There’s something noble and romantic about dairy farming (apart from the manure) — greeting the dawn each day, caring for the land and animals, and taking pride in producing something that will feed America. Whether you grew up in the agricultural industry or are a kid from the city, if you have the desire to milk cows and aren’t afraid of hard work, making the move to farm life can be right for you.
But before you get too deep in formulating artisan cheese recipes, you’ve got to develop a solid plan for your operation. Dairy farms require a huge amount of capital investment, and farmland purchases aren’t as simple as buying a house in a residential neighborhood — there are additional financial and legal obligations to take into account before taking over an existing operation or building a new one.
Building your own farm from the ground up will give you greater control over all aspects of the operation. On the other hand, an existing farm will spare you the initial infrastructure investment. Housing (for both animals and humans), fencing, storage, utilities, feeding, watering, and temperature control implements will be in place, allowing you to more quickly get your operation up and running.
While idealism is an admirable trait, don’t rush into a potential million dollar investment. List out your requirements well before you start looking at land or properties. Seek out information from other members of the industry. Work with a knowledgeable real estate agent to help you decide which option works best for your needs and budget.
Here are other considerations when purchasing a dairy farm.
It’s critical that you become familiar with local zoning ordinances before buying a farm. Zoning for agricultural purposes usually includes a variety of livestock apart from cows, which will come in handy in the event that you expand or change the focus of your farm somewhere down the line. In addition to agricultural use, A-1 zoning, as it’s frequently called, often allows for churches, cemeteries, and other municipal buildings.
Zoning regulations frequently vary between counties and towns. When buying an existing operation, don’t assume that it’s compliant with current ordinances. For example, a building or structure that was lawful when the farm was initially built may now be too close to a property line.
The cost of agricultural land per acre varies widely across the country, and often within an individual state. In the United States’ top dairy-producing states, California and Wisconsin, average farmland real estate costs are $7,200 and $4,025 per acre, respectively. The Dairy Realty website lists existing farms for sale anywhere between $250,000 and $4 million. Your real estate agent will have the tools to negotiate price in order to meet your needs.
Your region’s climate conditions determine the structures your cows will need. Colder climates, or areas that experience all four seasons, will need a barn structure to house and feed cows, with a ventilation system to cool them in hot weather and protect them from cold winds during the winter. Warm, dry areas may opt to forgo the barn and utilize outdoor lots or corrals.
Dairy operations require water for animal consumption, milk production, cleaning, and, in some cases, to irrigate crops for animal feed. Know your water source. Is it a pond or stream? A well? Or is it sourced from a local water district?
A single dairy cow can produce between 40 and 120 pounds of manure each day. There are a variety of manure management practices, and dairy farmers are required by law to keep records on how their operation stores and uses waste. The most popular method is solid-liquid separation, which, as you’d expect, divides the waste into solid and liquid streams.
The solids can be dried and recycled as bedding, composted, or applied to cropland as fertilizer, while liquids are stored and used to flush manure from free-stall barns. Solid manure can also be sold as a soil amendment. Knowledge of your land’s climate and ground conditions is critical to ensuring manure runoff doesn’t enter groundwater or contaminate nearby waterways.
As with a residential house purchase, many people utilize various financing options when buying a farm. There are both federal and state financing opportunities for farmers looking to start their business.
Aside from local banks, credit unions, and the Farm Credit Services of America, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency offers a variety of grants and loans to new and existing farmers. Contact your local department of agriculture for state-specific funding opportunities.
Starting a farm is a massive undertaking, and to succeed, you’ll need more than a strong work ethic to survive. If you’re buying an existing farm, set yourself up for success from the very beginning.
Team up with a local, experienced real estate agent to guide you in finding the best dairy farm for your needs, and navigate all the regulations and tax considerations throughout the whole process. Fill out Clever’s free, no-obligation form to get in touch with top-rated real estate agents.