New Choices and Opportunities in Vermont's Dairy Scene
Caprine vs. Bovine
Written onOctober 18 , 2012
If you’ve ever raised goats, you know it’s next to impossible to keep them within their fences. Now more goats are getting into Vermont cow barns—but it’s because farmers are putting them there on purpose.
The primacy of cow dairy in Vermont agriculture is undisputed, but goats are edging into the local dairy world. Abysmal cow milk prices paired with rising costs have farmers looking for alternatives or supplements in order to keep their farms profitable. And the ever-increasing vacant cow dairy properties provide excellent locations for new goat farms.
The state is already home to one monolithic buyer of fluid goat milk, http://www.vermontcreamery.com/(VBCC), which is now being forced to look out of state—out of the country, even—to meet its needs, leading some farmers to dabble in milking goats as a means to diversifying their income while taking advantage of this established but underserved local market.
The decision to work with goats has its challenges, though, and the numbers remain tight; making or improving a living by transitioning to goats has not proven to be a panacea, despite the obvious benefits. Issues with scale, management challenges for year-round production, and VBCC’s complicated pricing structure that all but excludes small, seasonal herds all contribute to the growing pains inherent in producing commercial fluid goat milk.
Vermont has lost nearly 500 dairy farms in the last decade, going from more than 1,500 to just over 1,000, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. During that time, cow milk production has actually increased by approximately 14 million cwt (or “hundredweight,” meaning 100 pounds of fluid milk). Also during the last decade, the number of goat dairies that sell fluid milk to a processor or process their own products for sale has grown from a dozen or so statewide to 26 now, with a high of 30 in mid-2010.
Clearly, goat dairying is still the proverbial drop in the bucket for Vermont farmers, although the number of farms has more than doubled as cow dairy continues to concentrate in fewer, larger farms.
“I see goat dairy as a good fit for a lot of parts of Vermont,” says Dan Scruton, dairy systems coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. Although there’s still an economy of scale, he says, “You can make a reasonable living with a few acres,” with better cash flow potential per cwt of milk.
A 50-head cow dairy is roughly comparable to a 150-head goat dairy in terms of farm size and milk volume. The average cow currently produces almost 19,000 pounds of milk a year; a goat only produces roughly 1,700. But the highest-paying national buyer of fluid cow milk, Organic Valley, currently pays approximately $30 per cwt, while the VBCC payment system nets a range of about $31 to $45 per cwt for raw goat milk. This price reflects the cost of hauling, shared between VBCC and farmers, which can have a major effect on price based on the volume of the pickup and a farm’s distance from the creamery.
Considering these numbers, switching to or starting with goats begins to look like a no-brainer. “The beautiful thing is they’re tough, and they fit well into old, outdated cow facilities,” says Chris Dutton, assistant professor of agriculture at Vermont Technical College.
For the past year and a half, Gwyneth Harris has been working independently by means of grant funding with farmers (primarily in the Northeast Kingdom) who are transitioning from cow to goat dairy. A lot of times, she says, these farmers switched from cow to goat dairy to take advantage of the open market and pricing that is not subject to the vagaries of commodity dairy production.
But introducing a goat—or two or three—into the place of a cow seems a curious blend of art and science. With modern dairy farming focused so closely on cows, goat farming demands a re-evaluation of the skills and practices that have been the core DNA of Vermont dairying.
Take feed, for example; goats may seem surprisingly picky to a farmer accustomed to feeding a cow, because the goat digestive system, or rumen, is “smaller and more temperamental than that of a cow,” says Dan. On the other hand, goats are browsers rather than grazers; that is, they relish prickers and thickets as much as pasture, so they can “clean pastures up while still making milk,” he says.
But, as Gwyneth points out, goat farmers need to ask themselves, “How will I feed my goats to get the best protein production?” Maximizing the goats’ feeding habits while achieving optimum protein levels requires a new outlook on dairying—one that is not part of Vermont’s cow dairying past.
The greatest challenge to the commercial goat dairy farmer is the breeding cycle. Unlike a cow, which can be bred yearround, a goat has a seasonal breeding habit, with a pattern of breeding in early winter and kidding in the spring. This results in a drop in milk production at the same time every year—which is a problem for the demands of year-round cheesemaking at a large-scale operation such as VBCC.
VBCC’s year-round demand is reflected in their pricing structure, which rewards farms that breed off season by setting the year’s price when seasonally bred does are ebbing in milk production. Goat dairy farmers can therefore reach their highest earning potential by “tricking” a portion of their herd into breeding off-season. This is accomplished by segregating does and inducing them to breed using artificial lighting, proximity to bucks, or even hormonal therapies.
This issue poses a dilemma for some small-scale farmers whose husbandry and lifestyle preferences make it difficult for them to make the most of VBCC’s pricing schedule. To make a living, they may instead choose to process and sell their milk themselves, taking on the duties of marketing their products, rather than becoming less hands-on “farm managers” in a larger, year-round operation.
Indeed, not all fluid milk in Vermont heads to VBCC’s Websterville plant; a few farms sell their fluid milk to mid-size cheesemakers, such as Blue Ledge Farm in Leicester or Cornwall’s Consider Bardwell farm, and they find they can get slightly better prices than those who ship to VBCC. Another mid-sized farm, Windsor’s Oak Knoll Dairy, sells a portion of their milk to VBCC but also pasteurizes and bottles their own fluid goat milk and yogurt for sale under their own label.
But success often comes down to scale. In her new Guide to Starting a Commercial Goat Dairy, small ruminant expert Carol Delaney writes of dairying in Vermont, “Fewer than 150 goats is usually not enough to support one person or a small family with fluid milk sales, based on most people’s standard of living…150–200 goats is the minimum needed to start providing a sustainable income.”
The Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery is about to learn for itself the challenges of producing fluid goat milk on a larger scale. The Ayers Brook Goat Dairy, operated by VBCC in partnership with Vermont Technical College, and in financial cooperation with the Castanea Foundation, the High Meadows Fund, and the John Merck Fund, will start milking this fall at—no surprise—a former cow dairy in Randolph.
Allison Hooper, founder and owner of VBCC, says that one of the creamery’s biggest challenges is sourcing enough Vermont milk to meet their demand. “I’d like to see another 10 farms in the next 10 years,” she says.
To help meet that goal, the creamery’s new large-scale operation plans to collect management, genetic, and business planning data to encourage more successful large-scale fluid milk goat dairies in Vermont. And in order to build that knowledge base, Ayers Brook Dairy is making its first stock investment not in goats but in one particular human, Rene De Leeuw of New York’s Coach Farm.
Rene comes to Randolph with years of experience that Allison hopes will help kickstart the process of maximizing goat farms in Vermont. “We’re starting with nothing,” she says, “We have no tools, no animals—all we have is intellectual property in Rene.”
Among Rene’s tasks is determining the “sweet spot” for size of the operation, with the current vision being 500 goats. VBCC wants to build some benchmarks so that an aspiring goat farmer can hit the ground running with data for managing input and labor costs, off-season breeding, milk quality, and an improved genetic pool.
“They will be able to show some of the tools that are out there for goat farmers” that are not based on cow data, says Gwyneth Harris. “Having some real information that’s close to home will help people realize there’s value to making changes.”
And by partnering with VTC, the Ayers Brook Dairy will be building relationships with Vermont’s next generation of farmers at their most receptive stage. “They will have full access to our students, and our students will have full access to the farm,” says Chris Dutton. Students may contribute up to 15 hours per week at the dairy, lending a steady stream of labor to the farm, and a steady stream of experience to the students.
“For an ag school to point people in a direction that isn’t cow dairy is great,” says Gwyneth.
The launch of Ayers Brook is a shrewd decision for VBCC, certainly, but one hopes that the biggest beneficiaries will be the dairy legacy in Vermont and the aspiring farmers who will have commercial goat dairying, if not in their DNA, at least on their résumé.