Josh Colvin wakes up in the morning and asks himself a hard question.
“Why am I doing this to myself again.”
It’s a question the dairy farmer has become familiar with as it become increasingly difficult to make ends meet. The owner of CR Farms LLC, Colvin has a family of six, more than 60 cows and two jobs to tend to.
“It’s not fun anymore,” he said. “When you can’t pay your bills it’s not fun. You get up and go to work knowing you’re not going to pay the bills for that day.”
He drives truck on the side, but his passion is still for the family-run dairy farm and the cows he has a soft spot for in his heart.
That’s why he’s looking for help. He sees the future, he knows he has the cows that can produce it and he’s hoping investors can get onboard to help him live the dream.
Colvin has been breeding cows to produce A2 milk for 15 years, before there was even a market for it. He now sells his milk to Organic Valley, but it’s just organic, not rated for A2 – yet. His dream is to bottle and process his own milk at the land he rents off Threlkeld Lane in Brandy Station, but he needs money to do it.
The harsh reality is that farming takes more money than it used to. A longtime dairy farmer, Colvin remembers the words his friend David Burton from Calverton told him.
“He said ‘If you can ever get to where you had an extra milk check, you’ll be doing good,’” Colvin said. “Now it takes two extra milk checks.”
His truck driving endeavors help some, but that also means he’s away from the farm, leaving his wife Anna to handle the milking responsibilities. He sees hope on the horizon though, when he can go back to just one job, as long as he can convince investors to see the future of A2 milk.
Seeing the future with A2
A2 milk is cow’s milk that mostly lacks a form of β-casein proteins called A1 and instead has mostly the A2 form.
Colvin recognized the advantages and the trends 15 years ago when he started to breed heifers to produce A2 milk.
“I’ve been breeding for A2 milk for close to 15 years,” Colvin said. “When I first started breeding A2 milk, there was only one sire company, Select Sires. They were the only ones that would talk to me about A2. I feel A2 milk is something we need to really look at.”
Colvin hasn’t had his cows tested yet, because there’s no market available. Once the market presents itself locally, he said he’s prepared to have his cows tested and be certified as an A2 producer. The trick is having enough cows to produce enough milk to satisfy the demand. At the moment, he’s milking 66 cows.
His dream is to bottle and process his own milk, but that will need capital. He estimates that the initial investment will be $1.5 million and it will take three years to be in the black financially.
“When we get to that point, I want to get investors interested in it,” Colvin said. “We’re ready to go to A2, but if I don’t have enough A2 to satisfy my market there is a small group of farmers in Pennsylvania that have been breeding for A2 as well.”
They receive about 20 pounds of milk per cow per week, which is impressive considering he’s strictly grazing on grass at the moment. He said he does feed grain when there’s a fescue shortage or if the cows need more energy.
He also believes in more holistic methods with the cows as well.
“Genetics make a big difference whether or not you can get cows to perform on milk,” Colvin said. “One thing I’ve learned, especially with grass cows, I keep my heifers with their mom until they’re 10 months old. They come off the cow, and three or four months later they’re bred. It makes a better cow.”
The cows feed on the native fescue grasses, some orchard grass and clover. His goal is breed a cow by two years, though that’s not a hard and fast rule – it depends on the cow.
“We need to learn to work with nature and not try to change a bunch of stuff,” Colvin said. “It is hard to make milk on fescue, right now it’s easy but talk to me in six weeks from now and it’s going to be hard.”
The cows at CR Farm are kept in the field except for when they come to the barn to milk, as Colvin explained that they are most comfortable in weather when it’s zero to 40 degrees. In the summer, they move the cows around to pastures with shade during the hot afternoons and then to a pasture with no shade in the evenings.
“The only shelter these cows have is the barn they milk in,” Colvin said. “In the winter it can be a management nightmare, but they’re meant to be outside. The only time I get greatly concerned is when we have ice.”
How do you know when to move a herd of cows? It’s not easy, he said.
“That’s hard learning, when, where and how to move a cow,” Colvin said. “It’s an art. You can kind of set the rule but you need to be able to come out and say ‘they should have more grass’ so the next time you move the fence 10 or 20 more feet. Then they get that much more grass to eat.”
Colvin believes in being a good steward to the land, pointing out fence improvements and processes to keep water clean.
“If money comes up, we need to make upgrades,” Colvin said. “The upgrades will be a better stewardship of managing the resources we have.”
Colvin’s milk leaves the farm and goes to H.B. Hood in Winchester, where it’s processed for Organic Valley.
“The other thing I really like organic milk, is that organic pays a whole lot more for a quality premium,” Colvin said. “If you send them a better quality product, they will pay you more money. That makes a great deal difference in my eyes.”
How to help
It’s a family affair for the Colvins, as his mother Margaret Rhodes, points out. His wife Anna tends to the cows and their four children – Susanna, 8, Phillip, 7, Myrtl, 3, and newborn Woodie.
Despite the long hours and financial hardships, Anna beams when talking about the pride they take in their work.
“I wouldn’t trade it,” Anna said. “It means the world to me.”
They’ve never had to send the kids to daycare, which is nice because when you farm for dairy, there’s always other expenses.
Josh’s hope is if they can get big enough, they can help other local small farmers.
“If we got big enough and it worked for us, there’s other farmers around that would probably want us to process their milk also,” Josh said.
Josh stands in his kitchen, talking about feasibility studies, genetics and logistics. He grins, knowing that’s not the stereotype of a farmer, but he explains that if you want to be successful you have to know all facets of the business.
“You wouldn’t expect me to come up and hand you a feasibility study,” Josh said with a laugh.“I’ve had a lot of people look at you like ‘what does he know?’ I’ve gained a lot of respect at corporate meetings by being able to know the business side of it and know the math parts of it.”
He’s quick to point out he’s had plenty of help – from Select Sires and Organic Valley, from the extension offices in Culpeper and Fauquier counties and from other farmers. It’s a fraternity that’s dwindling – and conventional or organic farm – they stick together.
“Just because they’re conventional doesn’t mean they’re not my friends and not my family,” Colvin said. “We’re all together.”
If investors are interested in learning more about the farm and how they can help, contact email@example.com or call Rhodes at 540-636-4402.
“If a consumer wants to know what they can do to help, it’s drink milk,” Colvin said.