Editor's note: The following column appeared in the June 2014 issue of Dairy Herd Management.
click image to zoomSubmitted photoSarah and Andy Birch (far right) are the second generation on Maple Grove Farm, Derby, Vt. Also pictured are (from left): Andy’s father, Scott; brother, Jared; and mother, Melinda. It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff and hoping I packed a big enough parachute. Four weeks ago, my wife, Sarah, and I left our secure jobs and began milking our own cows in my parents’ barn, which had been empty for eight years.
As any farmer can imagine, this was a daunting task. As with many empty barns, it had essentially become a 5,000 square foot storage shed. A late spring had us struggle against frost in the ground until early May. Years of rot and rust slowed every task.
Restarting the family farm is a dream for many, but is seldom the right decision. For us it made sense. We looked at other farms, but coming home allowed us to start farming with the lowest initial investment.
We planned carefully to make this happen. My brother, Jared, and I both kept some cows when my parents sold theirs. We boarded them out and slowly grew a herd. This had its own risks and problems, but it gave me 18 cows to start with. Sarah and I worked hard and saved money every month.
I worked on successful dairy farms to gain cow experience before I had to manage my own. It was difficult to leave. I had good people to work for and enjoyed my job as a herdsman. As the pieces came into place though, I knew that now may be the best chance I ever have to get started.
I hoped to be ready to milk two weeks after moving home. Work in the barn was slow. We moved clutter, poured concrete, and cleaned everything. Our milking system was serviced on a Friday afternoon so we could milk the following Monday. After all of the struggles, it was a magical sound when the vacuum pump roared to life for the first time in eight years.
Then there was trouble. The bulk tank was leaking freon. The one piece of machinery we thought should be fine was unusable. This winter’s deep frost caused the floor to heave, placing all of its weight on the middle legs and likely cracked an internal gas line. Everything ground to a halt.
My college roommate’s parents came to the rescue. They had sold their cows and agreed to sell us their tank. Within a week, the new tank was installed and milk room partially rebuilt to accommodate its larger size.
Today (May 15), I shipped my fourth load of milk. It is good to finally be farming for real. The newness of the operation is still a struggle and will be for some time. Nothing works right the first time. My cows are only making 60 pounds daily. They can only go up.
Sarah and I work every day from 4:30 in the morning until well after dark to make the farm useable again. Although it is a constant struggle, we are milking our own cows, running our own business, and working together.
This new venture has been overwhelming, fun, terrifying and exciting. Although we have yet to prove ourselves, I have high hopes for our future.
Contact Andy via email: firstname.lastname@example.org and “like” Maple Grove Farm on Facebook http://on.fb.me/R4vlkt.