Monday, February 12, 2007

Grass farming

So, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been wanting to do with my life and I thought to myself, hey, why not be a dairy farmer?

Now, most of you probably just thought to yourself – yes, sure, let’s just suddenly go out and milk cows. But, I am also a former tie stall dairy farmer from NY.

I’ve been thinking more and more about it and I’ve pretty much decided if I can get a loan, this is what I am going to do. I’ll lay out the very general idea here, though I am working on a more depth (and professional) business plan on my hard drive.

I do not want to do conventional dairy farming. I’ve done that. Honestly, it isn’t all that much fun. In many ways it reminds of the Navy, where 95% of my job wasn’t my job. I liked working with the animals. I liked milking. I liked calves. I liked watching the fields grow in the spring. I hated manure handling in below 0 weather. I hated silage in below 0 weather. I hated water pipes bursting on Christmas. I really disliked doing mechanical repairs on machinery. It seemed like I was spending way more time doing things that 100 years ago no one would have even considered. Who on earth would have climbed up a 50 foot harder silo to sledge out frozen corn silage?

A couple years ago I had to do some research about subsidies and I used New Zealand as an example of an area that eliminated subsidies. New Zealand today is one of the largest dairy exporters in the world. I didn’t really put much thought into it at the time.

I was doing some research about cheese, for my own enjoyment, and I happened to stumble across an article of this guy in New Jersey who runs his herd on grass only milk. He milks one time per day, outwinters, and does nothing but grass. This got the old grease machine that is my brain working.

I thought to myself, gee… if cows can produce milk on grass you wouldn’t need a big tractor to pull the plow. You wouldn’t need a bunker. You wouldn’t need a harrow. You wouldn’t need a corn chopper, corn planter, or corn seed. I thought about this and I thought about it some more and then I remembered back about milk fever and bloat and I thought all the cows would be dead in a matter of days fed on a high quality grass ration. Everyone knows that cows can’t eat grass (what they ate before the 50’s must have been magical essence).

So, I did some googling. I then found this guy by the Fred Owen who runs a grass only dairy in Ohio. Now Fred, it seems, did the whole 300+ dairy cow thing with freestalls and all that jazz. He says he now makes more money on 30 cows grazing. I figured he was an extreme case, or possibly a superb manager of grass and not representative of all dairies. The production hit you take from grass it seems is negligible and the total milk / acre it seems, actually goes up since you need fewer acres / cow to feed each when on grass only.

I thought about this some more. I’ve always wanted to have a cheese farm at some point in the future. I did some more research about cheese farmers and only some are on grass. Most are still doing conventional dairying and some buy their milk off the open market. It occurred to me then there was a serious opportunity for me.

At the same time, and by total coincidence, I was reading the book called “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollen. In that book he interviews Joe Salatin and I ended up in a conversation with some people in Brattleboro about this very subject. The more I read about it, the more intrigued I was. Not only is something I could do, but this was something I could do an enjoy doing at the same time.

It then occurred to me that if I wanted to make cheese all the animals should be in a similar state of lactation so the cheese components are all the same. This way I could make a higher quality cheese from specific seasonal milk. Cows milk for 305 days and are dry for 60. Usually. Why can’t they all freshen in the same time period and dry them off in the winter months? This would avoid the costly electric and fuel bills of the winter months. I looked up seasonal dairying and lots of graziers are doing it to synchronize their herd with the spring grass, an added bonus as far as I’m concerned.

I decided everything on the farm should maximize profits. What if I outwintered? I want to dairy in the far North East, in Vermont. This is a question I haven’t had answered yet. I think it is possible. I wouldn’t want to experiment on my own animals though. Calves. It occurred to me that seasonal calving would mean a serious amount of time feeding calves, maybe too much to make it worth while. I found an article HERE that explains how to do it. Boy, do I wish I knew about that back in the day.

I have been trying to find people who have negative things to say about grazing and I can’t find any, other then the nutritionalists. I would really like to hear about failed enterprises to see what happened there.

One of the first problems I’ve thought up is milk times. I did some research about that and it seems some graziers go for the swing over parlor due to it’s low cost and fast throughput. If I had to build a new parlor, this is what I would build: The Waikato swing over system. For a grazier, cows don’t eat big meals, lay down, and loaf. They are always doing one of three things, when not being milked. Ruminating, grazing, resting. Cows don’t rest that often. You want your cows off the cement and in the field in as little a time as possible. I thought this might ruin my idea, since I know how expensive a nice double herringbone Delaval will cost. In order to milk 50 cows in an hour or so, you would need a much larger parlor then one for a standard 50 cow. The swing over solves this problem. I could build a swing 7 at a very reasonable price and milk with one person in about an hour and 15 minutes on the high end.

I don’t think this is plug and play. Conventional dairying is mostly plug and play. You just mix the TMR milk and away you go.

For right now, I want to start a dairy running about 50 cows. I want to build a cheese house and storage facility to store the cheese to market. I’ve been trying to read more about direct marketing cheese and how much I focus on fluid / cheese in the beginning and how to shift away from fluid.

Another thing I've been thinking about is what sort of breed? I've been leaning towards Ayrshire, but I really like the Normende, they are just hard to get in my neck of the woods.

Even if nothing ever comes from it, it is an interesting exercise none the less. Not to mention the Georgist implications of more milk / acre. There is still a ton more to think about and research before I can even think about it.