There are plenty of jokes shared among cow dairymen that praise one breed at the expense of another, but at the bottom of the heap in nearly every joke is the lowly goat.
Lowly in stature compared to their bovine sisters perhaps, but America’s dairy goats are making headway in the dairy industry as contenders for the attention of cheese-savvy consumers.
Milk goats were brought to the New World 300 years ago by its first English settlers in Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, and by Spanish explorers nearly two centuries before that in the American Southwest. The animals were gregarious, easy keepers, infinitely more transportable than cattle and could consistently deliver as many as three or four offspring annually.
The young, in turn, would produce milk and meat within one year of birth. Dairy goats became the mainstay of small homesteads and were as much a part of diversified farming as pigs and chickens. A USDA census in 1900 estimated dairy goat numbers at 1.2 million.
As early as the 1890s, the USDA’s Bureau of Animal Industry was promoting development of purebred registries and improved milk production genetics for what until then had been a mixed bag of goat parentage. A history of the American Dairy Goat Association said the first purebred Toggenburgs were imported in 1893.
It took another 11 years for 16 more Toggenburgs and 10 Saanens to enter the country. Today, recognized dairy goat breeds include Toggenburgs and Saanens plus Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian, Oberhasli, Sable Saanen and Nigerian Dwarf.
Dairy goat owners have always considered themselves part of the dairy industry but, historically speaking, goats have been on the fringe. They are most popular in parts of the world where growing conditions and space aren’t conducive to raising cattle.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated nearly 994 million goats worldwide in 2016, with the numbers increasing at a rate of 2.4 percent a year, but the U.S. was not even listed among the top 10 goat milk-producing nations.
Numbers have been notoriously difficult to come by for the U.S., where the data don’t clearly separate the sheep from the goats, the commercial from the pet or the milkers from the meat animals. The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistic Service (NASS) reported 290,789 head of milk goats in the U.S. inventory in 2002 and a 15 percent increase by 2007, when there were 334,754 head.
According to NASS, there were 373,000 head of milk goats and kids in U.S. inventory Jan. 1, 2017, unchanged from 2016. New figures for 2017 will be released Jan. 31.
Wisconsin has the most goats – 44,000 at the beginning of 2017, according to NASS – and claims to produce the most milk. A 2009 NASS collaboration with Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) estimated the state’s 180 herds operating at that time produced 35.1 million pounds of milk the previous year.
This past November, DATCP’s acting secretary, Jeff Lyon, updated those numbers to 342 licensed goat milk producers in the state and nearly 50,000 milk goats.
For 2017, NASS lists California second in goat numbers with 41,000, up from 39,000 in 2016. A University of California – Davis publication from 2009 said the numbers of commercial milking herds there are hard to come by because names and locations of licensed herds are not made public. In 2009, researchers estimated 50 to 60 commercial goat herds. Five of them had 1,000 or more head.
In January 2017, Iowa had 30,000 head, Texas had 22,000, and Maine and Pennsylvania had approximately 14,000 head each.
Goats have been snubbed as “the poor man’s cow,” but elevated as “the universal mother” because of their highly digestible milk. It was that digestibility that opened doors in both Wisconsin and California to what can be considered today as a viable dairy goat industry.
At the beginning of the 1930s, Harold Jackson in southern California found his young son, Robert, was allergic to cow milk but could drink goat milk without problems. In 1934, Harold bought a goat herd from Swiss immigrant John Meyenberg. Meyenberg milk was initially sold to hospitals and pharmacies but, today, is the country’s only nationally distributed fluid goat milk. Meyenberg also markets powdered product in the U.S. and abroad.
In Wisconsin, Harvey Considine was looking for milk his son, Daniel, could tolerate. Daniel established his own herd and began marketing cheese in 1965 and fluid milk in 1973. Almost a dozen siblings in the Considine family have contributed in the past or present in some way to the state’s growing goat dairy industry.
While early demand was for Grade A fluid milk – then, mostly a limited audience with health concerns – cheese milk is driving the industry today. According to figures from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, sales of goat milk cheese were up 8 percent in January 2017 over January 2016 with 9.7 million pounds sold.
Goat cheese sales by volume have risen steadily over the past six years. DATCP’s Jeff Lyon said Wisconsin now has about 31 milk processors making goat milk products.
As goats step into the limelight, big players in the dairy processing industry are joining the chorus line. In California, the Swiss dairy cooperative Emmi bought the country’s first major goat cheese company, Cypress Grove Chevre, in 2010; Redwood Hill Farm goat dairy in 2015; boutique goat cheesemaker Cowgirl Creamery in 2016; and Meyenberg Goat Milk Products, with its access to national fluid and powder milk markets, last January.
In Wisconsin, Montreal-based cheese manufacturer Saputo bought Woolwich, North America’s largest goat cheese manufacturer with two plants in Canada and one in Wisconsin. This past November, Saputo announced it was acquiring Betin/Montchevre, which is Wisconsin’s largest goat cheese manufacturer.
The U.S. goat dairy industry will have some challenges to overcome before it can pick up speed, said Mariana Marques de Almeida, senior animal scientist with Ms. J and Co., which is focused on developing the small-ruminant industry in the U.S. She says there are really two dairy goat industries in the country.
One is the industry begun in 1904 to improve goat genetics. Its participants have small hobby/show herds with good breeding programs but spoiled animals that produce extremely well but probably wouldn’t do as well if put in a commercial setting.
And then there is the commercial dairy goat industry, which is fast-growing but needs help with genetic improvement programs applicable to commercial production and with technical support for things like housing, herd management, feeding and reproduction. It is also very hard to find commercial goat equipment in the U.S., Marques de Almeida said.
In addition, producers will also have to get a handle on creative ways to market cull does and unnecessary buck kids because sexed semen is still down the road for dairy goats.
Many of the growing pains and challenges of the young dairy goat industry sound very much like those of a now-mature cow industry. The question for the future will be what species will be the butt of jokes in the next iteration of the U.S. dairy industry.
Sara Bredesen, a freelance writer from central Wisconsin, has a 35-year history with goats and is co-author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats.