce milk for cheese, as these breeds have a higher content of milk solids over breeds of other production systems.  Dual purpose breeds are type Bos indicus, crosses of Bos Taurus x Bos indicus and native breeds (Figure 4). This system occupies the low tropical regions, such as the Caribbean and Valles Interandinos. The production system can be one of three types: pasture extensive, pasture improved extensive, and pasture extensive with concentrate supplementation. Pasture extensive is the most common type because it is the cheapest system for milk production. In 2011, this system supported an average of 7,949 million lb, equivalent to 15 lb/cow/day.  This low performance is a direct result of poor quality pastures, effects of climate, low utilization of feedstuffs, and a high incidence of diseases and parasites.

Reyes 4
Figure 4. Dual purpose distribution per breed (Adapted to MADR, 2003).

Specialized Dairy Systems

Specialized dairy systems generally are in the colder climates of the Andina and Altiplano Cundiboyacense regions, but they also exist in some regions of Valles Interandinos where the climate permits this type of production.  These systems (most comparable to conventional US dairy farms) have superior production in comparison to the dual purpose systems. The specialized dairy farms use more supplementation while having different management styles and employ pasture rotation. In 2011, this system supported about 6,426 million lb of milk, resulting in 45 lb/cow/day. This more than doubles the production of dual purpose systems.  In order to achieve this high production, this system has extensively improved pasture, extensive pastures with supplementation, and confined systems (the last two systems are found more frequently; Table 2). The cost (Table 3) and the total solids are different between dual purpose and specialized dairy systems; specialized dairy systems have a higher price per pound of milk with less total solids as compared to a dual purpose system. In this system, the major type of cattle is Bos Taurus with Holstein as the most popular breed, followed by Guernsey, Brown Swiss, and Jersey (Figure 5).

Reyes 5
Figure 5. Specialized dairy distribution per breed (Adapted to MADR, 2003).


There is considerable opportunity for improvement within the dairy industry in Colombia. As the country continues to develop, there is a greater demand for dairy products. This demand encourages growth and advancement of the current systems. For these reasons, farms are beginning to implement new strategies for increasing production, such as genetic programs, nutritional strategies for improving milk quality, water management, soil test based fertilization programs, intensive pasture management via rotational grazing and forage seeding, record keeping, and enhancement of reproduction programs. As more innovative agricultural practices are introduced to Colombia, the dairy industry will likely improve accordingly.

 Table 2. Grassland and type of supplementation for milk production system (Adapted to Afanador, 2011).




Traditional extensive grazing

Native grass or some grass introduced

Mineral salt

Improved extensive grazing

Graminae as Angleton (Dichantium aristatum), Colosuana ( Bothriochloa pertusa), Kikuyo (Pennisetum clandestinum), Estrella ( Cynodon nlemfuensis), Brachiarias,  etc usually associated with legumes as Alfalfa (medicago sativa), White clover (trifoliums repens) or Red clover (trifoliums pretense), Leucaena (Leucaena leucocephala),  Matarratón (Gliricidia sepium) inter other.

Mineral salt
-In dry season use of harvest sub products (potato, corn, sorghum, cottonseed, rice meal)

Supplemented extensive grazing

Improved grassland as Kikuyo (Pennisetum clandestinum), Brachiarias, Rye grass (Lolium hybridum), and cutting grasses.

Mineral salt
- Nutritional supplementation with harvest sub products and agro industrial (meal rice, brewer’s yeast, soybean meal etc.), silage, haylage and hay and balanced feed

Confined system

Cutting grasses (manages as crops)

Mineral Salt, silages, haylages, hay and balanced feed, TMR

Table 3
. Distribution of costs of two systems of production milk in Colombia (Adapted to Santana, 2011).               


Dual purpose

Specialized dairy







Management soil and pastures






Maintenance machinery and equipment






Financial expenses