Editor’s note: After reading the June 2014 Young Farmer column (“Taking the plunge,” by Andy Birch), Kevin Cernek shared his thoughts in a letter to Andy. Although Kevin is slightly older than our typical “Young Farmer” columnist, Dairy Herd Management believes the message is worth sharing with other young dairy farmers.

Dear Andy Birch,

Young farmer: A letter to AndyMy name is Kevin Cernek. My wife, Cindy and I live in Lafayette County, near Gratiot, Wis. We have two children, Katie, 23, and Preston, 19. Katie is moving to Florida to take a job teaching third grade and coach high school volleyball; Preston is in college, with his sights set on becoming a veterinarian. 

Almost three years ago, when I was 52 years old, my wife and I decided to start up our own dairy. We started with a 120-acre farm, a house and two 50 x 100 foot sheds, built in 1969 and 1978. Our century-old dairy barn was destroyed in a tornado in 2005. Our motto during our start-up was: “Use what we have.”

I spent 25 years working with my dad and brother on our family dairy farm, expecting to take over the operation one day. Unfortunately, that did not happen. As a result, I spent about 10 years working on another dairy farm and then decided to start our own.

We visited many farms in Wisconsin and Illinois, talked to many farmers, listening to their recommendations and regrets. A conversation I had with one older gentleman farmer in particular sticks in my mind. He was 61 years old and milking 75 cows. At age 49 he was ready to quit, because he couldn’t take all the bending and squatting. Instead, he decided to put in a double 6-milking parlor and has never regretted it. He plans to keep on milking for several more years. I thought to myself, if he can do it, then so can I.

We contacted a few contractors and asked them to help us with our plans. They had lots of ideas, but most of them started around $1 million.

But there was one contractor who was interested in our project – Shermann Carney was 75 years old at the time. He enthusiastically took on the task. We built a “swing 8” milking parlor and milk house on one end of the barn, and put in 42 freestalls with water mattresses in the remaining space. We bought 42 cows from local farmers, milking in our new facility for the first time on Jan. 10, 2012.

I have never regretted our decision – even at my age. Leading up to our start-up, people were not afraid to tell me what they thought. I had plenty of skeptics express their opinions, and believe me it caused some second-guessing. But I never doubted that this was what I wanted to do.

One young farmer in the area was thrilled about our decision. He stopped almost every day to offer encouragement and help. He came over the first week and helped run the cows through the parlor.

As with any job and any farm, we have good stretches and bad stretches. We never know when a cow might get sick or come down with mastitis. In our first year we lost a couple of prize cows unexpectedly. I always remind myself during the difficult times that: “this too will pass.” Things will always get better.

We chose 42 cows because that is what we can handle without hired help. We cash crop our farm, and buy all my feed (TMR) from a neighbor dairy farmer. He mixes my batch once a day and dumps it on a concrete slab, where I load it with his loader into my feed truck. I don’t have to worry about bunkers, bearings, breakdowns or high overhead. 

Since we started, we have birthed 40 heifer calves, and started milking our first one in May of this year. We have eight more due in July and August. We no longer have to buy cattle, which will help our bottom line tremendously. At first our cows averaged about 60 pounds daily; then 70; then 75. Our cows are now making 83 pounds daily in the tank.

What could be more fun than this?

Carry on and enjoy the fun, excitement, uncertainty and your future. You have made a good choice.