By Hetty Stuart
It was a cold spring day, and entering Anja VanderVlies’ warm goat barns outside Teeswater for the interview was a welcome reprieve from the relentless wind. Goats popped up from the various pens — curious white and brown heads, eyes full of interest.
At the sound of Anja’s voice, their soft bleats grew louder. We walked together through the rows of pens, Anja petted and chatted, even picking up one favourite baby named “Oreo” to cuddle. Oreo is appropriately named — all black with a white striped middle. “We do not like to name too many of them, obviously,” she stated matter-of-factly. “We cannot get too attached to them — it’s too annoying, because then they do not want to walk into the goat parlour for milking, they would prefer to socialize.”
Anja is not the only one who loves her goats. Husband Henry and their four children have had a hand in making this herd what it is. We had just left the outdoors pen where about 10 billies were kept, and every one of them are sociable and affectionate, jumping on the stumps, keeping the families who drive by on the highway entertained. “We handle the goats from birth, so they are very accustomed to our voices and to human interaction. Goats are intelligent and inquisitive.” When asked if the billies will eat her hat, she replied, “Not at all. They might remove it from my head, but they do that just to get attention. All they want is to be petted and to play.”
It took me a while to get used to petting their hard, knobby heads with the horns and, well, their smell! Anja laughed when asked about their odour. “There were construction workers on the road works in Teeswater, several years ago,” she remembered. “They were a Jamaican crew, and they had seen our goats in the pasture. They came over after work and asked if they could buy a male goat — “the stinkiest male goat” — for supper! The smelliest goat will make a more goat-pronounced taste, and that is what they wanted. Obviously, I did not go into the kitchen to get the butcher knife!”
“But, we do not eat goat meat, in our household,” she admitted. “We are accustomed to the more bland cuisine of the Netherlands, eating beef, pork and chicken. Goat meat is bought at specialty markets, mostly in the cities, where the ethnic groups enjoy goat meat, prepared with lots of spices.” I recalled a friend from Barbados, living in Toronto at the time, who had helped me make a roast curry goat dish. There were lots of strange spices — Garam Masala was not a household word 35 years ago — and I roasted it in coconut milk and stewed tomatoes. It was rich, filling and spicy, and was even tastier a couple days later. Ethnic markets, especially a halal market are the places that usually carry this type of meat.
Why goats? “I did not pick goats,” Anja twinkles with humour. “I married a goat farmer, and this is what he did. Neither one of us came from farming families in the Netherlands, although Henry worked for a neighbour on a farm, before attending agricultural college. Goat farming was something we could afford to do at the time, not like the quota system for cows. We started with 200 goats, over 27 years ago, and we were one of the first farmers to milk goats in the area. We are also the fourth longest milk shipper with Gay Lea.”
Anja says they’ve seen many goat farmers come and go over the years. They stuck with it and grew, now milking over 1,300 nannies. “It takes about 10 goats to give the same amount of milk as one cow: about 10 times the work too, with feeding, birthing, cleaning, hooves and horns, etc. It is labour-intensive, and they need to be milked every single day, even Christmas! When I give advice to people who are interested in starting goat farms, I tell them that the work does not stop because it is the weekend.”
We walk from one barn to the next, past the many pens in various stages of pregnancy; babies and teenagers; the billies and the milkers. As we walk, swallows dip in and out of the open windows and a brave chicken roams the straw in the aisles like a security cop. She will peck when provoked, keeping a keen eye on the movement of the goats who seem to have great respect for her. The kids rustle in the clean straw in their pens, and the nannies follow us with their questioning, polite voices. Goats seem to be constantly smiling, golden eyes belying their inner mirth.
“And this is the kitchen,” Anja proudly shows us some huge mixing machines with recipes attached to the sides. “And the bunk silos outside is the pantry - filled with haylage and silage, where the nutritionist from Floradale Feeds takes samples, adding supplements to make the correct nutrients for perfectly balanced milk production. We have an OMAFRA inspection every year, as well as animal welfare inspection to check for the horns.”
The VanderVlies grow about 600 acres of their own food for the goats. Nutrient values of their crops are constantly measured for protein and fat values to keep the goats healthy and productive. A good milker will give 2.8 - 4.5 litres of milk daily. Fresh goats will milk better than the others, they are in and out of the milking parlour within 15 minutes. The goats walk through a holding area, lock themselves into the milking parlour where the milk unit gets attached to their udders, and they are allotted a nutritious snack to eat while they are being milked. The 60-head rotary parlour takes approximately four hours to finish off the whole herd, and this whole process is done twice daily.
“A goat is a seasonal breeder, normally in heat in the fall, followed by babies in the spring. But, we need milk year-round, so we breed year-round, giving a hormone treatment to the young goats to get them started - usually 10 goats per day, in order to control the number of babies being born at once. Usually between 80 - 85 percent of the pregnancies catch. We get the person who does ultrasounds to come and scan our nannies for potential pregnancies; this allows us to know how to proceed with the goat. If she is not pregnant, then we put her with the next group that needs to be bred again. If she cannot become pregnant, then she is shipped to market.”
Then the fun part begins. After five months’ gestation period, the goats start to kid, mostly twins, some triplets, and a few quads. “We remove the babies from their mothers, wash them and give them a feeding tube to ensure that they get the mother’s rich colostrum. We do this in order to break the cycle of whatever diseases — the arthritic form of the CAE virus — can be passed along through the contact of nursing and licking. We milk the colostrum that a new nanny produces, heat-treat it for one hour at 58 degrees Celsius. Tube-feeding for their first meal is very effective: then they are strong enough to have the next four hand-feedings, through a nipple, still with the colostrum. After that, they are allowed to drink any time they are hungry from the pipeline system with hoses that go into the barrels. Inside is milk replacer - bags of milk powder mixed with water and acid to prevent spoiling, and to prevent them from getting upset stomachs and bloating. In a couple months, the kids are weaned and their diet then consists of pellets and water. Goats are natural browsers, and like to nibble throughout the day.”
Week-old male kids are sold to an Amish family who have the space to raise them. Only 25 billies remain on the farm at all times. The servicing billies are shipped out every three years to any of the markets — Cookstown, Brussels, and St. Jacob’s — where the meat packers will buy them and process them. The females are raised to have their babies within a year’s time. They will kid two or three times in their lifespan, and then they are kept for milking purposes.
Anja pauses at the nursery pen again, and gives her Oreo one last cuddle. She is hugging this little one hard, and I know there will be tears in five or six years when Oreo leaves the farm. There is a lot of love manufactured in these barns, right alongside the milk production that keeps this family going. ◊