Why Small Herd Dairies?

May 19, 2017

Bob-White Systems - Blog - Steve Judge - Small Herd - Small Scale - Homestead - Micro Dairy - Jersey Cow

What is a Small Herd Dairy or SHD?

A Small Herd Dairy is a complete dairy facility for no more than 10 cows or the equivalent number of sheep and goats.  It is a dairy operated on a part-time basis and provides only a portion of the dairy farmer's income.  Therefore the dairy farmer or farm family must have enough time in their day beyond caring for their cows to generate additional income, usually off the farm. Small Herd Dairies must be well organized and efficient and quick and easy to operate.

Today New England's dairy farms produce only 7% of the milk consumed by New Englanders.  That is down from nearly 100% 30 years ago.  The rest of our milk is trucked in hundreds of miles, primarily from the midwest. Traditional New England dairy farms simply cannot compete with farms to the west, some milking tens of thousands of cows.  Many of those farms are located in milder climates where labor, taxes, feed and land are less expensive.  In addition, US public policies have traditionally promoted large factory styled dairy farms as a means to maintain a plentiful supply of cheap milk for the dairy processing and dairy food manufacturing industries.  There is little hope that those public policies, heavily mired in money and politics, will change anytime soon.

However, the desire within New England's communities for locally produced farm fresh milk is soaring.  Sadly, a traditional 50 cow family dairy farm can no longer generate enough income to sustain a family.  The logical hope for locally produced milk in New England and much of the rest of the country is the growing popularity of Small Herd Dairies capable of supplying their local communities with farm fresh milk and their farmers with significant supplemental incomes.  Four, six and ten cow dairy farms have a much lighter and gentler impact on the landscape and environment and require only minimal facilities and minimal amounts of land.  Pollution problems are eliminated and the cows can be individually cared for and reintegrated back into the local communities they produce milk for.

By necessity, SHDs require very little time to successfully operate and their start-up costs and associated risks are also minimal.  A small barn and an acre or two of pasture for each cow will do, along with relatively inexpensive milking and milk handling equipment.   Small Herd Dairy Farms are affordable!

Why are Small Herd Dairy Farms possible today when they weren't yesterday?

Technology: Today's technology allows Small Herd Dairy farmers to easily and quickly milk their cows using very simple yet efficient equipment.  It also allows them to quickly and easily cool and store the milk safely on their farms.  Today's technology even allows Small Herd Dairy farmers to easily pasteurize their milk for those customers who prefer pasteurized milk.   These advances in dairy technology have created a whole new set of possibilities for people seeking plentiful supplies of locally produced farm fresh milk.

Demand: Yesterday family dairy farms were common all across New England.  The public's perception was that their milk was being produced locally and much of it was. Yesterday we didn't have fuel shortages, climate change and chronic concerns about the value and safety of food produced on factory farms.  Today we do.  Yesterday there was little public concern about the effects of processing on the nutritional value and safety of our foods.  Today there is.  Yesterday many more of our foods were produced locally and little was imported from parts unknown.  Our eggs did come from a small poultry farm down the road not from overcrowded mega factory poultry houses in the midwest. Yesterday industrialized dairy farms milking thousands of cows were but an odd notion.  Today they are a sad reality.

Responding to these new realities, many consumers go well out of their way and pay significantly more for foods they believe are safe and nutritious.  Buying food directly from the farm where it is produced is one way to help ensure that.  Small Herd Dairies are the only logical future source of locally produced farm fresh milk.  We can't return to the past when a 50 cow dairy farm could support a family and supply farm fresh milk to their communities.  Small Herd Dairies address the demands and realities of the future at a manageable scale.

Supply: Thirty years ago the average cow produced less than half of the what the average cow produces today.  Even one little Jersey cow can easily produce over 5 gallons or 40 pounds of milk per day.  In most communities that is enough to supply 15 average families with milk.  Four Jerseys can supply up to 60 families with milk.  Yesterday they couldn't.  Todays high producing cows allow Small Herd Dairies to profitably supply many more families with farm fresh milk than they could just a few years ago and their farms and dairy herds can be significantly smaller.

Supply Management: The most profitable way to market farm fresh fluid milk is by selling it directly from the farm at retail prices.  Distribution costs and wholesale prices are eliminated.  It is absolutely critical that Small Herd Dairies limit their production to meet their direct sales demand.  Otherwise, the milk will have to be discarded or feed to livestock.  The incentive not to over produce for the market is very real.

Beyond producing safe and delicious farm fresh milk for their local communities, Small Herd Dairies offer much much more.   They offer farmers and their families the opportunity to enjoy working with and caring for their cows and their land.  They offer children a wonderful environment to grow up in and the sense that they are an important part of the family with important work to do every day.  And there is no better environment for a child to learn first-hand about the joys and struggles offered by life.  Small Herd Dairies give their farmers an opportunity to provide a valuable service to their communities and meet many neighbors that they would not otherwise have come to know.  And Small Herd Dairies offer their communities the opportunity to reestablish the lost link between the food they eat and the farmers and animals who produces it.  And carefully managed Small Herd Dairies can be profitable.

They are the logical solution, that's why.

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