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A row of cows wait while they are milked during the morning routine at Harcroft Dairy Farm north of Fergus, Ont.

PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Job: Dairy farmer

Role: The dairy farmer's day usually begins at the crack of dawn, sometimes earlier. Dairy farmers wake up to a long list of chores that need to be completed before breakfast, including milking and feeding cows and calves, cleaning up and putting in fresh bedding.

"Maybe you've got a sick calf or something like that, which you need to take care of until about 8:30 or 9 in the morning," said Andrew Campbell, a partner at Bellson Farms in Strathroy, Ont., west of London, who says that "farming goes back as far as we know" in his family.

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After a breakfast break, Mr. Campbell goes back to work at around 10 a.m., maintaining crops, spreading manure and doing maintenance on buildings and equipment. "By 4 or 4:30, it's back to the barn for more feeding, milking and cleaning," he said.

Salary: Like any entrepreneur, dairy farmers who own their own property have the luxury of paying themselves whatever they deem to be an appropriate salary, but need to balance their personal finances with the financial needs of the business.

"One guy once told me that your range should always be the price of a Corvette, which usually runs in the $50,000 to $60,000 range, which is where we try to find ourselves to cover the food on our table and the roof on our heads," Mr. Campbell said. "If you need a little bit more, you might be able to find it, but then you're not going to have that money to reinvest in newer equipment."

Education: Mr. Campbell said that the best training for a career as a dairy farmer is being raised on a farm, but would-be farmers can also get training at a postsecondary institution. A number of universities and colleges across Canada provide degrees in animal science and agriculture, including the University of Guelph in Ontario, Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, and Olds College in Alberta, but Mr. Campbell recommends that anyone interested in working as a dairy farmer spend some time in the field first.

"A degree is a good start, but because there's so many balls to juggle, whether it's animal health or milk quality or crop biology, you really almost have to go work in that environment to get some of that real-life experience before you could start your own," he said.

Job prospects: According to Mr. Campbell, finding work on a dairy farm isn't too difficult, as many hire part-time and full-time labourers at a rate of approximately $18 to $20 an hour.

"If you wanted to be the dairy farmer, and be in charge and run the operation, that's where it gets a little more complex in terms of setting up the business structure and finding the quota needed to sell the milk, and the capital costs would go up from there," he said.

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Mr. Campbell adds that those interested in running their own dairy farm should look for part-time work at a farm whose owners might be willing to sell in the future. There are also a number of provincial programs that provide assistance to help new farmers get started.

By the numbers: According to the Government of Canada's Dairy Information Centre, there are 11,962 dairy farms in Canada, the vast majority of which are located in either Ontario, which houses 3,926, or Quebec, which is home to 5,894.

Challenges: Dairy farming is a difficult and demanding career. Few farmers have the luxury of weekends, and typically work 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week. Aside from the physical demands of the job, dairy farmers also need to balance budgets, manage the herd, track the quality of the milk, and ensure that they are adhering to government requirements and regulations.

Why they do it: Mr. Campbell said that although dairy farming is a challenging job, there's a certain feeling he gets at the end of a long work day that he couldn't imagine getting from doing anything else.

"It does bring a pretty cool sense of accomplishment," he said, "because you can sit on the back porch and look at your barn or the cows in the pasture or your crops growing or see a milk truck drive out and know that that milk is going out to thousands of people's tables and say, 'I had a huge role in that.'"

Misconceptions: According to Mr. Campbell, many people believe that dairy farmers are old and uneducated.

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"Today's dairy farmer is far from that," he said, adding that he is only 29 years old. "Most young farmers returning home have diplomas or degree in everything from agriculture science to economics. The average age of a dairy farmer is 47."

Give us the Scoop: Are you a dairy farmer? Write a note in the comments area of this story or e-mail your comment to careerquestion@globeandmail.com and let us know what you would tell others who are interested in the profession.

Jared Lindzon talks to NewsTalk 1010 about this story. Listen by clicking here.

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