When our family dairy farm was at a crossroads in 1988, we asked our three children how they felt about dairy farming.  At that time aged 11, 14 and 17, they didn’t see themselves as future dairy farmers and so their grandparents’ animals went under the hammer.  Within ten years we were not only the proud parents of a manager for a Canadian A.I. company, an animal nutritionist for an American feed company  and a budding dairy marketer who owned and operated his own business, but hubby, and I had moved onto the farm and were both working for a national dairy genetics marketing association.  So much for not foreseeing our continuing future in the dairy industry.

“Learn to Do By Doing”

That 4H motto, “Learn to do by Doing” is an excellent mantra for anyone looking seriously at a dairy farming career. What four out of five of us were not prepared for in 1988 was the daily care and management of a dairy herd. With the exception of Murray. Murray was not only up to the challenge but, throughout 45 years of our married life, always managed dairy cows – in addition to whatever other career responsibilities he has taken on. While this has led to exciting opportunities and rather major challenges it probably isn’t a roadmap that others would choose to follow.  The good news is that to this day we live next door to the 96-year-old matriarch of his family who has lived her entire life here.  In today’s dairy marketplace, there has been so much change that it is forcing new and different ways to do well as new dairy farmers.

Required Education & Training

Dairy farming has always meant mastering many skills including feeding, administering medication, managing waste, operating milking equipment two to three times daily, and other daily duties. A growing number of dairy farmers hold a two or four year degree in dairy science, animal science, agriculture, or a closely related field of study that is the driving force in moving their goals forward since coursework for such degrees generally includes dairy science, anatomy, physiology, reproduction, crop science, farm management, technology, and agricultural marketing.  Nevertheless, there is no substitute for direct, hands-on practical experience and working on a farm with dairy cows is a necessary prerequisite for becoming a dairy farmer.

From Family Tradition to Farm Apprenticeships

In the past, the majority of new farmers learned the business from the ground up on the family farm.  Today those opportunities are dwindling and those who are inspired to choose a dairy career often apprentice with an established operation before venturing out on their own.  Those who intend to remain viable recognize that a lifetime of learning – classroom instruction, farm visits, seminars, videos and Internet – is necessary for the continuous improvement that is necessary for a sustainable, profitable dairy business.

New Education and Training

When you do a little research to discover the resumes of successful dairy farmers or, for that matter, most people working in the industry, you learn that many have backgrounds in 4-H, ag-education or courses and seminars to round out their hands-on expertise.  Today’s dairy operators hone skills in calculating application rates, determining genetic merit of livestock or trading grain on the futures market.  Continuing your agricultural education is like money in the bank.  You can farm without it, but it`s sure a lot easier to farm with it.

New Dairy Farmers Start Out Herd First!

Canadian dairy farmers face the first hurdle of quota purchase before they can become part of the national dairy industry. Figuring out a way to get a foot in that door is a major challenge. In the US, many beginning dairy farmers pursue a “herd first” strategy—that is, they buildup their herds before they make fixed investments in land and buildings.  This is a logical first step which builds equity, before investing in buildings and equipment which can depreciate quickly. Cows are also an investment that is relatively easy to buy and sell. The “herd first” strategy is a good way to start generating an income while managing debt.

Advice from Those Who Have “Been there done that!”

  1. Get experience on someone else’s farm before going it on your own. Build equity in cattle, while you work.
  2. Get a positive credit and community history in the area where you want to farm.  It is invaluable to have support and references from local farmers and Ag business people.
  3. Be willing to start a little lower than where you want to end up. A farm that needs work may also come with an entry price that can be the first step to your dairy dream.
  4. Buy used equipment and keep it in good condition.
  5. Whenever possible use your own sweat equity.  Production costs can be controlled if you are willing and able to do more than you hire someone else to do.
  6. Farming is always ready to teach patience.  You can’t get everything at the beginning. A plan that adds value every year is one that will see you build a sustainable operation.
  7. Listen to, learn from and work like other successful farmers.
  8. Target having a barn full of cows as soon as possible, so that you can keep the milk and cash flow flowing.
  9. Don’t get too far into debt. Specifically, stay at or under $2000 per cow
  10. Management skills are essential. Work smarter, not harder.

What is the Outlook for Dairy Farming?

Hundreds of new farmers get started in dairying every year.  Compared to other types of livestock farming, dairying can provide a higher income per animal, a monthly milk check, and, in many areas, more markets.  As the average age of farmers continues to climb, there will continue to be farms selling our or needing to be taken over.  Here a young farmer may find the perfect partner/mentor to work with in planning a future that includes farm ownership.  Modern dairy succession is not always through family lines and, in fact, non-related succession will probably become the norm that it is in other industries.

The Off-Farm Job is Important

In a Wisconsin survey (1996-1999) 51 percent of 300 beginning dairy farmers or their spouses worked off farm.  It reported that “Twenty-four percent of those taking over the family farm and 33 percent of those starting out on their own had off-farm jobs. Off-farm jobs can provide beginning farm families with additional income, health insurance, life insurance and other benefits.  Off-farm income can help meet family expenses when milk prices are low.  With an off-farm job, often a family farm can support two households without having to expand herd size or increase the number of milkings per day.”

Research and Development

Most major industries recognize the necessity of having constantly evolving research and development to keep the industry moving forward.  When times are good, we imagine that the markets will stay that way and feel overwhelmed when outside forces impact what we have grown comfortable with.  As much as we need a new generation to take over the dairy operations, we need next-generation scientists and researchers with a passion for dairy to choose careers that will have a positive impact on dairying.  Whether it’s genetics, engineering, architecture or economics, new minds need to accept the challenge of finding solutions, and creating new ways to provide food under changing environmental, political and demographic conditions. It’s frustrating for young people who enter agricultural graduate programs when times are good to discover that funding has been cut, and their futures are anything but sustainable. Five or more years of budget cutting and financial downturns, is having a detrimental effect on dairy research and development.

New Facilities

The positive outcome of the constant change in the industry is that there is a change in educational institutions as well. The Rayner Dairy Research and Teaching Facility in Saskatchewan, Canada plays a significant role in teaching undergraduate and graduate students within the College of Agriculture and Bioresources and the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Research conducted in the new facility will involve dairy nutrition and feed development, animal fertility and health, animal management, technology development, and development of green technologies for improved sustainability. The facility will also be used to further research from the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, College of Engineering, the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, and VIDO/InterVac.

USDA Help for New Farmers

New and beginning farmers are the future of American agriculture,” said US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Krysta Harden. “The average age of an American farmer is 58 and rising, so we must help new farmers get started if America is going to continue feeding the world and maintain a strong agriculture economy. The new policies announced June 23, 2014 will help give beginning farmers the financial security they need to succeed. Our new online tool will provide one-stop shopping for beginning farmers to learn more about accessing USDA services that can help their operations thrive.”  Agriculture institutions worldwide are revising and upgrading their dairy offerings.  In Canada, the University of Guelph answers the challenge with a Dairy Education Series which they report is “available as a resource for university and secondary school students, industry personnel, and interested consumers around the world.” As well the University of Guelph has a new dairy facility: The Livestock Research Innovation Centre. Construction began in 2013.

USDA’s New Farmers website has in-depth information for new farmers.  The New Farmers website has been built on issues identified by new farmers as top priorities. It will also feature instructive case studies about beginning farmers who have successfully utilized USDA resources to start or expand their business operations.The website includes how to increase access to land and capital; build new market opportunities; participate in conservation opportunities; select and use the right risk management tools, and access USDA education, and technical support programs.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Dairy farming is constantly evolving from a craft to a science, and more extensive training is necessary, especially for those starting out. There are many tools that new dairy farmers must recognize and use well. Those who make the wisest use of all the education, mentorship and hands-on tools will be the new dairy farmers that also stand out.




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