As dairy farmers feel the squeeze, milking goats could appear to be an easier option, but unless set-up and contracts are in place, things may not be quite as straightforward, as Aly Balsom reports

 

Milking is about the only thing dairy goats and cows have in common and as such a completely different attitude is needed when considering setting up a goat enterprise.

Somerset goat farmer Dan Lucas has recently witnessed an increase in interest from dairy producers looking for an alternative option. However, he says producers could be disappointed if they think goats are an easier option.

“You need a lot of enthusiasm and patience to move into milking goats. They’re completely different animals to cows – they’re so inquisitive, everything needs goat proofing as they chew everything and can easily open gates.”

Such knowledge only comes from experience and after setting up the goat enterprise in 2002, the Lucas family, which consists of father John, wife Dianne and sons Tom, Dan, Adam and Toby, have had a steep learning curve.

And with the family also farming 250 dairy cows and a commercial beef herd, they are in a strong position to make comparisons.

The goat enterprise was established when a neighbouring unit came up for sale and the family decided to buy the land with a view to expanding. The farm was already half way towards being a dairy, but quota and slurry storage problems were a limiting factor, explains John.

“Dan looked at starting a sheep flock, but goats appeared to be a more attractive option.” Dan located a farmer that was selling his 600 goats, 20:20 rapid exit parlour and contract and was able to take on the whole lot.

Contracts

Both John and Dan Lucas stress the fact that going down the goat route is all about ensuring contracts are in place. “The contract was critical – without it, it wouldn’t have worked,” says Dan.

And because goats only yield about 2.5 litres an animal a day, producing enough litres is also crucial.

“Goat producers have either had to get bigger or get out. It’s all about litres in the tank. I know of five farmers in the south-west that have given up. I think it’s down to travelling costs – they simply weren’t producing enough for it to be worth picking up.”

The 1,200 primarily Saanen goats at Bromes Farm, Isle Abbots, are currently yielding 880-900 litres a head a year, with the aim to increase this to 1,000 litres. Dan believes a farm needs to produce 5,000 litres every other day to make it worthwhile for the tanker.

He has also learnt that selecting the best type of goat is the crux to ensuring yield targets are met. To do so, an auto-ID system, installed in 2009, has helped the farm gather and act on individual animal information.

“With 1,200 animals, it’s very difficult to pick the best and worst animals, but auto-ID has allowed us to record yield information and health.”

Rearing costs

With it costing £25.50 in milk powder alone to rear each kid from birth to 10 weeks old (17kg at £1,500/t), rearing costs were also another driver to investing in the recording system.

“It’s so expensive to rear kids, it’s not worth investing in animals that aren’t going to produce more than 900 litres a year.”

Now, rather than rearing 500 kids, the farm rears 300-400 very good animals. Kids are also machine fed in big batches, a change from the original system which used bucket teat feeders. It’s a big task for rearing 300 animals at a time.

Starting with the best animals, goats kid for the first time at 18 months of age. They are then milked for another 18 months, during which time yield information is recorded.

After kidding for a second time, individuals are assessed at 200 days in milk. When stock are exceptionally good, they are then bred again with the remaining stock milked on. Unlike with dairy cows, a dry period is not necessary.

“Some goats milk for six years. They need to be producing 1.1 litres a head a day to break even, so when an animal is producing more than this, they will be retained,” Dan explains.

Goat health

Foot-trimming is also a big cost at a total of £7,000 a year. “On loose-housed straw beds, feet grow very quickly, so goats need to be trimmed every six months and foot-bathed regularly.”

However, mastitis is not as much of an issue with goats, with Dan seeing about one case every six months – usually as a result of skin conditions.

“Milking goats are a lot cleaner animals to milk and appear less susceptible to mastitis infection than cows,” he says.

And because there are no licensed wormers for goats, worming would result in an unviable seven-day milk withdrawal period. Consequently the herd is housed all year round.

Although billy goat meat may be a viable option for some milk producers, for the Lucas family, there is no market for them in their area. “We have tried to get male kids to killing weight, but it is very costly and we lost money on them at market. With the cost and space needed, it’s not worth it for us – again, it comes down to knowing your market.”

Cows and goats

Although the dairy unit at Broadfields Farm and the goat farm are completely separate businesses, machinery and feed is shared between the two, explains John.

“Working with the dairy makes sense. We share the straw chopper and mixer wagon between the two, with two guys bedding up and feeding the goats after the cows.”

The family grow their own forages and mill mixes their own cereals at Higher Woodlands Farm, which acts as the centre for the four units. “By producing our own it keeps costs down – putting cereals in at cost is different to buying in compounds.”

The goats and cows are on a similar ration, receiving a TMR of grass silage, maize, wheat, barley and oats to achieve dry matter intakes of 2.7kg DM a day.

When asked about how the goat enterprise compares with the dairy in terms of profitability, John said the two were very close. “We are feeling the squeeze on the dairy unit, but milk price is up a little.

“To be comparable goat milk price needs to be almost double the cow price – it’s just under at the moment.”

However, the family are looking to invest in goats in the future, with the aim to double the parlour later in the year and reduce milking times. A segregation gate will also be installed at some point so goats can be fed a different TMR depending on their different needs.

“In the next five years we want to grow to 1,500 goats, yielding 1,000 litres a head a year,” says Dan.

 

Milking goats – key to success

• Establish a market for your milk and ensure a contract is in place

• Produce enough litres

• Rear the best goats according to yield and health

• Ensure farm is “goat-proof”