What does it take to milk 4,000 goats? According to Dutch dairy goat farmer, Alexander Van Der Schans, it takes opportunity, perseverance and a focused attention on costs.
Van Der Schans spoke to a crowd of 80 Ontario goat farmers who cozied in at the Trillium Insurance building in Listowel for a Dairy Goat Day session.
Sponsored by Wallenstein Feed and Supply, which is trying to position itself as a leader in Ontario’s struggling goat industry, Van Der Schans shared many challenges he had to struggle through before success came to his farm business.
His experience may buoy goat farmers looking to expand in hopes the dairy goat industry in Ontario will soon be a thriving industry. “The goat industry is a big market for us and I refer to it as the Wild West,” said Wendell Schumm, the Ruminant Division Manager at Wallenstein Feeds. “We’ve been in this situation before. When Wallenstein was in the layer business 40 years ago, there was a lot up in the air, We were able to help shape that and lend support to that industry and we can hope we can take that role in the goat industry now.”
Consequently, they hired Raymond Jansma – also a Dutchman who farmed dairy goats in Holland – who now raises replacement goats for Ontario farmers. He works as a dairy goat specialist with Wallenstein and it was Jansma who found Van Der Schans and encouraged him to share his story with Ontario goat farmers.
It was and is a sort of rural rags-to-riches story although Van Der Schans came from a successful cow dairy operation.
As he tells it, he is a 50-year-old farmer with a great wife and three children. He grew up one of nine children on a “nice farm” with 60 cows, 120 layers, 20 sheep, four pigs and some land for growing potatoes and grain.
When he was seven, his father died and his oldest brother managed the farm. A new barn was built and the farm began to specialize in dairy goat farming, milking 120 cows. Van Der Schans joined the business when he was 20. A processing plant was built in 1990 to create sour milk products such a buttermilk and yogurt. The farm grew to 440 milking cows.
“It can be successful to work with brothers and it is also difficult so at that time, in 1995, we split up,” recalls Van Der Schans. His brother kept the cows and Van Der Schans dreamed of starting a big chicken, or ostrich and deer farm. In the end, he decided to start with goats. “At that time, I have no farm and no place for goats. I did not have a contract and no money.”
In 1997, he started raising little goats on rental properties. By 1999, he was married and raising doelings with hope he could earn a contract. When that didn’t happen, he sold his 600 replacements and used the profits to double the kids, purchasing them from three days to two months old. For a second time, the doelings were ready to milk and he had no contract. He sold them again. Finally, in 1999, he built a barn and earned a contract and started milking 250 goats. The bank had lots of say about his profits so Van Der Schans continued “the same trick” every year. He bought lots of doelings – about 2,000 – raising them for profit while he continued to milk 250 goats.
Then began the years of expansion. In 2001 he milked 500 goats, in 2002 he milked 1,000 goats and by 2013, he was milking 3,000 goats while still raising 1,000 doelings. Disaster struck that year when the herd tested positive for Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis Virus (CAE).
“We don’t like this. It is terrible for business. So we make a new plan to sell all the goats and in 2005, we buy new ones,” said Van Der Schans. They restarted with 2,500 doelings and 500 milking goats. “My wife said it cost so much money you will only do this one time.” Growth continued and by 2015, the farm was back up to 3,000 goats.
In 2014, they rented another farm and were milking another 1,000 goats. Currently, they milk 4,000 goats and sell doelings, up to 5,000 a year. The farm is now closed. New genetics are brought in via artificial insemination which is done to about 10 per cent of the herd.
From the start, the location of the farm wasn’t great. The Van Der Schans farm is located right outside of a village. Holland is strict with agriculture “permissions” and while approvals were forthcoming at first, by 2009, after a concern over “cow fever”, the government started refusing expansion requests.
Van Der Schans has been trying to expand further and has even purchased a few more farms to establish new goat-raising facilities. However, government approval has been difficult to earn and he is currently in a holding pattern, hoping to use his main farm (where he does have permission to increase to 6,000 milking goats) as leverage to encourage the local government to allow his expansion on other farms.
Van Der Schans said the goat population in Holland is nearing 2.5 million. There are 350 goat farms with an average size of 1,000 milking goats. “It is no longer possible in Holland to start a new goat farm,” said Van Der Schans. “Some farms still have space to grow but soon, production will reach 450 million litres and that is the maximum.” Holland has a quota system for dairy cows, pigs and chickens and he expects a quota system will be established for goats within the next three years.
Goat milk prices in Holland have marked highs and lows, just as in Canada, said Van Der Shans. It seems every seven years the prices plummet. Currently, he makes about 89 cents (calculated from Euros) per litre (based on four per cent fat and 3.4 per cent protein).
Raising and milking thousands of goats takes some doing. Van Der Schans has some innovative management strategies.
For milking, he built a 64-head rotary parlour which was the largest of its kind in its day. However, it is at full capacity with milking three times a day, 24 hours a day. Each employed milker milks 400-500 goats in a seven-hour stretch. The parlour is cleaned up and the next milker comes in for his or her seven-hour milking stint. Van Der Schans predicts he will have to install a new parlour in two years because this one will be beyond repair from the constant usage.
Kidding follows a strict protocol. With thousands of kids being born and a focus on disease prevention, the kids are immediately removed from the does. They are put into a plastic bag and taken to another farm with special workers, wearing special clothes, who do not have contact with the transporter or the milking herd. Each kid is placed in a cardboard box and given iodine and colostrum from a tube. It’s placed under a heat lamp to dry and stay warm. After 12 hours, the kid is placed with nine other kids into a plastic-lined pen with fresh bedding. They are fed four times a day. After two weeks, they are transported to another farm where they grow for one year. Here, they receive all their vaccinations including Johnes, clostridium and Q fever.
Van Der Schans contracts all the doelings out. “We pay almost $50 Euros per head for each doeling,” said Van Der Schans. “They do all the work and pay electricity for the barn but we pay the feed and the veterinary costs.” A bonus is paid out for low death rates. The average is 10 to 12 per cent but he has one barn with a 6.2 per cent average.
With expansion opportunities in Holland shrinking, Van Der Schans has developed a new business model of breeding goats for international markets in Russia and Turkey. Consequently, he increased his use of AI from 10 per cent to 40 per cent in 2018 and 50 per cent this year. He focuses on capacity, milk production and tidy udders. “People say it is possible to get a conception rate of 60 to 65 per cent (audience laughter) but we have 50 per cent.”
All goats are fed the same ration consisting of one kilogram (kg) grass silage, 2.5 kgs. corn silage, one kg. wet beet pulp and 1.3 kgs. of pellets. “Each morning we make a new TMR ration and feed them all. My feed advisors say it is a very bad system but when they come in the barn, they see we do not have very fat or very skinny goats.” Feed costs account for just over 30 per cent of his costs.
He believes the key to his success is watching costs. “We are low budget on machinery and automation,” he said. There are no milk recorders in the parlour but his average milk production per goat per day is 2.7 litres or 1,000 litres per goat per year. “The banker tells me that when you milk less than 1,000 litres you are not a good farmer. I told him I was disappointed he said that. I told him to look at what I have done in 20 years as a farmer.”
Van Der Schans also focuses on health and maximizing markets. Selling young does for $500 Euros is profitable. “I keep the old ones and breed them again and again until they die and then it’s done.” His death loss ranges between six to 15 per cent with kidding being the largest contributing factor.
Dead goats are stored in an underground carcass cooler to keep until the dead stock truck picks them up every three weeks. He used to pile them up near the road but this was becoming a consumer relations issue and the arrival of the truck a few times a week was costly. The underground cooler solves both issues.
Labour is a problem in Holland because of the attitude of people who want to work for themselves. He has turned to Poland for labourers who are used to working for someone else. Workers who receive warnings for a job poorly done have their pay cheque docked. Workers who exceed requirements receive a bonus. Most workers have been with him 10 years or longer.
With a son and a nephew soon joining the farm, Van Der Schans is planning to produce five to eight million litres of milk. He is also hoping to diversify into veal calves which are not capped by a quota system.
Also, the farm is actively engaged in research projects. They are currently testing the use of probiotics on goat health in conjunction with the University of Wageningen.
Ultimately, his advice (presented with a laugh) to goat farmers was to watch costs and make sure when you farm, not to go broke. ◊