Dairy goat farmer back in business with homemade rotary parlour one year after fire
By Brandy Harrison
SHEDDEN Built to some day milk 2,500 goats with a custom-made 72-stall rotary parlour, even life-long cattle folk are doing a double take after touring Ed Donkers brand-new goat barn.
The 49-year-old dairy goat farmer has already done private tours of his barn near Shedden, 15 kilometres west of St. Thomas, for at least five curious cow dairy farmers considering following his lead: Donkers ditched cows for goats eight years ago.
With a tight supply of quota and the $25,000 price cap coming down the pike, Donkers made the switch in 2008 from milking 90 cows to goats, which only produce three litres of milk per day about one-tenth the production of an average dairy cow at 30 litres.
He admits milking goats isnt for everybody.
The young industry lacks the management research thats ubiquitous for cows and goat care is time-consuming: there are long hours and multiple births can mean multiple problems. They chew everything and have a knack for getting loose.
“Goats can be a pain in the butt. Dont have anything in your pockets,” Donkers warns, but he is clearly sold on the curious critters. “Ive found my identity. I liked being a cow farmer but I love being a goat farmer. Its like having hundreds of pets.”
But everything ground to a halt on Dec. 7, 2013, when an early-morning fire wiped out his 900-goat milking herd, causing more than $1.5 million in damage.
Ever-confident hes hitched his wagon to an industry he figures is primed for growth, Donkers invested more than the insurance payout to outfit the new barn with the latest technology and best goats.
“Were taking a chance on growing as fast as we can,” says Donkers, adding that processors are anxious for more milk. About 85 per cent of Ontarios goat milk is used to make cheese and Ontario Goat, the sectors lobby group, says production falls short of demand.
Rotary parlours for goats caught his eye in Europe, but Donkers balked at the $175,000 price tag to buy and ship to Ontario. He shaved off up to 30 per cent of the cost by pulling the best ideas together into a do-it-yourself prototype.
His father, Leo, has a talent for welding and has built nearly two dozen cow parlours. He teamed up with a friend, who owns a machine shop, to design and cut the frame. Donkers bought the milking equipment and centre swivel separately. He says itll milk more than 700 goats an hour in 72 stalls, a far cry from the 300 goats an hour in his old double-24 parlour.
Its one of only three rotary parlours for goats in Ontario and while it may need fine-tuning, Donkers hopes to market it.
Donkers also upgraded his milk meters, installed an automatic gate system to sort goats based on pre-programmed criteria, and tapped into government grants for traceability, solar hot water, Big Ass Fans, and variable speed drives. Automatic feeding is next on his wish list.
Donkers started building his now 800-goat herd a year ago, eventually buying from six Ontario and Quebec farms to start over with goats uninfected by caprine arthritis encephalitis, a widespread virus among dairy goats that decreases lifetime productivity. He expects better longevity and a half to one litre more milk per goat.
Already milking the first 27 goats with portable milkers, Donkers was set to fire up the parlour the second week of February. He expects to be milking 230 goats by months end and is on track to be milking 600 in the spring and double that in a year. Itll put Donkers, who ships milk to the Ontario Dairy Goat Co-operative Inc. in Teeswater, among the largest of Ontarios 230 licensed dairy goat farmers.
But he has his sights set on a bigger target, aiming to milk 2,500 goats in just a few years time.
“Were set back two years but in the end I think well be better off. We had the opportunity to do it the way we wanted this time,” says Donkers. “I am ready to go back to work.”