Rented farm is successful startup dairy

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CANONSBURG, Pa. – Scot Robertson could never figure out why his grandfather was so insistent that no grandson of his would grow up to milk cows.

His earliest memories include seeing his grandfather’s Guernsey herd and helping him bale and unload hay in the barn at age 5 or 6.

Though his grandparents’ herd was dispersed in 1980, it wasn’t soon enough to get the desire to dairy out of Robertson’s blood.

These days, with few memories of how things used to be, 28-year-old Robertson is moving forward and has created his own method of successful dairying.

“I’ve known my whole life that I wanted to be a dairy farmer, even with what [my grandfather] said. I’ve spent my whole life preparing for it,” he said.

Meant to be. Raised in the town atmosphere of McDonald, Pa., Robertson worked on a local dairy before graduating high school. He then enrolled in Ohio State’s Agricultural Technical Institute’s dairy management program.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

He earned high marks through his first quarter of classes but became ill and returned home.

“I always thought I’d go back, but then you get out working in the real world and things happen,” he said.

Still needing a job and without a degree, he went to work on a nearby farm and immediately fell in love with the dairy lifestyle.

He soon found himself in a partnership with the farm’s owner and taking loans to buy cows of his own. Three years later, the herd was split and Robertson had his own herd. He now manages 50 Jerseys.

Unconventional. And his management style is unconventional, as far as most dairies go.

Robertson rents his facilities and buys all feed. All forages are bought from his landlord.

Taking a quick look around the property he rents, located just off Route 980 north of Canonsburg in Washington County, you won’t see any tractors or other machinery.

“I don’t put my money into machinery or fancy pickup trucks. That cost is why a lot of guys go under,” he said.

Instead, he chooses to pump his dollars into the cows, with the view that feed money turned into milk money will pay him back faster than any tractor could.

“Better cows, good feed and good genetics will always pay you back,” he said.

Buying feed. With instability in the feed market, Robertson also chooses not to contract his feed purchases.

“It’s a lot easier to just ride with the market,” he said, after being burnt on corn prices in the past.

With the method, he’s always able to feed the best quality and isn’t locked into feeding homegrown grains just because it’s what he’s got.

His easy-going attitude and true desire to have a healthy and high-producing herd have helped his cows average 50 pounds of milk each day with 4.6 butterfat and 3.6 protein.

His overall herd score is 83 – “pretty good for such a young herd” – and a good indication of his pride in his stock.

Time commitment. Robertson believes a big part of his herd’s success is his own time commitment. It’s a full-time job that allows him a comfortable lifestyle, he said.

Still, his wife, Amy, who occasionally helps with the young calves and works off the farm, gets upset - as many farm wives do – that her husband prefers to stay home instead of going to social activities, he said.

“It doesn’t bother me [spending time at home.] This is my business and way of life; it’s what I enjoy,” he said.

While he loves the freedom of self-employment and watching the fruits of his labors grow, his biggest joy is in knowing his herd improves each year because of his unique management.

Staring out the milkhouse window, Robertson can immediately identify each cow in the nearby pasture by name.

“I can tell by their udders,” he said.

One can sense his attachment to the cows.

“Each has a name and a personality. Some of their personalities I don’t like,” he said, which helps running his business – and culling underproducers – easier.

“I talk to each one by name and rub their backs when I milk” in the tie stall barn. “If I could keep every cow, I would,” he said.

Real life. The young man, with a positive attitude on his future in the dairy industry, has real-life concerns, many of which go beyond his own operation.

“I really don’t think there are enough young people coming into [agriculture]. I’m afraid that someday we’re not going to be able to produce enough food to feed ourselves.”

But in his own future, Robertson sees great things happening.

Take a loan. Claimed as the first start-up operation in the area in “about 10 years,” he’s managed to keep his head above the water .

“Getting loans is very difficult, though. The only reason I could get my first loan is because I had a good off-farm job,” he said.

These days he relies heavily on his wife as guarantor for the loans he needs.

In his mind, the saddest part is the way farm credit lenders view farming as such high risk, he said.

“It’s a sad mentality. My wife’s employer could fold just as easily as I could. But she has a bigger change of being laid off. I don’t,” he said.

“It’s no wonder young people feel like they can’t start farming.”

Ready to move. He also feels pressured by encroachment from Pittsburgh and new additions to the neighborhood.

That pressure, coupled with a need for farm services, have led him to envision moving the herd north within the next few years, possibly to Mercer or Crawford county.

“I pray every day that nothing breaks down. The silo and milking equipment repairmen take forever to get here, coming from a few hours away,” he said.

Moving to that area would put him closer to service providers as well as to other dairy farms and the support network they offer, he said, which will help him continue farming for many years.

And though he’s at an age where some of his peers have dreams to conquer the world and expand businesses, Robertson has no plans for his herd beyond 50 or 60 cows.

“I want something I can manage myself, without any hired help. But I don’t want to feel so pressured to work, work, work to keep up,” he said.

“Yeah, I grew up in town, but dairying is what I love. I’m going to keep milking as long as I can,” he said.

“I’m proof that farming, milking, can be profitable. This system works for me.”

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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