Advice for beginning farmers

Young dairy producers provide advice for a friend entering the business that might be pertinent for all dairy farmers.

Hearing that someone is starting to dairy is always a great joy to me. Their courage, boldness and sense of adventure inspire my respect. At a recent Michigan State University Extension gathering at the farm of a couple who were buying cows to start a dairy, I asked the group, of young dairy producers and employees to give this young couple some start-up advice. Here is some of that priceless advice:

  • Don’t try to do everything yourself. While you may be able to do everything yourself, it is not wise. Some things will take you too long, or you can’t do them well enough, or you can’t keep doing it, or it keeps you from doing something more important. Each of those consequences could get you further behind and dig a hole deeper. Seek out people who can help you.
  • Keep procedures simple enough so others can do them the same way. This is your opportunity to do things right. Maybe you’ve worked for others and identified things you would change. Great, but keep your procedures simple. Good practices, done consistently are usually better than excellent practices done occasionally. Recognize that as you involve others, they need to be able to do the same procedures. This is especially important when dealing with cattle, so keep it simple.
  • Maintain a financial margin. When starting out, it is tempting to spend your last dollar in order to make a dollar. However, maintaining margin is crucial. Have a savings account and add to it regularly even when paying off loans. Financial margin is needed to handle unexpected problems and costs or to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities. Financial margin is also important to take stress off of yourself and your family. Maintain a cash reserve.
  • Use an accountant that will give you quarterly updates on your financial progress. One of the producers spoke up with this piece of advice based on his experience. It is as important to track the financial progress of the operation on a regular basis as it is the production indicators. Work with an accountant who does more for you than just taxes. Track and compare the numbers and to see if you are meeting the goals you have set.
  • There is more than one way to do things; evaluate various alternatives. Too often we have blinders on to other ways to accomplish our goals. We may not consider that there are other ways because of our background and experience. But there is always more than one way and each has consequences. Explore different ways and consider the consequences, pro and con, and then pick what suits your goals the best. Evaluate alternatives.
  • Build with the capacity for growth in mind. Plan to grow. No matter what size you start at, you’ll probably need to consider growing. Make sure that you leave that door open every time you build so that you can add additional capacity.
  • Stay hungry for learning. Learning is the fuel for new ideas, for improvement, for exploring new alternatives, for success and for fun. Always recognize that you don’t know it all and stay humble enough to seek advice, to study differences and to learn from other businesses. Learn for the purpose of advancing your business.

The young producers came up with great words of advice for their friends just starting out, but as I look back over their ideas, I see that this advice is also good for established farmers to review.

For a perspective on ‘success’ as perceived by beginning farmers of various types and sizes, review the MSU Extension article “What motivates beginning farmers?”

Maybe you have some additional advice for beginning farmers that you would be willing to share. Send me your thoughts at, and lend a hand to someone who looks up to you.

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