It’s hard to start a farm from scratch, but it’s possible for those who have ideas, determination and help from seasoned professionals.
Max Blindow is one farmer who went that route. He became interested in farming in his native Germany and worked on several farms before coming to the United States in 2009. A few years later, Max and his wife Melissa started Benedikt Dairy in Goffstown, NH with four Jersey cows and a plan.
“They seemed to be good for 100-percent grass-fed,”said Max, describing the Jerseys.“I know some people do it with Holsteins or other New Zealand varieties, but we knew we were going to go certified organic and eventually 100-percent grass-fed, and it seemed like others were using Jerseys. We also wanted a breed that would be easy to find for growing the herd.”
The Blindows’ production model is centered on direct marketing, so they maintain a milking herd that provides the amount of milk needed for products.“We started with four cows and are now milking 13 because we’re selling everything through direct marketing,”said Max.“Around 20 will be the first milestone that is manageable and what the current property can support. We’re growing the herd alongside the marketing. If we push toward 20 cows, we’ll probably upgrade the milking setup.”
As Max and Melissa worked to get their dairy up and running, they consulted John Porter, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, who provided valuable information on various aspects of setting up a new dairy. The NRCS offered guidance on the milk house wastewater system, which is a sloped concrete floor with a drain channel that goes to the wastewater field.
The cattle graze from May through October, and receive no supplemental feed during this time. The cows are milked once a day, in the morning, then returned to pasture. Max says cows graze a particular paddock for one day to several days, depending on grass growth.
“I’m more interested in the cows getting what they need for milk production,” said Max. “Whatever they don’t eat, we mow afterwards. We started out with hayfields and some off the fields had a high milkweed population. After frequent grazing and mowing, that’s pretty much under control.”
Pasture grasses include orchardgrass, timothy, fescue and brome, with red and white clover. Max has noticed that the cattle are also willing to eat many common weeds. After the grazing season, cattle are maintained on a concrete loafing area and bedded pack, and are fed haylage through winter.
Like other graziers, Max experiments with different pasture species. This season, he planted a small test plot of a forage variety of Japanese millet, a summer annual.“I seeded some millet mixed with clover and grass,” he said. “The only thing that came up was millet – it does well where others didn’t grow. I planted it in early July when there was very little rain, and it’s amazing how well it grows with minimal water.”
Max knew when he started that it was important to define a niche market. “With a dairy, it’s the infrastructure that costs a lot,” he said.“That’s why we set it up in the simplest and cheapest way we can, to see how far we get and how the market develops. The expensive part is designing the processing facility to meet regulations.”Part of the ‘simple’ concept includes bucket milkers and polyline fence for grazing paddocks, and mowing pastures only when necessary to control weeds.
The Blindows purchased and installed processing equipment to meet state regulations.“Every state is different,”said Max, adding that they are licensed to sell products only in New Hampshire.“For yogurt, we have a simple batch pasteurizer, then we inoculate the milk in the pasteurizer and bottle it into plastic yogurt containers. Then it goes into an incubator – that’s it.”
The other piece of equipment is a cream separator. Although the Blindows can’t make and sell butter from unpasteurized milk, customers can make their own butter at home.“The cream is so heavy and thick that it immediately whips up into butter,” said Max.
Milk that isn’t processed on the farm goes to a cheesemaker for Benedikt Dairy.“He’s making a few standard cheeses that he already knows how to make,”said Max.“We’re also working on special cheeses that go with our brand. We’re working on butterkase, a buttery, creamy, semi-hard cheese; an Alpine/gruyere type cheese and Camembert. We have a lot of skim milk because we make a lot of cream, so we also have a part skim milk Parmesan.”
Products are sold through a subscription, similar to a CSA. But instead of a traditional CSA with a predetermined amount of product each week, Benedikt Dairy customers can purchase a subscription for each product.“We started that because it’s costly to bottle milk,” said Max. “The cows are milked every day, but people tend to come to the farm on weekends. To have an even, fresh supply of milk, we came up with a subscription model. A lot of people pick a base amount they want for each week, then they can buy extra as needed.” Customers can select a subscription for raw milk, cream, yogurt and eggs.
Max says after some adjustments, the system has been running smoothly and allows him to manage the supply because he knows how many people will come for milk or other products on any given day. Benedikt Dairy currently services about 100 shares, and customers can pick up extra product as well as cuts of farm-finished beef and pork at the on-farm store.
The Blindows have hosted grazing meetings on their farm to share what they’ve learned and to learn from others. Melissa serves on the boards of Land for Good and Granite State Graziers.