British Saanen and Toggenburg milking goats may not be a typical enterprise associated with the Cumbrian uplands, but that has not stopped it becoming the mainstay of a direct sales venture on one farm. Wendy Short reports.
Piper Hole Farm at Ravenstonedale, Cumbria, is synonymous with many other upland farms in the area, aside from the 200 British Saanen and Toggenburg milking goats which make for an unusual sight on the in-bye summer grazing.
This land on the farm has been predominantly grazed by goats since Georgia Hunter, 22, became involved in the family business which also runs a small flock of Border Leicester sheep, while 200 Rough Fell ewes utilise the fell rights.
Goat milk is used to make cheese, ice cream and soap, with meat from the young wethers also marketed and a farm shop launch planned for the near future.
The Hunter family moved to Piper Hole in 2005 and have since added to the acreage by taking on a neighbouring hill farm on a 10-year farm business tenancy a decade ago, which has since been renewed on a one-year basis.
Explaining how the milking goat enterprise came about, Georgia, who farms with her father, Frank, and mother, Ruth, says it happened quite by accident.
She says: “We had lambed a batch of continental ewes in December 2014 and the ewes turned out to be very short of colostrum and milk.
“Somebody suggested buying a couple of milking goats to feed the lambs and it worked wonders.
“That gave us the idea to purchase calves for rearing on goat milk and it proved very successful, they regularly topped the market as young stores.”
After evaluating the buildings, the family decided they were unsuitable for older cattle, but they could be used for a milking goat herd.
The goats are milked twice-a-day and numbers have gradually increased from the original 40, to the current 80 milkers.
Their breeding cycle and gestation rate are the same as sheep and an average nanny will produce about five litres of milk a day, explains Georgia, adding that dairy goat milk averages at 5 to 6 per cent fat and 4 per cent protein.
It takes roughly 1.5 hours to milk and having started in a converted sheep shower using a portable machine, this has since been upgraded to an eight-aside swing-over parlour.
“Once the farm shop is up and running, we may also sell goat’s milk and a range of groceries to cater for the requirements of local people”
Explaining the system, Georgia says: “Milking goat breeds do not thrive in bad weather, so they are given access to shelter during the turnout period.
“Last year, the goats were dried off in November and kidding started in January. This two-month milking break was not ideal, as we require milk all-year-round and we had to rely on frozen stocks.
“We may use a synchronisation technique for the nannies in 2021 to extend the breeding season.
“In the early days we bought goats from various sources, but we now prefer to pay extra for good genetics, which will be reflected in the milk tank.”
Approximately 40 male kids are born each year, which are castrated and reared on goat milk for the first four months, before being switched to a diet of calf powder for two to four weeks, depending on their size.
Reared on grazed grass, silage and concentrates, they finish at six months old, with meat packaged by a local farm which also sells its own venison and Dexter beef.
The farm is open seven days a week for the direct sales of produce, but the general marketing plan has been adapted to accommodate the Covid-19 outbreak, as under normal circumstances the family would attend several outdoor markets each month.
The majority of the milk is made into cheese and it can be posted or delivered locally, while a range of produce is also stocked in local retail outlets.
As well as plain goat cheese, other varieties produced include soft; smoked and rosemary cheese; plus their own, more unusual product.
“We came up with a cheese recipe which combines goat milk and sheep milk and labelled it Goash,” explains Georgia.
“The sheep milk is bought-in and our own milk for cheese is taken to a dairy in Lancashire for processing. We collect it and also pick up the whey, which is then fed to the goats and spread on the land.”
Ice cream making is a relatively new development.
Milk is collected from the farm by a specialist company which also buys goat milk from the Hunters, it is returned in its packaging in a range of flavours including chocolate, mint choc-chip, strawberry, cherry, vanilla and salted caramel. It is hoped that turnover will increase once the tourism industry resumes.
Ruth also makes 20 ‘loaves’ of soap a week by hand, producing 200 individual bars.
These are marketed through an honesty box at the farm gate, through the outdoor markets and via the website as well as being stocked by some local retailers.
Georgia says: “It is popular for people who cannot use standard soap due to skin problems and allergies, as its pH is the same as human skin.
“The plain soap sells well, but my mother will also add ingredients depending on the season, including honey and oats, lavender or tea tree oil, as well as picking and drying herbs from our own meadows.”
The development of wether goatmeat sales under the ‘Capra Meats’ brand got underway in 2017, when Georgia joined the Farming Ambition Programme, led by the Cumbria-based farm support organisation, The Farmer Network.
“I wanted to add value to the billy kids, as they are worth very little on the open market,” she says.
“I was assigned business advisers and received training on accounts and book-keeping, as well as taking courses in food hygiene and butchery.
“The programme advisers also helped me to access grant aid, and this led to being awarded a grant/loan combination from the Prince’s Countryside Fund and the Prince’s Trust. The money was used to buy butchery and market stall equipment and for developing the commercial website.”
Georgia also keeps potential customers interested by posting farm updates and competitions on the ‘Piper Hole Dairy Goat Farm’ Facebook page.
She says that her biggest challenge has always been the sales and marketing of the farm produce.
“One hurdle to overcome is that the farm is fairly remote, although tourists are attracted to the area,” she says.
“Another is raising awareness of goat milk products and goatmeat. Some people tell us that they have tried it abroad and disliked it because of ‘billy’ taint. Our products come from young animals and there is no comparison.
“Goatmeat is low in fat and high in iron and protein and it has a unique taste; perhaps somewhere between lamb and venison. Once customers have been persuaded to try the samples from our range, their feedback tends to be very favourable. It is often a question of overcoming prejudice.
“One obstacle that I personally face and that I feel strongly about is the role of females in agriculture. I do not think we always receive as much support as we deserve.”
A farm shop is being prepared for launch as soon as restrictions allow, and it is felt this will open up new opportunities for the business.
“Once the farm shop is up and running, we may also sell goat’s milk and a range of groceries to cater for the requirements of local people,” says Georgia.
“The ambition is not to grow into a huge enterprise, but we must always be thinking ahead. We would like to go up to 100 milking goats, but we do not have enough land at present.
“I think that both the younger and the older generation need to accept change and be open to new ideas to enhance the farm environment. Following in the footsteps of the previous generation may not necessarily sustain a business as we head into the future, so it may be worth looking at other options.”