September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Dairying once again - at 1/10 the scale

Goats replace cows at the Christen farm
The Christen goat herd consists of Saanen, Alpine, LaMancha, Toggenburg, Nubian and Oberhasli breeds. The main herd is housed in three pens within the Christens’ dairy barn that once housed 70 milk cows. (Photo by Jennifer Burgraff)
The Christen goat herd consists of Saanen, Alpine, LaMancha, Toggenburg, Nubian and Oberhasli breeds. The main herd is housed in three pens within the Christens’ dairy barn that once housed 70 milk cows. (Photo by Jennifer Burgraff)

By By Jennifer Burggraff- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

ALBANY, Minn. - Dennis and June Christen are up at the crack of dawn every morning to milk their dairy herd. While June works in the parlor, Dennis brings the animals up, keeping the flow steady and feeding when he gets a chance between groups.
Unlike most dairy farmers, however, the Christens aren't met with the 'mooing' of cattle when they enter their barn each morning. They are met with the 'maaing' of goats - nearly 200 of them.
Since January of 2008, Dennis and June have been milking dairy goats on their farm near Albany, Minn., and while it was an unexpected career change, it was one that brought them back to the farm and into the dairy industry once again.
"They say goats are about one-tenth of cows - one-tenth the size, one-tenth the feed," Dennis said. "... They're fun."
Dennis grew up on his family's dairy farm, eventually taking it over and milking 70 cows for the next 28 years. But when his children grew up and left home, so did the cows. That was in April of 2004.
"It was too much work," Dennis said of his decision to sell the herd.
The following month, in May 2004, he and June met. For the next three years they built log homes throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, but the constant being away from home began to wear on them.
"Building log homes isn't something you do in Stearns County," Dennis said. "I was gone from Monday through Friday every week."
"We couldn't take care of our piece of heaven here," June said, referring to their farm. "He (Dennis) needed to farm. He wanted to be here taking care of animals."
In fall of 2007, Dennis was reading a newspaper article when an idea suddenly struck him - the idea of milking dairy goats. It was an option had never considered.
"I had no idea people were milking goats around us," Dennis said.
Three visits to central Minnesota dairy goat farms had both Dennis and June - who did not grow up on a farm and had no dairy experience - enthusiastic about the prospect of raising and milking dairy goats.
In December 2007, the Christens started renovating their barn to accommodate goats. The tiestalls were taken out and replaced with three large pens. At the north end, a swing-8 parlor and holding pen were put in. The equipment was purchased new, as used goat milking equipment is hard to come by, they said.
The Christens purchased 118 dairy goats - what they thought was one herd - but later learned was put together from several different herds.
"I didn't even look at the herd [before buying them]. I wouldn't do that again," Dennis said.
The goats arrived the last week of January 2008. On the way, one doe freshened, giving the Christens their first two kids. As more freshened, the Christens milked the does on a makeshift stand for the first two weeks while they finished the parlor. Having animals back in the barn was a welcome feeling.
"It was exciting," Dennis said, smiling.
Unfortunately, 30 of the 118 does were not bred.
"That just killed us that first year," Dennis said. "... We struggled. If it weren't for our crop farming, I don't know if we would have made it."
Purchasing another 40 goats from a friend helped cash flow, and words of wisdom from other goat dairy farmers helped with the steep learning curve of switching from cows to goats.
"The basics are the same but there's a lot that's different," Dennis said.
They faced another major challenge in July 2010, when their Canada-based processor, Woolwich Dairy Inc., did not renew their contracts with them and 17 other goat farmers from central Minnesota. The Christens and their fellow farmers spent the next few months trying to locate a market for their milk. In the meantime, they purchased calves to feed the milk to. Much of it, however, was dumped into their manure pit.
"I said, 'This is the stupidest thing I've ever done. This is not right.' But we had to do something with it to keep the goats milking," Dennis said.
"We were that close to selling the herd. We even had someone come out and look at them," June said.
That same night, in November 2010, the Christens received a call that a market had been found through MontChevre in Belmont, Wis. The remaining goat farmers - down to six - formed Minnesota Goat Milk LLC and began shipping to MontChevre in February 2011.
Even with a market, things weren't smooth sailing. Exorbitant hauling costs pushed the Christens to switch processors in July 2010 when Stickney Hill Dairy Farms, a goat milk processing plant near Kimball, Minn., was looking for more goat milk.
"We hated to leave the LLC, but we had to look at it as a business decision," June said.
The Christens have been shipping to Stickney Hill since, but with recent pricing reports from both Stickney Hill and MontChevre - and the opportunity to be back with their goat "family" - the Christens are planning on rejoining the LLC.
Dennis and June milk their herd twice a day. They are currently milking around 40, but by May that number will be up to nearly 200.
"It's going to get real busy here real quick," Dennis said.
The Christens' goats are separated into five pens, with one pen bred each month from August to January. Those bred in August begin to kid in January.
"So when we are drying off one pen we have another pen coming in," Dennis said.
The Christens use Saanen and Alpine bucks for breeding, getting away from the completely mixed herd.
"We've tried other breeds but Saanens and Alpines are the Cadillacs," Dennis said.
They raise all of their replacement animals and sell the baby bucks, though with an emerging market, June is considering feeding some out to sell for meat.
The lactating herd is fed a ration of corn, oats and a protein supplement through automatic feeders in the parlor. The dry goats are fed a lesser amount of grain, and all the animals receive free choice dry hay, salt and minerals. The Christens raise the majority of their feedstuffs on their 400 acres of land.
While their career as goat dairy farmers has been a roller coaster, it's been one both Dennis and June have enjoyed.
"I love being here on the farm," June said. "I love working with the goats. It's rewarding."
Although it's been challenging, they are optimistic about the future of the dairy goat industry.
"I believe the gate is just opening. People are getting into it more and more," June said.
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