Small-scale dairy farming has been suggested as a rural development option for Mexican campesino communities. However, there is a lack of information on how dairy farming systems operate. The objective of this paper is to analyse the social, productive and economic characteristics of small-scale dairy production systems in the central highlands in the northwest of the State of Mexico. These three characteristics were analysed on 69 farms using factor and cluster analysis. Five factors accounted for 68% of cumulative variance. Cluster analysis yielded three well-defined groups. A Kruskal–Wallis test was performed on the arable land area and the number of animals, and analysis of variance for milk yield. Economic analysis was undertaken using activity budgets. Results showed the relationships between scale and management methods and their effects on the income for the family. Families in only one of the three groups receive incomes from dairying that were above all Mexican poverty indices. This outcome is explained by the intensification in the management of their herds, which is reflected in higher milk yields, higher incomes and better access to government support schemes. Enhancement of milk production in the area studied needs differential policies which take in to account differences between the groups identified.