Empty cow barns filled with milking goats

On the Farm: Buying dairy goats proved to be much more affordable than dairy cows for this young Alberta couple

MORNINGSIDE, Alta. — When Andries and Ellen Boersma direct newcomers to Boersma Goat Dairy, they are sure to tell them to turn into the laneway with the Holstein cow painted on the sign. People have been known to drive on by, which is an understandable mistake.

The Holstein sign was painted by Ellen’s father, Cor de Jong, who operated a dairy here for close to a decade. Similar paintings sit high on the big red barn that dominates the yard; a traditional hip-roofed structure flanked by a 200 x 85 foot metal addition.

De Jong passed away from cancer in 2007. Ellen’s mom, Gerie, owns the half-section farm and lives in her home here just yards from Andries and Ellen, who plan to buy her out in time.

Ellen’s older brother took over the dairy until late 2013.

“He decided it wasn’t for him,” Ellen says.

The cows and quota were sold, and the buyers didn’t take the replacement stock, so Andries and Ellen briefly ventured into that niche market. Due to price fluctuations over many months as the animals matured it proved to be too risky. They sold the heifers.

“The barns were empty,” says Ellen.

Until recently.

Today the barns house 650 pure white Saanen goats. Their salulatory bleating is eager and expressive.

“They’re such joyful animals,” say Ellen. “They’ve very social and very smart.”

Most of the herd arrived Oct. 20 from British Columbia. A year ago, Andries and Ellen started in the industry when they bought 100 young does from the same farm.

“So basically it’s still a closed herd,” says Ellen.

The Boersmas milk 300 does twice daily: 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. It’s about a three-hour process each time. Andries does the morning milk and Ellen takes the evening shift.

The couple said that despite adjusting to a new barn and milking parlour, the does figured things out within just a week or so.

“In the mornings we go out into the barn and they’re waiting for us in the holding area,” says Ellen.

Andries attributes this in part to the beet-pulp ration the does munch on while milking.

The remaining herd is young stock, dry does and kids. There are pregnant nannies to be watched and babies to be bottle fed and then pail fed. Male kids are sold online.

Andries works almost full-time at the farm, other than Saturdays when he makes the 10-minute drive to deliver milk to the processor in Ponoka, Alta. There it becomes part of a larger supply of goat milk and cheese products shipped across Western Canada.

Ellen works about six hours per day at a nearby Holstein dairy.

“We want to eventually have Ellen here full time too,” says Andries. “We think that with about 100 more goats it will work.”

They also expect production per animal will increase once the herd is settled after the stress of their recent move.

The days are long. Andries starts the morning milk while Ellen pail feeds kids before leaving for her off-farm job at 6 a.m. She returns about noon for a cleansing shower before heading back into her own barn for another round of feeding kids. Then later the second milking.

The couple are young and enthusiastic. Andries, 26, and Ellen, 23, just married last summer at the farm, after being together for six years.

They met when Andries first came to Canada for several months as an exchange student in 2011.

“He worked on this very farm,” says Ellen.

Added Andries: “I came back in 2012 and eventually got a permanent residence card.”

He grew up in Dokkum, a town in the Dutch province of Friesland. He worked on dairies in the area. Andries attended college in Leeuwarden, where he completed a dairy cow program.

Their interest in goats started after Andries worked for a couple years at Bos Family Farm.

“I saw he enjoyed it,” says Ellen. “I saw how nice it is to work with goats. And we both really liked the idea of milking.”

A factor contributing to their decision was cost. Buying dairy goats was much more affordable than dairy cows.

Once the couple made the decision to fill the barn with goats they carried out renovations.

“Andries did pretty much everything from installing gates to pouring concrete,” says Ellen. “He built the milking parlour with the help of family and friends.”

The milk is collected in the existing milk tanks.

Because they did so much work themselves they know how things work.

“If something breaks, one of us will know how to fix it,” she adds.

“Everybody is happy about what we’ve done here, to see the barns in use again. The best part about all this is that one day my children will grow up on the same farm as me.”

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