In the present climate goats may seem a more lucrative alternative to a herd of cows, but to secure a contract producers must commit to supplying an even volume of milk throughout the year. Debbie James reports.
At Glenmaquin in County Donegal, the McKnight family decided they would not only establish a goat herd but that they would run it alongside their existing herd of 85 black-and-white cows. Siblings James, John and Alyson McKnight had wanted to join the family farming business but, with limited acreage, growing the dairy herd was not an option so they were forced to search for an alternative.
With a strong outlook for the goat milk market and no supply restrictions in place, a fully-housed milking goat herd seemed a good fit for the existing enterprise. Three-quarters of the milk the McKnights produce is sold to a farmhouse cheesemaker and the remainder to the creamery which buys their cows’ milk.
An even supply has been key to winning these contracts but achieving this can be tricky.
“It is a challenge to get goats to kid in September because they are traditionally seasonal breeders. They need sufficient light to come into heat,’’ Alyson explains. To achieve autumn kidding, the McKnights manipulate the number of hours the shed is illuminated.
“Goats need 20 hours of daylight and four hours of darkness to induce heat, so we have timers in the sheds with the lights only going off between 1am and 5am in December and January.
The shed returns to normal light in February and March,’’ adds Alyson.
The bucks are introduced in the last week of March or the first week of April. This allows for kidding twice a year, in March and September, and an even milk supply all the year round. Establishing the goat enterprise in 2011 was a significant financial undertaking. The 32-standing parlour cost €30,000 and another €80,000 has been spent on housing.
Outlay on goats has been €60,000. But the business is yielding a good return. The current milk price is €0.75/litre compared to the €0.25 paid for milk from the dairy cow herd.“When we built the new facilities we kept it very simple and labour efficient. One person can milk 300 goats an hour in the parlour,’’ Alyson says. The goat herd was established with 50 breeding kids.
These came to the farm as two-day-olds and were reared on a bottle. Initially, a contract was secured to supply Yeats Country Cheese but expansion came when Cooleeny Cheese in County Tipperary agreed to take the milk.
There are now 700 goats in the herd, including replacements, producing an average daily milk yield of three litres. “We have been lucky to buy good quality stock from herds where the owners have been cutting back or retiring,’’ says Alyson.
John McKnight with the milking goats - Saanen is the main breed
There are three breeds in the herd – Saanen, Toggenburg and British Alpine. Saanen is the dominant breed – it accounts for about 80% of the herd – and is favoured because it is high yielding, produces low butterfat milk typically ranging from 2.5% to 3%, and has a quiet temperament. In contrast, British Alpines are low yielding and their milk has a high butterfat percentage.
“We need a mix of breedsto bring the overall herd average performance to the level required by our buyers,’’ says Alyson. One of the biggest challenges is getting the goats to dry off because they have very persistent lactations, she says.
“Some never dry off, especially the Saanens, they milk right up until when they kid. Ideally we would like them to rest for four weeks to put on some condition because they do lose it if they don’t have a dry period before kidding.
“Drying off often means reducing milking frequency to once a day and cutting back feed. When they are in heat their milk supply does drop back though.’’
Goats in the 32-standing parlour are fed nuts as they are milked
The goats are housed all the year round because they do not cope well in windy, wet conditions and suffer as badly when it is hot. They are less hardy than sheep or cattle and are more likely to become ill from being outside in bad conditions.
They are not good grazers either. They are instead fed good quality home-produced grass silage, cut at an early stage of growth and wilted. This produces silage with a high dry matter and good digestibility.
Bought-in maize silage and a blend keeps the condition on freshly kidded goats. “If you want goats to produce milk you have to feed them high quality forage,’’ says Alyson.
The diet also includes a daily ration of 1kg of dairy goat concentrate fed in the parlour. Fresh straw bedding daily keeps the lying area clean and dry. During the winter, the shed is cleaned and disinfected every three months.
This is done more frequently in the summer to keep disease and pneumonia at bay. Health management has to be a high priority in goat herds, says agricultural consultant Mark McConnell, who is also based in County Donegal. “Goat herds are healthy animals and when managed properly have very few health issues,’’ he says.
For indoor herds he recommends two treatments a year for goats housed all year round.
“Goats should be treated for worms and fluke as they are dried off and vaccinated for pasteurella and clostridial protection,’’ says Mr Mc- Connell.
Housed herds can also suffer from foot problems therefore there should be an annual programme for hoof trimming.
There are good prospects for market growth for goat milk but this sector is not without its challenges, not least that it is a niche market.
“If our buyers told us tomorrow they didn’t want our milk it could be a problem,’’ Alyson admits.
It can prove a steep learning curve too for farmers with no background in goat production.
“We had no knowledge of goats because our parents never had goats so it is a completely new setup,’’ Alyson says.
“Every day we are learning something new and that can be difficult when it comes to dealing with disease and sickness. We even find that the vets sometimes struggle with sickness and disease diagnosis in goats as they rarely deal with them.’’
The McKnights will continue to grow goat numbers, but with their own replacements now coming into the herd they are planning to increase numbers and the quality of their stock too.
“Our next biggest aim is to cull more intensively,’’ says Alyson. “We used to keep every goat we could get our hands on but we are now looking at it differently. We will cull more heavily, lose problem goats and improve our breeding herd.’’