Sales of goats’ milk products have increased 20% year-on-year for much of the past decade, outstripping domestic raw milk supply and creating opportunities for farms to diversify.

Commercial dairy goat farming is still in its infancy in the UK, says the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF). Goats’ milk product sales are equivalent to 50m litres a year, but domestic units supply just 22m litres – much of that coming from just 45 farms.

The RABDF suggests cautiously that a chance exists for more producers to move into milking goats. On-farm figures suggest a gross margin of 19-19.5p/litre is arguably better than conventional milk margins, although start-up costs are not as low as many expect.

Although machinery and buildings lend themselves to both cattle and goats, high-health-status nannies cost about £250, but milk yields are one-tenth (typically 900 litres) of an equivalent cow. Conversion costs for a parlour from cows to goats would be about £40,000, says the RABDF.

Nick Brandon, a convert, says there are other, more fundamental, obstacles to overcome. “It requires a completely different mindset, but it feels good to produce something the market actually seems to want.”

Having started with 100 dairy goats milked alongside 170 pedigree Holsteins (now dispersed) at Upper Enson Farm, Stafford, Mr Brandon is expanding to 2000 head – one of the UK’s largest herds.

Goats

Installing an 88-point rotary parlour has been crucial to goat farming success for the Brandons.

“Probably the biggest brake on expansion is actually getting hold of goats,” he says. “There are no regular sales, unlike dairy cows, and aside from buying a herd from an existing producer, the focus is on breeding your own replacements.”

Goats can kid from 12 months old, although this isn’t popular among British herds. As with dairy cattle, offspring are a 50/50 male-female split and many billies (males), like bobby calves, are despatched at birth because of limited market outlets.

“Lactations are generally flatter and increase with day length,” says Mr Brandon. “Unlike cows, you don’t have to put a goat back to kid next year for lactation to continue. We do, but some overseas countries kid every two years.”

Few goats are recorded for either genetics or production. “Consequently, AI use is low,” he adds. “There is little information available and we’re looking to France, which has a much more established goat population, for the latest developments.”

Fertility is generally good. Introducing a billy can see 90% of nannies come into heat within a week, helping to ensure the kidding period is compact. The aim is to gear this to turnout in spring.

Feed requirement is also relatively straightforward. A forage-based ration of 2.4kg DM a head a day supports an average yield of 900 litres a head. The best goats give 1200 litres. “We’re also developing a paddock grazing system, but the herd has access to hay for roughage and housing all year around,” says Mr Brandon.

Concentrates are fed in the parlour (equivalent to 0.1kg DM a head of the total 2.4kg DM ration) to ease handling, says Caroline Brandon. “Dairy cows amble into a parlour and stand contentedly goats rush in and are mischievous, so the concentrate encourages them to get their heads down.”

The farm has invested in an 88-point rotary parlour – one of the largest in Europe – and improved handling and milk-storage facilities.

There are five main domestic processors of goats’ milk, each setting its own price, says Mr Brandon. “A contract to supply is the first thing to consider. Most large herds have good access to the motorway network for logistics.”

Like the early days of deregulation of the mainstream dairy market, transparency of pricing needs to be improved, he suggests.

There is also a lack of advice, although the Brandons acknowledge that the farm’s vet has been proactive in helping to tackle health issues. But it is not an easy option, emphasises Mrs Brandon. “You have to expect the unexpected.

“If something can go wrong, it will go wrong with goats. They can be terribly frustrating, but it is a challenge we enjoy.”

Want to know more about dairy goats?

  • The RABDF is holding an open day at Nick and Caroline Brandon’s Upper Enson Farm, Stafford, on 26 November. Speakers will cover market opportunities for goat milk and meat, grazing management, developments in genetics, and health issues. A tour of the 1500-goat unit will follow. To book a place, contact the RABDF on 0845 458 2711 or see www.rabdf.co.uk