BOOTSTRAP @ THE GOLDEN YOKE – MARKETING & SALES

By Laura Ginsburg of The Golden Yoke

For marketing, like the rest of our fThe-Golden-Yoke-standing-with-the-cows-smallarm venture, we are starting small with big visions for the future. We currently have a logo, a Facebook page, a domain name, and the makings of a Kickstarter campaign. We have visions of shirts, stickers, ice cream cartons, a scoop mobile, and much more.

When we lived in Vermont, with our farm business idea still in its infancy, we developed the logo that would identify us. One of our neighbors was a well-known regional artist, and was willing to barter for artwork. Connie went up to the their house one beautiful fall day and stacked three cords of firewood, though each time we tell the story it gets more and more animated. In New England, the sport of horse and oxen pulling is a big deal – it is the one event at the fair that always gets a huge crowd. The work and dedication it takes to get a team working together to accomplish something huge is deeply symbolic in our logo. The chickens in the logo always get the most questions. For anyone that has raised free-range hens, you know how industrious those girls can be. You let them out in the morning and they are busy all day searching for food, scratching in the dirt, laying eggs, and just being productive. They might be small and one chicken alone cannot accomplish a lot, but when they work together they can make a huge positive difference on the farm. And so two chickens yoked together became our logo, and with teamwork, dedication, and perseverance, our dreams will become reality.

Our marketing right now is done for free tThe-Golden-Yoke-Logo-small-283x280hrough our Facebook page. We own the domain name and will be restarting our webpage soon, but the ability to build an audience on social media for a small investment of time has been great. We have 135 likes, and some of our posts (mostly of baby animals) have reached over 700 people across the United States and in other countries.

The first week in October has been big for getting our marketing out to more people. A few weeks ago we were contacted out of the blue by a local newspaper reporter who thought our farm story would make a good article. She found out about us through this blog, which has been another excellent way for us to be able to talk about our farm to a wide-ranging audience. She came out to the farm to talk with us and take pictures for a feature piece in a coming edition. That same day we filmed our Kickstarter campaign, which will go live in November. Because our plan is to process our milk into ice cream, we are asking for help purchasing an industrial scale machine.

The Kickstarter campaign and the Facebook page have encouraged us to think about other ways of marketing and having products for sale. The range of items that can be customized is huge, so we are looking for what people are most interested in having. Shirts, stickers, and ball caps are popular options. We are planning on making limited edition shirts for those people who help us with our fund-raising campaign.
As for sales, we are going to start relatively small in the local market. Our business plan has us making and selling a “Montana-made” ice cream first, using ingredients produced in the state. This will allow us to get our name out and raise additional capital needed to be able to further develop the dairy. The second year we will start the pasture line of ice cream, using the milk from our cows and hopefully the eggs from our hens. This product will be made almost entirely of locally produced ingredients, allowing us to also support other area farmers. We want to price our products so that our friends and family can buy them and to sell into markets that also support the local economy.

We are passionate and willing to talk about our venture to anyone who is curious to learn more. We are also thrilled to see how excited and interested people are about what we are doing. Having that support helps us get through the ups and downs of farm and business life.

Until next time, the girls of The Golden Yoke

BOOTSTRAP @ THE GOLDEN YOKE – BUILDING EXPERIENCE

By Laura Ginsburg of The Golden Yoke

I remember hearing a statistic once, that to be an expert at something you had to do that activity for 10,000 hours. Connie and I tried to calculate all of the hours we have stood behind or next to a cow (or under during some unfortunate events), and we still think we are each a long way off from 10,000. While we may not be experts yet, Connie and I have had enough experience to feel strongly that we are capable of managing cows on our own.

Like we have said in earlier posts, Connie has a degree in dairy science from Virginia Tech. She is pretty sure that she was the one that did not fit in – always asking why dairy had to be done a certain way. Why do cows have to be confined? Why do they have to eat corn? Why are they being bred to be so big? While she had to take genetics, she didn’t really believe that good cows always equals high production…what about health, longevity, personality? Why can’t she show her calf with Virginia Tech’s logo shaved into her side? With her degree in hand, Connie set out to learn how to dairy the way she does best, and that is by doing. She has worked on dairies large and small, confinement and pasture based, Holsteins and Jerseys. When you are a herdsperson for a 4,000-cow dairy, you quickly learn to spot a girl that doesn’t feel well even if you don’t know her personally and on a small farm you really notice because you get to know the cows. On the various farms, Connie has learned to give IV’s, AI, operate all manner of equipment, has pulled numerous calves, stood in knee deep liquid manure to fix broken pumps, and still keeps at it.

My first real cow experience was on a cow/calf ranch in Wyoming, where I was thrown into the herd management of several hundred pairs. I knew horses and had incredible desire to learn more about cows, and this was the perfect opportunity. Working on a ranch in a very rural part of the state means you learn to do things quickly and often on your own. I learned how to build fence, irrigate, bale hay, fix the baler, move cows on foot and horseback, vaccinate, drive lots of farm equipment, identify and treat ailments, and how to mix rations. During the winter months I managed a small feedlot with 600 calves and had at least twenty named and tame enough to touch. I learned to milk in Vermont, but my confidence with cows came from my time in Wyoming. While dairy cows are a bit more sensitive than beef cows, they all pretty much want the same things: to be treated well, given good feed, and to have a nice place to lie down.

Connie and I recently met a HaThe-Golden-Yoke-standing-with-the-cows-smallrvard MBA student who was traveling across country to learn about small entrepreneurs. We met at a festival that celebrates agriculture in Montana, and got to talking about the dairy we are starting. He said that the best thing about Montana is that we just do stuff, that we don’t have people helping us or advising us, we just go out there and get it done. He was really impressed by the hard work people, particularly farmers, put into their daily lives and everything they have to know. That made me feel proud to be a Montanan and to consider myself a farmer. And that is one of the best things about agriculture – you don’t have to know everything to work hard and get stuff done. If you truly want to learn, people are more than happy to offer you an opportunity, even if it means a day getting covered in poop working calves. But you don’t have to be an expert, you just have to be willing to put in the hours to get there. I figure I’ve got at least 6,000 hours left, and there’s enough cows in Montana to make sure I get there.

Until next time, the girls of The Golden Yoke.

BOOTSTRAP @ THE GOLDEN YOKE – EQUIPMENT AND CAPITAL

By Laura Ginsburg of The Golden Yoke

The-Golden-Yoke-Cow-bana-smallThis past month has been a big one for decision-making at The Golden Yoke. Unlike the other Bootstrap farmers, we are not currently milking any cows, do not have any facilities, and do not have any real equipment to speak of. And having just finished grad school, we do not have much cash on hand to put into these things. The next issue we have been tackling is that I (Laura) received a Fulbright and will be gone for most of 2014, the year we are planning on truly starting our dairy operation. So what does all of this mean for us?

We have a lot of awesome things working in our favor, which has factored into the decisions we are making. First, people are truly excited about what we are doing and want to offer their assistance. Sometimes this is an offer of going in on a heifer (Twister is half owned by one of our good friends) or guiding us through the business planning and financial forecasting process. Our neighbor has been instrumental in helping us understand our irrigation system and has recently cut and baled our hay. He and many others have offered to be part of the ice cream tasting team. Next, we live in an area where there used to be a lot of smaller dairies, so the possibility of finding a place with a parlor that we could rent is very real. When we moved onto the land we lease now, we were thinking we would build a barn and a parlor but now that just seems financially overwhelming and unwise. Third, we live in a beautiful location in a small, rural town that supports agriculture and local food. Saint Ignatius is very close to a huge summer tourist town and is on the way to Glacier National Park. Because we want to make ice cream and operate seasonally, this would be perfect because everybody likes an ice cream cone during the hot days of summer.

The-Golden-Yoke-Happy-Grazers-smallSo equipment and capital…as far as money goes, we apply for free money at every chance we get. Connie just received a grant from the Red Ants Pants Foundation to attend ice cream school at Penn State this winter, which just happens to be the same school where Ben & Jerry got their start. We are saving every dollar we can to build up a farm account and we both hold full-time jobs. As people like to remind us, dairy is one of the most capital-intensive kinds of farming to get in to. Keeping in mind we will need to outfit a parlor with new equipment, we might need to build a barn, we want to process our own milk, and we are going to do the marketing, we fully expect to go into (possibly significant) debt to start our operation.

For equipment, right now what we have is quite basic: pick-up truck, fencing materials, and an ice cream making attachment for the Kitchen Aid mixer. Since we don’t have any shelter for the cows we just put up what we are calling the “cow-bana,” a sunshade with the water tank, mineral block, and fly repellent that the cows can use during the heat of the day. We have ideas about what our ideal set-up would include once we get going. I would really like to use a hoop style barn with a bedded pack, a system that allows the cows to walk around freely and lets in a lot of natural light.

The-Golden-Yoke-Sunset-and-Cascabel-smallWe want to eventually milk in a New Zealand style swing parlor, which is a herringbone set-up with only one set of milking machines that swing to either side. This kind of parlor has no walls, so it is very open, airy, and is cheaper to build. And for actual milking equipment, we would both like to use Nu-Pulse milkers that do not require a separate airline. I milked with these in Vermont, and the entire system is quieter, seems to be pretty easy on the cows, and requires less equipment. We are just starting to think about ice cream equipment and packaging, and are open to exploring alternative packaging models depending on customer demand.

Getting ready to write this post has forced Connie and I to really examine our financial and equipment needs. We end this post feeling much clearer about our goals for the next year and ready to take on the work it will entail.

Until next time, the girls of The Golden Yoke.

BOOTSTRAP @ THE GOLDEN YOKE – ON BREEDS

By Laura Ginsburg of The Golden Yoke

The-Golden-Yoke-Beignet-wants-fresh-grass-smallMontana is considered a fluid milk state, which means that one of the primary goals for dairy farmers is to breed cows that produce a lot of milk without much regard for components. Across the state, the vast representation of cows are of the black and white variety, Holsteins that is. We only know of a handful of farmers that milk Jerseys or Jersey crosses, and one farmer that milks Brown Swiss. We have nothing against Holsteins, but Montana Holsteins are bred to thrive in a free stall barn and for maximum production, which does not necessarily make them an ideal candidate for our grazing operation. This means finding stock in any sort of reasonable distance (which for Montana is measured in hours, not in miles) has become one of our greatest challenges.

The cows we have right now are a motley assortment: Twister (¾ Jersey, ¼ Holstein) and Beignet (Jersey) we found on Craigslist, while the two Holstein steers and Cascabel (½ Jersey, ½ Holstein) came from two different dairy farmers Laura met through her thesis work. Every now and then another heifer or cow will come up on Craigslist, but we think that will no longer be the best option for us as we start to look for purebred animals with known lineages. Cascabel is our only heifer whose history we know, specifically her mother and grandmother’s production, health, and longevity, so we know what to expect from her. The other two we just are not sure. Beignet came from a cow that was from a production dairy in Oregon. Twister was on a cow with three other calves and when we got her she was pretty undernourished and needed a lot of TLC before she started growing. Because we both want a herd of solid, high quality animals, we have changed our purchasing goals and are now planning on going further afield to build our herd. By no means do we regret purchasing Twister and Beignet, who are growing up to be sweet, well-built animals who are super grazers.

The-Golden-Yoke-Sunset-after-a-storm-smallAs we buy additional animals, we will be looking for cows and heifers that are purebred Jersey. In our pasture management system, we need cows that will be active grazers even during the heat of day, calve easily, and produce milk with high levels of butterfat and protein. We are both really interested in breeding high-quality, pasture appropriate animals and so we are learning more about New Zealand genetics, known for their focus on pasture performance and high-component milk. Working on the dairies in Vermont, where all the cows were registered and their lineages well-understood, the impact of good breeding choices was clear. The cows lived long, productive lives, had excellent conformation, made lots of milk, and had calves that could be sold for additional income. Laura thinks that a herd of Jerseys grazing in a green field is quite a lovely sight to behold.

At the same time we want to breed show-quality Jerseys, we are both interested in bringing in two breeds that are not well-known on this side of the country. Connie is enamored with Normandes, a French breed well-known for their rich milk and notable performance on pasture. We visited a dairy in Massachusetts that used Normandes, and even with the calves nursing on the cows, the girls were producing upwards of 40 pounds of milk a day which is quite impressive. The Normandes are a little funny looking in a way that is very endearing, and we think they would do really well in Montana. Laura is determined to start a small, pure bred herd of Canadiennes, the only dairy breed developed in North America and specifically suited to grazing in the harsh, cold weather of Quebec. Canadiennes are a rare breed on the critical list for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy with less than 500 pure animals in all of North America. The closest Normande herds are in Wisconsin, while there are a handful of Canadiennes in New England – a cow collecting road trip might be in order.

Until next time, the girls of the Golden Yoke.

BOOTSTRAP @ THE GOLDEN YOKE – Follow along with our first year

By Laura Ginsburg of The Golden Yoke

Laura celebrating Christmas with the cows

Laura celebrating Christmas with the cows

Hi! My name is Laura Ginsburg. Connie and I are starting to build our dairy, the Golden Yoke. We are the first new dairy in Montana in over two decades. Not only will we be the first new dairy in many years, we will be the only grass-based, seasonal dairy in the state.
I am currently in my last semester of graduate school at the University of Montana, where I am in the Environmental Studies program. I am writing my thesis on the effects of supply management on Montana’s dairy farmers and work as a research assistant for a local agriculture non-profit. Connie works full-time at a growers’ cooperative, and has a degree in dairy science from Virginia Tech.

We are driven by our passion for dairy farming and our love of cows. I fell in love with dairy farming while studying abroad in New Zealand, and do not have an agricultural background. Connie grew up on what she likes to call “Old MacDonald’s Farm” in rural southwest Virginia, where her family raised tobacco and had a market garden. She has worked on dairies across the United States, as a herdsman for a 4,000-cow Horizon dairy in Idaho to the only employee on a 35-cow organic dairy in Vermont. The majority of my dairy experience was in Vermont, where I relief milked for multiple farmers and helped with pasture management.

The decision to be grass-based and seasonal has raised a lot of eyebrows out here, where all dairies are confinement systems. We believe in the restorative power of grazing for the land and for the health of the cows, and saw outstanding results for both at a dairy we worked at in Vermont. Because of our jobs, school commitments, and being young farmers, our plan is to start slowly. Over the past two months we have been matched through a land link program to 40 acres in the Mission Mountains (St. Ignatius, MT) and have purchased our first two heifers.

Connie and the heifers surveying the new land.

Connie and the heifers surveying the new land.

We only want to milk around 20 cows, and are open to the idea of taking several years to scale up to that size. We are also exploring the idea of milking sheep, which would make us another anomaly in the state. Neither of us has much experience with sheep though, so this will be a more in-depth learning process which will include farm visits to neighboring states. Our friends and the local community are very excited about supporting and visiting our farm, and we are also going to be utilizing creative financing to fund our initial start-up costs. The whole process of watching our dream come into reality is exhilarating and sobering, and we look forward to sharing it with others who have the same dream as us.