How to start your own dairy farm

holstein cattle

Whatever your background or experience — whether you grew up helping on a family dairy or worked on one for a summer job — there are some things you need to consider before setting out to milk cows on your own.

Penn State University Extension offers these eight tips to consider before starting your dairy dream.

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1Develop a business plan
Remember, a dairy farm is a business. Development of a detailed business plan and SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) identifying the resources you have and will need is critical to the success of your farm.

How many cows will you milk? How will you market your milk? Will you hire outside labor? How much money do you need to live on after the bills are paid? Business plans should include cash flow and set reasonable expectations for expenses and cost of production.

2Consult the experts
Even if you grew up learning how to dairy from your parents or grandparents, it’s important to consult experts in the industry when developing a business plan and management system.

Talk with fellow producers, consult Extension specialists, veterinarians, bankers, and attend field days and workshops at dairy farms in your area as well as out of state. Ask lots of questions — what works on one dairy may not work on your dairy.

3Create a cropping and feeding program
Consult a nutritionist to determine what the best rations are for lactating cows, dry cows and heifers, and calves. Whether you plan to feed TMR (total mixed ration), graze cattle or use a combination of both, dairy cows require certain nutrients to support themselves, produce milk and grow calves.

4Waste management
Dairies produce a lot of manure — or waste. If managed properly, it could become a great resource on the farm. Aside from applying manure directly to cropland, manure can be composted or anaerobically digested. These alternatives can provide additional revenue but will also incur more startup costs.

Every dairy needs a manure management plan and, depending on the size of your farm, a nutrient management plan may be required. Check with your local Extension office or Soil and Water Conservation District — SWCDs may also offer grants to help with qualifying nutrient or manure management programs.

5Build equity
Dairy farming requires a large capital investment. Land, buildings, equipment and cows are expensive and few new farmers have the capital necessary to purchase everything they need. Beginning farmers may want to consider purchasing cows first and renting land. These initial cows are your farm’s equity.

6Dairy farming is a biological system
The dairy farm is dependent on the cow’s ability to live a healthy life, produce milk, and have calves that can become the next generation of the farm. Detailed programs for herd health, reproduction and calf care are required in addition to the nutritional and financial aspects. Work with a veterinarian, genetics specialists and Extension agents to develop a comprehensive farm plan.

7One size does not fit all
All dairy farms are different and based on the individual farm owner’s vision for the farm, resource and marketing needs, and more. Some producers may contract out replacement heifers to custom raisers, while some diversify by selling crops, steers or bottling their own milk. How you farm is up to you.

8You are a manager first
All these items are just pieces of the puzzle. In order to be successful, you need to combine each aspect of management into a whole farm plan. You don’t have to do it all. Work with consultants to help you build a plan and stick with your strengths.

For example, if you love milking cows but hate planting crops, hire reliable help that does or contract that work out. Assign trusted workers to manage small aspects of the farm to help you achieve your farm goals.

Source: Penn State Extension, 8 things you need to know before starting your own dairy.

(Farm and Dairy is featuring a series of “101” columns throughout the year to help young and beginning farmers master farm living. From finances to management to machinery repair and animal care, farmers do it all.)

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  1. As a dairy farmer, I would EXTREMELY advise anyone NOT to start a dairy farm, or ANY other animal product farm for income purposes !!!! The extremely excessive over-regulations are stifling-AND growing, along with absurdly low prices that often are below cost of production, and the future is extremely grim. The monopolization of food processors is getting extreme, and the government is doing nothing about it. Many people enjoy raising animals which is wonderful…however, it ceases to be pleasurable when finances and regulations stress farmers to the point of bankruptcy and extreme debt. I HIGHLY suggest raising your animals for family food and getting employment where you KNOW what your wages will be and can live accordingly.

  2. I liked how you mentioned that you should consult with a nutritionist before starting a dairy farm. My wife and I are wanting to move to a dairy farm and we were wondering how we could take care of the cows when we move. I’ll be sure to tell her that we should consult with a nutritionist to learn how to take care of the cows.


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