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.

Employing a technique found on Pennsylvania farms, where their father, Wilmer Martin, grew up, the brothers hung notched bars above each cow. The bars are called “cow trainers,” and are designed to prevent manure from ending up in the cows’ bedding.

“When I first started milking, I went for two weeks without the trainers and realized how much more work was involved in cleanup,” David says.

Eugene and David both made sure that they could mix their feed while protected from inclement weather, too. Their mixing machinery is inside the barn, and the brothers deliver feed to their animals via battery-powered feed carts.

Growing up in a large family on a dairy farm, the brothers say they came to understand the value of hard work and the importance of diversification in the volatile dairy industry.

“In the early 2000s, when milk prices were low, my father decided to breed and raise goldendoodles for additional income,” says David.

For a time, the family’s finances were so strained that the brothers were forced to use wheelbarrows for hauling because there wasn’t enough money to fix a skid steer.

Eventually, as times improved and the children moved off the family farm, Eugene and David took over the dog-breeding enterprise from their father, who was busy not only with his cows but another sideline business: disassembling rejected auto parts and retrieving the plastic pieces, which are then sent to a nearby factory for recycling. The brothers continue raising dogs for additional family income.

In addition to milking and feeding their herds, David and Eugene pay particular attention to the cows during their daily exercise routine. The brothers unhook each cow in their own tie-stall barns and then direct the animals to adjacent pastureland. 

“I let them out for two or three hours when the weather allows,” David says. “They get to move around, and I watch for signs of which ones are in heat.”

For cow comfort during the heat of summer, six 54-inch fans provide tunnel ventilation in the barns. In addition, three garage-style doors can be opened for increased air flow.

Also contributing to cow comfort are padded mattresses for bedding, with a layer of wood shavings on top. The shavings are added twice each day, keeping the cow beds dry and fresh. 

Among the many decisions required before a dairy can begin operation, a producer must find a way to market the milk. For David and Eugene, who grew up in a DFA family, the choice was obvious.

“Dad was with DFA and had good results,” David says. “So, we just felt comfortable staying with DFA to pick up our milk.”