The Dairy Goat Industry Today

Published on Tue, 09/15/2020 - 10:14am

The Dairy Goat Industry Today.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 Many farms raise goats, and a growing number milk their goats—some to provide milk for the family and maybe a few customers or to make their own cheese, and some for commercial production of milk and cheese.  Many of the smaller breeders supply milking goats for the larger dairies.

Tom Considine, a commercial dairy goat producer in Wisconsin and Board Member of the American Dairy Goat Association, is a second generation dairy goat farmer.  “My father started milking goats in 1945.  We belong to the ADGA—the registry for our goats—which started in 1904,” he says.  He has been a licensed judge of dairy goats for ADGA for 33 years, and took over milking the goats when his father retired in the early 1990’s.

The cheese plant he ships milk to provides goat cheese for many restaurants.  With the pandemic however, many restaurants were closed, and the cheese plant was suffering.  “They did have enough retail sales, however, to keep going.  Most cheese plants mainly sell retail to grocery stores, and those sales didn’t slow as much.  Aside from the slowdown due to the pandemic, the goat cheese industry is quite strong, with a growing market,” says Considine.

“About 5 years ago one cheese plant decided to put on more producers, which triggered a mass run of new people.  Anyone who was milking 50 goats on a close run was being put on.  That big increase slowed; many of those people quit either because it wasn’t profitable, or quit milking goats because they got older, or went back to their previous careers.  There are still a lot of people milking goats but in recent years this industry hasn’t grown as much,” he explains.

The market is still strong, but instead of putting on more people, some cheese plants are importing milk from Canada.  “They bring in a few loads but they’d rather put on some of their own patrons for the long term.  We are in an intermediary time; there are loads coming in from Canada to try to fill a void as our markets grow, but when those cheese plants feel their markets are stable enough, they put on their own producers.  It goes in cycles like that,” he says.

“When my older brother started marketing his own milk in 1967 he bought some small dairies and there were some very tough times back then.  Goat’s milk was only considered a health food.”

In the mid-1980’s, a French company started importing their own flavor of goat cheese into the U.S.  “People liked it; maybe they thought it was exotic and higher class.  Goat cheese started become more popular, but then the market grew too fast.  By the late 1980’s, dairy goat producers were hurting,” says Considine.

“My brother and I were shipping milk to a co-op plant at that time, and the co-op went bankrupt.  There were cycles like that.  Today that particular co-op doesn’t have any patrons; they just buy milk,” he says.  There are many cheese plants that buy milk rather than have their own patrons, and can make as much or as little cheese as they wish, as their market fluctuates.

“Some of these plants specialize in high-quality artisan cheeses, winning awards.  Today is a relatively good time to be milking goats; we are better off than the cow dairies that were dumping milk.  We took a price reduction but never had to dump milk.  The plants took all the milk we produced and they still do.  The commercial side of the industry is strong,” he says.

“The hobby farms have a few goats and breeding stock, but breeding stock sales have been hurt a little.  They sell to commercial dairies, but right now none of them are growing—at least not here in the Midwest.  California is doing some growing, but not like it was 4 or 5 years ago when plants were putting on more patrons and the price for goats skyrocketed.  It was amazing how much people would pay for dairy goats.”

Those markets have now stabilized, but good breeding stock will always bring a good price.  Commercial dairies need good stock.  “Replacement does as breeding stock, and especially sires, still have a good market.  This is where our breed registry comes in; ADGA does milk record testing, linear appraisal, shows, etc.  All the records and our data base enables people to access information for making decision when selecting goats,” he explains.

The registry is vital to commercial dairies, even though the average commercial dairies do not register their goats.  “They use records provided by small breeders and our association to make wise decisions in their breeding selections.  They may never become a member and may never register a goat, and still consider us very useful,” he says.

The future for the dairy goat industry is hopeful, and a many-faceted industry.  Many small producers make homestead cheeses, sold at farmers markets, and do very well.  “In Wisconsin it’s a little harder to do something like that and a small hobby farmer really has to be committed.  In order to get your cheese maker license and set up a facility you have to follow a lot of regulations. 

Wisconsin is very strict in terms of the dairy industry because it is such an important industry in this state.  They have regulations that would make it more expensive for a small operation than it would be for someone trying to do this in Texas or Tennessee, for instance.”

He has friends in those states making cheese and selling it at farmers markets and the regulatory hoops are not as strict.  “They make their own cheese and every week supply cheese to a farmers market and that’s how they make their living.  I envision this facet of the industry increasing as more people become interested knowing where their food comes from,” he says.

“Many consumers want to be able to source their food back to a certain farmer, and I think the farmers markets will increase.  People like me, with a commercial dairy, can also sell the cheese made by the plant where I ship, at a farmer’s market.  A particular piece of cheese may not have my milk in it, but can be sourced to my plant--the place where I ship my milk,” he explains.

Some farmer’s markets have chosen to open their sourcing to cheese from local plants because they can’t get enough produce.  “I appreciate this movement, of wanting to know where your food comes from; I grew up that way.  For the dairy goat industry, I see this movement being beneficial to us.   It’s a lot easier to track the source of goats’ milk than cows’ milk.  Most goat milk comes from local producers near the cheese plants, whereas cows’ milk can come from just about anywhere.  With refrigerated tanker trucks, it can flow all over the place.  There’s nothing bad about that, but it’s just easier to source goats’ milk.”  He feels the market for goats’ milk will stay strong.

“I was working with some folks at Iowa State University who are doing animal wellness studies, to quantify what keeps an animal healthy and happy in the commercial herd.  They are setting guidelines so that eventually they could have a standard and say these things need to be done, so your product can be given a label stating you are taking care of your animals in a way that fits these guidelines.  This will be a positive thing, as more people become conscious about how the animals are cared for.  This will increase consumers’ desire to source their food—recognizing the farmers who are taking care of their animals and creating a good product.”

Jennifer Bice (Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery, Sebastopol, California) started raising goats as a child in 4-H more than 50 years ago.  This eventually grew into a business, with a commercial Grade A dairy and building a processing plant and creamery.  After her parents started that business in 1968, she took it over in 1978.  She grew and led Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery until selling it to Emmi, a Swiss dairy company in 2015.  She now owns and operates the dairy selling milk to the Creamery as one of its producers.  Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery produces cultured dairy products (yogurt and kefir) and sells them nationwide in natural and specialty stores primarily.

Goat dairies have increased, but it’s hard to know how many dairy goats there are.  “There’s more anecdotal information than hard facts, but the USDA does a survey/census of livestock every 5 years, and dairy goats are the fastest-growing livestock--increasing in numbers 61% between 2007 and 2017 (the most recent census),” says Bice.
Anyone who shops in grocery stores has probably seen a major increase in goat cheeses, starting in the 1980’s.  “Goat cheeses became popular with celebrity chefs and the farm-to-table movement.”

Back in the 1940’s and 1950’s goat milk was important as medicinal or a health food for various ailments, or for children who could not drink cows’ milk. Then in the 1980’s when celebrity chefs started promoting goat cheese and more people traveled to Europe and experienced goat cheese, goat dairy products became more mainstream.

“Today, with the younger generation being more adventurous with their food choices, this has also helped increase demand for goat dairy products.  And most people who are allergic to cow dairy products can use goat dairy products,” she says.

“Some of the people who raise registered goats have dairies, and some just raise goats as a hobby and have small herds of purebred goats.  In general those animals are well bred and excellent milking animals for a commercial dairy,” says Bice.

“On average it takes about 10 goats to produce the same amount of milk as one dairy cow, depending on the cow and the goats.  The goats are giving about a gallon of milk per day and the cow is giving about 10 gallons per day.  Thus a goat dairy is more labor-intensive than a cow dairy.  There are similarities such as milking schedule, cooling the milk, cleanliness, etc. but when you think in terms of 10 goats to equal one cow, there is a lot more labor involved—with hoof trimming, vaccinating, keeping records, etc.”

The areas of the U.S. with the largest population of dairy goats are California, the Midwest (Wisconsin and Iowa) and Vermont.  “On the east coast, like Vermont, the goat and cow dairies tend to be smaller, while the California dairies tend to be larger overall.  In Wisconsin there are dairies of all sizes, from small to quite large,” she says.

“It takes more investment and infrastructure up front, for a large dairy.  Whether large or small, milk production is monitored with state inspection, and the rules are the same nationwide in terms of bacteria counts, Grade A versus Grade B milk, etc.  The regulations for cows are similar for goats, and pretty consistent state to state,” she says.

Small dairies that milk a few goats and make their own cheese are called artisan or farmstead cheese plants.  “Some are family businesses, but generally the farmstead products (for cow or goat) means that the farm has its own herd and builds a cheese plant and make their own milk into artisan cheeses.  Generally these are small plants, but not always.  The higher-quality artisan-type cheeses may have started with family, but then evolve into a more complex business.”

This usually takes a team effort because it involves milking the animals, cheese production, and marketing/invoicing and the business end of it.  “A farmstead operation takes three distinct and different roles and skill sets.  A small dairy might start because a family loves their animals, but for making cheese they might hire a cheesemaker.  Now they have more cheese to sell, so they hire a bookkeeper and a marketer.  It can become a much bigger job than two adults and a few children can handle on their own.  This creates employment opportunities for other people and these small businesses can be quite successful,” says Bice.

“I often get asked about feed and whether it’s different for cows and goats.  Some people think goats can eat everything and anything but that’s not true, even though goats are browsers, like deer, whereas cattle and sheep are grazers—mainly eating grass.  The natural diet for goats includes more woody material like rose-briars and other shrubs, tree bark, vines, etc.  In earlier times a farmer often had a couple cows, a few sheep and some goats in one pasture, and they ate different things.  You can develop pasture-based dairy systems for goats, but it’s more difficult than it is for cows because grass is not the goats’ natural diet,” she explains.

“Just like with a cow dairy, to have optimum milk production you must feed the goats a high-quality roughage, usually alfalfa.  For young goats or lactating does, the animals need more calories--a grain mixture in addition to the forage,” says Bice.

She feels there will probably continue to be an increase in goat numbers and goat dairies.  “We’ve been selling goat milk products since 1968 and have seen double-digit growth.  There is increasing demand, with more potential customers.”  

Joan Dean Rowe, DVM, MPVM, PhD (a veterinarian on faculty at University of California Davis) first became involved with dairy goats as a child with a 4-H project, learning about responsible animal care and animal health.  “That led to a career in veterinary medicine and my interest in livestock.  I work with dairy cattle, dairy goats, meat goats, sheep, etc. as part of a clinical and teaching practice,” she says.  She also does research with dairy goats.  

“I work with dairy goat owners and am also involved in programs and committee work of the American Dairy Goat Association in production testing, DNA selection for casein quality (for cheese yield) in dairy goats, and disease prevention, for example G-6-S and genetic susceptibility or resistance for scrapie,” says Rowe.

 She has worked with many commercial herds.  “My own dairy goats I consider to be a smaller breeding herd.  We have production testing year round, and I select for production and provide genetics to larger dairies.  We have does that are consistently in the top 10 for the Toggenburg breed in production testing.  We select for functional type, using the linear appraisal program.  We have also enjoyed success in the show ring, but the core of our breeding program is using ADGA programs like linear appraisal and dairy herd improvement production testing,” she says.  These programs can help breeders select for functional type and productive animals that will stay in commercial herds for a long time, and be profitable.  

“The ADGA has members with large-scale commercial dairies like Johnny deJong’s Summerhill Goat Dairy (California) that has wide distribution of excellent quality Grade A pasteurized milk.  There are also many artisan cheesemakers, like Erika McKenzie-Chapter’s Pennyroyal Farm in California, with a significant mail-order business, and Dustin Noble’s Noble Springs Dairy in Tennessee, that offers on-farm experiences for consumers.  There are many small producers who use agritourism as part of their enterprise along with cheese-making and goat breeding.  There are many production models; goat owners can have many different types of enterprises with their dairy goat businesses,” says Rowe.

Goat dairying probably has a good future, but with the pandemic, many of value-added products like special cheeses served at restaurants had a downtrend.  “On the other hand, goat products that are available at grocery stores have seen an increase—especially in the variety of cheeses that are widely available in stores, and by mail order.”  Many producers have cheese offerings that can be purchased online.