(First published in the September 26, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Wisconsin leads the nation in goat milk production. Meet some local farmers who’ve turned to this new industry.
Wisconsin’s 83,500+ dairy goats (on 1,029 farms) far surpasses California’s 43,000, the second-leading producer of goat milk
Tom and Kari Riley have raised goats for about six years now, and shipping their milk for nearly three. Their farm outside of Amherst includes several pen areas for their colorful herd of goats, some bright white, some brown and others patterned. A few in the breeding pen sport horns and gnarly hipster-like beards.
The Rileys didn’t always focus on goats. Until recently they operated a certified organic dairy farm—as in cows. But frankly, goats are easier. They’re smaller, and moving them isn’t much of a problem. Simply walk the direction you want them to go, and they follow. They love people and want to be around them, Kari Riley says.
She recalls one day when she left the farm and got a call shortly thereafter from a neighbor, telling her that some of her goats had gotten out. When Riley returned, the neighbor was standing in her driveway, surrounded by a herd of about 60 goats and a little freaked out that so many animals crowded around her.
Their proclivity for human interaction was apparent on a recent visit to the Riley farm. A small white goat followed the couple around on a tour, and all it took was walking up to the pen to coax a number of goats to poke their faces over the top or even stand on their hind legs to get a look at me.
Goat’s milk is easier to digest for people who have trouble with cow’s milk. It’s naturally homogenized; while the cream (fat) in cow’s milk floats to the top, it stays incorporated in goat’s milk. The taste is pretty similar to cow’s milk. Goat’s cheese has long been a celebrated delicacy. And goat waste is, well, less wasteful. Their little manure pellets make great fertilizer, and are much easier to handle.
All of that might be why goats are hot in Wisconsin right now. Wisconsin lost its dairy mantle to California a number of years ago, and dairy farmers in the state are struggling, along with farms altogether. According to a recent report from the American Farm Bureau Federation, 45 farms in Wisconsin filed for bankruptcy between July 2018 and June of this year — more than any other state in the country. The next highest, Kansas, had 39 bankruptcies in that period, and Minnesota had 31.
A more positive statistic: Wisconsin leads the nation in dairy goats and production. Its 83,500+ dairy goats (on 1,029 farms) far surpass California’s 43,000, the second-leading producer of goat milk.
Could more goats be in Wisconsin’s future?
The Rileys weren’t immune to the troubles that have hit family dairy farms in recent years. According to a GoFundMe page set up for them in May, the Rileys were in danger of losing their farm after a hard winter and a medical emergency Tom experienced. The post references their transition from cow to goat milk, and that it takes time to realize gains. So far, about $12,850 was raised to help the Rileys, and according to a post on the page, the money helped them pay off their debts and get back on track. “We are humbled by all of your generosity of funds, prayers of support and cards of encouragement. This has been the most challenging year ever in our farming careers,” they wrote.
Annual milk production has mostly steadily increased since the 1930s from 11.2 billion pounds to 30.6 billion in 2018. But while that’s been happening, the number of dairy farms has decreased from 167,000 farms in the 1930s to less than 8,000 today.
What’s that mean? The dairy industry has shifted from smaller farms to more large-scale dairy operations called CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation) with more than 1,000 animal units. Total farmland has also decreased.
Agriculture in all forms is still an important part of Wisconsin’s economy. The state’s 64,793 farms contributed $104.8 billion to the state’s economy, and accounts for 435,700 jobs or 11.8% of the state’s employment.
One of the main factors in the decline of dairy farms is the glut of milk on the market, caused by increased production in the U.S. and abroad, driving prices down. From 2000 to 2018, Wisconsin increased its production by 7 billion pounds, and California increased it by 8 billion. That led to increased exports, but other countries also increased their exports. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, India ramped up its dairy production 121% between 2000 and 2017; Pakistan by 73%, and China by 181%. China was the No. 3 export market of U.S. milk in 2018. With the new trade war and tariffs, that’s likely to change. Cheese sales to China, for example, dropped nearly in half between 2018 (a peak year) and 2019. The tariffs vary per dairy product, but some like whey products or butter nearly doubled.
Could goats be the answer?
Tom and Kari Riley have roughly 300 goats on their farm in the Amherst area, and plan to grow their milking head from 80 to about 300.
Cows aren’t the only animals that produce milk. Goat farms are on the rise, and Wisconsin leads the nation in both total number of milk goats, as well as total value of milk production—about $4.6 million as of 2017. The number of dairy goats in the state increased 222% since 2002, while most other livestock either declined or remained flat in that 15-year period, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Even a Food Business News article in 2018 noted how dairy goat milk and cheese continues to see steady growth in the U.S.
But it’s still not an easy rode. Rose Boero milked goats for 25 years. Goats can be challenging. They need to be milked at least twice a day, just like cows. She never sold the milk commercially, just to a few friends. She did make cheese with a lot of the milk and often gave it away, since she wasn’t a licensed cheesemaker at the time (she is now). She once sold a little milk to a neighbor girl in tears because her rat was sick; the vet told her goat’s milk might help.
Boero later she moved to Custer, just east of Stevens Point, and got her cheesemaker’s license, taking classes in River Falls and Madison. Building her own cheesemaking facility was out of the question because of the expense, so she started making cheese out of a larger facility in Berlin—about an hour drive from her farm—which lets her operate a small vat in their larger building.
She was milking the goats and driving to Berlin but it all got to be too much. It was easier to use goat or cow’s milk from the facility to make her small batches of cheese she sells. Her milk goats are currently dry, she says, and will stay that way unless she finds someone to milk them. “I’m at a point where I either need to go big, or go home,” Boero says.
Big seems to be the name of the game. Gerrid Franke says a goat milk operation was in his original plan several years ago when he started Half Moon Hill Farm and Winery near Hamburg (northwest of Wausau). But after crunching the numbers, he realized he would need a much bigger herd than he initially thought to be profitable. Which also meant more acreage than he currently had. Franke says he instead focused on raising lamb meat, and now has expanded to meads and ciders.
Boero has a cousin who raises dairy goats in the Fox Valley area outside of Appleton, with the kind of scale to make it work. The farm’s hundreds of goats help supply milk to the nationally acclaimed, award-winning LaClare Family Creamery, located about 13 miles north of Fond du Lac, on the east side of Lake Winnebago.
Bice’s Critter Ranch, in Vesper (8 miles northwest of Wisconsin Rapids), has some dairy goats, but mostly to provide milk for the shampoos and soaps they make, Cindy Bice says.
Goat forth into the future
Goats can be a pretty environmentally friendly operation, says Marathon County Land and Water Program Director Paul Daigle. He worked with a 450-goat meat operation in Athens that Daigle says was very efficient.
But, Daigle says, he also worked with a goat dairy farm that had everything confined to a single feedlot, with no grazing, and had runoff problems.
One benefit of goats, Daigle as well as the Rileys point out, is that they are efficient, not only with their waste, but in how they convert feed into meat or milk — much more so than cows.
But are scale concerns overblown? There are about 300 goats on the Riley’s farm, including 80 milking goats, young kids and breeding males. Most of the goats are within a pretty small space. The Rileys want to eventually allow them to pasture, but you need pretty good fencing, much more elaborate than with cows. “They’re little escape artists,” Kari Riley says.
The goal is eventually to get up to 300 milking goats, Kari says. They currently ship their milk to Saputo, a Canadian company that makes goat’s cheese.
They were lucky to get in on the trend, Kari says. Like cow milk, the goat dairy field is a bit flooded right now. Saputo, for example, isn’t taking any more producers right now, Kari says.
But goat milk is only part of the benefit. Goats are also great for meat. Unlike steers, which take two years to reach an age appropriate for beef, goats can reach that age within one year, so can get to market quicker.
It might take a change of perception though. While goats are popular for meat in many countries, the U.S. isn’t one of them, Kari says. It’s the No. 1 meat consumed in just about every other country except the U.S., she says. “I think it’s a very good flavor,” Kari says.
And another benefit of goat milk, both Kari and Boero say, is that if other animals are fed goat’s milk, their meat will taste delicious. And it helps cut costs buying grain to feed them. “Pigs that are fed any milk make wonderful, tasty meat,” Kari says.
Goats are even finding their way to the yoga scene. Starwood Farms in Ringle featured a class called Yoga with Goats, featuring smaller varieties.
That makes sense. After all, as Kari says, they like being near people. And they’re fun little critters to spend time with.