Goats rejuvenate liking for farm

Producer eager to expand milking herd and improve genetics through artificial insemination

CALEDON, Ont. — The dairy goats on Jason Lyons’ farm are not shy.

A white goat began trotting across the barn when Lyons entered a pen containing 40 animals. Once close enough, the goat reared up on its hind legs and gently poked Lyons in the chest with its front hoofs.

The goat then tried to give its reluctant partner a kiss as Lyons pulled back his head and laughed.

Meanwhile, another goat snuck up behind a first-time visitor and began chewing on a jacket sleeve.

Lyons said the animals’ curious and mischievous nature is part of the joy of raising goats.

“In my opinion, a goat has 10 times the personality of a dairy cow,” Lyons said on a snowy day in late January on his farm a few kilometres northwest of Brampton, Ont.

“I often say, it’s like I have a barn full of dogs.

Lyons never planned to become a goat farmer. He grew up on the family dairy farm with his parents, Dave and Judy, but was apathetic about cows and left home in the late 1990s to become a mechanic.

By 2006, Dave was considering re-tirement and asked his son about taking over the family farm, which stretches back seven generations to the 1830s.

Lyons had mixed feelings.

Farm life was appealing because he was tired of commuting to work and dealing with cantankerous clients at the garage, but working with cows was not.

His father suggested an alternative. He had an acquaintance, Bruce Vandenberg, who was a dairy goat farmer and cheese-maker in Lindsay, Ont.

Lyons took a job at Vandenberg’s farm, Mariposa Dairy, to see if dairy goats were worth pursuing. He quickly developed a connection with goats that he never had with cattle.

“Within three months (of work), I knew I was going to milk my own goats.”

Lyons bought 100 goats from Vandenberg in 2009 and moved back to the family farm near Caledon.

He retrofitted an existing barn and was soon producing goat milk for Vandenberg’s cheese plant.

“If you told me 10 years ago I’d be milking goats, I would’ve laughed at you,” Lyons said, sitting in his office inside the barn as a tabby cat rested on the back of an old sofa, pawing a cushion.

His wife, Kelly, helps with goats during kidding time and when she’s on holidays from teaching school.

Lyons spends a lot of time in the barn because he will soon have 500 goats and only one part-time employee.

The milk from 10 dairy goats is comparable to the milk from one cow.

A standard day begins at 5 a.m. and ends around 6 p.m. but becomes much longer than that during kidding season, which typically begins in March.

“Six o’clock (at night) turns into 10 o’clock,” he said.

“I live out here when the goats are having babies.”

Lyons eventually wants to expand his herd to more than 1,000 goats and hire more employees so that he can concentrate on managing the business.

It shouldn’t be difficult to sell the additional goat milk because consumer demand for goat cheese is nearly insatiable.

“Costco’s No. 1 selling cheese in all of North America, out of any type … is a plain, goat (cheese) log,” Lyons said.

“Every year, sales of that cheese grow, on average, by 18 percent…. Cheese sales have just blown up.”

Goat cheese plants in Ontario, such as Woolrich Dairy in Orangeville and Mariposa Dairy in Lindsay, are supplying a substantial chunk of the North American market.

Vandenberg said last year that Ontario probably produces more goat milk than any other state or province in North America.

“In 1990, Ontario produced about two million litres of goat milk and last year (2013) produced 35 million,” he said. “Don’t be surprised if we’re at 50 million litres in the next couple years.”

Lyons said reaching that goal could be more difficult than anticipated because Ontario’s dairy goat industry lacks information on genetics, animal performance and cost of production.

“The opportunities are huge right now,” he said.

“We want all this milk, but how are we going to get there?”

Lyons, who is determined to im-prove the genetics of his goats, has started an artificial insemination program to breed goats for maximum milk production.

He said milking goats is profitable at prices of 85 to 90 cents per litre, provided producers have high performing animals and know their costs. For example, labour can be pricey on goat farms because it requires more manpower than dairy cows.

“Labour on a goat farm is a lot larger.… It’s pretty much two to one.”

Ontario Goat, a producer’s association, commenced a three year project this winter to establish cost of production benchmarks.

“In the future, the margins for producers will be made more on volume and production efficiencies,” said Ontario Goat president Anton Slingerland.

“It is important that producers have a solid understanding of cost control.”

Lyons is determined to be part of the solution and is convinced he made the right decision eight years ago.

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