Following in their father's footsteps

As David Martin goes about his daily routine in his enclosed tie-stall barn in southern Michigan, his wife, Suzanna, assists him in milking 60 cows, while their 2-year-old son, Alson, plays with his toys in a corner of the brightly lit building.   

For David, owning a dairy farm, while keeping a close connection to his family, motivated him to build the barn last summer on a 40-acre site in Fenwick, Mich., and start milking in the fall. He named the operation Sandy Knoll Dairy.

“There’s nothing like going out to milk cows in the morning and then walking across the yard to have breakfast with my family,” David says.

Eugene Martin, David’s younger brother, started Windy Knoll Dairy last year about eight miles away in Sheridan, Mich., with the same type of barn and a similar-sized herd. The brothers collaborated on portions of the construction process at their separate locations. The concrete floor was poured first at Eugene’s dairy, for instance, and then at David’s.

Growing up on a dairy farm, Eugene and David were among eight children in an Old Order Mennonite family. They both worked in different occupations — David in welding and Eugene in plastic recycling — before deciding to start their own dairy farms.

“I think my brother and I are just farmers at heart,” David says. “So, we started our dairies with tie-stall barns just like our father has.”

The brothers’ decision regarding a barn where the cows eat, drink, rest and are milked was motivated by more than just familiarity. Although they each had worked at dairies with freestall barns and bigger milking parlors, and found some favorable aspects, they knew that a tie-stall offered advantages that better suited them. 

“I’ve done chores for a farmer with a freestall and actually planned on the same setup with my dairy,” Eugene says. “But, in the end, I just decided that a tie-stall was right for me. I’ve got a hands-on connection to the cows and can really tell when something might be wrong.”

David liked the idea of being able to milk in a parlor without bending over, but he elevated family over comfort.

“After I got married and had a son, I realized that a milking parlor isn’t a family place,” he says. “There’s people moving around in a parlor and the floor can be wet. In my barn, my son can run around and play without us worrying about cows moving around or milkers in narrow aisles or the floors being wet.” 

“Also, in a tie-stall barn, you are more in touch with each cow and can focus more on cow health,” David says. “I notice when one isn’t eating normally or acting differently. Then I can decide if the vet needs to be called.”

“I just wanted my family to have good memories like when I was growing up,” he says.

In both barns, the brothers installed features for efficiency in milking and maintenance, allowing them operate the dairy on their own and still engage in family time. For example, they each use an aluminum utility cart — designed by Eugene — for ease of transporting the bulky milking assembly from the cleaning area to the cows twice each day.

The manure management system at each dairy consists of two gutters that run nearly the length of the barn. The 16-inch wide and 16-inch deep gutters are covered by a grate, allowing the animals to easily enter their stalls. Cow waste conveniently falls through the grates and into the gutters. Then, when David or Eugene flip a switch, paddles scrape through the gutters, moving the waste into an exterior holding lagoon.