Getting Started in Small-Scale Dairy Farming

Small-scale dairy farming is attractive for a variety of reasons; is dairying right for you?

Dairy water buffalo

Small-scale dairy farming doesn't always mean small animals! Dairy water buffalo like these cows at Ramini Mozzarella farmstead are rare in the United States, but they produce rich milk.

Photo courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing

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Whether you are a family in search of self-sufficiency and a source of unprocessed milk, an urban dweller contemplating miniature dairy goats to supply milk for your cheesemaking hobby, or a small commercial farmer tired of selling your milk at regulatory-controlled pricing and barely making a living, Gianaclis Caldwell has everything you need to know about the proper production of nutritious and delicious fresh milk in The Small-Scale Dairy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014). The following excerpt from Part 1, “The Big Picture of the Small Dairy,” gives an overview of items to consider before jumping into small-scale dairy farming.

You can purchase this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Small-Scale Dairy.

Why a Small Dairy Farm, Why Now?

Milk is a highly valued food staple. By producing minimally processed, lovingly harvested milk for your family or your community, you link your animals and land to your life and to the lives of others in a fundamental way. When I was a teenager hoping to have an animal project as a part of the 4-H program, I wanted that animal to feed me—not through its death, but through its life. Dairy animals provide long-term sustenance and a connection to the life cycle that brings the dairy farmer more than just milk. When that milk is shared with others, they too can connect to that link. Today that connection is more relevant than perhaps ever before—not out of necessity, but out of desire. Today’s dairy farmer may provide for just his or her family; to multiple families through a herdshare; at the retail level with raw or even gently pasteurized, nonhomogenized milk; or by selling his or her milk to an artisan cheesemaker.

You would almost have to have been living under the proverbial rock to not have heard about the popularity of raw milk—and the controversy. As a long-time lover of raw milk and of science, I find it impossible, and personally unnecessary, to boil the debate down to a black-and-white, clear-cut right or wrong. Although many states do not allow the sale of raw milk as a final product, no state disallows the consumption of raw milk from your own animals. And all but one state, Maryland, follows the FDA ruling regarding the production and legal sale of properly aged cheeses made from raw milk. And they are currently allowing some production to occur. In many states that heavily restrict the sale of raw milk, pressure from organizations and individuals is helping make food rights a progressive issue.

Where selling raw milk is legal, whether that be directly from the farm, through a herdshare, or at the retail level, prices average three to five times that of conventionally produced milk. The input costs of building a facility to produce milk vary tremendously based on what level the sales will occur at (from direct on-farm only up to the retail level) and the restrictions and requirements of the state. Interestingly, the price the consumer pays seems not to reflect the input and ongoing costs of the farmer, but rather what the market will bear—with consumers located near large metropolitan areas and regions with a more progressive population willing and able to pay the most; for example, some of the highest raw-milk prices I encountered were in and around the California San Francisco Bay area.

In areas where only pasteurized milk is legal for sale, whether that be on-farm or full retail, or where a demand exists, farmers can still increase their profit margin and provide a superior product, when compared to that available in most grocery stores, through the sale of nonhomogenized (also called cream top), low-temperature-pasteurized milk. Milk processed in this low-technology small-batch fashion can command close to the same price as raw milk. Input costs will be higher, though, because of the steep cost of even the smallest pasteurizer. Pasteurizers and small bottling equipment are required by some states for retail milk sales.

The artisan cheese movement has created a demand for small volumes of artisan-produced milk. Cheesemakers and crafters of other dairy products who don’t want to milk their own animals often have a hard time finding a superior source for small volumes of raw milk. These artisans are looking for milk that reflects terroir, the uniqueness of the species, and the farmer’s attentive care of the animals. Although cheesemakers rarely can pay close to what the retail customer expects to pay, they might be the perfect customer for consistent sales of a bulk volume of milk—without the need for bottling, labeling, or processing. So although the price may seem low, there is far less labor and input required on your part. I frequently advise prospective cheesemaking operations that locating a milk source may be their most daunting hurdle. If you decide to try selling raw milk to a cheesemaker, plan on entering into a contract that will lay out details such as price, bacteria counts, somatic cell counts, and butterfat levels.

How Small Is a Small-Scale Dairy?

The small dairy can be any size that still allows you to feel personally engaged in the animals and the process. For some people that may mean only one or two cows or goats; for others that might mean fifty or more. When we have visitors here at our farm and take them out to hike with the goats while they browse, people are surprised that we can recognize nearly a hundred goats—and know their names. I remind them that they likely know far more than a hundred people whom they can recognize on sight. To the farmer the animals are not only “people” we know; they are our business partners.

Micro dairies are found in the backyards of suburban and even urban farmers. Fortunately, it is not uncommon to find ordinances that allow city farmers to grow not just fresh tomatoes and carrots but also to produce eggs and milk. For milk, miniature breeds of goats are the only choice but easily can produce enough for a small family. Probably the biggest hurdle facing the urban dairy is finding a suitable, available father for the goat’s young—as full male goats, like their chicken counterparts, roosters, are never allowed. For more tips on setting up an urban goat farm, I recommend the book City Goats by Jennie P. Grant.

For those living on one or a few acres, and where zoning laws allow residents to keep livestock, a single cow, a couple of full-size goats or sheep, or a handful of small-stature goats might constitute a small dairy—either for home and hobby or for a tiny commercial enterprise. Small acreage brings with it challenges, but none that cannot be addressed through proper planning and creative strategizing.

If you want to invest in a small commercial facility that will feed many families, however, you’ll need to do more planning to make sure that the business is a viable prospect. A dairy sized to create a decent income flow might be as small as a few cows to a couple of dozen or a handful of goats to several dozen—depending on the expenses that the farm income must cover. As you go through this chapter, there will be opportunities to analyze and collect data that will help you create a business plan—and make decisions regarding your dairy. There is no one-size-fits-all plan or income and expense estimates, so you must be prepared to do some homework. If you already have a dairy farm and are investigating the options for selling milk directly to customers, then it will be easy for you to address many of the following topics and develop your plans.

Small-Scale Dairy Farming and You

In my opinion, assessing your personal suitability for a hobby or career in small dairying is one of the most important preliminary tasks—and also one of the least explored. In an article she wrote for Wise Traditions (the periodical published by the Weston A. Price Foundation), Oregon herdshare dairy woman and small dairy mentor Charlotte Smith shared an example of the kind of reality check that can occur after opening a small dairy.

“I came up with the most brilliant idea,” wrote Smith. “I’d get a cow, milk her, and sell the surplus.” She shared her family’s raw-milk budget, then said she found it simpler and possibly more affordable “to pay three hundred dollars per month for your raw milk than get into the raw milk micro-dairy business.” Fortunately for Smith, her personality suited the job, and she emphasized that it has been fulfilling and overall worth the effort. Before you jump into the micro dairy pool, let’s test the waters by taking a serious look at financial and lifestyle suitability as well as the emotional and physical realities of starting a small dairy.

Having a small income-producing farm of any kind is what I refer to as a “lifestyle business” rather than a growth or investment business. A micro dairy is also a commitment to a level of work that has no time clock—you are always working or on call and with arguably more demanding year-round obligations than you would have with other livestock enterprises. It is also not a type of work that is widely lauded for the production of wealth—at least not the kind that you can save in the bank. You must gain a sense of personal satisfaction from the work that will sustain you through many stressful times, not the least of which will likely relate to finances. When dairy farmers produce, package, and sell milk from the farm, rather than trucking it to a processing facility, they add several more layers of responsibility to an already robust workload. To be a moderately to highly successful dairy farmer (and by that I mean producing an income that supports the farm lifestyle), you need to have a comfort level with the business aspects of the work, including balancing accounts, paying bills, dealing with invoices, and planning for big annual or semiannual bills such as feed and insurance. Even if you don’t enjoy this type of work, you need to be able to perform it. Most farmers would much rather be outside fixing fences, monitoring animal and pasture, or baling hay than sitting at a computer e-mailing reminders to those who haven’t paid their bills.

The emotional reality of dealing with animal lives and deaths is another potentially overwhelming factor that is impossible to describe or prepare for adequately. If you have a very small dairy farm with only a few animals, your encounters with these harsh realities may be few, but as your herd size increases, so do the odds of dealing with illness, tragedy, and tough decisions. One spring we lost 20 percent of our newborn baby goats to an intestinal illness caused by a protozoa called coccida. Their deaths were not quiet or peaceful, and at that point there was nothing we could do to save them, only lessen their suffering by euthanasia. I spent the entire year on edge, fearing the next misfortune. Successfully managing the ongoing challenges of a farm includes many tough lessons and unavoidable mishaps that you must learn to take in stride if your farm is to survive for the long haul.

The physical challenges of working with livestock and running a farm are commensurate with the farmer’s physical condition. In my consultation work, often the most difficult advice I have to give people involves their age and physical limitations. Many people are drawn to this work and are financially ready to enter into it when they are retiring from another, perhaps more lucrative, career but are also at an age when physical limitations become more apparent. In this case, if you have enough money and accept the need to hire help, then the dairy is still a possibility, although you still need to consider whether it will be physically and financially sustainable in the long run. The physical work of a dairy occurs in seasonal bursts that can make it even more difficult, from dealing with new mothers in milk and their rambunctious youngsters in the spring to bucking, hauling, and stacking hay in the hottest months. I encourage you to chart your future years in the business with an eye toward hiring help and paying for more labor as your age increases.

Feed and Waste Realities in a Small-Scale Dairy

Once you have determined that you and the small-dairy lifestyle are compatible, I suggest taking a look at the realities of providing feed and dealing with the waste produced by even the smallest micro dairy. Before doing any market research or designing a barn, you need to find out if feed is available at a price and volume that works and if your land and plan can deal with the manure, bedding, feed waste, wash water, and land damage that is part of having a dairy.

It took us a couple of years to secure a regular, reliable, and superior source of hay for our goat dairy. Even though we live in a great region for growing hay, most of the larger producers already had buyers lined up for their crops. We had to source it from several different growers until we finally got our foot in the door and connected to a steady supplier. The larger your dairy, the more likely you can find a source, as it is far easier for hay growers to sell most of their crop to one buyer for a single payment. If you are a very small farm, you will likely not buy an entire year’s supply of feed at one time, giving you an advantage in staggering the costs over the year but the disadvantage of paying a premium price and likely varying degrees of quality.

If your farm includes land for year-round grazing or the possibility of growing your own hay, you may find yourself at great advantage in regard to feed supply, but you also will have other costs and issues. You’ll need to invest in equipment, maintenance, and labor to maximize the land and its potential to feed your stock. From tractors (or horse or oxen power) to electricity for irrigation and the labor of moving irrigation pipes, managing crop-producing land can be a job unto itself. In addition to the cost of fodder (hay and pasture), you should factor in other feed costs for supplements—minerals, vitamins, and so on—and concentrates (grain). The expenses for these parts of the dairy animal’s diet can be surprisingly high, especially when your need goes from feeding a couple of goats a cup or two of grain a day to feeding a herd a 50-pound bag of expensive, organic oats a day. You also should source and price bedding, such as straw or wood shavings, for the animals. And don’t forget to factor in cost estimates for proper storage facilities for feed and supplies!

Once you have verified a sustainable feed source for the herd, it is time to face dealing with what remains of the feed after the animal has processed it—manure and urine as well as soiled bedding and wasted feed. If you are a very small farm, you won’t have much trouble utilizing these wastes as fertilizer, compost, or mulch. You may even find neighbors and customers for some of these valuable plant nutrient sources. Keep in mind the innate differences between very wet cow manure and the dry, pelletlike feces of goats and sheep. These differences each present possibilities and obstacles when used as plant nutrients.

Depending on where you live, you may encounter many regulations regarding animal waste—and often for good reason, since the same nutrients that can enhance soil also can contaminate groundwater and waterways when not applied properly. Although these regulations and the requirements they put upon the producer can be a burden, they are meant to help protect the land and keep people healthy. If you are planning on building a commercial facility, even a small one, be sure to check local zoning laws and with your state department of agriculture (or its equivalent) for relevant regulations. In many states, including ours, even the smallest facility is likely to be required to obtain a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permit. You probably don’t have what this permit was named after—a feedlot— in fact I believe these permits might better be called animal waste-management permits. They require knowledge of waste nutrient content and a plan for how this will be managed on your land. Obtaining them is an onerous process, but one that is also educational and might serve your land in the long run.

In addition to waste from the animal side of the dairy, your dairy processing areas will create wastewater containing varying levels of cleaners, sanitizers, milk residue, and perhaps a bit of manure from the milking parlor. At the home dairy scale this can be managed easily by your existing sewage or septic system—especially by choosing eco-friendly cleaning and sanitizing chemicals. At the larger scale, or at any commercial dairy, this wastewater will likely need to be managed by an inspected and approved system. It might be a traditional septic or greywater management system designed to hold the water until the chemicals stabilize to the point that it can be safely spread on crops.

Urban Micro Dairy

A few years ago I visited a tiny dairy in the most unlikely of places: Oakland, California. And not a gentrified, upscale neighborhood, either, but rather the tiny agrarian kingdom carved out of a rugged, illicit-activity neighborhood by author Novella Carpenter and her partner Bill Jacobs. Novella’s New York Times best-selling book, Farm City, is a gritty yet poetic memoir of her journey to urban farming and the animals she loved and lost—to the dinner table—along the way. Her dairy goats, two adorable Nigerian Dwarf goats named Bebe and Ginger, happily utilized the stairway from Novella’s upstairs apartment down to the postage-stamp-size yard as a part of their habitat. When I sat down with Novella that day, we sampled several of the delicious cheeses she had made from the milk of her city goats and talked about the couple’s plans for buying the vacant lot next door that was serving as her garden and orchard.

While Novella’s farm story is unique, urban dairy goats are becoming more common as cities change ordinances to allow for the keeping of small livestock. Novella made use of her small space by seeing to the goats’ needs through utilizing features such as a stairway to increase the animals’ access to activity and their need to climb. Her front porch doubled as hay storage, her back porch as a milking parlor, and her kitchen as the milk house. Vegetables and trimmings from her garden helped reduce the feed bill, and manure from the goats helped nourish the garden. I had no doubt that her model was possibly more sustainable than many farms a hundred times the size (which would still be fairly small). To learn more about Novella’s urban farm, visit her blog, Ghost Town Farm.

Signs That You Might Be A Small-Scale Dairy Farmer

1. Does your idea of a vacation involve getting up several hours earlier than normal to finish the chores in time to attend a raw-milk educational conference, then arrive home late, do chores again, and still get up on time the next morning?
2. Can you give hours of care and love trying to save the life of a weak bull calf and still come to terms with his being served as steak in a year or two?
3. Do you find that the rank, acrid smell of male goats in rut makes you think fondly of cute baby goats in the spring?
4. Does getting ready to go to town include changing into clean Carhartts?
5. Do you routinely pay more for animal feed than for your own dinner out?
6. Do your friends often point out that you have a bit of alfalfa stuck in your hair?
7. Do you find inserting your arm into a laboring doe's uterus to untangle triplet goat kids an interesting challenge?
8. Can you make the decision to euthanize a suffering animal, perform the job, feel sad, and still sleep well that night?
9. Does your idea of a balanced workout include doing squats while working in the milking parlor?
10. Does producing wholesome food and feeding your community make you happy?


Reprinted with permission from The Small-Scale Dairy: The Complete Guide to Milk Production for the Home and Market by Gianaclis Caldwell and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014. Buy this book in our store: The Small-Scale Dairy.