No cow-ard is he: Young Stevens farmer braves bringing dairy back to life on family land

By on July 20, 2016

 

The dairy barn on Cocalico Creek Road in Stevens has been abuzz with activity for the past year as Brandon Martin started up his dairy operation.

The farm is owned by Martin’s uncle, and it had been nearly a decade since dairy cows were milked in the barn there.

Photos by Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Brandon Martin poses with his Jersey herd.  Martin started up his dairy last September.

Photos by Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade
Brandon Martin poses with his Jersey herd. Martin started up his dairy last September.

Martin’s family didn’t exactly encourage their return. “My parents sat me down several times to make sure this is what I wanted to do,” he said.

Martin’s father, Cliff Martin, had milked cows with his uncle, Dennis Martin, for a time and understood the commitment it would require. But Brandon Martin was undeterred.

“I have always wanted to be a dairy farmer,” he said. “Every year in high school, when my guidance counselor would ask what I wanted to do, I always said dairy farmer.”

Martin worked on several dairy farms before starting out on his own, beginning when he was 12.

“I have seen how different farms worked. I had plenty of teachers,” he said. “But I always wanted to be on my own.”

Martin scrimped on his living expenses and saved heavily over the past three years to be able to make the dairy investments.

“Everything I earned went into the bank,” he said.

Jersey and crossbred yearlings stand in the walkway of the heifer shed, a converted tobacco barn.

Jersey and crossbred yearlings stand in the walkway of the heifer shed, a converted tobacco barn.

Writing the check for the purchase of his own herd was the most exciting and scariest thing he ever did, Martin said, in part because he was watching his savings disappear to make that purchase.

It might not have been the easiest time to start a dairy farm, he admits, but the stars seemed aligned for him to enter the business.

Last summer, Martin worked to clean out the barn and reinstall a milking system and bulk tank. He and the family also cleaned out the old tobacco shed to use for housing heifers.

The milking system consists of a vacuum line and dump station. Martin has been paying cash to set it up. He has also received some financial assistance from his family.

As the barn was coming together, Martin saw an ad in Lancaster Farming placed by a dairyman who wanted to sell his Jersey herd.

He traveled to the farm, inspected the cows twice, and then took a leap of faith and bought the herd. He wanted Jerseys because of the small stanchions in the tie-stall barn.

Things came together quickly to get the farm on line. The largest challenge he faced, Martin said, was finding a milk market.

Many cooperatives and processors have been running so close to capacity, they were not interested in picking up an additional herd.

Martin said he was able to find a processor because he is milking Jerseys. Right now, his milk is shipped to Alouette Cheese in New Holland, Pa., and will soon be switched over to Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers, which has contracted with the cheese plant.

“It’s crazy how things lined up,” he said. The milking system went in, the inspections were done and the cows arrived, all within about a week.

Martin’s herd is running around 30 cows right now, although he would like to expand to fill the nearly 60-stall barn.

The cows are milking just under 50 pounds per day. Martin said the recent heat and a shift to a more pasture-based diet has cut into milk production.

Right now, the barn is rather labor intensive.

“I did not want to go $40,000 to $60,000 in debt” buying labor-saving equipment, Martin said.

Instead, he’s been slowly saving up and making improvements as his budget allows. He recently added a silo unloader to one of the stave silos and is saving money toward another one and a pipeline he wants to install.

As the herd settled in, Martin started to sell and replace some of the cows while expanding the herd slightly.

Martin credits his extended family as one of the keys to his startup. His uncle, who owns the farm, has been generous with the rental agreement, he said, charging on a sliding scale that will increase as the dairy becomes more established.

Martin and his uncle work cooperatively on barn updates and repairs. He said his uncle has also been a good resource to bounce ideas off and turn to for advice.

Martin’s cousins live in the house next to the dairy barn and operate a produce business. He said he talks to his cousins about some of his changes to make sure his dairy does not conflict with their retail produce business. He is purchasing his crops through another family member.

Now several months into the business, Martin said one thing he’s gained is an appreciation for the demands of the job.

“It’s not as easy as you think it is,” he said. Even after more than 12 years working on other dairies, he found it suddenly more difficult when he had to make the decisions.

For others starting out, Martin said his best advice is to be wise with finances.

“From the stories I have heard, just because you have had a good year does not mean you can spend all of your money,” he said. You have to know when something’s a “need instead of a want.”

Martin said he has several mentors. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” he said. Many farmers were in the same place when they started, and as he’s discovered, many are willing to help.

Charlene Shupp Espenshade is the special sections editor at Lancaster Farming. She can be reached at 717-721-4426.

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