First generation dairy farmer relies on hard work, good genes

alley shotMaine has dairy farms that stretch back as many as eight or nine generations and several that currently have three generations and multiple branches of the family tree working together. Others, like John Cox, are first generation farmers. They don’t have the family history, but they have the desire and the love of the land and animals that makes them want to dedicate their lives to dairy farming.

pushing feed

John Cox pushes feed back towards his cows to make sure they are getting enough nutrition to keep up with their milk production.

“I didn’t grow up around dairy farms, but I always had the interest,” the 38-year-old said. “It’s very hard to get started as a first generation dairy farmer, but I’ve got a really good bunch of cows that make a lot of milk.”

The challenges can be finding a farm with productive land and barns in good condition, building a quality herd, purchasing milking and farming equipment, and not having the years of experience of parents and grandparents to rely on for input. Luckily, when John started his dairy farm in Troy three years ago, he brought a great deal of his own knowledge and experience with him. He had worked for a couple of farms in the Belfast area where he grew up, and spent four years artificially inseminating cows for the company Genex, which has helped in his selections for breeding.

money heifer

John Cox recently purchased this heifer, who will have her first calf this spring, at a dairy sale in Cobleskill, NY. Money’s usually tight when you’re a dairy farmer, but John is willing to invest in top notch dairy cattle like this one.

“If you’re going to milk cows, milk good ones,” Cox said, adding that his cows are registered and he consistently breeds them to the top five bulls. “I’m not into showing cows. I like the working cows, the ones [whose offspring are often used as bulls in artificial insemination].”

nice calf

Dairy farmer John Cox has made some strategic choices when it comes to breeding cows and growing his herd. This good-looking calf is out of one of his top milkers.

He has also purchased embryos from top cows and used his cows as surrogates.

John pointed to a small, white cow – pretty but not a standout among the others. “She milks 110 pounds a day.” Another of his herd peaked at 140 pounds. “And that is only two milkings.” (100 pounds of milk per day is a pretty stellar cow; really good cows are around 80-90 pounds. Many farms milk three times per day.)

Breeding cows also introduced him to a large number of dairy farmers, and he calls on them when he has a problem or needs an opinion. Fortunately, he doesn’t listen to all the opinions. “You talk to a lot of the older farmers, and they’ll discourage you, but you know where they’re coming from.”

“I’m here 15 hours a day, cute calfbut I enjoy it,” he said. “It beats going to a job I don’t like.”

He started the farm with 20 cows and a dozen heifers that he had raised. He is now up to a herd total of nearly 90 with about 40 currently milking.

“What’s cool is that now some of the first calves we had when I came in are calving with their first now,” Cox said.

He milks them in tie stalls, which is labor intensive. He has a high school student who helps him, along with one other hired man for milking, and his girlfriend sometimes helps him with milking also.

cow trio

John belongs to the AgriMark cooperative, which owns Cabot Creamery. His milk most often goes to HP Hood, and according to John’s mother, one of his favorite dairy-friendly recipes is simply “a glassful of Hood Vanilla ice cream with milk added to make a shake.” Simple but delicious. If you like to mix things up a little more than John, here’s a recipe from HP Hood for an American Apple Pie Shake or a Banana Pudding Shake. 

Speaking of bananas … I was at a local health food store to grab lunch yesterday, and they were giving away bunches of overripe bananas. I couldn’t resist and was eager to go home and make some banana bread. Since the bananas were free, I decided I could spend a little money on other ingredients and picked up dates and walnuts to go in the bread. What resulted is Haymaker’s Banana Bread. This energy-packed banana bread has no added sugar as it is plenty sweet from the bananas and dates. I do wish now I had put some mini dark chocolate chips in though. I think this is going to be my go-to snack to keep me going in the hay fields this summer. Usually, I am either running straight from work and don’t have time to eat or you’re out there for hours trying to get as much hay in as possible before the rain comes and you can’t stop to eat a meal. If I plan ahead and make this the night before we know there will be hay, I can have a snack to sustain me.

banana bread

The recipe calls for buckwheat flour. I find that buckwheat is more filling than other flours, and it’s a Maine grain, so that’s always a bonus for me. If you don’t have buckwheat, regular flour will work, but you might want to halve the baking powder, and regular milk rather than buttermilk will probably be sufficient. And the ground flax seed is optional. I just had some, so I figured I would throw it in.

haymakers banana bread


Jami Badershall

About Jami Badershall

Jami Badershall is the Communications Manager for the Maine Dairy & Nutrition Council and Maine Dairy Promotion Board. She also owns her own small farm. On "The Dairy Dish", Jami ventures to Maine farms, highlights events around the state, and gives you recipe ideas using local dairy products.