By Brandy Harrison
KINTORE — Nico Slik has tried his hand at dairy cows, beef cattle, and veal since immigrating to Canada from Holland in 1995 but with a gut feeling for goats he started milking 270 right out of the gate with barely a hiccup.
“It’s been too smooth. That actually scares me,” says the Kintore goat farmer. “I’ve seen a lot tougher things in my life than starting up with goats.”
It took five people four hours to push nearly every goat up the eight-foot ramp into the parlour for the first milking on Nov. 2. But within two weeks, it was a two-person, 1.5 hour job. “Goats are naturally good climbers but my goats didn’t necessarily know that,” he jokes.
While Slik loved milking cows, in 2006 after a decade of battling low milk production, immune-suppressed cows, failed pregnancies, and impatient, nervous cows related to stray voltage, the cows and the then $30,000-per-kilogram quota, had to go.
“It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” he says.
Giving a cow-calf operation a go for two years but missing the stable monthly milk cheque, Slik and his wife Jolanda sold the farm in 2008 and bought his current farm south of St. Marys. Buying back into dairy was too pricey and he could no longer get the needed quota on the exchange. Instead he began milking for another farm while raising young stock and boarding heifers until turning to veal in 2009. He still markets about 1,200 veal calves per year.
But the lure of goats was always there. He tried milking goats for a neighbour when he sold the dairy cows but the then-unstable goat market was too risky. “With the horror stories about the milk not being picked up and unstable pricing, it was a completely different situation back then,” says Slik.
Wanting a second income to offset calf health challenges and a tough veal market, the tipping point was the Gay Lea Foods Co-operative Ltd. purchase of Hewitt’s Dairy last year.
“That gave me the security that the market is here to stay,” says Slik, who ships milk for between 95 cents and $1 per litre, pocketing a profit in the 20-cent range.
Converting a freestall heifer barn, Slik kept it simple by using lumber to build four straw-packed pens recessed eight inches from the feed alley. Buying a complete herd and a double-24 platform parlour from other farms, he limited start-up costs to $350,000.
It’ll still take time to determine milking groups, establish a breeding cycle, and set up an identification system to get on milk recording, but aside from dry goats and young stock eating 30 per cent more than planned, it’s been almost seamless, says Slik.
But the idea of 100 to 150 goats kidding by Christmas has him nervous.
“That’s the scariest part of the goat industry. All those goats have little kids and you have to keep them alive. I’m prepared for it, but I’m not ready for it. You will never be ready,” he says, crossing his fingers that he’ll be able to convert the existing space into a nursery and build a new milking barn in a few years’ time.
It’s nothing like milking cows, Slik says.
“When we bought 420 goats, we got 420 different personalities. It’s fun to work with but they do things you don’t expect,” he says.
Cows are much more easily intimidated — you can tell a stubborn cow where to go, but good luck trying to get a goat to do something it doesn’t want to, Slik says. If a goat refuses to enter the parlour, you have to walk away. “If you try to force them, you lose the battle. It’s almost like you have to give them the idea that they came up with it.”
At 48, Slik believes goats have staying power and sees a future for his children. His nine-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter already do the evening milking.
“It’s a farmer’s biggest dream: having kids in the barn enjoying what they’re doing. I’ve had a lot of different things on the go since I came to Canada and this is the one that has to last until my retirement.”