PROGRESS: Retirement plan: 280-head dairy

MAGNOLIA, Ohio – Kevin Lee is 43, has two businesses and wanted something to look forward to when he retired. But not a Carolina condo or a daily tee time.

Lee wanted a dairy farm. And not just a gentleman’s farm in the country with a couple cows munching on pasture all day.

Over the past year, Lee has built his dairy dream, milking 280 Holsteins with plans to add hundreds more.

“Some people have a boat or cottage on the lake. And that’s fine,” Lee said. “But I want to farm.”

So much for living it up in retirement.

Beef to dairy. The lure started when Lee was 15. His family moved next to Willard Himes’ dairy in Bolivar, and it wasn’t long before Lee was spending sweaty summers baling hay and long evenings milking cows.

But within a few years, Lee switched gears. After marrying Himes’ daughter, Connie, he got in his pickup truck and started a refuse company.

And that’s how he’s spent the last 24 years – building a family business with 20 employees, 16 trucks and 8,500 customers.

Early in his career, however, Lee couldn’t shake his agricultural thoughts; he wanted to be a farmer, too. So he turned to beef. He started with 18 brood cows in 1986, and the cattle were good to him and his family for many years.

Things changed last year, and he knew it was time to get out. Prices were low, he wasn’t making money, and soon sold all 300 cows.

But Lee wasn’t ready to put away his barn boots.

Dairy farming had drawn him in when he was just a teen. Now it was time to take himself up on it.

Thankful. Last Thanksgiving as families sat around dinner tables counting their blessings, Lee was in his parlor in Magnolia, Ohio, also counting blessings – 180 of them. The first herd from West Virginia just arrived and Lee was elated. Here he was in a brand-new parlor, with fancy equipment and his own animals.

What more could I possibly want, he thought.

There wasn’t much. Lee already had the best of everything.

It’d been more than two decades since he had milked cows, and technology had changed since the days when he was milking in a double-four parlor and throwing small square bales.

Early on, Lee’s farm plans became an attraction. Dairy equipment suppliers and builders flocked to him, wanting to give opinions and sell their systems. But Lee took it slow, listening to their advice, but also talking with other farmers.

In the end, he tore down the existing facilities and started over. Rubberized flooring, insulated roofing in the freestall, 24-hour lights in the feed alley, tunnel ventilation.

It was tricky because Lee had the refuse business to manage, too, so he needed a farm system where all the tools possible were available to make life a little easier.

As for the milking itself, that was the easy part.

Although it’d been more than two decades since he had milked cows, Lee didn’t skip a beat.

“It’s like riding a bike. How could you forget?”

Like father, like son. This wasn’t just Lee’s dream. His 19-year-old son Josh was somehow infected with that dairy bug, too. His only experience was on a neighbor’s farm, but he didn’t hesitate to join his dad.

Not everyone was on board with the Lee family though. Particularly the bank.

“You’ll have to cull 30-50 percent of that herd,” it warned.

“When you do something like this, the bank looks at you like you’re nuts,” Lee said.

But it was wrong. So far, Lee said the cull rate is more like 10 percent.

And the calf survival rate is 98 percent – thanks to Lee’s wife, Connie.

Three calves this winter had pneumonia and would’ve died if it wasn’t for her, Lee said. She sits out there with them all night, nursing them back to health, he said.

Dairy vs. beef. Dairy is different, though – certainly not like beef.

Beef cattle are more mellow; they don’t need as much time or attention as dairy, Lee said.

And he wasn’t used to so many problems, he said.

Now he’s learning about rations and cow comfort and twisted stomachs.

“Before I was like, ‘What’s a (displaced abomasum)?’ Now I know what one is,” Lee said. “I’ve paid for many of them.”

Lee’s placing his highest importance on the heifers, which he refers to as his next crop.

He can only do so much with the herds he bought, he said, because he doesn’t know how they were cared for or fed. But that doesn’t mean he won’t put in the extra time and money to help them along if they’re having problems.

“Cows are too expensive right now just to cull them,” Lee said.

And he’s not shooting for 80 or 90 pounds of milk production.

“You’ll have a problem if you burn them like that,” he said.

Instead he’s skipping the hormones and focusing on natural feed and cow comfort and hoping his cows can make it up to six lactations.

Splitting time. Lee still has the refuse company, too.

He’s splitting his time between the two, although his other three children help run L&M Refuse.

Spending days overseeing the refuse business and nights spreading manure and weekends milking can be daunting. But he has something to look forward to: spending his retirement on the farm.

But most people don’t understand. Why would you take on so much work? Why would you want to spend your retirement working so hard?

He has just one answer: “We’re crazy and we milk cows. It’s just a way of life.” A way of life Lee has been dreaming of for years.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at


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