Thinking of quitting milk production? Look carefully before you leap from four teats to two. Barry Alston reports from Monmouthshire.
It still is possible to get a healthy return from producing milk – not from managing cows, but from taking on some goats.
But as more and more dairy farmers are thinking of calling it a day, be warned – switching to milking nannies comes with its own challenges.
As with cows, too many goats spells overproduction and lower farmgate prices.
Indeed, Gary Yeomans, regarded as one of the country’s leading goat milk producers, reckons it is not a question of if, but when, the market becomes oversupplied.
With his wife, Jess, he milks 750 goats at Pant Farm, Llanvetherine, Monmouthshire, and his advice to other farmers who maybe considering a move is to ensure a contract is firmly in place.
He started out in 2002, just as the locally-based Abergavenny Fine Foods was seeking new suppliers, enjoying close ties with the company, widely recognised as the UK’s largest and most successful producer of fresh goat cheese, ever since.
Gary and Jess Yeoman have 750 goats, with milk sold to Abergavenny Fine Foods for cheese contract
Being close to a processing plant is, in his opinion, a major requirement and a key factor in the success of their own dairy goat enterprise.
It all began with 100 goatlings and, despite a family history of milking cows, a decision to opt for dairy goats on the 42 hectares (104 acres) his grandfather had farmed.
Gary says: “There were no dairying facilities on the farm and we looked at a number of possibilities.
“Even though we had no experience keeping goats, the lower cost start up option was the main attraction, coupled with the fact it can be a viable alternative to milking cows.
“There is a margin to be made and you do not need a large acreage – but as supply increases, prices will undoubtedly come down, although hopefully not to an unsustainable level.”
He believes it is essential to have a good working relationship with a processor and says he cannot stress enough the need to think carefully before taking the plunge.
Gary is chairman of a group of about 10 producers who supply the Abergavenny plant and prices are set during a joint meeting with the company.
“They are fixed on a 12-month basis, starting from February 1, with payments made monthly after we invoice the company for the amount of milk supplied,” he says.
“Generally they are double the price of cow’s milk – but given the high cost of inputs they need to be.
“It does mean we know what we will be having long-term and this enables me to plan ahead and buy my soya requirements on a forward price.
“Farmers are generally reluctant to take this approach, but maybe it is something other sectors of the industry should be looking at,” adds Gary.
As with dairy cows, the investment needs for goats can be high and a considerable sum has gone into new housing at Pant Farm over the years – not least a 20:20 swingover rapid exit parlour.
The couple recently invested in a rapid-exit 20:20 milking parlour
Kidding is in three batches, with first time kidding at 12 months or 40kg body weight
The herd is British Saanen and Saanen cross British Toggenburgs, kept alongside 20 pedigree Welsh Black suckler cows, with calves being sold as 18-month-old stores.
Milking is twice a day with an annual average yield of 950 litres at 3.2 per cent protein and 3.8 per cent fat and twice a week collection by tanker.
To spread production, kidding is in three batches each year with a productive life put at up to 10 years, though the average is usually around five to seven lactations.
First time kidding is at 12 months of age or 40kg body weight and there is no shearing, with the hairy coat being shed naturally. Foot trimming is at six-month intervals.
Key elements of the daily 5-6kg/head rations – maize and oats – are mostly home-grown in a rotation with stubble turnips and grass.
“The 75 per cent maize silage and 15 per cent grass silage TMR mix is balanced with oats, bought-in soya, molasses and minerals. We don’t feed anything in the parlour.”
Billies are bought-in and male kids sold to specialist rearers, supplying what appears to be a growing demand for goatmeat.
Being naturally browsing rather than grazing animals, goats are housed through the year for a combination of reasons, but chiefly down to their lack of resistance to gut parasites and the limited availability of approved anthelmintics.
Pneumonia, in fact, did become an issue before improvements were carried out in the kid rearing unit.
“Low liveweight animals do not generate sufficient heat to create the so-called ‘stack effect’ which allows fresh air to be drawn into the building through side inlets,” says Gary.
“Modern steel-framed farm sheds do not work well for young goats either, as the heat they produce cools before it reaches the ridge and this falls on to the bedding.”
The improvements to his existing shed followed advice from Jamie Robertson, an independent building and animal health specialist, who visited the farm through the Wales-based Farming Connect business advisory agency.
Batches of up to 100 kids are being reared in a lean-to shed originally designed to store machinery and the building was draughty as it has some open sides.
“Windbreak netting, costing about £600, has been fitted which keeps the draught off the kids but allows fresh air to circulate.
“The bottom half of the pens are now made to our own design using solid metal sheeting and a combination of hurdles and straw to create a roof.”
Heat lamps fitted with thermostats have also been installed and when the temperature in the shed falls below 10degC, the lamps are automatically triggered.
“There has been a marked improvement in kid health and we have definitely had fewer cases of pneumonia,” adds Gary.
“We have at least halved our antibiotic use and we only treat individuals now whereas we sometimes had to treat the whole group before.
“It really helped having Jamie here – it is useful to have advice tailored to our needs.
“In the near future there are plans to build a new, purpose-built shed because we feel we have gone as far as we can with the current building.”
With the additional expense of heat lamps, Gary’s aim is to build a fully insulated building with ventilation fans, drawing fresh air in and forcing stale air out.
“As goats are also prone to listeria, silage quality has to be good and we have excellent local contractors which carry out most of our fieldwork to a high standard. Sitting on a tractor is not the best use of my time,” says Gary.
Goats are fed a total mixed ration made up of grass silage, bought-in soya, molasses and minerals, plus oats and maize which are grown in a rotation on the farm
Monthly milk recording is also carried out using an EID reader and this has helped to selectively cull low yielders – anything giving less than two-litres per day.
Most of the land used for growing the arable crops is rented on a variety of agreements and poultry muck is bought-in from local farms.
“Our muck tends to have a high level of straw so it needs to be well composted, but we find the yields from the fields where the poultry manure is applied to be noticeably better, compared to those where goat muck and nitrogen have been used.”
While keeping on top of the business is the number one priority, Gary still finds time for off-farm activities.
When not managing goats, Gary is a Nuffield scholar (studying generic milk promotion in the USA), a former chairman of the Future Farmers of Wales and Gwent YFC and was Master of the Monmouthshire Hunt for six years.
He has also recently taken on the demanding two-year role as NFU Cymru’s Monmouthshire county chairman – holding some deep-seated views on the Welsh Government’s decision to opt for a flat rate Basic Payment Scheme.
“Most farmers in Monmouthshire are losing out considerably, with a lot of money going to hobby farmers while the more productive farms see a massive reduction in payments,” he says.
“I can accept the fact the previous historical payments system could not be maintained but to have a flat rate is a bit of a nonsense in my view.”
Although payments for many farmers will be severely cut, he fears they would almost certainly be even lower if the UK voted to leave the European Union.
“One thing for sure is we would not get a similar level of support from Westminster,” he says.
So what advice would he give for anyone still contemplating keeping goats for a living?
“Farming with goats is certainly not a licence to print money, but we are lucky to be in a sector which is not suffering from low prices at the moment as there is still a growing demand for goat milk.
“It does require a lot of capital investment and hard work – if you cannot manage cows you have not got a hope in hell of managing goats.”