Growing a dairy farm from scratch

CN-MR-4-BrooksFarm1by Sally Colby

It isn’t every day that young people decide they want to farm, and for those who do, it’s tough to start with nothing but experience. Having a strong desire for a life in agriculture might help, but purchasing a farm can be a prohibitively expensive proposition.

Nathaniel Brooks, of Canaan, Maine, says he’s always wanted to be a dairy farmer, and through Maine Farmlink, a program of Maine Farmland Trust, his dream is becoming a reality.

“We started discussing it in early 2011,” said Brooks as he talked about his relationship with Mike and Betsy Holt, the farm owners who connected with Brooks through FarmLink. “The Holts wanted to give a young guy some help getting started.” Brooks added that he grew up just a few miles from the Holts, and they already knew him — a bonus for both sides.

Maine FarmLink lists “seekers”, which includes those seeking farmland, and “owners”, which lists farmland owners who are interested in sales, leases or similar agreements to connect with farm seekers. With Holt’s lifetime of experience in dairy farming and Brooks’ nine years operating a dairy farm, the two are a good match.

The Holts purchased the farm in 1976 and milked cows until the early 1990s, when they sold their cows and left the dairy business. Until Brooks started farming there, the empty dairy barn was used to store lumber. Brooks says that although the tie-stall barn was well-kept and in good shape, there was a lot work to do before he could start milking cows. “We changed every rubber gasket that had milk contact,” he said. “We went through everything, but we didn’t have to fix a lot. Everything was in decent repair considering it hadn’t been used in so many years.”

Since he didn’t own any dairy cattle when he started, Brooks purchased animals as he could find them. “I started buying calves at the very beginning,” he said, adding that it was difficult to find good females for sale. “I also bought some five- or six-month-old heifers. We were buying whatever good heifers we could find. It was a struggle to get the herd started that way.”

When the purchased heifers reached breeding age, Brooks selected sires based primarily on calving ease scores. Since the Holts had some dairy animals of their own, Brooks sought cattle of the same age so he’d have a matched age group ready to freshen at the same time. “They had purchased calves a few months before I started,” he said, “and those are now in the milking herd.”

Brooks started milking cows in August 2012, and he’s currently milking between 25 and 30 cows twice a day. The Holts continue to raise some of their own animals, so it won’t be long before the milking string grows. “Between the Holts and me, we have about 40 heifers in different age groups,” said Brooks. “We’ll choose the best ones for the herd and sell some others.”

Both Brooks and Holt take care of herd A.I., and confirm pregnancies with the help of the herd veterinarian. Now that he has a good start on his herd, Brooks has a somewhat different basis for sire selection. “I have a group of daughters coming in May and June,” he said. “It’ll be the first group of my own daughters freshening. They look good. It’s nice to know that we started those from the very beginning.” Brooks says now that he knows the animals’ pedigrees, he’ll choose sires a little differently. He says Select Sires’ mating program is helpful because they’re striving for the same goal he is — the best dairy cow possible.

To determine the first breeding for heifers, Brooks tracks weight and frame size, and avoids breeding animals under 14 months of age. Calves are raised on milk replacer, and replacement heifers are raised on the same farm in a heifer barn built about three years ago.

Brooks works with a nutritionist to formulate rations using homegrown feedstuffs. He purchases dry hay from the Holts, and puts up baleage from other rented acreage in the area. Brooks tried to establish some alfalfa last year, but the weather wasn’t cooperative so he’s planning to try again this season. Manure is held for spreading in a concrete manure pit or stacked in the fields during winter.

In addition to running the dairy farm, Brooks grows and sells vegetables at his family’s roadside stand. “My great-grandfather started growing vegetables on the land and made a living for the family,” he said. “Over the years, I picked up the business and still use some of the same equipment.” With the help of his grandfather David Goodridge, Brooks grows sweet corn, squash and pumpkins, along with smaller amounts of potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers. “Most years I have the first sweet corn in the ground by the end of April,” he said, noting that the stand is very popular and busy throughout the summer. “This year, the weather didn’t cooperate with that plan.”

Brooks is grateful for the support he has received from area dairy farmers who have herds ranging from 30 to 1,800 cows. Since his goal is to eventually own his own farm, he’s purchasing equipment while he’s leasing. So far he has several tractors and some tillage equipment, and is currently working on purchasing a rake, round baler and a bale wrapper. “In this setup, I’d like to stick with 30 cows,” he said. “That’s enough for one guy to take care of. In the future, I’d like to have a small freestall barn, but I don’t see myself with more than 50 cows.”

For information on Maine FarmLink, visit their website at www.mainefarmlink.org.

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