Growing your dairy farm requires a strategic plan, one that positions it for success in the long term. That plan forms the basis for incremental growth, focused on putting numerous small steps together to achieve the desired end result. The key to this step-by-step approach is knowing beforehand what that final goal looks like and developing a strategy to achieve it.

“I basically approach incremental growth like putting together a puzzle,” says John Tyson, agricultural engineer with the Penn State University Dairy Team. “However, you really can’t put a puzzle together unless you have the picture on the box to guide you.”

When each step is designed with the end goal in mind, the way the steps fit together may not, at first, appear logical or seem to be the most efficient in the short term. The steps you take incrementally may not be the ones you’d choose if the short-term picture was the primary concern, Tyson cautions. There may be times when there are intermediate inefficiencies necessary in order to meet the overall goal for the dairy.

Economic impact

When growth includes a herd expansion, incremental growth focuses on the changes that can make money, and that means milk.

“We’re going to be focused in on the lactating cow, or a group of cows that has a very fast payback,” Tyson says. While you may want a new milking facility or feed center, these are “the prize at the end, not the piece that makes you money.”

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If more cows can be accommodated in the current barn and milking parlor short-term, a focus on a new, less expensive heifer barn could bring timely economic returns. Raising quality heifers will build the milking herd, promote herd health and longevity, and increase milk production.

Further down the road, when there is enough capital to continue the incremental growth plan, the milking herd could be moved to the new facility – if you built it with this long-range plan in mind. Adding a complementary enterprise, such as raising dairy beef, might be a part of your future plan for utilizing the old barn, or it may be torn down or retrofitted for other purposes.

“It’s not about adding a few more cows. The big thing is to look long-range,” at the viability of the dairy, Tyson says. “Incremental growth is going to be focused in on the best payback elements.”

Another way to grow incrementally may be to milk at two locations. Adding a secondary location to immediately increase herd numbers might be a short-term step toward your long-term goal. While adding a second herd might not be the most efficient solution, it might be the best way to build your herd numbers now.

“Some steps might not seem efficient but fit with the ultimate goal,” Tyson says. “The ultimate goal is to strive for efficiency. Decide what you want it to look like in 15 years.”

Long-range vision

Visualizing the dairy a decade or two into the future requires realistically assessing where you are now, and planning the small steps that will move you forward.

“Look beyond the end of the barn,” Tyson says. “Where do you put that new barn, or new shelter, that fits into the long-range plan?”

Every modern dairy farm has seven major components: the milking center, lactating cow housing, hospital area, dry cow and maternity area, youngstock, feed center and the manure system. Ideally, these work together in an efficient “dairy design web,” eliminating waste and enhancing profitability.

All of these components must be located so they can function together seamlessly without impeding overall traffic flow. Traffic flow includes animal, people, feed and manure needs, as well as access for outside deliveries.

An incremental step might not work well with the traffic flow in the current layout of the farm but, when the plan is fully implemented, will be at its optimal location for efficient production. For example, a new silo might be erected as an early step in your growth plan. Although located inconveniently for today’s operation, it will be ideal when new facilities are built in a few years.

Build flexibility into plan

An economic downtown might put your plans on hold, or an unexpected financial gain might move you forward at a faster pace. With incremental growth, the stages of development are already outlined so the timeline can be flexible.

“Make a plan and work the plan,” Tyson says. But like with all things in life, “you have to acknowledge that things might not go as planned.”

It’s smart to build in some flexibility. If unforeseen circumstances occur, the facilities you’ve already built can change with them. Simple things, like building a barn so it can accommodate milking robots or a parlor, or be converted to a bedded pack design instead of a freestall system, are important to consider.

“Try to put as much flexibility as you want into the plan,” Tyson says.

One thing is certain: Dairy farming comes with a lot of uncertainty. Planning for the long term, and taking small steps on the path toward that goal, can avoid costly mistakes. Incremental growth helps to avoid the retrospective regret that comes with unplanned decision making.  end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.