Milk production is still the main source of income on the Gorst family’s farm at Dolphinholme, Lancaster – but none of it comes from cows.

Their long established pedigree Holstein herd has now been replaced by 1000 dairy goats in the first phase of a major change in farm policy that will steadily see the unit expand to 2000 milking nannies.

It’s just over 18-months since John and Barbara Gorst and their son Mark decided to set up a large-scale goat milking enterprise at their Dolphinholme House Farm. For three months the family milked its dairy herd as well as the foundation herd of nearly 600 dairy goats, but by mid-summer last year the cows had gone and goat numbers were heading towards 1000.

The first 600 goats were bought as an entire herd – along with the herd’s 30-aside headlock milking parlour – comprising a range of breeds including pure and cross-bred Saanen, Toggenburg, Anglo Nubian, Old English, Golden Guernsey and British Alpine nannies.

managing goats

Further additions last year took numbers to almost 1000 head which have now produced about 500 female kids to continue the expansion.

The Gorsts admit that running a dairy goat herd brings a new set of challenges compared to milking cows. “You’ve got to have a disciplined system to be able to manage so many individual animals every day – and foot care is the big management issue with goats,” says John Gorst.

The farm ran a 200-cow herd averaging 9500kg, but increasing cow numbers wasn’t an option. The challenge was to find a way of expanding the farm business – and large scale commercial goat milking gave the family the ideal opportunity.

“Based on a cow giving 30 litres a day and a goat giving three litres meant we needed 10 goats for every cow. Because goats’ milk is twice the price of cows’ milk we needed 1000 goats to generate the same income as 200 cows. So if we could milk 1500-2000 goats we could double the size of the business,” says Mr Gorst.

“A female kid is in-milk by the time it’s a year old, so provided we make good use of superior genetics we should make relatively rapid progress and improve the herd’s quality and output – certainly much faster than we could do with a new dairy herd,” says Mark Gorst.

Dairy cows

This year should see the herd average 900-1000 litres. Average daily yield is three litres although the best nannies can give up to 10 litres. Herd improvement is based on selecting females on yield, freedom from foot problems and conformation as well as using superior sires. Although “improver” genetics may be imported as semen from France, billies from leading commercial milking herds in the UK are also being used.

“This isn’t like breeding dairy cows. Goat dairying in terms of recording and genetics is way behind the dairy cattle industry. We’re using the best Saanen and Toggenburg billies – based on stature, udder and yield – on nannies of mixed breeding because in a purely commercial enterprise cross-breeding is accepted as the norm,” says Mark.

The breeding cycle runs from August to March, but with the higher winter milk price paid from September to February the Gorsts have goats going dry from the end of February and to start kidding in May after a five-month gestation.

“The aim is to get the benefit of the high winter milk price, so nannies are mated in December and January. We run around one billy to 70 nannies,” says Mark.

The herd is housed in straw yards and fed big-bale hay and a specially formulated dairy goat concentrate offered ad-lib. Concentrate intakes are about 3kg a day with a small amount fed in the parlour purely as an incentive to get the goats into the stalls.

Goats, which can be productive for about six years, are run through a foot-bath every day, but there’s a strict three-week foot treatment programme in place to control the spread of foot rot.

Nannies prefer to kid unattended most produce twins although three or even four kids is not uncommon. Kids are weaned after six weeks on a milk machine, but the Gorsts say they’re far more delicate than calves.