I am 30 years old. I grew up on a dairy farm, I graduated from college, and I have a great job working as an agronomist. I have saved $75,000 and I want to start farming. My parents retired and sold their farm. Most people think I am crazy because I want to milk cows. Although I want to farm in northwestern Wisconsin where I live, I haven’t decided where or on what type of farm I want to start out on. I don’t have enough money to buy land, so I will likely need to buy cows and some machinery and rent a farm. I’m not sure if I want to graze or perhaps work into a partnership on a large dairy with a freestall barn and milking parlor. I figure I want to start doing this in about a year. In the meantime, I am spending my time now trying to figure out where I want to go, what type of dairy I want to invest in, and I’m asking a lot of questions. What are your suggestions?
Doug Hodorff: These are great questions! My first thought is you are 30 years old. The dairy industry has gone through some drastic changes in your lifetime. You may remember growing up on your family’s dairy. The dairy of today is much different than it was 15 years ago. Technology has brought great changes to the industry, from how cows are milked to how you manage the entire dairy.
One thought I have is for you to continue being a support person for dairies you help. As you do this, continue to have conversations with clients you blend in with well. Build some relationships and see where these take you. When you think about where you want to go, make sure you aren’t looking through rose-colored glasses. The dairy industry is not for the faint at heart. I started with 42 cows 42 years ago, and now our family has two dairies with more than 2,000 cows combined. Opportunities will arise for you. What you do with them will decide your future.
Sam Miller: There are many options available if you want to enter the dairy business. Since you’re not sure what type of farm you’d like to operate, I suggest spending a year or two working on a number of different farms to help you decide. If you are considering a grazing operation, you may want to spend a full year to understand how this type of farm operates in all seasons. You can get a good idea as to how a large dairy operates in a shorter period of time. Additionally, you may want to consider whether you would enter a partnership or a succession plan for a dairy operator seeking to retire in the next five to 10 years, or if you want to operate your own business.
While you are working on various farms, start putting together a business plan and learn the financial management part as well as the day-to-day operational aspects of operating a business. Contact your local technical college to enroll in farm management classes to learn and network with others and help refine your plans. Good luck exploring a new career opportunity.
Katie Wantoch: Kudos to you for your continued interest in dairy farming! It’s refreshing to hear from a young person who is motivated and dedicated to agriculture during these challenging times. I would suggest that you develop a budget to determine what you can afford. You can reach out to an Extension ag agent or look online at the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Profitability’s website. The “Dairy Enterprise Budget” spreadsheet is a means to analyze the profitability of a dairy enterprise. You can review several options for variable costs (feed, custom hire, rent or lease) and fixed costs (machinery, buildings, livestock). You might look at how these costs compare for the different types of operations that you mentioned. While grazing may have reduced variable costs (such as feed), fixed costs may be higher (such as fencing). Take time over the next year to decide which path best suits your short- and long-term goals.
Buying haying equipment
My wife and I milk 100 cows and farm 300 tillable acres in central Wisconsin. We have decided to quit baling small bales of hay. Spring and fall most years are too wet to try and get hay baled without it getting rained on. We are trying to decide between buying a round baler and a wrapper to put up baleage or an ag bagger so we can bag haylage and silage whenever we want. Right now, we have to rent an ag bagger, and it’s not always available when we need it. Which system do you think works better for a small dairy like ours and makes the most sense? Please advise.
Doug Hodorff: I would suggest you rethink your objectives. In my view you are looking at investing in equipment for harvesting feed for 100 cows plus youngstock. Your investment is way too high for your number of animals. Not knowing your financial position or your labor availability, it’s hard to advise. From my experience having used these systems, I would take the money and lay down a cement pad and make a couple drive-over piles. With the knowledge learned in the industry, you can cut your dry matter losses. Both systems work — it’s the management that decides how well. Always use the system you think gets the best quality forage for your dairy.
Sam Miller: I would break your question down into two parts: the economics of making this investment, and managing baleage or bagged feed vs. dry hay. Complete a partial budget analysis analyzing the capital investment and operating cost for both the round baler/wrapper and an ag bagger. Consider the purchase and disposal costs of plastic in addition to the operating costs for each of these systems. Then visit with other dairy farmers who use baleage or bagged haylage to understand the pros and cons of each of the systems. Your Extension ag agent or nutritionist can probably suggest several farmers using each of these systems. After gathering both the financial and operational information, you can complete your analysis and make an informed decision.
Katie Wantoch: I give you credit for baling small square bales! I know how much time and energy is spent on this, and how easy it is to feed smaller bales. I would suggest that you compare the costs of purchasing a bagger versus the round baler with wrapper. Don’t forget to quantify how the availability of the equipment impacts the quality of the forage and ultimately the milk production of your cows. Have you considered also using the bagger for corn silage and high-moisture corn? If you have a total mixed ration, this would be an option to incorporate the silage bags into your cattle’s diet. Be cautious about bags in the springtime though, as you’ll want to make sure to manage the face during winter and feed out before warm temperatures cause the feed to spoil. Talk with your local agronomist or Extension ag agent to see if they have any recommendations if you still are undecided.
Agrivision panel: Doug Hodorff, Fond du Lac County dairy farmer; Sam Miller, managing director, group head of agricultural banking, BMO Harris Bank; and Katie Wantoch, Dunn County Extension ag agent specializing in economic development. If you have questions you would like the panel to answer, send them to: Wisconsin Agriculturist, P.O. Box 236, Brandon, WI 53919; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.