March 2014
Farm & Field

It's a DarLin Dairy

Darrell Rankins is enjoying his new occupation as a dairy farmer. “It is something I look forward to every day,” he explains.  

Not many retire from work . . . to a dairy farm!

When most people think of retirement, they think of travel, golfing, etc. Starting a dairy operation is not on the top of most people’s list, but for Cusseta’s Darrell Rankins that is what he has done since he entered retirement in April 2013.

An Illinois native, Rankins received his bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University, then a master’s and doctorate from New Mexico State University. Rankins came to Auburn University in 1989 and served livestock producers of Alabama for 25 years with his expertise in nutrition for beef cattle through research, teaching and Extension. Rankins retired after his 25-year tenure with Auburn University.

  DarLin Dairy opened for business on November 15, 2013. It is a USDA Grade A dairy operation.

"After 25 years, I was ready for something different," Rankins said. "I began to think about things I would enjoy doing and would look forward to every day."

He wanted to farm.

"During my time working at Auburn, I had livestock on the side including cattle, chickens and goats, but I needed to add something," he recalled.

Rankins decided he either wanted to get into the stocker cattle business or the dairy business. After weighing the two options, he decided to go with a grass-based dairy endeavor.

Darrell Rankins and his sons Seth and Ethan help with the evening milking. The Rankins children take turns assisting with milking. Everyone has a job to do.  

"When it came down to it, there was a potential for profit and it would be something I enjoyed," Rankins said.

Next, it was time to do a little research. Rankins visited dairy farms from Troy all the way up into the Carolinas. He went searching for people who were doing what he wanted to do.

"People thought I was crazy for wanting to go into the dairy business because so many people are getting out of it," Rankins explained. "When people asked me why I was going to get in to the dairy business, I would ask them, ‘Why not?’"

In December 2012, Rankins officially decided to retire and worked until April 1, 2013.

"From the day I retired, I spent every day from dusk to dawn working on building my milking parlor," Rankins reflected. "I did it all on my own from the ground work to the electrical work."

On November 15, 2013, DarLin Dairy received their herd of cows and was open for business.

For the last 4.5 months, Rankins and his family have been adjusting to dairy life as they milk their cows twice a day. Depending upon the calving and lactation of the cows, they typically milk between 55-60 cows.

Left to right, Darrell Rankins built his milking parlor on his own in Cusseta from April until November of 2013. The milking parlor can milk up to 12 cows at a time and while one group of 12 is being milked another group of 12 can be prepped on the other side.

"The natural tendency is to get bigger," Rankins said. "But I don’t want to do that, I want to stay small enough so it is a one man show. I don’t want to have this large dairy and have people doing what I want to be doing. The only downside is that means I have to do everything."

  Milk at DarLin Dairy is stored in this 1,000-gallon cooling tank until picked up by a truck which runs every other day.

Like with any new endeavor Rankins has learned a lot through trial and error in the last few months.

"Coming in to this I had goals, but I haven’t really been in it long enough to see if things will go exactly as I have planned; I have already had to re-evaluate and change some things," Rankins added. "Sometimes things look good on a chalkboard, but do not work out so well in practice."

It has been said it is impossible, but Rankins would eventually be interested in having a seasonal dairy farm and would have a two-month dry period. This isn’t a commonly seen practice in the dairy industry. Being seasonal would provide a short break in the year and would allow times for any major repairs that need to be made.

"I’ve been told it can’t be done, but some are doing it especially in Missouri, but I would be interested in trying it when I get things more settled," Rankins continued.

So far Rankins is enjoying his life as a dairyman.

"I enjoy it.At the end of the day it is mine, it is something I am proud of, but I still have a lot of things to work out," Rankins expressed. "I am going to take it a little at a time, my goal is to have 50-75 head in my herd and be able to obtain moderate production from moderate inputs."

Rankins isn’t the only one who is getting used to the routine of dairy life. His cattle have also gotten in the swing of things.

"They know when it’s time for milking and they usually come without much problem," Rankins said. "It takes us a little over an hour to milk and at least an hour to clean up."

Left to right, the cows on Rankins’ farm have had an easy transition from living in Georgia to life in Lee County where they have resided since November. Approximately 18 calves have been born since November.  

Currently Rankins’ cows are averaging 38.5 pounds of milk per cow, per day. Their milk is picked up from their farm every other day and is sent to Georgia, Florida and even Louisiana at times.

DarLin Dairy has only been in business for four months now, but they are settling in to a routine. Rankins, his wife Linda and their four children Ellen, Seth, Gavin and Ethan all take turns assisting in the day-to-day operations. Dairy farmers have a 365-day-a-year job, and you see more farmers getting out of the dairy business, but Rankins is loving it and looks forward to getting up every morning to work in his new dairy.

Anna Leigh Peek is a freelance writer from Auburn.