August 9, 2007: For two years, I operated a year-round,
outside-housed, grazing-based, bulk-shipped, organic cow dairy.
Due to many avoidable mistakes on my part, I liquidated the farm
business at significant monetary loss in June. If experience is
the best teacher, this is especially true if it is the hard experience
of someone else! I hope being honest about my story can help other
beginning dairy producers make better choices.
When I opted to start dairying in 2005, I chose my farm location
in northeastern Pennsylvania based on its proximity to a major Russian
Orthodox religious institution (including a monastery, seminary,
retreat center and cemetery). This choice of location to continue
association with a spiritual community was the first of many things
I did with noble intentions that undermined my dairy’s profitability.
I bought the farm thinking of a part-time business grazing steers
and raising poultry to sell locally at retail. I only considered
dairy out of desperation once I was laid off from my sales job in
a merger. I figured it was the best way to optimize my effort: I
could focus on production and let a milk company (Organic Valley
in this case) handle the other three aspects of my farm business,
those being processing, distribution and marketing/sales. I thought
I could gradually take back those value- and profit-adding parts
of the business as things progressed.
As it turned out, managing the production of 30 to 50 cows plus
calves is more than a full-time business for one inexperienced person
to handle—but I’m getting ahead of myself. To streamline
this story, I’ll basically list the major issues that combined
to doom my dairying endeavor.
Lack of supportive local natural conditions and farming infrastructure,
particularly organic farming support.
The climate, soils and topography of Wayne County, Pennsylvania,
do not favor commodity agriculture of any kind. There are many opportunities
for niche agriculture as more people build vacation and retirement
homes, but full-bore commodity ag is not practical.
goal in business had better be to make a profit and later work
toward your idealistic goals, or you will soon be out of business
and never get to the idealistic goals. I am an example of this.
This has a number of consequences for a start-up agricultural enterprise.
There was little choice among veterinarians, none of whom had much
knowledge of alternative cow-health therapies, and little choice
in equipment dealers, none of whom think production ag is their
future (rather, they think of lawn tractors and contractors’
tools). Bedding materials for the cows and custom harvesting are
I neglected to consider the cost of trucking in my initial business
plan. All organic grain was trucked in at up to $100/ton from mills
at least 150 miles away. Moral of the story: Match your location
to your business model, or match your business model to where you
are, or do something else.
Mismatched personality and business type.
You probably ought to pick your business model to match your temperament,
as well. I am a communicator and storyteller; a big-ideas person,
not a details guy. I get a lot of energy out of stories, both mine
and other people’s. I find it very easy to stay up half the
night reading, writing and talking. Cows reward consistency in milking
time, feeding time, and probably want to have everything the same
every day. That didn’t come easily for me.
I need time to recharge the people part of my personality. You
don’t get much of that from the cows, and not at all from
driving tractors in circles.
I don’t miss all my
cows, but some were hard to let go of.
plans for milk income and building progress.
If you are planning on new construction to get into business as
I did with my milking parlor, beware of estimates for the time and
money it will take to get the work done. I was counting on getting
paid for some milk while there was grass to graze the first summer/fall
we started. Reality was that we didn't start putting milk into the
tank to sell until nearly the next spring. Those six-plus, income-free
months of bank payments, feed bills, vet bills and utility bills—along
with massive cost overruns due to a parlor pit that wanted to be
a groundwater-filled swimming pool—were, in retrospect, the
beginning of the end.
Troubles with organic
Many people drawn to organic farming are idealists, and that can
get you into a lot of trouble, or at least trouble your soul. First
off, let’s dispense with the notion that the regulated organic
dairy industry under the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) is
about idealism. It is not. It is about protecting a marketing position
for a narrowly prescribed way of farming. There are sections of
the rules and their interpretations and (non)enforcement that make
some idealists run away screaming. “'Nuff said.” I’m
just warning you to go into organics with your eyes open.
Second, people will try to infect you with their particular idealism,
which can severely impact your profitability. Your first goal in
business has to be to make a profit so you can later work toward
your idealistic goals, or you will soon be out of business—and
never get to the idealistic goals. I am an example of this.
The idealisms thrust upon me included:
Breed of cattle: There’s a lot of man-years
of experience that have served to make the major dairy breeds
major (Holstein and Jersey and their first-generation crosses)
as well as the minor breeds minor, and for good reasons. Have
the humility to abide by that collective wisdom. Experiment with
other breeds and complex crosses cautiously, but don’t make
them 25 percent of your herd at the get-go. You can’t afford
Going seasonal. I tried to go spring seasonal.
It was a major contributing factor in my going out of business.
Open cows cost too much to feed to carry them until they are bred
to fit your seasonal niche. If you must go seasonal, get that
out-of-sync cow bred somehow, sell her, and buy a cow in your
seasonal window. Master the basics first, then go seasonal if
you still want it. A moderate position is spring and fall calving.
This works well for herds kept outside
Artificial insemination (AI). Don’t let
all the hype about the superior quality of artificial insemination
genetics get in the way of just getting your cows bred. Some cows
are hard to catch in heat, but you still have to get them bred.
Bulls are very good at catching cows in heat—probably a
million times better than you are—just be careful with them.
It isn’t widely talked about but humans “in heat”—including
girls you might think are too young—can cause aggressive
behavior in bulls. I’ve seen this happen on my farm in this
short period. If in doubt, plan the funeral for the bull, and
not your wife, your children or yourself.
Silage. Some people are quite certain that silage
is no good in any form, but these individuals don’t pay
your feed bills—your cows do. In much of the Northeast,
the only way you are going to harvest high-quality, high-energy,
high-protein forages is to take the first cutting in the middle
of May. In my area at that time, the ground is too wet and the
weather too rainy to reliably put up dry hay of dairy quality.
By the time we get a reliable weather window—about July—the
forage crops are too mature and not worth the fuel to harvest.
Even harvesting two weeks late will drop the protein content from
18 percent (at the prime date) down to 9 percent. Making up that
difference with imported feed is cost prohibitive whether it is
roasted soy or fancy western alfalfa.
Soy. I believe the Weston A. Price Foundation,
of which I’m a member, makes valid claims about the problems
of soy in human nutrition. However, the cow’s digestive
system is quite different from a human’s, and my cows did
very well on roasted soy. When all factors, including trucking
costs, are factored in, there is seldom a good substitute for
roasted soy in the organic world.
Grain. Other people (see www.eatwild.com)
are concerned about any grain feeding to cattle. I agree that
it is relatively easy to make outstanding beef without grain,
because I’ve done it. The nutritional needs of a modern
lactating pregnant dairy cow at peak production, however, are
extremely hard to meet without some concentrated, energy-dense
feed such as corn and roasted soy. A no-grain dairy herd can work
for experienced graziers with a set of well-honed conditions and
situations, but it is not for beginners with a mortgage to pay.
Excellent feed, lots of it
Is any of this “natural” or the way it happens in the
wild? No, but modern dairy cattle don’t exist in the wild.
Cows can survive on very little, but they are only profitable on
optimal feed and timely breeding, which go together. As one wise
farmer told me, “The cow’s goal is to survive to tomorrow.”
If this means turning off the milk to preserve reproduction, they
will do it. If this means shutting down reproduction—including
aborting calves—they will do it.
Do not skimp in the area of feeding cows. Get a good nutritionist
and do whatever it takes to feed the cows right—or quit. Get
a good set of soil tests and fix what is wrong before you think
you can afford it. Do whatever it takes to store up top-quality
forages, including going without sleep, food, a new truck or whatever.
A start-up dairy won’t work unless you can feed the cowies
‘til they are well and truly stuffed full of good food. Don’t
count on custom operators or interstate shipments. You must be able
to bring in 80 to 100 percent of your cows’ intake of top-quality
feed from very near your farm or organic dairying won’t work.
If you must be an idealist about all this, start with a family
cow or two. Sell the milk at full retail or take some value-added
steps. Allow your off-farm job—and/or your processing/retail
profits—to cover the hard learnings from your incidents of
misplaced idealism on the production side. We will probably meet
at a “micro-dairy” conference some day, as I think that’s
where I’m heading with my undiminished addiction to cows.
Doubts about debt
I doubt that modern economics, especially debt financing, is compatible
with Christianity as I know it. Even mainstream economic advisors
point out that debt is very dangerous unless you are the one collecting
the interest. Banks have very little flexibility under the law to
help you out if you have a bad year or a rough start-up. Borrowing
more money after a rough start-up, as I did, usually compounds the
problem. The payments start immediately but some mistakes, such
as underfeeding cows, take years to correct, if you ever do.
My bankers were impressed with my initial business plan to enter
the growing organic market with a stable pay price thanks to a milk
contract. Even so, I had to put in all my life-insurance equity,
all my home equity and all my retirement money. My parents kicked
in a good chunk, too. In the end, however, the sale of my land and
farm assets brought in just enough to cover the commercial debt.
My parents and I lost all the money we invested, but I’ve
not had to declare bankruptcy. And I’ve emerged with rich
Cattle are a blessing
I want to end this on a positive note. I believe that cattle are
a great blessing to man from God. They can take land we can’t
use for row crops or garden crops and make highly nutritious food
from it. Cattle can also provide companionship, motive power, clothing,
tools and then more cattle to feed and clothe others.
There was debt and regret, sure, but there were rich moments, as
well. It’s hard to explain the joy of watching cows graze
on lush pasture…or the thrill of finding a healthy newborn
calf up and nursing when you go to round up the cows…or the
great taste of fresh milk.
I don’t miss all my cows, but some were hard to let go of.
For now, I need to focus my life on people and the ministry, but
I hope, somehow, someday, to have a few cows as pets and experimental
animals. There are lots of ideas I want to try, such as grazing
corn, or putting up an oats/peas/barley mix for silage.
Let’s see, I only need 5 to 12 brood cows to have statistically