Are goats an easy option? - Veterinary Practice
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Are goats an easy option?

RICHARD GARD visits a commercial goat farm in Devon to see what’s involved

ON the face of it a litre of goat’s milk realises 55p and cow’s milk 24p, so is that a good reason to sell up the cows and go for goats?

With dairy cows there is a constant battle against mastitis, fertility and lameness but it appears that fertility is not seen as a problem for goats and clinical mastitis is very low. Lameness is an issue, or more specifically footrot.

One of the major aggravations for professional goat keepers is the lack of registered medicines for goats and a feeling that the farmer may be more knowledgeable about some aspects of goat health than the vet. Disbudding is a major point of veterinary contact.

There is no national milk purchasing and retail arrangement for goats’ milk. There are, however, some big players and the number of herds with over 500 goats has been increasing – nationally, around 70% of milking goats are in herds of over 500.

One of the expanding herds is Norsworthy Dairy Goats in Devon and a visit to the farm indicated just how much effort is required to survive in the commercial market.

The herd started as a part-time activity and was able to expand because of the availability of a buyer for the milk to make into cheese. A trailer with a tanker was filled and driven to the purchaser but the supply was only wanted during the winter. Fortunately, frozen milk is an option but obviously freezer capacity becomes an issue. At one time 5,000 litres was in commercial storage when foot-and-mouth was encircling the farm.

As demand increased and the kids kept being reared, the herd grew to 180 in milk. The seasonal kidding is a difficulty if continuous supply is needed and Regulin is being used to attempt later kidding. The milk buyer was planning retirement so a major decision and development was to manufacture cheese on the farm.

An impressive array of stainless steel is glimpsed through the window but entry in boots and coat is strictly forbidden. One can only imagine the rules and regulations for a food production facility next to the milk production unit.

Milking takes about two-and-a-half hours with cheese making four to five hours, followed by standing in brine for the truckles and then turning and storage. Cheese for sale is prepared and taken off to Farmers’ Markets and then back to milking and on to production.

For a husband and wife team you need to have a smiley face to answer all the questions about production from the public before they open their purses. However, there is a loyal following of customers and the level of repeat business is high.

Cheese is not just a simple product today and various herb and pepper combinations attract speciality customers. A check on the supermarket shelves will soon show the level of competition, particularly from France.

It is with some disappointment, therefore, that the demise of Dairy Farmers for Britain has led to the takeover of a modern cheese-making facility by the French. Negotiations were in hand for the Norsworthy cheese to be taken but will Le President welcome further commercialisation of the competition, be it ever so humble? On the other hand there may be an increasing demand with more marketing by the large group. Time will tell.

The demise of the milk group was not due to the economics of dairying. Full details will probably reveal that the business ran into financial difficulties apart from the agricultural aspects.

It will be the farmers who will be anxious and need to find other milk buyers: some may find this a straightforward arrangement and some will struggle and possibly have to cease milking. It appears that many of the organic milk producers have found a buyer. Will some of the cattlemen turn to goats?

The goat farmer tends to consider that the cattleman has an easier time in the marketplace. Apart from the milk buying arrangement, where the tanker collects and the cheque arrives, the cattle dairyman is seen to have a second crop with the male offspring. What to do with the male kids is a huge issue for goatkeepers.

Slaughter issues

In general, two kids are born to each nanny each year. On many goat farms the commercial hybrid males are despatched because there is no outlet for the meat. To rear the males to market weight would be uneconomic. Great efforts are being made to change this and although some communities consume large quantities of goat meat there are issues over slaughter and importation.

At Norsworthy the male goats are reared and the meat is sold at the Farmers’ Markets along with the cheese. There is a healthy demand and the price is similar to lamb. This may be one of the reasons why the herd is unlikely to expand into the larger, more typical, milking herd.

It is unpleasant to consider producing kids for slaughter and having to farm in that way. With so much contact with the public it makes for good conversation to be able to outline the current production and marketing arrangements.

Future expansion is likely to be from buying-in milk from other suppliers to make into cheese. The best milk for cheese is high in solids and so the quality is important rather than the yield.

A top producing British Saanen may yield 2,500kg but two-thirds of that yield would be the norm for commercial production at Norsworthy. It is the small pedigree breeders who produce the quality billies to improve the commercial crosses.

Despite the number of goats all around, including the dairy herd and the youngstock, there was no overpowering smell that one associates with goats. That the goats are inquisitive is immediately apparent and it appears that there is no way that you can stop them from nibbling, climbing and investigating everything. They are escape artists par excellence.

Management cannot be an easy option but the next time a Farmers’ Market is visited, the goatkeepers of Britain would appreciate purchase of some cheese, meat and milk to help a developing section of British agriculture.

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