By Tom Collins
SHEDDEN — The Ontario Dairy Goat Co-operative welcomed 16 new producers last year and expects more new producers this year, thanks mostly to demand for goat cheese.
Co-op general manager Keith Cummings said there are already plans for 17 new producers to join the co-op this year, and he already knew of three that will be joining in early 2017.
“This is the biggest opportunity in the industry,” said Cummings, adding the average age of a goat farmer is mid-30s. “It’s one of the few areas in agriculture, particularly on the livestock side, that has any type of bright future. We’re only 30 per cent there of filling the (processing) capacity we have today.”
While dairy goat farmer Ed Donkers agreed the industry presents a great opportunity, he warned there are plenty of challenges. The mortality rate for kids is above 50 per cent and goat-rearing is a lot of work as goats are finicky eaters and a farmer needs to spend a lot of time in the barn, said the Elgin County farmer.
Donkers — who fields a couple of phone calls a week from farmers wanting to start a dairy goat farm — recommended new farmers get their goats from one source as goats from multiple herds increase the risk of disease. After a December 2013 barn fire destroyed his 900-milking goat herd at Shedden, about 15 kilometres west of St. Thomas, Donkers started over from scratch. He’s milking 650 as he slowly builds the herd back up to 1,200.
If you’re starting from scratch, you need to be milking 500 to 600 goats within a few years to start making a profit, Donkers said.
“There’s money to be made, but there’s a lot to learn,” he said.
Eastern Ontario dairy farmer Charlie Jack and his family milk 56 cows and got into the dairy goat industry last March with 54 milking goats and a double-16 parallel parlour. Now they milk 160 with a capacity to milk 300. They plan to expand capacity by another 200 this year by either adding to the existing barn or renovating a shed.
“For somebody that is established in some way in farming, it’s a great opportunity,” said Jack. “To know Saputo has bought out one of the largest goat processing plants and Gay Lea Foods Co-operative has bought the other one, those are two companies that are world-renowned. They don’t buy into something if they don’t see it as a viable industry.”
Jack said it’s more difficult to start a dairy goat farm from scratch. His family paid $300,000 for the fabric-structure barn, milking parlour, goats and co-op shares. He figured it would have cost another $200,000 if he didn’t have the land and the equipment. They’re already turning a profit and the goats allow Jack’s wife Tammy — who does all the milking — to work on the farm instead of an off-farm job. It takes Tammy about 70 minutes to milk the goats.
About five years ago, there was no processing capacity in Ontario. But now Woolwich Dairy (owned by Saputo) and Mariposa Dairy (owned by Gay Lea) are able to process more than 100 million litres of goat milk annually, although only about 40 million litres are processed. Cummings said 95 per cent of goat milk is processed into cheese.