The Neill family farm in Waitsfield sold its milk cows and bred heifers this month in preparation for making the transition to the beef, pork, chicken, egg and vegetable business.
Farm owner Elwin Neill Jr. and his late father, Elwin Neill Sr., managed the dairy farm since 1950. Neill said that faltering milk prices and the impacts of Tropical Storm Irene led to his decision.
“Next winter I would have been short of feed because we lost so much crop from Irene. Milk prices are down and headed further down. It was a business decision – the future just didn’t look good, and we didn’t want to go on the rollercoaster of borrowing money to buy feed and losing money to feed them,” Neill said.
“It’s a good time for me to step out of dairy and into the meat business. Our meat business is starting to do pretty well. We are keeping all the beef cows and the young stock and will run them through our beef program,” he added.
Neill said that he would miss his cows, noting that he and his father had been breeding their cows for several decades. And while he will miss his cows, he said he will not miss getting up at 3 a.m. to begin the milking.
“When you take the emotion out of it and look at it objectively, we’d have to dip into our reserves just to keep going,” he said, adding that he asked his wife Angela, who handles their finances, if they could continue in the black and when she said she could not guarantee it, he decided the time had come.
“If we have to borrow money, it’s not working,” Neill said.
The Neill farm carried over 200 head over the winter which is up 40 to 50 head over what the farm usually carries. After selling 80 milking cows and the dairy heifers and calves, the farm still has 120 head of beef cattle.
Two years ago, the Neill farm began diversifying with beef and then with pork and last year with poultry. The farm has had a corn and pumpkin operation for many years. That vegetable operation will be expanded with the transition, and Neill is considering other options as well.
“Right now we’re processing 35 to 40 hogs a year and we have the opportunity to do as many as 1,000 a year. I’ve got a customer who wants 500 to 1,000 hogs a year. Our beef business has doubled every year since we started,” Neill said.
“Every day I’m more convinced that the decision we’re making is the right one, and I know it’s the right decision for me. I’ll be 62 this year. If we stayed in dairy, our facilities need to be upgraded and we have to put money into infrastructure – and that requires a commitment of 10 to 15 years or more. I have to borrow to invest; I’ll need to earn that back in 10 to 15 years and milk prices would not get that money back,” he said.
“I think we can crop, sell beef, pork and eggs, do more sweet corn and more domestic and garden crops and actually realize a profit, not just work to pay everybody. I’d actually pay myself,” he said.
“It’s an exciting time to make this change. We have options that we did not have before. We’re thinking of growing more sweet corn and use the Food Hub to cryovac it, then bring it out during the holidays. We’re thinking about growing pick-your-own strawberries. We’re thinking about putting together breakfast packages for people that include eggs, bacon and sausage. We’re considering getting a dessert license and making ice cream,” he said.
“It was kind of sad watching the cows get loaded up to go and I will miss them, but I won’t miss cleaning the barn and I’m excited about what we’re doing,” he added.