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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Is Running A Cow Share Program Right For Your Farm or Homestead?

 The homesteader with an affinity for dairy cows, often dreams of  being able to make a living with the animals they love.  The question is often asked about the viability of cow share programs.  So, how do you know if running a cow share program is the right choice for you and your farm or homestead?


Let me share a little of my background before sharing my perspective on the question at hand.  When I was a kid, my dad worked for a while on a family owned dairy just down the road from us.  He often told stories of the cows with names and personalities that he milked, and on occasion, my brother and I got to visit the farm. (We lived on a farm with a commercial chicken house and beef cattle at that time but the dairy farm was different.)  As an adult in my late twenties, I came full circle and spent time working on a small, family owned dairy in Alaska.  This only served to encourage my desire to own milk cows of my own.  Almost a decade ago, I married the farmer of my dreams, who just happened to have been a third generation dairy farmer.  (And yes, I did use past tense in that sentence.  Just a couple years prior to meeting me, Mike had sold off the dairy herd and bought beef cattle. ) As a testament of his love for me,  knowing full well the responsibilities of dairy farming, Mike helped me find and buy my very first two Jersey cows.


I never intended on sharing milk with anyone other than our family.  Starting a cow share program  was really the last thing I wanted to do.  At that time, family owned Jersey cows just were not seen much in our area.  On more than one occasion, people would just stop and ask me about them and want to know if I would start a share program.  I always turned everyone down.  It just wasn't something I was interested in doing. Eventually, I began to give into the demand and set up a very small share program with two cows.  By word of mouth, raw milk drinkers started finding me and I kept adding cows and people to the program.  At one point, I had 12 cows in milk.  After nine years of providing milk for share members, we have shut down the program to free up time for our three grandbabies as well as to allow us to focus on other aspects of farming that provide better income possibilities. With the program coming to an end, it seemed like a good time to share my experiences with others who might be considering starting a cow share program


Is Running A Cow Share Program Right For  Your Farm or Homestead?

1.  Have you checked into the legal aspects of running a share program?

The very first thing you must consider if you think you might want to run a cow share program from your farm would be the legalities of such a program.  Different states have different requirements. Some states are more favorable than others regarding raw milk sales.  You are going to have to research the laws in your state and find out if raw milk sales are expressly legal and if they are legal, what requirements must be met to begin selling your cow's milk.  Some states specifically allow share programs, while other states strictly prohibit share programs. Then there are states that do not specify that share programs are legal or illegal.  The very best thing you can do before moving forward with raw milk sales is to contact the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, become a member, and let them help you sort through the legal process.  They will help you determine if raw milk sales are legal in your area and they will help you prepare a contract for your program.  They will also offer legal representation if needed.  

2.  Have you considered the cost?

In my experience, by the time you have considered your expenses for feed, housing, fencing, milking equipment, jars, vet fees and the cow itself, sharing milk with other families does little more than offset your own expenses if you only have a single cow.  This can be an excellent means of letting the cow pay for itself, but one can't expect to really make much of a wage, if any, from running a cow share program with a single cow.

On the other hand, more cows in the program means additional expenses to go along with the additional income.  You have to take all of the expenses into consideration and decide if you can make enough with the share program to make it worth your while to put the effort into doing it.  Really crunch the numbers and put some thought into your expenses versus the amount of money you expect to make.

Over the years, I have watched different individuals start up larger programs only to find out that they must go back to their day jobs, because a share program most of the time doesn't bring in enough money to support a family.  Finding the magic number of cows that adds to the homestead income while not tipping the scales toward debt is a delicate balance.   There are so many variables to consider but one of the biggest concerns is the cost of feeding the cattle.  One of the things that helped me to be able to hang on for so long with our share program, is the fact that we have enough acreage to grow and put up our own hay.

3.  Have you considered your state's attitude toward raw milk and how that can affect your future?

 I always tried to keep in the back of my mind the fact that the state's attitude toward cow share programs could change overnight.  While Virginia does not expressly prohibit cow share programs, neither do the laws provide protection for share programs.  With this in mind,  I never wanted to sink a lot of money into expensive facilities, increase the herd dramatically, or take on a huge number of share members.  To me, it was too much of a gamble.  If you are fortunate enough to live in a state where you can sell raw milk legally from your farm without setting up a cow share program, then you don't have to worry so much about this particular aspect.  If you are in a state that does not expressly provide for raw milk sales or legally endorse share programs, then it really should be a point of consideration.

4.  Do you have the patience to handle persistent, minor annoyances?

I had fantastic share members.  I was truly blessed with people who mostly tried to work with me to see the share program run smoothly.  For the most part, the families who were part of the share program remained thoughtful and respectful of the needs and wishes of the farmer.  However, there are always minor annoyance that tend to grate on our nerves. As the years go by, those little annoyance can seem even more pronounced.  A few simple examples would be members that consistently come late or early to pick up their milk, members who don't pay on time and have to be reminded time and time again, and members who do not return jars and have to be contacted to bring back empty jars. We had issues at times with children who were not being adequately supervised.

Aside from these minor annoyances, there is sense of lost privacy as share members come and go year after year.  You are running a home based business that gives a segment of the public access to a portion of your life.

5.  Are you assertive enough to address major concerns?

Dealing with the day in and day out minor annoyances require patience but dealing with major problems requires assertiveness.  It's important to know that you have the strength to handle situations that might arise that need definite action.  Individuals who don't abide by the share contracts must be confronted.  Parents must be notified when children escape their supervision and put themselves in harms way.  Misunderstandings sometimes occur and these situations must be handled wisely and directly.

Conclusion:

As our share program ends, I have asked myself if I would do it all over again now that I have the wisdom of almost a decade behind me.  Honestly, there are times I ask myself that question and don't hesitate to answer yes.  Then, there are times when I think there is absolutely no way that I would ever make the choice to run a share program again.  I think I am tired now. and when I look back in retrospect and consider that amount of work I put into the program, the minimal amount of money I made compared to the hours I contributed, as well as the physical toll the labor has taken on my body over the years, I don't know that it was the best thing for me from a practical perspective.  Yet, there is that pull....... that call to be with the cows that I love so much.......... and I don't regret the time I was able to spend doing what I loved.

Put simply, if you are looking to make a living by running a share program, it's probably not going to happen.  However, if you are looking to supplement your income or offset the costs of providing milk for your family, a share program can be a rewarding experience.


Note:  Watch for an additional blog post in the near future providing practical tips for running a share program. 

The opinions in this post are based on my experience.  Everyone has unique perspectives and you may find by talking to others who have had share programs that their perspective is different.  Educate yourself . talk to as many people as possible with actual experience, and then make your decisions regarding what is best for your farm. 




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