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Hurdles from a first generation dairy farmer

In 2004 I knew very, VERY, little about agriculture and as if it were possible I knew even less about being a dairy farmer. However I AM a deep well of motivation for other people and so that did not matter. When the guy I had fallen in love with said he wanted to start his own dairy farm I jumped in with both feet, determined to make this life ours. Things I didn’t do: talk to other farmers, read any agriculture magazines, or Google anything involving cattle. My answer to every stage of our business plan was “yes, we can do this“.

Obviously you can tell I was hugely unprepared and pretty naive (but in my defense I was 24 and still living on the wildly romantic idea that love is ALL we needed). When we started our paperwork, buying equipment, and saying our vows there were plenty of people who asked if we knew what we were getting into. Honest to a fault, I would reply “nope, but we’re gonna give it a shot”.

Friends, there have been so many hurdles and so many moments where I just wish SOMEONE with more experience was guiding our choices.

Animals get sick and learning what symptoms correspond to our OWN herd was one of our biggest challenges. Though my husband worked on a dairy through high school there was always someone in charge to make the final call on diagnosis and treatment within the group. When we look back now, over a decade later, it’s hard to accept that many of our animals during the first several years could have been saved if we had treated their illnesses more efficiently. Animal care and knowing how to treat them has been my biggest first generation hurdle.

My husband would say his biggest hurdle has been land and ground fertility. When we started putting up feed for our dairy cows we didn’t own any land, we hunted for vacant property and it was generally overgrown with weeds and bushes, we had to create relationships with people who didn’t know a thing about us as we were asking them to sign a hand written contract to farm their property for the next 3 years. Experience shapes us and over the years we’ve improved our land contracts, but 2 of our very first contracts are still cool with the handwritten form šŸ˜‰

Organization, paperwork, and finances are so much more complex than my basic accounting principles had taught me in college. We spent the first 5 years trying to find an accountant comfortable in agriculture and I still continue to tweak something in my farm book work every year. One season to the next or from a conversion I have with another bookkeeper, I realize a better way to do my job. Being in charge of the farm finances was a job that I wanted to do, but soon realized was incredibly complicated.

Having equipment is crucial to almost every job we do, the proper tools save us time and keep us safe, but rounding up these tractors and implements has been our biggest financial setback. For years it felt like every piece of iron on the farm came with a payment book and very few items have been new. When parts start to go and you don’t have a back-up from the previous decade sitting out back, your options to get the job done are slim. We have purchased equipment and traded it on something else less than 10 months later (btw, don’t do this during tax time because it might result in you paying the State on an income you didn’t really receive), we’ve changed the equipment we need to plant and harvest cow feed because we have changed our minds on how WE, the two of us, can most efficiently do field work. Having a fleet of dependable equipment would have come in handy more than once over the last few years when milk prices have been low.

I will forever be thankful for our neighbors, mentors, and friends who have let us bounce ideas off them, whom we’ve borrowed equipment from, and who’ve stopped by for a conversation and made us take a time-out. BUT I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have wished a few times we had family that understood. How beneficial it could be for family members to step in and help out in a pinch because they’ve been there, they’ve experienced this. How less alone I might have felt. I’m pretty positive generational farms come with plenty of headaches from growing pains and pushing traditions, but from the grass on my side I think things would be different if we had family involved in dairy.

These can’t really be called setbacks because navigating these challenges have given us so much in return! As a couple who works together under stressful circumstances, he’s everything to me and I can’t imagine not sharing EVERY detail of my day with him. In the most irritating way, my husband is my best friend, my business partner, the person who knows how to push my buttons in 30 seconds, and make my whole morning awesome when he offers to feed calves. We are feeling all the hurdles together. I assume every farmer has hiccups and feels empowered once they get through them, these are mine and I know they’ve made our farm stronger. What are some of your farm hurdles? Xo, Nicole

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