By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
The early mornings are getting harder to appreciate for long-time dairy goat producers, Henk and Ellen Van Schaik of Blyth.
With three daughters off on their own exciting careers, and a fourth helping part-time, Henk and Ellen are now the only full-time help to milk almost 600 goats, something they’ve been doing for over 20 years. The pair were founding members of the Ontario Dairy Goat Cooperative (ODGC) which recently celebrated the anniversary with a family event at their Teeswater facility. The Van Schaiks, along with three other founding members, were presented with awards for their longevity – Jim and Sylvia Parish; Candy Zisterer and Lloyd and Arlene Metzger.
Family and farming go hand in hand and Ellen says there was nothing better when the girls were small. “We all enjoyed it and the girls all had chores when they came back from school.”
“For a family farm, it was great,” says Henk.
When the oldest daughter Laura became a nurse, then second daughter Melissa chose to become a veterinary technician while third daughter Chantal went into hotel management, there were high hopes for 21-year-old Marielle. She went to Ridgetown College with thoughts of potentially taking over the farm. But it’s a big farm with a lot of goats and at 21, the thought of managing an entire farm was too much. She is now training to be an esthetician, which leaves Henk and Ellen, in their 50s, thinking it might be time to slow down.
“We currently milk 600 goats and we’d like to slow down to 450,” says Henk. The next stage is to set up a plan to sell the goats within two years, either in groups as breeding stock or as a herd for another family to get their start in dairy goats.
It’s been quite a ride for the Van Schaiks.
“When we started dairy goat farming, it was really good,” remembers Henk as the pair take a break on their deck, serving coffee and chocolate cookies slowly melting in the heat. “Then after two or three years, there were processor problems and we had to start dumping milk. That’s when a couple of us got together and started the cooperative.”
The founding members had a vision to broker their goats’ milk across North America, rather than be at the mercy of one or two processors. The cooperative grew to almost 100 members but struggled with milk volume between 2010 and 2014. There were some hard years.
On their farm, the Van Schaiks decided to clear their herd of Caprine arthritis and encephalitis (CAE) which is a persistent lentiviral infection of goats. They wanted to maximize their breeding stock sale potential. All kids were separated from the herd and tested, with only goats negative for CAE kept in the herd. By 2016, they were milking goats again. The couple also tweaked their management and got serious about duration milking, only rebreeding doelings on their natural cycle. The nannies were kept in a barn with lighting left on for 20 hours a day until February and March. The lights were then turned off and this older flock was bred in April and May for kidding in the fall to increase winter milk volume and reduce summer milk volume (when there is too much milk on the market). This year, using the same process, 210 of 250 goats caught, which is considered very successful.
The Van Schaiks are also very conscious of costs. They renovated old pig barns to house their goats, later adding an addition. “Fixing the barn cost $10 per square foot which was cheaper than building new,” he said.
Meanwhile, ODGC was also experiencing successful years with potential new markets. There was a buzz in the dairy goat industry, with many young families eager to join the cooperative.
Then, “boom” says Henk. In 2017, the goat milk market crashed again with cutbacks of 40 per cent in milk volume. “We were still in a bubble that the sky was the limit, it was not.”
Having been in the industry for many years by then, and with breeding stock sales and crop acreage to support the farm, the Van Schaiks could weather those tough years but Henk admits “that was the tightest period for us.” They shipped 160,000 litres to be used for goat milk powder, but never got paid. “The goat powder was a disaster.”
However, after bad times come good times and the last two years have been profitable and filled with potential for new dairy goat milk markets, even though feed costs have risen dramatically. “There’s always something,” laughs Henk.
Speaking about the cooperative, Henk says he is very proud of what farmers can accomplish when they band together. Growing from a dozen members to almost 100 allowed them to develop new markets, purchase their own trucking fleet and “put the goat industry on the map.”
The cooperative has experimented with chocolate goat milk and fluid milk, both of which did not gain the traction they hoped, but Van Schaik has no regrets. “At least we tried.” He hopes the cooperative will continue to push the boundaries and strive for new markets. It can be risky, but for the dairy goat industry to grow, it needs to take risks, he believes. He thinks a drinkable yogurt would be a viable product option and has high hopes for what the Canada Royal Milk ULC plant in Kingston could mean for dairy goat producers.
However, the focus for the Van Schaiks has moved from expansion to reduction. Milking 600 goats with 68 milkers keeps them hopping. They milk together and in fact, do most things together.
“We knew we had to be a team,” says Henk. “It would be so hard if your wife was not in it 100 per cent. You need support when it gets hard.”
Ellen agrees. “We are together 24-7 and it’s a give and take. You have to pull together.”
“We don’t always agree,” Henk interjects. “But we respect each other and we try to listen to each other. That’s the hardest part!” he laughs.
Both agree milking goats was the right choice for their family but with only Marielle still helping, they admit to being a little tired. “At 5:30 a.m. that alarm goes off and we have to be in the barn at 6 a.m.” says Henk. “Then if we visit our daughter, we see it is three in the afternoon on our watch and we have to go back home to milk the goats.”
It takes its toll and without a new generation to take over, the couple feels at peace with their career as they begin the process of leaving the industry. They look forward to continuing cropping, raising some beef cattle and having more time for family. ◊