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Thinking of shifting to goats? Learn some of the pitfalls first

Sara T. Bredesen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 February 2018
Dairy goats

There is little to feel warm and fuzzy about in the U.S. cow dairy industry these days, so it is not surprising some producers are hearing about $35 per hundredweight and higher numbers for goat milk and warming to the idea of transitioning.

Sure, goat dairying can be profitable, but there are pitfalls to avoid.

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“There’s a huge difference between a cow and a goat,” says Mike Metzger, Michigan State University Extension goat specialist. “They’re not just miniature cows as far as management goes.”

Metzger and his family live in south-central Michigan, where they milk four cows and 140 goats, make cheese and sell excess goat milk to a creamery. He is also the self-described army of one as MSU’s answer man for wannabe goat farmers in the state.

The university hosts a two-day small-ruminant workshop in June and will have one-day programs this winter on kidding, vaccinations and other management issues. It’s important to know the basics, Metzger says, but goat dairying is a much larger issue.

“I get calls all the time (saying), ‘I want to milk goats. Can I make a living?’” he says. “Most of the time my answer is, ‘What do you want your standard of living to be?’”

Midwest studies put the cost of production at about $30 per hundredweight for goat milk, which is about what Michigan brokers pay to haul it to processing plants in Wisconsin or Vermont. Metzger shipped milk commercially but found on-farm cheese more profitable.

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“I don’t necessarily want to talk people out of this, but I want people to have a clear picture of what they’re getting into,” he says. “It’s an industry that has a lot of changeover because people are coming into it with high expectations that aren’t met and get back out.”

Tatiana Stanton, the primary organizer for the Cornell University Goat Program in New York, says she also gets a lot of calls about starting goat dairies.

“What I will usually say is, ‘Do you have a market for your milk already, or are you planning to do a creamery because, gee, we could really use a lot more creameries,’” Stanton says.

New York is the home to a few notable early innovators in goat milk cheeses, including Coach Farm in the Hudson Valley, which started in the 1980s. Although that business is strong and expanding, its new owners are growing their milk supply internally.

New York’s many small sheep and goat milk creameries have the benefit of strong consumer demand for their products in major East Coast cities. As demand grows, creameries are able to expand and take on a little more milk, but it is a slow climb. Stanton says Cornell organizes educational goat management events for producers and will consult on facilities and link farmers with mentors in the industry.

“When it comes to the ‘how-to,’ we’re there and ready to work with farmers … but I’m sorry I’m not able to say we’ve got this big creamery that’s dying for milk,” Stanton says.

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California goat milk also came early to the market and boasts a sizable pool of producers to feed demand.

Anneke de Jong and her husband, John, both came from cow dairy backgrounds but were raising hogs in 1999 when, on a whim, they bought 250 goats and a fluid milk bottling business supplying more than a dozen health food stores.

“We didn’t know the first thing about goats,” de Jong says. “We figured it out, and the market kept growing … so we kept adding goats.”

She says a lot of their education came from researching online and through the library, with technical help coming from goat specialists at the University of California. Before building a new facility near Hanford in California’s Central Valley in 2010, her husband traveled to the Netherlands to get ideas.

Their Summerhill Dairy facility includes a small bottling plant and an 85-head carousel parlor where they milk 2,000 goats twice daily.

“(Goat milk production) is not as easy as it looks,” de Jong says. “Goat milk is still a very niche market, even though it’s growing and expanding. It’s a market that can be flooded very quickly, so if you don’t have a home for your milk, there’s absolutely no point in going forward.”

Goats are unlike cows in that they are seasonal breeders, so farmers have to learn how to plan for year-round milk, she says. The facilities can be similar – curtain-wall barns with bedded pack – but other technologies are a decade or more behind the cow industry.

“(Goat producers) have just started a little bit with A.I. breeding, but it’s way harder than cows, and they’re about 15 years behind in their development,” de Jong says. “Their cycles are shorter, the timing is harder, (and) it’s not as systematic as it is on a cow dairy.”

The couple also milks cows, but de Jong prefers the smaller side of the operation.

“Oh, the goats, hands down,” she says. “They’re just an easier animal to work with: smaller scale. It’s calm, it’s quiet, and I think it’s because it’s something we did from the ground up.”

Wisconsin’s dairy goat industry has expanded well beyond its core of about a dozen farmstead producers thanks to the strong infrastructure developed around the cow industry. There are roughly 340 licensed goat milk producers in the state feeding about 31 processing plants.

Strong demand from the state’s cheese industry is, in turn, driving milk production. Two large cow operations, Milk Source and Holsum Dairy, have entered the goat world with Chilton Dairy and Drumlin Dairy, respectively. Each is aiming for 9,000 milkers.

In 2007, Wisconsin’s agriculture department formed the Wisconsin Dairy Goat Initiative to evaluate commercial goat dairy needs.

Milk producers and cheese manufacturers alike said the state’s shortcoming was lack of educational resources, so Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection helped sponsor five Focus on Goats conferences, and its Dairy Business Innovation Center provided mentorships for new and developing goat product manufacturers.

Last May, Southwest Technical College (SWTC) launched the first-ever dairy goat management-specific online curriculum.

“I was working mostly with dairy cow customers, but as I started getting out into the field, I got more and more questions about dairy goats,” says one of the course’s first two graduates, Margaret Quaassdorff, a dairy feed nutritionist.

“It was a surprise to me to see how far along the bovine side of the industry is compared to the dairy goats, and it just made me want to get out there and help these producers who wanted to get better.”

The three-part certificate program consists of 11 online courses, an annual two-day on-campus Dairy Goat Academy and an on-farm mentorship program, which launched in January.

“We have teamed up with the American Dairy Goat Association district representatives so this program can be offered anywhere in the country,” says Clare Heberlein, SWTC instructor and coordinator for the herd management program.

Educators at University of California – Davis, Iowa State University, Langston University in Kansas, Michigan State and Cornell University have notable research programs for goats and offer workshops and online resources.

“It’s not necessarily specific for a commercial goat dairy,” Metzger says, “but you still have to start somewhere.”  end mark

PHOTO: Dairy goats may seem like a good way to diversify, but industry experts say the infrastructure isn’t quite the same as the dairy cow industry. Photo by Sara T. Bredesen.

Sara Bredesen, a freelance writer from central Wisconsin, has a 35-year history with goats and is co-author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats.

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