Getting Started in Small-Scale Dairy Farming

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


| October 2014



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

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.





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