GUTTENBERG — Of the professions Maureen Seevers contemplated as a child — meteorologist, astronaut, the things kids think about — she found herself drawn down to earth, to the dairy barns where she grew up on the family farm.
"Once I got to where I wanted to go to college, I was a little more realistic and decided that I would follow what I already know best, and that was the farming life," Seevers said. "I love working with animals. I love being outside ... most days."
Seevers, 32, and her siblings, Travis Kregel, 30, and Megan Kregel, 28, work on their parents' farm in Guttenberg. They grow corn, beans and cover crops and milk about 370 cows.
The farm has been in their family for six generations, and the siblings hope to take full ownership of the operation when their parents, Gary and Darlene Kregel, retire.
In anticipation, the family expanded its dairy operation in 2013 and 2014.
"The operation has to generate more income to basically support four families," Gary said. "You simply have to farm more acres or milk more cows or have access to off-farm income."
But in a saturated market, where milk prices are low, expanding operations to bring new families into the business can present more challenges for new producers. It can be difficult to find processors to accept their milk as a result of overproduction.
Some dairy farmers-to-be might reconsider.
Entering the profession is "less and less common," said Carrie Corlett, northeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin field representative with Dairy Farmers of America.
Although states and the federal government offer beginning farmer loans and tax credits, startup costs still can be prohibitive.
"It's extremely hard to get into the dairy industry and operate a farm if you're not working or employed at a dairy where someone wants to transition you in," Megan Kregel said. "It's not only cows. It's facilities. It's machinery. There is land. There is a lot of overhead."
Expanding operations is one of many strategies that farmers use to increase the profitability of their dairy operations so that beginning farmers can join the business, said Tera Montgomery, University of Wisconsin-Platteville professor of dairy and animal science.
Others might include installing robotic milkers or selling value-added products in addition to milk, such as ice cream and cheese.
Dairy farmers can expand without necessarily having to purchase more land, noted Larry Tranel, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach dairy field specialist.
"The big question is how many more cows do you need to make a profit?" he said. "A simple equation might be another 60 or 80 cows to support an additional person. There tends to be a little economy of scale depending on the system they are getting involved with."
With more hands in the expanded operation, each sibling can specialize in a different area of the business, Seevers said.
"We each have different interests," she said.
For farmers without heirs to succeed them and aspiring farmers without land, ISU Extension offers a matchmaking service called Ag Link.
"We have electronic databases for young people who love to farm," said David Baker, farm transition specialist with the Beginning Farmer Center.
Megan noted that without an existing operation into which to transition, it would be "nearly impossible" to become an independent dairy owner.
Looking to the future, she admitted there is "always a level of anxiousness and a level of nervousness in being involved in agriculture."
"We never know what price we are going to receive," she said. "But overall, it's exciting ... It's exciting to see your hard work pay off."