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Young dairy owners survive in difficult market

Maddy Quast for Progressive Dairyman Published on 03 September 2018
Daniels family

Starting a dairy involves long hours, backbreaking work and cool-headedness in unexpected emergencies. And in a market with exceptionally low milk prices, building a dairy from the ground up is no easy feat – especially when you’re in your 20s.

In this roundtable, three young dairy owners discuss how they’ve found success with their new dairies, despite the market decline.

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Nevin Lemos is a 21-year-old dairy owner from Waterford, California. He started his operation, Lemos Jerseys, in June 2017. He currently milks 440 cows.

James Weber, 28, owns a dairy near Millington, Michigan. He has been in operation since October 2015.

Darci and Justin Daniels began their farm in October 2013. Their dairy, Garden Valley Farmstead, is located in Hixton, Wisconsin. Darci, 29, participated in this roundtable.

Q. What is your background in the dairy industry?

LEMOS: I’m a fourth-generation dairyman. I grew up doing 4-H from as young as you could start to as old as you could keep showing. I also spent all my life working on the family farm. I grew up learning how to milk cows, feed cows, pull calves in the middle of night, and learning how to irrigate crops.

WEBER: I grew up on my family farm and had most of the normal kid chores you would have on a dairy. I always helped out with your regular barn and field jobs. I loved working with the cows especially. It was a good upbringing.

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DANIELS: I grew up on a 50-cow Holstein and Brown Swiss farm. I showed at local, state and national shows with Brown Swiss. I loved working on the farm growing up and have always wanted to be a farmer and raise my family on a farm. My husband grew up in southeast Wisconsin on a 200-cow Holstein farm.

Q. What made you decide to pursue owning your own dairy?

LEMOS: I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit. When I was 13, I had my own sweet corn business. I rented the field from my dad, grew the corn, had a harvest crew, sold it to the market. It gave me a taste of owning my own business and doing whatever it takes to make it work. I also talked to my dad about how to get into the business. My home dairy was too small to have another owner, so I decided to go out on my own.

WEBER: When I was 18, I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I went to Michigan State for a two-year degree and ended up going on to get a bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly. Along the way, I fell in love with the management process for dairy and knew I wanted to pursue it. It gave me the drive to start looking at owning my own operation.

DANIELS: My husband and I wanted to venture out on our own. We had new ideas that were different than what we were both brought up on. We’ve been trying no-till planting, cover crops, and we utilize cool-season grasses.

Jersey dairy cows

Q. How did you start your dairy?

LEMOS: I attended Modesto Junior College where I pursued dairy science. Every day after school, I hit the streets looking for a dairy to lease. After finishing college, I took an internship at a New Zealand dairy for two months. It gave me a whole new perspective on owning a dairy, aside from the one I grew up on. When I came home, I found out I had gotten the lease for a dairy only 5 miles from my family’s dairy. That June, the first load of first-lactation Jersey cows came in. Now I’m milking 440 cows.

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WEBER: Personally, I started by going to my parents. They were in the process of transitioning their own farm, but they have always wanted their kids to be successful and happy, so they jumped in to help. I found a piece of land 7 miles from my parents’ that looked great. After that, it was a lot of meetings with loan lenders and cattle sellers. It was a long process, but now my farm is doing well.

DANIELS: When we moved, we started by purchasing our buildings and pasture while we worked full-time to save some money. This also gave us time to get established and make friends in our new community. They greatly helped us as we had resources for almost anything we needed and people trusted us when it came time to purchase feed and cows. I cut back on farm hours once we started a family. A year and a half after we began milking, we were able to purchase the 120 acres and now grow all our own feed.

Q. What makes your dairy unique?

LEMOS: I think every dairyman would say their dairy is unique. There’s a different environment at every dairy. I have four employees, and I try to keep myself and the employees unified. We have regular team meetings, and I think we have a good environment out there. The employees are happy working here.

WEBER: One of the things that sets us apart is our herd. We started out with Jerseys, which only makes up about 9 or 10 percent of the national herd. Even though Jerseys are less common, their milk yield is good. It’s been a great choice for us.

DANIELS: We have a store located right on our farm. We’ve started to market our own cheese and beef products. We also don’t grow any alfalfa. Instead, we plant all grasses.

Nevin Lemos

Q. What challenges have you faced in your first few years?

LEMOS: I’ve been in business just over a year now, and there have definitely been things I didn’t anticipate. When I was getting started, I said to my dad, “Teach me everything you know.” He said, “I’ll teach you what I can, but some things you learn just by being in business.” I’ve always been in the industry, but it’s a different game when you’re the owner. I started when I was 20, and some people thought I would have difficulties with the employees [because I was so young]. I think the end goal should be to put a high-quality product in the milk tank. It’s not about anybody’s ego. If somebody treats me differently because I’m younger, they’re not in it for the right reasons.

WEBER: We milked our first cow Oct. 7, 2015– nine months after I started the process of creating my own dairy. Right about that time, the market turned way down – particularly in Michigan, which normally doesn’t suffer that much. I thought it would be two lean years, but here we are on year number three. I definitely didn’t anticipate how long this would last. It’s been tough to start out in that kind of environment, but we’ve made it out OK.

DANIELS: We had a fire in our calf barn in 2015 that took a few calves and caused us to have to rebuild. In 2017 when our daughter was born, she had an extended hospital stay and we had to cut back on cow numbers to get through that time. That whole year was challenging with milking less cows, but it also allowed us to really bank up on feed inventory. This year, we are facing drought conditions and are getting very poor yields from our crops. Our carryover inventory is our only saving grace to make it through this year without having to purchase too much feed. There’s always something.

Q. How do you think you’ve been able to stay profitable?

LEMOS: That has been a bit of a challenge. Milk prices these days are very tough. We try to be inventive. When I first started having calves on the ground, I had to buy expensive bovine colostrum to make up my deficit. But once I had fresh cows to feed my calves and I had extra colostrum, I worked with my salesman to find a buyer for my extra. It brings in about $400 a month. It’s a little thing, but all the little things add up to keep us in the black.

WEBER: Purchasing Jerseys right off the bat was a good decision for us. They have a dense milk yield, which has helped us keep our cost of production low. We also grow much of our feed and our own crops on our land, which means we can feed at-cost rather than purchasing from someone else. Additionally, the family helps out a ton and helps me keep afloat through these tough years. All of these things do help.

DANIELS: Focusing on producing high-quality milk with high components has proven to be a huge advantage for us. We’re getting a premium for our milk. Another big thing has been our excellent calf program. Our death loss on our wet calves always has been less than 1 percent. Since we aren’t growing our milking herd right now, we always have calves, heifers or cows to sell. That definitely helps with low milk prices.

Darci Daniels and son feeding calf

Q. What makes you optimistic about the future of your dairy?

LEMOS: Dairy is one of those commodities that won’t go by the wayside. With all the dairies exiting in California, I think there might be a bit of an incentive to stay for the creameries that want to stay open – if you can hang on that long. As of right now, I’m paying the bills. Milk is starting to creep up, which gives a person hope. Dairymen aren’t the kind of people who get in and out of the business. You’re pretty committed, and once you’re in, you’re in. I’m in it for the long run.

WEBER: Despite the long economic downturn, we’ve stayed afloat. We only have one full-time employee and utilize the family as much as possible to keep costs low. It isn’t easy, but I know that the market will turn around eventually, and when it does, we’ll be in a good spot to move up and grow our operation.

DANIELS: Recently, it has been hard to stay optimistic when we are struggling and so many of our friends and family are too. But at the end of the day, we are keeping our faith that God has put us here for a reason and that we are doing His work by feeding His people, and we will be rewarded for that work someday. We have also seen a lot of support as we have started marketing our own products, and we’re looking forward to growing our business.

Q. What advice would you have for someone wanting to start their own dairy?

LEMOS: It may be a bit cliché, but I would say to never give up. I read lots of articles [about the industry] where it’s all doom and gloom, but I would say it’s not as bad as it might seem. Go for it, but be cautious and conservative. It’s not an easy business. I enjoy what I do, but it’s a lot of long hours. Be aware of what it takes to make it all happen. But know that it’s definitely worth it in the end.

WEBER: The dairy industry is a tough one right now, largely because of the milk prices. I would say, make sure you know about the difficulties; don’t be in it for the money; and do it because it’s what you want to do. If you know that, you’ll be okay.

DANIELS: Know your numbers and focus on the business, but also be willing to commit to the lifestyle and take really good care of your cows. Also, surround yourself with dairy farmers you look up to and admire. Ask them for advice, use their experience and make it your own.  end mark

Maddy Quast is a 2018 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.

PHOTO 1: Left to right: Darci, Weston (3), Justin and Sadie Daniels (19 months) in their cow pasture. Photo provided by Darci and Justin Daniels.

PHOTO 2: The Jersey holding pen at James Weber’s dairy. Photo provided by James Weber.

PHOTO 3: Nevin Lemos on his dairy, Lemos Jerseys. Photo by Maureen Lemos Creative Portraits.

PHOTO 4: Darci Daniels and her son Weston feeding a calf on their farm. Photo provided by Darci and Justin Daniels.

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