May 10, 2021 at 6:31 p.m.
“Goats are in our DNA,” Jean Rossard said. “Our family has always been involved with goats. My father was a cheese maker, making goat cheese, and grandmothers all used to have goats in France and made their own goat cheeses.”
That strong familial link led Jean and his two sons, Simon and Julien, to enter the world of dairy goat farming. The family milks about 250 goats, primarily Saanen, on their Laughing Goat Dairy nestled in the rolling hills of Grant County near Cuba City. About 450 goats call the farm home.
Before becoming dairy goat farmers, Jean was an owner in MontChevre, a well-known goat cheese producer. The plant was sold to Saputo in 2018.
The seed for the idea to begin a dairy goat herd was planted when Simon graduated from high school and was considering options for a future career. “I grew up working in the cheese factory, working there for four or five years in pretty much every area,” Simon said. “Then, I started milking goats for a lady near Darlington. It seemed like a good idea. I really liked the idea of milking goats.”
As the idea began to take root in his son’s head, Jean realized that he himself was not as ready for retirement as he had thought when MontChevre was sold, and he decided to join his sons in a new family caprine venture.
The Rossards took over the herd Simon was working with in 2019 and rented that facility while locating their future farm.
“It was a good way to start,” Jean said. “It was a good way to share my knowledge of goats with the next generation.”
The Rossards’ farm consists of about 60 acres, 30 of which are tillable. They grow grass hay and wheat for straw bedding.
Once they found their new location, a former dairy cow farm, the Rossards set about retrofitting the facility to meet the needs of their goat herd.
The free stalls were removed from the freestall barn, creating bedding packs for the goat herd. At the Darlington farm, the Rossards milked in a double-16, rapid-exit parlor, but they knew they wanted to find a more efficient system.
The Rossards toured a variety of farms throughout the U.S., Canada and France to look at milking systems. The family eventually decided to install a 60-stall Waikato rotary parlor.
“We were impressed with how simple and accessible everything was on the Waikato rotary,” Jean said. “It was a complete deck and very light; everything was made of stainless steel, plastic and rubber. It seemed very operator-friendly.”
The parlor, which had been ordered and delivered from New Zealand, was nearing completion when the coronavirus pandemic began ramping up in the U.S. The Rossards moved their herd into the newly-renovated farm and fired up the rotary for the first milking April 23, 2020.
Once the Rossards began using their rotary, they quickly learned it was indeed operator-friendly. At peak speed and efficiency, the rotary is capable of milking about 500 goats per hour. The rotary is also labor-efficient, with one operator being able to handle the milking duties.
“It is very easy to fix if there is ever a problem,” Simon said. “We don’t experience a lot of downtime.”
The Rossards are learning to use the data provided by the parlor, including production information. Each goat is identified with RFID tags. The goats are fed grain during milking, which is distributed automatically, based on computer data attached to the RFID.
The Rossards have expansion plans, but they want to take their entry into dairying with goats slow.
“We want to keep doing what we are doing and do that very well,” Jean said. “Once we get to that point, we can begin to grow progressively.”
Eventually the Rossards would like to grow their herd to approximately 1,000 milking goats, which will require them to build an additional barn.
According to the Rossards, goats are highly seasonal, which means few goats are milking throughout the winter. That creates a high premium on winter milk, an area of revenue which the Rossards are looking to capture.
“Milking during the winter is more work, but it is also very lucrative,” Jean said. “While the feed bill is down when the goats are not milking, there are still a lot of bills that need to be paid year-round and that can be difficult with no milk income over the winter.”
To take advantage of this, the Rossards are planning to use the production data gathered from the new parlor to help identify their best goats. They would like to extend the lactations of a group of their 60 best goats and extend their lactations, not breeding them and keeping them milking throughout the winter months.
Jean said the practice of extending lactations is not common in the United States but is used by producers in Europe. In addition to creating a source of winter milk, without the challenges of winter-kidding, Rossard said the practice decreases the number of times the goat goes through the trauma of giving birth.
“Birthing is hard on them,” Jean said, explaining that a doe carrying two kids is standard. “We always lose some due to kidding.”
Due to the small size of the goats, complications in delivery can be much more difficult to handle, and C-sections are sometimes required.
In addition to the milking herd, the Rossards are diversifying their operation by breeding and raising meat goats, taking advantage of growing market demands for goat meat.
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