Practical Tips For Managing Your Cow Share Program
As promised in my original post entitled "Is Running a Cow Share Program Right for Your Farm or Homestead", I am sharing a few tips that I have learned over the years that I have found helpful.
Contemplating this post, it became apparent to me that I need to actually break this information into manageable segments. In this particular post, I will be addressing practical tips to help you manage the program itself. Granted, these tips may not apply to your situation, but may at least give you some things to consider. (In future installments to this series, I will address tips regarding purchasing livestock for a share program, setting up facilities, and purchasing equipment.)
You will find my points to be candid and realistic, which I believe is necessary for an honest look into whether operating a share program is right for you and your farm.
1. Label Jars
(I am assuming here that you are using glass jars so that they can be recycled each week. This saves money in the long run and eliminates the need for plastic. The glass jars keep the unpasteurized milk fresh longer, as well.)
For years, I refused to label jars and instead used a system of rotating the milk to make sure all share members received fresh milk. The following reasons are why I eventually gave in and started labeling jars.
a) I knew that share members were not returning jars, but I had no way of knowing who was returning them and who was not following through. By labeling the jars, I was aware of those who were not returning their jars each week and could address the issue directly.
b) Some share members were bringing back dirty jars. By labeling the jars, I was able to determine who was not washing their jars and could address the problem. It didn't take long for share members to begin paying attention to the cleanliness of the jars.
c) Sometimes share members were short on milk at time of pick up. By labeling jars, other share members couldn't inadvertently or intentionally pick up milk that didn't belong to them.
d) In the event someone didn't pick up their milk as planned, the labeled milk could be saved for them for a reasonable amount of time. With the previous method of rotating milk, even when a share member was late, they received fresh milk. While this was nice for the share member, it did nothing to discourage people from being late. (Late pick up caused a congestion of jars in the milk refrigerator with not enough room for milk for multiple days. If you have a large cooler or fewer share members, this may not be an issue with your program.) With the labeled jars, share members received the milk that was originally poured for them, and this encouraged members to pick up the milk on their designated dates to get the freshest product possible.
e) In the event an emergency situation came up and share members were unable to pick up on their scheduled day, they didn't have to call or text me to let me know. I was able to see by the labeled jars who had and who had not picked up their milk. (Due to limited refrigerator space, I did have a rule that any milk not picked up by the end of the week was discarded and not replaced. It was just the share member's loss.)
2. Set specific days and hours for milk pick up.
It's very important that you leave nothing to chance. In the beginning you might find yourself so excited to start a share program that you don't see the need for setting up specific boundaries. Trust me on this one. You need to protect your family's private time. When you operate a business out of your home, it is very difficult to draw the lines, but they need to be drawn. If your customers really want your product and value what you are doing, they will find a way to work around a reasonable schedule.
I worked with my share members to determine what was the best day for them to pick up. At times, the farm was only open three days a week. Later, I went to a five day a week schedule. I also set specific times when the milk kitchen would be open for share members to get their milk.
You may think that this is being overly controlling, but when you have been operating a share program for years at one farm and running a farm stand at the other farm, you need some time when you are relatively certain that the general public isn't going to just be pulling up to your front door.
This is where I could tell some interesting stories, but I will refrain. :-)
3. Insist on payment a month in advance.
Our monthly fees were due at the beginning of each month. To give everyone time to drop off their payments, I usually waited 7-10 days before recording them. Mostly, my share members were faithful to get their payments in on time. I had one share member that required my tracking them down almost every single month. This is time consuming and frustrating. You have every right to terminate share members that simply refuse to get with the program. This includes those who refuse to pay in a timely manner.
I placed a share fee/donation box or jar in a prominent location in the milk kitchen. All payments were to be left in that designated box. All cash was left at the risk of the share member and had to be in an envelope with their name on it so that I knew who had left the payment.
4. Establish what areas of your farm and home are off limits.
There are places on every farm that are simply not safe for anyone but the farmer. You will have to determine what you are comfortable with and what risks you are willing to take. Accidents happen and equipment and large livestock can be dangerous. Establishing and enforcing what areas share members can frequent is in the best interest of all involved.
5. Start small
In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes people make when starting a share program is growing the program too quickly. I have watched time and time again as share programs have started out big, only to find out their expenses and overhead were greater than their income. It's honestly hard to make money with a share program. Consider that the average cost of owning a family cow per year is around $3500. (This is your expense for keeping the cow, not the cost of the cow itself.) Then think about your start up costs (barns, milking parlor, fencing, purchase of cow, artificial insemination fees or cost of owning or leasing bull, etc.). By starting out small with one or two cows, you can offset what it costs you to own a family milk cow and gradually grow your business comfortably. You can grow your herd with the heifer calves that are born into your herd or you can sell the calves for additional income.
6. Don't be afraid to grow and change
As with most any business, it takes a while to pay for start up costs as mentioned above in point number four. However, don't stagnate. Use a level head to determine when it's time to grow a larger customer base. You will need to consider how many animals your facilities and pasture can comfortably accommodate and how much time you have to manage your program. More animals mean additional income but you have to have the time to milk the extra cows and shovel the manure of extra animals. At my share program's peak, I managed and milked 12 cows in milk. This required about six hours a day (as I only had the facilities to milk one cow at a time). I also seriously maxed out the pasture that we had available. You have to remember that with 12 cows in milk, I also had 12 calves to manage, feed and pasture. This period in the share program was my most profitable, but also the most difficult time for me to manage everything. Eventually I had to make a decision to downsize or move to another facility. Since I didn't want to pour a lot more money into facilities with the raw milk climate always so controversial, I ended up downsizing to 6-8 cows in milk and keeping my operating costs down. Each farmer will have to decide how far they want to go with the program and how much time and money they have to invest. While I advise starting small, growing the business wisely can bring greater income with time.
7. Don't advertise
Crazy, huh? You might not agree with me, and I understand. However, I chose not to advertise. In spite of share programs being permissible in my state, I decided I didn't want the public spotlight on me regarding my cow share program. Even without wanting attention, I still had the local newspaper contact me on several occasions, seeking to feature our program in the paper. I always politely refused. Instead, I felt like our fantastic share members were the best judge of who would best fit our program. Once our first few share members were established, we only admitted new members who were referred by existing members. This brought the very best folks into the program and saved me a lot of time and money with advertising. My share members seemed to understand and appreciate a closed group.
8. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Communicating with your share members is extremely important. At one point, I had 90 shares going out a week. (Many families had more than one share, so this did not translate into 90 families but rather 90 shares of milk a week.) In order to communicate information for a program that large, I set up group email accounts and private yahoo groups to reach the largest amount of people with the least amount of effort. I strongly encouraged share members to ask questions and make schedule changes via email or texts as it was more manageable for me than trying to answer telephone calls. I always had a few share members who simply would not or could not communicate via email or text. To communicate important share information to those who might otherwise miss it, I put a dry erase board on the milk share refrigerator and posted information there in addition to the emails I sent. The more you communicate with your share members, the more smoothly the program will run.
Once you have established a way to communicate effectively with your share group, it is worth your time and effort to educate your share members. As a farmer, you may take things for granted and assume that everyone has the same knowledge that you do. Trust me when I say that most people are so far removed from a farming/homesteading life that they may not know the basics. Examples of some of the topics I covered would be the following:
a) Why does my milk change to a more yellow color in the spring?
b) Why does the cream line in my milk change?
c) What factors affect production?
d) What does it mean to "dry off" a cow and why is it necessary?
10. Don't apologize for your fees
It is simply almost impossible for someone to understand the expenses and time involved in the process of providing raw milk, unless the individual has had personals experience. When farming, one can't even begin to think about being compensated for their time involved. Farming in many ways is a labor of love. Figure out what you need to have to make the program worthwhile, set your prices, and then do not apologize. Yes, there will be people who can't afford to participate. Yes, there will be people who will complain. But, by and large, those people who understand the benefits of the product you are providing will be willing to pay for your services. Time and again, people make sacrifices for what is important to them. If they are looking to you to give it away, they are not the best fit for your share program. Pigs and chickens love raw milk and flourish on it and feeding extra milk to them is a great way to cut back on feed costs while providing products for your family. You can always find resourceful ways to use extra milk. Make the program worth your while by setting your prices accordingly, or just don't do it. You never need to apologize for being compensated for your efforts.
10. Show your appreciation
One simply can't run any business without supporters. This is especially true of farming and cow shares in particular. Without my share members, I would not have been able to live out my dreams of having a small, private, dairy herd. I tried to communicate clearly and often to my share members how much their support meant to me. I sincerely hope they got that message.
11. Provide an Open House Opportunity or Classes
I will admit that I wasn't the best at providing opportunities for share members to visit the farm other than to pick up their shares. However, I always met with anyone who wished to view the animals, see the facilities and ask questions before they started the program. In addition, I from time to time provided scheduled opportunities for small groups of children to come and visit the baby animals. One has to consider the liability risk and their farm insurance when taking these types of ventures into consideration but the benefits are great for the creating a working environment between share members and the farmer.
In addition, I did offer a series of classes on making different types of cheese. For a fee, share members were able to attend, have a meal, meat the animals, tour the facilities, and learn how to make a specific product with their milk. This gave us all an opportunity to get to know each other better and develop closer friendships.
12. Consider Operating Seasonally
I operated a share program for almost a decade. During that time, I carefully planned things so that I always had some cows in milk. My fear was that if I didn't have a rotational schedule to provide milk twelve months of the year to my share members, then I would lose their support. When I finally took the plunge and went to a seasonal program, I found that my share members understood my decision and they unanimously supported me in it. Not only was putting the cows on a schedule where they calved in the Spring and reached peak lactation when the grass was most available the healthiest choice for the cows, but it also allowed me a two month break from milking. Being off in the winter months meant I could rest and regroup as could the cows. It was healthier for all of us. Trust me that after years of operating a share program, you are going to look forward to some down time instead of milking seven days a week, twice a day, year after year. What is good for the cows and the farmer is good for the share group as a whole. Good share members understand this. (This is also where point #9 is so important. When you take the opportunity to educate your share members, they understand why you are making the decisions you are making.)
13. Don't be afraid to dam raise your calves
It's possible. I did it and was passionate about my stance on allowing the mother cows to raise their babies in the herd. A lot of farmers offering cow shares pull the calves just like big dairies. I was fortunate to have share members who supported my position and people who even left other share groups to support mine solely because of our position on dam raised calves.
14. Know when to quit.
I never set out to start a cow share program. My program began quite by accident. I simply wanted to milk a cow or two for our own family. At the time I began sharing milk, it was not as popular a program as it has become in recent years. It seems now that many with a few acres and a cow are using share programs to help offset their costs. Many others believe they can find a way to support themselves while staying at home if they run a share program. For a while, I simply refused to start a share program, but friends, acquaintances and even strangers kept approaching me because at that time there just wasn't anywhere else to get quality, raw milk. Eventually, because I knew it would offset my costs, I agreed to take on a few folks. As word spread, the potential for growth was apparent. (Notice I said the potential for growth, not necessary the potential for a huge profit margin.) Although I enjoyed being able to provide families with nourishing milk, my greatest love was the Jersey cow. It was my passion for the breed that kept me going when the physical losses broke my heart, when the profit was non existent or marginal, when the cold of winter chilled me to the bones, when the heat of summer sent me to the emergency room from dehydration, when the bull charged me and fractured my fingers, when I stayed up all night with a laboring cow, when I nursed a dying cow or calf, and when suffered through experiences too numerous to mention.
After my three grandchildren were born, (the twins first and then the third baby eleven weeks later) and I began to help provide child care for them on a regular basis, it became almost impossible for me to continue the share program. My love for my Jerseys kept me sacrificing for eighteen more months, getting up at 3 am to milk, watching babies all day long, and then milking again when they left. One morning, completely exhausted, I suddenly realized exhaustion had taken away my joy, I was suffering physically from putting my body under repeated strain, and I no longer had the time or energy to even be cordial to those around me. A good friend had told me one time, years ago, that I would know when it was time to make a change, because I would no longer love what I was doing. That morning, in the pre-dawn dark, I cried realizing it was time to make a change. As much as I love my Jersey girls, I needed to make the necessary changes.
To summarize, the best advice I can give anyone considering a cow share program is the advice I have always given:
Only those who are passionate about spending time with dairy cows and are willing to gamble on actually making money in the process should attempt a cow share program.
Actually, passion and the gamble pretty much defines farming in general.
***I want to take this opportunity to publicly think my awesome share group who supported me as I made mistakes, learned from them, and kept attempting to perfect our share program. I am thankful they were patient when I was stressed and tired. I am thankful for their love for the cows, the milk, the farm, and the farmers. They blessed me by supporting my efforts.*******