Consumers’ growing appetite for artisanal cheeses and other locally produced goat’s milk fare has the dairy goat industry scrambling to meet the demand.
Although Wisconsin is the nation’s top dairy goat state with more than 46,000 dairy goats in 2014, goat farmers across the state are looking to increase herd numbers.
The demand for goat’s milk wasn’t always this strong, said Clare Hedrich, co-owner of LaClare Farms. The Malone dairy goat operation will expand its milking herd to 1,000 goats.
When Larry and Clare Hedrich purchased a small 22-acre hobby farm near Chilton in 1978, they felt that farm life would teach valuable lessons to their children.
“We felt that if we could teach our children to work, that would be the best gift we could give them,” Clare Hedrich said.
As the small herd of goats continued to increase in number, the family wondered about the feasibility of starting a commercial milking operation.
“We were producing milk and using it ourselves. There really wasn’t anyone willing to travel the extra distance to our farm. It wasn’t until 1996 that we shipped our first load of milk to BressBleu in Watertown,” Clare Hedrich said.
The family’s herd remained at 150 milking does for nearly a decade before the Hedrichs and six other dairy goat farmers created the Quality Dairy Goat Producers Co-op and began supplying quality goat milk to Carr Valley Cheese.
“In the early ‘80s, consumers weren’t at the point where they had a lot of knowledge about the industry or products. Today, they know what they want and a lot about the product and are actively seeking it out,” Clare Hedrich said. “We attribute this to some of the cooking shows that utilize goat cheeses. And, of course, the public is much more world traveled where they’ve had those experiences in other places and are looking for those same experiences when they get back home.”
Traveling in Holland in 2009 to learn more about goats, the Hedrichs and their daughter, Katie, had their eyes opened. They saw the opportunity to grow their goat operation by giving consumers the full experience as a tourist attraction. Today, LaClare Farms is a business and tourist destination that employs 24 people, including four of the Hedrich's five children.
Their oldest daughter, Anna, manages the milking herd, while son, Greg, joined the family operation as the business manager. Katie took her place as an award-winning cheesemaker and another daughter, Jessica, serves as the retail and café manager.
Their youngest, Heather, is just a phone call away to assist with human resource issues, Clare Hedrich said.
“We told our children that if they were interested in going into agriculture, we would do what we could to help them,” she said. “However, we told them it was important for them to get an education first and work for someone else for two years.”
While LaClare Farms farmstead creamery continues to produce Evalon – its signature cheese – along with several other varieties of cheese, milk and yogurt, Clare Hedrich said it’s a balancing act to make sure there’s enough milk to supply their own demand as well as those of their customers.
“Right now, there’s a 20 to 30 percent shortage of goat’s milk. Nobody gets all the milk they want, even us,” Hedrich said. “So that’s the challenge with our marketing. They have to be careful as to how much they go out and sell, as we have to balance the production with the sales. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes in deciding who gets what truckload of milk,” she added.
Because the demand for milk is strong, Hedrich said she’s not a bit surprised by the number of farms increasing their dairy goat herds or start-up operations looking to find a niche in the industry.
Although a goat herd of 1,000 animals may raise eyebrows, Hedrich points out that it takes nearly 10 goats to produce as much milk as one cow.
“No one would think anything of a 100-cow dairy operation,” she said. “But what they don’t realize is just how labor intense a dairy goat operation is. A farmer trims just four hooves on his cow, but we have 40. And that cow normally has just one calf at a time, while my goat is going to give me a single, twins, triplets and even quadruplets.”
Unlike cow’s milk where the price fluctuates month to month, Hedrich said the prices for goat’s milk are set for the year. In response to the milk shortage, goat’s milk producers are paid around $42/cwt.
“Folks say, ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s a lot!’ But when you look at the volume that a goat produces compared to a cow and the amount of labor involved, it balances out,” Hedrich said.
Unfortunately, some people start an operation and don’t realize how labor intensive it is and they decide to close down after a few years, Hedrich said.
“They get started and don’t realize the number of hours is takes,” she said. “Hopefully with some of the larger farms coming it will expand this number out.”
Most goat farmers are content just to milk their herd, but the Hedrich family enjoys being an agvocate for the industry and welcomes the public in experiencing all facets of the industry, from milking time to creating goat cheese to sampling those products.
“We want the consumers to have the full experience while they’re here,” Hedrich said. “That’s the whole idea with our location and what we have set up, so that the consumer can learn more about ag in general and about the dairy goat industry”