September 28, 2020 at 2:50 p.m.
Growing up on his parents’ 100-acre farm in New Paris, Ohio, Bigham began raising organic produce to sell at the age of 14. The purchase of a family milk cow in 2014 planted the seeds for Bigham’s future career aspirations.
“We got our first milk cow in the spring and that is where it all started,” Bigham said. “We got a second one that fall. Within a year, we had four cows and it grew to eight cows. My first adventure in the dairy industry was selling raw milk herd shares in Ohio.”
With his budding interest in becoming a dairy farmer, Bigham realized the limitations both his location and his age placed on him.
“It was too hard to find a milk market in our area, and our farm was not set up to be a dairy farm,” the 22-year-old said. “I looked at buying a farm but found that was not feasible at my age, so I began searching for alternative ways to get started. I placed ads in a local shopper in central Wisconsin, looking for a farm to rent.”
That ad, placed in the early spring of 2019, connected Bigham with Charles and Barbara Wellner of rural Abbotsford. The Wellners were thinking about retiring but had no one to take over the farm they had worked to create throughout their lifetime.
The farm, a certified organic dairy for nearly 20 years, consists of 320 acres, 160 of which are tillable, with two building sites, one that houses the 30-cow dairy herd and one that houses heifers.
“I was really drawn to the long-standing organic certification of the farm,” Bigham said. “My family was fairly organic-minded, and that is how I had originally grown the produce that started my interest in farming.”
After making several trips to the area to meet with the Wellners, Bigham took a leap of faith to embark on his path in the fall of 2019. He moved to central Wisconsin and began his newfound career in earnest Dec. 1, 2019.
Bigham is in the process of buying the herd of cows and heifers from the Wellners, and rents about 130 acres of hay and pasture ground from them. The Wellners grow corn on the remainder of the farm, which Bigham purchases to feed the herd.
“It was scary, moving away from home, away from what you know, starting something new with your life,” Bigham said. “Living on my own has been the hardest part. I grew up in a busy home, and my mom homeschooled me and my two siblings.”
Moving over 500 miles northwest of his hometown to begin his dairy career made for some interesting challenges and adaptations for Bigham. He said he was relieved that his first Wisconsin winter is one his neighbors refer to as relatively mild but is apprehensive about experiencing a more typical winter.
“The biggest challenge was having to buy so much hay and feed last year, because of two poor crop years,” Bigham said. “Finding organic feed and paying for it was difficult. I was not able to start grazing the cows until May 20.”
Grazing is an aspect of organic dairying that attracted Bigham, and he has spent this summer learning how to effectively manage his pastures with an eye to advancing to the next step of going completely grass-fed.
Bigham said the Wellners have used rotational grazing in the past, and he began implementing intensive strip grazing by moving his cows to a fresh area of pasture every morning and evening. The cows have access to about a half-acre of new pasture twice a day. Bigham has about 45 acres of pasture devoted to his strip grazing rotation, allowing for each strip to regenerate for about 30-45 days before the cows return.
Bigham has been experimenting with ways to increase the productivity of his pasture ground and no-tilled clover in earlier this year.
“I am thinking plowing down and reseeding is the only way to get new pasture going well up here,” he said.
Bigham has worked to manage and supplement his pasture, and has been working to determine how to move forward with continued improvements to his grazing program.
“If I can graze the cows until at least Nov. 1, I should be good on feed for the winter without having to buy any additional feed or hay,” Bigham said.
Becoming grass-fed is on Bigham’s radar, but he has concerns about the body condition of his herd with the lack of supplemented feed, which is something he said he needs to continue to research.
Bigham said his new career has been full of learning opportunities, and he does not look for that to change anytime soon. He said he looks to a wide of variety of people for advice and spends time researching what he does not know.
Starting out fresh in the dairy industry today is a challenge for a young person, according to Bigham, but is a path he would not discourage.
“You just need to stay humble and remember you are young and have a lot to learn,” Bigham said. “Others have learned from their experiences, and it really pays to take that advice.”
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