By Connor Lynch
CUMBERLAND — It’s always a happy time on the farm when the kids decide to take over. But it can be a profoundly challenging time too. Farms often have to expand to accommodate another family, and that’s not always easy. Sometimes it means starting something totally new.
The Luchtenburg family at Cumberland, east of urban Ottawa, faced just that situation about three years ago. They were milking 40 cows — half Holsteins, half Jerseys — and needed to expand or diversify. John and Beverly’s son Ben was still on the farm but Erik, who was working for the City of Ottawa, wanted to come home.
Land prices were around $25,000 an acre so cash cropping was a non-starter. If they focused on dairy they would need to double up their herd and acreage, so that was out too. Chickens, both meat and egg, seemed promising, but the investment in the barn was going to be too much for meat birds and there wasn’t any egg quota available.
So Erik had an idea. What about dairy goats?
It was a weird idea to wrap their heads around, said Eric’s father John. But he’d long told his two boys that sticking with the status quo wouldn’t cut it in farming. “You’ve got to be innovative and think outside the box. So I had to eat crow.”
They’re not the first dairy farmers to try out dairy goats in Eastern Ontario, and probably won’t be the last. Supply management and the quota system can be as much of a ceiling for producers as a foundation.
There’s still stigma in the dairy industry against Jerseys and goats but the Luchtenburgs say it’s misplaced. Too poor to milk a Holstein, too proud to milk a goat is a sentiment that’s still alive and well. Said John: “We have all three! Where do we fit in?”
Erik was particularly incensed by the stigma. “I’d milk an ostrich if there was money in it. You do a disservice to yourself to only do what you know. Why can’t we do goats?”
That’s not to say there haven’t been any difficulties. The reality of being a goat-milk farmer is that you’re often the best expert available. Finding dairy goats can be difficult, and the goats themselves can be expensive. They eat more than you think. A sick goat is a dead goat, or so the saying goes. While goats are quite responsive to antibiotics, you have to be on them right away.
But there are definitely upsides. The barn they built was considerably cheaper than a dairy barn because goats don’t need alley scrapers or as much segregation. Goats are smart and learn fast, which lets them take to milking easily. They’re small enough that a down goat is usually either getting up herself, or easy enough to just pick up. And if she’s feeling ornery and tries to kick, it’s not hard to immobilize that leg. Try that with a cow. Goats are not prone to mastitis and make less of a mess inside the barn.
It doesn’t hurt that the goats are pretty charming. Go into the barn and they’ll crowd around you; after they get milked it’s “party time,” said Erik, as they jump and play with one another.
As charming as the goats are, they didn’t start that way. Getting into goats nearly broke the Luchtenburgs. They wanted to get into dairy goats in the fall of 2017, but they hadn’t built a barn yet. That’s when they got a call from a Vernon dairy goat farmer offering them 100 goats. Trouble is, they had nowhere to keep them, but dairy goats were rare enough in those days that they couldn’t pass on them. So they threw up a fabric structure and took the goats because the barn they were building, with a parallel parlour, wasn’t ready.
Carrying a vacuum pump, Erik and Ben chased down goats and got down on their hands and knees to milk them.
Kidding was a profoundly demanding job for John’s wife, Beverly. John built a milk rack to hold bottled milk for the kids but even with that, it still took three hours to get them fed because Beverly had to constantly clean the bottle and refill them. They ended up buying a $6,000 automatic feeder that can feed 20 kids at a time.
They are now up to 300 goats and plan to max out at 450 by the summer.
And, of course, while one of the attractions of dairy goats was the much more manageable up-front investment, the farmers certainly put some cash down. They bought enough shares in the Ontario Dairy Goat Co-op to ship 450,000 litres of milk annually, the theoretical maximum they can produce in the barn with room for 450 goats, each producing 1,000 litres. With shares in the Co-op at $100 per 4,000 litres of milk, plus a one-time $1,500 membership fee, that pencils out to a $13,000 fee to get started. Not bad, considering they’re getting about $1/litre for their goat milk.
Goats aren’t a get-rich-quick scheme. An analysis of 17 Ontario goat farms by Ontario Goat in 2016 found a 400-head operation averaged $498,000 in revenue and after expenses, net income was $34,000. But one of the key attractions is the growth potential, both in volume and in genetic improvements. Given the option to milk either goats or cows, Erik said he’d stick with goats.
They can expand faster with goats than dairy cows but supply management is steady income and equity that they needed to be able to make the jump, John said. He added that milking goats is just much nicer. They’re easier to manage and he doesn’t get whacked in the face with a wet tail anymore.
Go for goats: One way to expand when a son comes home
By Connor Lynch