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Young couple defies dairy startup odds via organic route

Fay Benson Ryan and Annie in field with cattle and dog
ON COURSE: Ryan Murray and Annie Grant are using New York’s Organic Dairy Farm Business Summary to work their plan toward buying a farm.
Murray and Grant are successfully working a low-cost organic dairy plan based on benchmark data in hope of buying their own farm.

Who says young people can’t start farming today? Certainly not Ryan Murray and fiancee Annie Grant. They’re doing it the smart way — with smart help.

In 2013, 20-year-old Murray began with 150 acres of rolling rented hay and pastureland and facilities near Truxton in central New York’s Cortland County. Since then, his 30-cow, certified organic milking herd has grown to 60 cows, plus a herd of new calves.

Participating in New York’s Organic Dairy Farm Business Summary put Murray and Grant on the road to owning their own farm. The couple will marry this year and is looking for land to buy.

“When I heard Fay Benson describe the organic edition of the Dairy Farm Business Summary, that sounded like a good thing for my seasonal, lower-cost, lower-production business model,” says Murray. (Benson is Cornell Cooperative Extension’s small-dairy educator.) “As a sole operator without employees, I was keeping good basic records, but didn’t have a lot of time for analysis.”

ORGANIC GUIDANCE: Murray utilizes the help of Fay Benson, who also has a small dairy.

The Dairy Farm Business Summary uses data from farms of similar size and practices to create benchmarks that individual operators measure their farm’s performance against. “The organic edition factors in specific values for intensive grazing, organic feed costs for purchased feed, cost savings based on pasture value and other organic-specific practices,” explains Benson.

Efficiency discovery time!
Murray transferred his numbers on cows, milk production, costs and receipts from Excel into the ODFBS program. “I immediately began to see opportunities to cut costs and increase production,” he reflects. “It reaffirmed where to put my limited resources, both time and money, first to get the best return on investment.”

The analysis shows the relationships among diverse factors influencing how well a farm meets its goals. Success is analyzed across balance and cash flow, debt-to-asset ratio, per-cow milking, per-acre cropping plus labor-efficiency data.

Then, Benson connected Murray with Certified Crop Advisor Tom Kilcer to evaluate his cropping plan. “Adjustments to my cropping practices resulted in more feed from the same acres, which is critical since my acreage is currently limited,” explains the young farmer. “Increasing crop yields supported increasing cow numbers.”

Those 60 new calves are part of his plan, influenced in part by the ODFBS analysis. “With the goal of buying land, I’ve focused on managed internal growth to build equity in my cows. From the start, working the summary highlighted the significance of economy of scale,” he adds.

Continual progress helped Murray become a completely seasonal operation in 2015. Comparing his numbers to Larry Tranel’s Iowa State data for 2015 for the top 15% of profit groups for totally grass-fed operations helped show where he was doing well, and areas that need attention. The Iowa State data broke out higher- and lower-profit subsets for four geographic areas: eastern Iowa, southwest Wisconsin/northwest Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania/New York.

Startup financial grants available
New York Farm Viability Institute has funded organic dairy production projects for more than a decade. In 2006, the Institute provided startup funding for the NY Organic Dairy Initiative in response to consumer demand for organic milk.

“The Organic Dairy Farm Business Summary project supports development of topic-specific profit teams focused on benchmarking to benefit individual farm participants and add to the larger dataset benefiting dairying industrywide,” notes NYFVI Executive Director David Grusenmeyer.

The Institute offers financial grants to encourage producers to participate in the ODFBS. It also supports topic-specific profit teams for transitioning to organic milk production, and for using the Dairy Profit Monitor, reducing cow lameness, plus enhancing cow comfort and health for any dairy operation.

Learn more about available financial assistance for participating in the confidential Cornell Organic Dairy Farm Business Summary. Contact Benson, New York’s organic dairy program coordinator, at 607-391-2669 or email [email protected].

Dunn writes from her farm at Mannsville, N.Y.

NYFVI is a farmer-led nonprofit that invests in innovative projects to increase the success of ag production enterprises, protect farm-based natural resources and produce measurable farm-level results. Visit for more information.

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