The Challenges of Operating a Micro Dairy and Producing Safe and Delicious Milk and Dairy Products for your Friends Family and Community

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge
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Small herd or Micro Dairies can present serious challenges to their owners and operators despite and partly due to their small size.  Personally I have found that a few of the challenges only increase as the herd size decreases.  I have milked Jersey herds from 20 to 90 to 4 cows. The common wisdom of years past was that having one cow was a difficult as having 100 cows.  In reality I found that not to be true today due to advances in technology and improved management practices but managing a small herd of ten or fewer milk cows does present unique challenges.  Most are due to the impracticality of grouping cows according to their breeding and lactation status. 

With my larger farms I found it to be much easier to keep my dry cows in a separate group so I could feed them differently than I fed my milking cows.  I also kept my bred heifers as a separate group in a different barn or in a different pasture.  On of my favorite things to do 25 years ago was to visit my bred heifers in their pasture during a nice summer’s day or evening.  They were glad to see me because I was kind to them and fed them. And when they saw me in their pasture they assumed something good or exciting was about to happen.

Here is a funny little trick for getting cows to come to you in a pasture.  If you go out into a pasture where there is a group of cows or heifers and lie down in the grass they will all come over to smell and look at you.  It can be a bit intimidating if they come running, which they often do. I think they wonder why you aren’t up on two feet and need to investigate. My heifers would surround me when I was lying on my back in the pasture like petals of a big flower and sniff my head and clothes and boots for half an hour before moving on.

Now my bred heifers (I usually have only one at the most) stay with my milk cows in the barn or on pasture.  I have found the best solution to grouping dry cows is to have a seasonal herd so they can be all dry and in need of the same ration at the same time rather than trying to keep separate groups for dry cows and milking cows.

I have also found it to be difficult to detect cows in heat if I have less than three cows.  There is no competition among the cows to stimulate the cow that isn’t in heat to mount the cow that is.  If there are two cows or more they will compete to mount a cow that has come into heat.  One cow just yawns, especially during colder or hot weather.  No one really knows why cows will mount another cow in heat.  It is thought by some cow behaviorists that the instinct might be an indicator for the bull in charge of the heard that there is a cow in heat for him that he might otherwise miss. I have even had heifers in heat try to mount me when my back was turned, an alarming experience. The arrival of spring and green grass will make the cows more active and more likely to mount one another.   It makes it handy for synchronized breeding but it also leads to mid winter calving. 

Mid winter calving in Vermont also creates the necessity for a warm maternity pen or box stall.  That isn’t tough to do in a 50 or 100 cow barn but the space is dearer in a four-cow barn.  I don’t have a warm box stall or maternity pen in my barn and I have often wished that I did and do but that would require me to add on to my barn which wouldn’t be worth it for me right now.  I have found ways to manage without one but it is a challenge.

I have also found that it is more difficult to do rotational grazing with a small herd of cows.  Moving the fence every day for three or four cows hardly seems worth it.  It is much easier to simply give them larger sections of pasture for longer periods of time and mow after they move on.  I have found that approach (under stocked and over grazed) to work very well with Silvo-pasture or wooded pastures.  It gives the cows time to browse and open up the understory beneath the trees where I can’t mow.  The advantage is that small groups of cows do a lot less collateral damage to the trees especially root crowns, than larger groups do. 

Small cow numbers also make vet visits more expensive on a per cow basis, especially for herd checks, vaccinations etc.  As a result I am much less likely to call my vet for non-emergency situations and slower to call for emergency situations.  In an emergency I first try to resolve the situation myself rather than call the vet and pay $100 or more for him or her to come to the barn.  Unfortunately that cost me a cow a few years back, which still bothers me.

Throughout the past fifty plus years that I have worked on dairy farms I have usually worked with someone else – be it a boss, a hired man or my wife and kids.  In my opinion there is no better way for a person to allow their personality defects to reach their full potential than by trying to manage a large or small dairy farm alone.  It seems to bring out all the demons.  But, in contrast, operating a micro dairy or a small herd dairy farm is the perfect activity for a family or couple.  The labor involved is not a crushing burden.  Every family member has chores to do and everyone has a purpose and is a valuable member of the management team.  I built my current four-cow Micro Dairy eleven years ago.  At the time my wife, Wendy, made it clear that after helping me farm for years she was not going to be routinely involved in managing the farm or milking the cows.  I was going to be on my own.  My four kids are all grown and are doctors and lawyers and such who live far away and have their own lives. I was surprised at how little I enjoyed doing the chore twice a day after day alone.  I do enjoy having company in the barn.  When my kids were small our dairy barns were full of life and laughter, these days it is usually just me and the radio and my cows. 

But, all is not lost.  I now have grandchildren, the oldest being four, who visit me and love to visit the barn when I am doing my chores.  And every once in a while I can convince my wife to come give me a hand during evening chores.   She’ll throw down hay from the mow or feed the calves while I milk. I appreciate the help and company, even though milking and doing chores only take about 30 minutes when I do them alone.

Just a word of caution, if you are getting into the dairy business and plan on operating a micro dairy or a small herd dairy see if you can line up regular help with the chores anyway.  Otherwise it can be a lonely and somewhat grinding experience.  Milking my cows and doing my chores alone for the previous10 years was just about enough for me.  I am now in my late 60s and my outlook and stamina are not the same as they were even five or ten or twenty years ago.  However I can’t emphasize what a great experience having a dairy farm, large or small can be for a family, if the finances work. But that is a big if.  Find some help. You don’t and shouldn’t need to be a hero to manage a micro dairy

Have fun and enjoy your cows!

Bob-White Systems, Inc., located in central Vermont, serves the rapidly emerging Micro-Dairy market in addition to more traditional dairy farms. We offer equipment, supplies, technology, and resources to enable community based dairy farmers and individuals to produce and market safe and delicious farm-fresh milk and dairy products.

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