Dairies are very "niche products,” according to Jonathan Verhoeven, realtor at Schuil Associates Inc. in Visalia, California.
“They take time to sell,” he says, noting that the average time on the market is six months to a year, with some dairies taking even longer to sell.
“The hurdle may not even be the price or size,” Verhoeven says. “It can be location.”
However, there are several things that a dairy owner looking to sell can do to speed up the process.
“Our first bit of advice is to operate like you’re going to own it,” Verhoeven says, stressing the importance of continuous ownership by keeping the dairy productive.
“Keep a token number of cows, just to keep permits active,” Verhoeven adds. “It takes a considerable investment to get a milk parlor in operation if it’s been empty.”
The appearance of a dairy is important to a prospective buyer. Buyers want to avoid expensive maintenance projects, so Verhoeven advises improving things like tin shade structures if they are in disrepair.
“It makes a buyer wonder what else you are skimping on,” he says. “Buyers want to see evidence that you are doing maintenance regularly.”
Every sale requires a reoccupancy permit, which includes a dairy inspection. A seller should prepare for this inspection by first looking for potential problems.
“Ask yourself what items need fixing,” he says. “Then fix them.”
He compared repairs and other improvements to upgrading a house about to go on the market.
“If you just replace kitchen countertops, you get a return on your investment,” he says.
Other factors are also important in making a sale.
“Timing is important in selling a dairy,” Verhoeven says. “People are way more willing to travel [to see a dairy] in the spring and summer.”
Although he is aware that producers can’t always determine when to sell their dairy, he advises prospective sellers to get their dairy on the market in early spring, if possible.
“That’s when you’re most likely to generate showings,” he says, but adds that fall is also good for dairies in warmer states, like California, because of the clear skies.
“Paperwork is very important in the process of selling – including up-to-date herd births and deaths and herd health,” Verhoeven says. “Everyone should have their nutrient management plan ready to give to serious buyers.
"It saves them work,” he says. “They can use those reports for what they’ll do in the following year.”
Paperwork helps the sales process run smoothly. He explains, “It shows what you’re doing is feasible. If you don’t have some of that stuff, it’s going to look like you’re hiding something.”
Financial statements, however, have little influence on a sale.
“A seller’s financial statements are not indicators of what the buyer’s profits will be,” Verhoeven says. A new owner is likely to make changes to the dairy’s operation after the sale.
Equipment is also not a factor in selling a dairy, as the equipment is usually sold separately and is "fairly liquid.”
Even so, the condition of the equipment can influence a sale.
“Nice, well-kept equipment is another sign you show ownership,” he says. “It’s more important that your fencelines are straight and in good repair.”
Landscaping helps in showing the dairy to prospective buyers, but in California, which is usually in the middle of a drought, using water to keep up a lawn may not be the best practice.
“Homes really aren’t adding to the value,” Verhoeven says. “They’re not important to the bottom line of the sale.” He adds that buyers often see the house as a place for their dairy manager to live.
Solar energy panels can be a good investment in California. Verhoeven has seen increasing interest in solar from investors in private equity funds.
“Solar helps [private equity fund advisors] pitch it to people in places like San Francisco and L.A. because it’s ‘green,’” he says, comparing the interest in solar to the interest in a methane digester.
“The ability to grow your own forage is a huge benefit,” Verhoeven says. “Corn silage is about 100 dollars a ton. You can probably grow it for less than half of that.
“It’s easier to sell a dairy with a big land base,” he says, adding that land can be sold to neighbors. “It gives you options.”
A metal shop is useful, depending on a buyer’s wants and needs. A more valuable feature “is a place where you can store equipment safely, such as golf carts. Depending on the region, having a clean well is good, although it’s not worthwhile to build one to help the sale,” Verhoeven says.
In the Midwest, prospective dairy buyers’ concerns also include feed and manure contracts with neighboring farmers. Those planning to sell their dairies should address the state and regional concerns of buyers in their area.
For example, a concern for those looking to sell a dairy in Wisconsin is having a milk contract, explained Alicia Soper, a realtor with Exit Greater Realty in Medford, Wisconsin. Several factors in recent years, including overproduction, affected the state dairy market and resulted in many farmers losing their milk contracts.
“If you don’t have a contract, it’s hard to get it back,” Soper says, who agrees with Verhoeven that a dairy owner looking to sell should keep their dairy active, but for a different reason.
“It shows you have a contract,” she says.
As you might expect, solar is not a factor in attracting dairy buyers in the Midwest.
“We don’t have enough sunlight in the winter,” Soper says, who instead stressed the importance of other considerations.
“Most people are looking for robotics, new technology in the parlor,” she says, adding that large-scale dairies especially want robotic milking systems, due to staffing concerns.
She says that having “any tillable ground” was important in her region so that a dairy could produce hay and other feed for its cows.
“They need something to feed them in winter, when Wisconsin gets a snowpack,” she says. “Extra land is also important if the new buyer wants to build a new parlor to increase production.”