If we are going to continue to be a competitive dairy business, what are we going to do about updating our facilities? That is the question that keeps running through your head. Just coming off a record-setting milk price year, it’s important to have a dream, create a vision and then have a strategic plan in place to move forward.

Initiating a project that requires remodeling or building anew isn’t a quick decision; it takes months of planning for something that could create a meaningful improvement for many years on your dairy.

There are many things to consider and answer before driving down to the local township building or calling an engineer. If you have found yourself in this mindset recently, there are five important questions to answer before proceeding to the permitting or building process.

1.Where do I start?

Many dairy operations use a group of trusted advisers to assist them in finding answers to challenging questions about milk production, reproduction efficiency, benchmarking and many more.

These groups are often referred to as a dairy profit or dairy planning team, often responsible for reviewing how the family goals sync with the dairy business goals.If this represents your farm, you are a couple steps ahead already.


Your current profit team could morph into a group to address the future facilities questions, or you could create a transformation team, as your facilities may be in line for a makeover.

2.Have you identified and addressed the short-, intermediate- and long-term goals for your family?

Building anything that involves family can be very stressful because everyone has their own idea of what should be a priority. Some have fears regarding the process and cost, while others may think the project is unneeded.

Creating an atmosphere of consistent, honest and open communication can snuff out some of the pushback and anxiety that can come with a building project. My opinion, after observing farm families for many years, is that placing the family ahead of your dairy business creates a much friendlier, successful business down the road, and the kids may even want to come back after college.

3.What other facility issues need to be addressed?

This is a great area to gain employee feedback. Before any permitting and blueprints can be started, the list of all issues and opportunities should be created. It makes no sense to put money into a building project and leave out underlying issues that cause problems in other areas of the farm.

For example, the discussion begins with a focused approach regarding a milking facility that needs significant remodeling or total replacement. Then it happens; someone attending the meeting leans in and echoes those famous words, “While we’re at it …” and a follow-up question: “Can we consider some changes in how we handle special needs, dry and transition cows?”

Another employee on the team leans in and says, “You know, we could take advantage of some cost savings on commodities and labor if we could incorporate some ideas I’ve had in mind.” And you’re surprised – because you can’t believe that employee was using his noodle for anything more than a hat rack.

At this point in time, the team may want to rank the projects based on priorities, such as current critical needs, return on investment, financial resources/limitations and sequence of construction. The more buy-in from the beginning, the more engagement there will be throughout the process, and there could be less tension when hurdles arise during building.

4.Do you have the right mix of team members that can address all of the developing questions?

If not, you may want to ask who in addition to the current team should be invited to attend the next meeting. There will be some technical, financial and engineering questions that may be better answered through private one-on-one meetings. The answers generated from those meetings need to circle back to the team for final consideration of their impact on the total project.

You’ll also need to consider whether you personally or those within your employee team have the time needed to commit to this project while not letting day-to-day responsibilities suffer. Consider that, if a remodel project makes sense, how will day-to-day operations be managed while the project occurs?

Are you being realistic in the time expectations it will demand of you so that herd performance, crop quality and other aspects of the operation do not take a hit because you’re stretched too thin? Make sure you make the proper adjustments to beef up operations to move through the transition.

5.What is the cost in both time and money to meet the regulatory permitting requirements?

It is not uncommon for a site which requires a federal permit to take 12 months or longer to get the approval and secure all required documents. It is vital to work alongside of your engineering company to help determine the reality of the permitting timeline as early as possible.

Plans may need to be developed for the budget and logistics of temporary cattle housing, feeding, weather-related construction concerns and just-in-time deliveries that are all hinged on the projected date of completion.

Permitting requirements will vary state to state as well as watershed to watershed. Depending on how your state has delegated both federal and state permitting, you may need to contact a state entity or your local county conservation district.

There may also be requirements dictated by county government or a local municipality. Stormwater management has become a significant permitting issue in the last few years in many states.

For example, all construction projects in Pennsylvania, including agriculture, must determine in the very early planning stages how much overall earth disturbance will occur on the site. If the earth disturbance is under 1 acre, permitting will be easier at the local level.

However, if the disturbance will be more than the acre threshold, an engineering firm with experience in agricultural regulations and permitting should be contacted immediately, as a federal permit will be required.


The snowball effect is now in place, and through planning and using a reputable engineering company, you have minimized some of the hurdles by taking time to walk through the process and build a strategic plan based on reality.

You’ve created excitement that the current operation is about to step up into the big leagues and that the “same old, same old” is no longer good enough – family members and employees buy into the plan.

As with most projects, there may be days that you second-guess the plan. If there are permitting delays, unexpected bills and general construction snafus that arise, it may make you wonder if the project is worth it. There again, you will see the value of the team approach. Heavy lifting is best with many hands. PD

don mcnutt

Don McNutt
Dairy Planning Coordinator
Center for Dairy Excellence