For many farmers, there’s a belief that you have to “Go big or go home.” Yet Ian and Vicki Mayberry take a different approach on their farm near Ingersoll, Ont.
They like the size they’re at with 170 milking goats plus offspring, so instead of expanding they are looking to maximize production with their current setup.
It seems to be paying off. Since they began milking goats in 2005 at their Mayberry Hill Farm, they’ve seen their annual milk production climb from 800 to the farm’s current 1,200 kg per goat, a 50 per cent increase in just over a decade.
Yet Ian knows it needs to be a deliberate choice. “I can’t really expand without building a new barn,” he explains. “After spending so many years with an Oxford County-sized mortgage, we can finally see that there will in fact be an end to it. I have no interest in going into debt to that level again. There are too many other interesting things to do in life.”
Those other things in life include life away from the farm. For instance, Vicki and Ian do lots of training and racing for duathlons and triathlons, which opens up many new travelling options.
“If I did expand I would be able to afford a full-time employee, but that means I would have twice as much work on the weekends to do,” Ian says. “Once in a while when I have a great employee, such as now, I seriously consider expanding, but generally procrastination keeps me from doing anything too drastic.”
It’s a statement that hints at a kind of restlessness that comes over most farmers. Shouldn’t I keep growing?
Ian tackles the question head on. “I find myself in an odd position. I am extremely happy with the way the things are going right now. Over the last few years the farm has performed like I always imagined it should.”
It has taken more than a decade of hard work to get to that point, yet he wonders whether he shouldn’t keep that burst of energy going, even though land in his part of Ontario is prohibitively expensive.
Instead, he and Vicki have focused on technology and marketing in order to achieve their dreams within their current limits.
It has been a multi-pronged effort. There are multiple reasons for their sustained increases in production. For instance, they have adopted artificial insemination (AI) for their replacement nannies with a focus on increased production and longevity. Also, they have switched to a TMR ration and they are striving for a CAE negative herd. (CAE, short for caprine arthritis encephalitis, is a type of arthritis common in Ontario goat herds that affects lung and udder health and can severely impact milk production.)
These advances have been achieved with the help of a good team of advisers. “Having a good relationship with your support team is essential,” says Ian. “You have to go into the relationship with a level of trust. You have to understand that the nutritionist is not going to be able to get you the cheapest feed every time you call for a load, but they should have an understanding of how and why you do things on your farm and help you work towards your goals.”
In addition to the feed company, Ian credits his agronomist and veterinarian for playing key roles in the farm’s success.
The path to success has not always been straight or easy. As a young man, Ian didn’t think he wanted to farm. Then he headed to Australia where he worked on a 12,000-acre wheat farm. While travelling in Australia, he met Vicki and once they settled down and had their first child, the desire to give their children the same kind of upbringing that Ian had growing up on the farm took root.
Ian and Vicki and their newborn son returned to his family’s farm in 2003 but by then the dairy cows and quota had already been gone for seven years. Ian’s father was ready to retire from farming, so the Mayberrys grew cash crops on the farm’s 170 workable acres while they figured out their next steps.
They considered several different livestock enterprises, and while both dairy and chickens had appeal, the high cost of quota was a big deterrent. They almost went into pigs but in the end it was the availability of a goat herd that tipped the scales towards dairy goats.
They started with just 70 goats, mostly Saanen and Alpine breeds, and Vicki recalls how tough it was those first few months. The goats took a long time to freshen up and for several weeks there wasn’t enough milk to warrant a truck coming to pick it up, she says. Although it was hard, Ian says it was good not to start with too many goats at once. Caring for the kids, usually twins and triplets, is a lot of work. They also had a big learning curve since neither had experience with goats.
Eventually they bought another 100 milking goats, bringing their total to 170, which is a good number for them to manage with just the two of them plus help from one part-time employee and their two children, now 11 and 12.
Even with the additions they’ve put on the original barn, it will only comfortably accommodate about 200 milking goats, adds Ian.
Ian was never happy with the original parlour they had installed, a double 18 with a low milk line. “If you only have one person milking this type of setup is terribly inefficient. You have half the milkers sitting idle while you chase animals in or out of the other side of the parlour,” he says. Ian likens the equipment to an English sports car. “It was great when it worked.”
Last summer he had a new highline parlour with a swing over system installed. “Now all of the milkers are working almost all of the time,” says Ian.
In 2010, Ian and Vicki participated in GoGen, a project of Ontario Goat, a producer organization. With funding from the Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program (CAAP), the focus of the three-year pilot program was herd health protocols and breed evaluation through registration, milk recording, young sire testing, genetic evaluation, type classification and assessment of artificial insemination use.
Ontario Goat is an important source of information, says Ian. “They have excellent producer education days where they bring in world-class speakers from Canada, the U.S., as well as Europe and New Zealand. They come and they share information about their industries, both turmoil and triumphs.”
GoGen was a cost-share program so Ian says he jumped at the opportunity. To eradicate CAE, they rented a barn from a neighbour down the road. The new babies were taken away from their mothers right away (CAE is passed from the mother to her young through milk and bodily fluids) and took them to the rented barn where they were fed pasteurized colostrum and milk replacer. After doing that for two years, they sold their original herd, cleaned out the barn, and moved all the CAE negative animals back home.
The GoGen project was a success not only for Ian and Vicki but across the board. Among the dozen participating producers, farms were able to increase their milk production by five per cent with the increased level of management.
While initially focusing on production for genetic improvements through artificial insemination, after the GoGen project, Ian began looking more closely at all traits when selecting sires. In particular, he wanted to focus on the overall stature of the nannies. “This is extremely important as goats get older they tend to give birth to twins and triplets. With that many babies in there, there isn’t much room for anything else and it can be difficult to get a goat to consume enough to keep herself and her babies healthy in the last couple of weeks of pregnancy.”
Paying attention to genetics can pay off quickly with goats. By the time they are nine or 10 months old, they are full grown and sexually mature. “Gestation is only five months so in barely over a year, you can have a brand new line of genetics in your herd,” he says.
Ian has done some work with embryo transfers but without success so far. He would like to try more embryo transfers in the future.
Goats are seasonal breeders so it’s a challenge to have them breed at different times of the year in order to maintain milk production year-round. While there are medications that can help, the Mayberrys had their best success using artificial light to encourage breeding. By exposing the nannies to 16 to 18 hours of light each day for a period of 60 days, the goats will come into heat.
In addition to the CAE, the other health challenge with goats is to prevent them from getting listeriosis, a deadly infection caused by listeria bacteria. They are highly susceptible to the bacteria which may be present in silage so they remain very vigilant.
The Mayberrys also keep a dozen Belgian Blue beef cattle to eat any feed which is not suitable for the goats. The Belgian Blue cattle are a good complement to the goats, says Ian. Not only are they able to eat feed of a lesser quality such as hay that’s been rained on, their temperament is the opposite of the goats. While the goats are very active, the Belgian Blue cattle have a very calm temperament, he explains.
The outlook for the goat milk industry remains rosy. Milk demand is strong, as is demand for young goats. For now, says Ian, it means the Mayberrys can stay the course with their management strategy.
But, he admits, he’ll keep his eyes open. “I worry about becoming complacent,” he says. “But now we are in the position that we had been working towards for the last 12 or 13 years.”
This article was originally published as “How big” in the March 29, 2016 issue of Country Guide