Starting a dairy farm requires a large outlay in money -- to purchase land, cows and machinery -- but that pales beside the sheer amount of time invested. Even in the labor-intensive world of animal agriculture, nothing demands as much time and effort as dairy farming. Besides feeding and mucking out -- daily duties common to most livestock care -- your cows must be milked twice daily. Cows must have calves to produce milk, and that makes late winter and spring even more demanding. It's a 24/7/365 vocation.
Consult dairy industry experts when putting together plans for your operation. That includes your local agricultural extension agent, veterinarians, professors in university agricultural departments and livestock nutritionists. Other dairy farmers in your region are also sources of advice and help. Ask questions, including what farmers would have done differently regarding management or other dairy-related issues. You'll have to decide whether your farm will include related enterprises, such as raising and selling some cattle for meat or growing and selling hay. Your veterinarian can offer advice on treatment protocols, record-keeping and best management practices. Keep in mind that you or an employee will perform many routine procedures on the farm, including vaccinating and calving, with your vet on call for emergencies.
How much money you'll need to start a dairy farm depends on various factors, especially the size of your herd and the sophistication of your milking equipment. A 2014 paper published by the Kansas State University Department of Agricultural Economics estimated that it would cost more than $1 million to establish a 100-cow operation using modern milking equipment. That estimate includes $874,270 for the acreage, barn and equipment and $154,580 for the purchase of the cow herd.
Herd management is key to a successful dairy operation. Decide what type of cow best suits your farm. The overwhelming majority of dairy farmers raise Holsteins, the prime milk production breed, with a smaller number making use of Guernseys or Jerseys. Crossbreds, with their hybrid vigor, make sense if you plan to use rotational grazing for the bulk of your herd's forage in spring, summer and fall. They are usually less expensive than purebred stock. Choose cows based on genetic milk production, calving ease and your farm's grazing capacity.
Feeding Your Herd
One of your farm's biggest expenses is feed. The more you can grow on your own -- perhaps with sufficient amounts left over to sell -- the more economical your feed costs. Without good feed and forage, cows can't produce healthy calves and quality milk. Your agricultural extension agent can advise you on the right forage crops for harvesting and for pasture management. A dairy nutritionist can help you develop a feeding plan for all cattle on your farm, including wet and dry cows, heifers, steers and calves. Speak with other local farmers -- both dairy and production operators -- about the possibility of sharing equipment and other ways to reduce costs for everyone's benefit.
If you don't have family members or business partners sharing the workload, you'll have to hire employees. How many full-time or part-time workers you'll need depends on the size of your operation and whether you want any days off. Dairying is hard work that doesn't command high wages, so prepare for employee turnover. Figure on a minimum of two full-time workers for every 100 cows -- but that's with little time off for either individual.
Before you can ship and sell any milk, you must receive approval from your state's board of health or the applicable agency overseeing dairy farm operations. Although state laws might vary to some degree, expect to submit blueprints meeting state standards for your milking facility and a waste management plan. You'll need to submit a sample from the well supplying the cows' water, along with information about the water supply. The latter includes well location and type, along with any backflow protection devices installed. Before the numerous permits and applications are approved, health officials will thoroughly inspect your property and livestock. You can expect regular, routine inspections of your dairy farm.