In 2008 when Rich and Carol Radtke and their daughter Madison returned to the farm 3 years after his dad died, they did it with two conditions. First, they would NOT live in a trailer. Second, they would NOT run a dairy. But now, 7 years later, four of which they spent living in a trailer, they are running an organic, grass-based dairy, and they couldn’t be more excited about it. Why live in a trailer when you swore you wouldn’t? It was free. And why turn to Dairy when you swore you wouldn’t? It made the most economic sense for them.
Here are some of the reasons that dairying made sense for the Radtkes and why it might make sense for you too.
It Meets Your Holistic Management Goals
In 2012, after spending a few years on the farm planting pastures, putting up fencing, and raising a few beef animals, the Radtkes participated in the Farm Beginnings Course offered by the Land Stewardship Program. The classes they attended help them define their ag vocation, and to think holistically about the kind of life they wanted for themselves and their family, and what they might do with the opportunities presented by their rented farm to achieve those goals.
They knew they wanted to do “grassfed something.” The course helped them figure costs, and do the market research to figure out what that “something” should or could be. It also helped them practice thinking and making decisions holistically, encouraging them to look at what they had, and what they wanted so that decisions took them in the right direction.
Not Enough Acreage for Grassfed Beef
The first result of the holistic thought process was giving up on raising grassed beef. It just didn’t pencil out for the Radtkes. They had too few acres for the 200 cattle it would take to make ends meet.
You’re Willing and Able to Go Organic
Prairies Edge Farm went organic before they ever thought of dairying. The land had been intensively farmed for years, and the sandy soil was high in pH and low in fertility. With the help of some EQIP funding, they fenced 60 acres, and planted pasture that would be fit to graze along with 10 acres of alfalfa. Then they set about grazing as a means of producing income and improving the soil.
A friend suggested that they go organic, but Rich was skeptical. He was worried about the time and paperwork involved. “It’s not that hard,” his friend said. Rich thought about it over one winter, and decided to go for it. That decision made dairying on a small scale a potentially profitable solution. The Organic Valley Pay Price Comparison chart for organic vs. conventional milk prices paid to farmers showed a gentle upward slope. (You can check out prices for your own area here.) “Grass milk” carries a slightly higher premium.
Your Location Works
The Radtke’s are lucky enough to be just down the road from a dairy that sells milk to Organic Valley. Since the milk truck was in the area, it was easy for it to stop at their farm too. So within just a few days of beginning to milk, they had a steady buyer for their product. Rich notes that if you’re a small producer whose operation is a long ways from the nearest milk truck route, this may not work for you.
You Can Keep Inputs Low
Like many other producers we’ve heard and read about, Rich has kept inputs low on the farm by not buying equipment if he doesn’t need it constantly. He uses a skidsteer instead of a tractor for hauling and feeding livestock, and works with a neighbor to harvest and bale the haylage that carries his herd through the winter. The $3,000 in feed-harvest costs can be more than covered by one month’s milk check.
Finding ways to do things for the least cost possible could be Rich Radtke’s super power. But super powers don’t just happen. While Popeye had to eat spinach to unleash his incredible strength, Rich gets his power from reading, studying, talking to people, and creating a huge network of like-minded folks. As a result, he figured out how to replace high cost parts for his milking parlor, with low cost or free replacements that do the job just as well. We’ll be sharing more about his dairy set up in the future.
Rich and Carol started out homesteading before they turned to pasture-based dairy. Rich says, “If we can help others who find themselves on a similar path as ours, we’ll do what we can. We’ll tell you what we’ve done and/or why we did it a certain way and not another. Hopefully, you can avoid some of the pitfalls or perhaps gain some confidence by talking with us personally.” Here’s his email. I just replaced the @ with an “at” to prevent him from getting spammed: rich.radtke at outlook.com.