Chances are that when people hear the word "Wisconsin" they think about dairy cows and cheese. (Oh, a few might think about football and the Packers.) The description of Wisconsin as being America's Dairyland has long been used to describe the state and visions of cows grazing, alongside a pretty red barn being tended by a straw-hatted farmer in overalls and his wife wearing a bonnet and long skirt come to mind.
Nowadays however, many dairy cows are lounging in a temperature controlled, white-colored freestall barn, straw hats are few and far between, bonnets went out a couple of generations ago and the fastest growing (in terms of numbers) animals giving milk today may be dairy goats.
Yes, those cute little animals that one often sees in little enclosures at June Dairy breakfasts on the farm or on hobby farms owned by retired city folks who have them as pets or for grandchildren to show at the county fair.
No, not those type of hobby goats, rather, goats that are milked in parlors as a major farming enterprise for a profit.
Wisconsin now claims some 45,000 dairy goats in a couple hundred herds making it the number one dairy goat state, even ahead of California.
Wisconsin is also the manufacturing home of Montchevre, the largest goat cheesemaker in the U.S. with its one dairy plant at Belmont in Lafayette County. (The company, however, is officially headquartered in California.)
Although dairy goats have been a part of the Wisconsin agricultural scene for decades, goat dairying has always a very small aspect of the state's dairy industry for a couple reasons: The lack of viable goat milk processors and shortage of serious goat dairies meant the economics of goat dairying the economics didn't work.
Times have changed
Many attribute the arrival of Arnaud Solandt, a California-based veteran marketer of goat cheese for a French company, who had a vision that good goat milk cheese could be made and marketed from Wisconsin milk, for the recent growth in goat cheese consumption.
In 1989, Solandt pursued his vision, and along with third generation French cheesemaker Jean Rossard, established Montchevre (French for mountain and goat) and began making goat cheese in a small building at Preston, a crossroads community east of Lancaster.
The first few years were not easy for the new company but sales grew as the company began making fresh goat cheese, a product more attuned to US consumers tastes, Solandt says.
By 1992 sales were on an upward trend as consumers found Montchevre cheeses. It was also a time when consumers began eating a Mediterranean diet, which included olive oil, fruits, vegetables, breads, cereals and goat cheese. "I really think that was our biggest boost," Solandt said.
By 1995, Montchevre had outgrown its facility and the company moved to a vacant cheese factory in Belmont. Since then, the company story has centered on growth.
Jean Rossard, vice president and plant manager at Montchevre (montchevre.com
or 608-762-58780) now oversees some 200 employees and has managed almost continuous plant expansion including its own anaerobic digester to handle wastes.
Rossard explains that Montchevre goat cheese first found its market in health food stores, moved into cheese specialty shops and now can be found in most major supermarkets.
Meanwhile the number of goat dairies in Wisconsin and across the Midwest has been on an upward track as has the number of milking goats per farm.
Last year Montchevre processed some 70 million pounds of milk from 340 farms in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri into over 8 million pounds of cheese.
Growth and demand
Jesse Ramaker, a UW-Platteville graduate and the Montchevre field representative (608-762-5886) in Wisconsin explains that for many years milking goat farms were mainly a hobby but not anymore as dairy producers on small farms see the possibilities in goats.
He explains that his farmers are paid a base price of about $35 per hundred with premiums for quantity, quality, butterfat and protein. "We raised the price $1.50 per hundred during last summer's drought," Ramaker says. "Many of our producers have small land bases and found it difficult to find feed."
"A herd of 300 milking goats is the minimum number a commercial would need," Ramaker says. "We are certainly looking for more producers."
Rossard agrees with the need for more goat milk producers.
"Our cheese sales are increasing at 15 percent per year," he says. "Our company is here for the long term and we see goat dairying as a viable enterprise for farmers who don't want to or can't make a major dairy expansion. Goats take less feed, less land, and less investment."
Back to the farm
Shawn and Tracy Graham milk 330 goats at their "Prairieland Acres LLC between Belmont and Darlington. Both worked fulltime: Tracy at a vet clinic in Darlington and Shawn as a dairy equipment sales representative before making the decision to return to the farm fulltime in 2009.
They are well pleased with their five years milking goats and will soon expand their herd by 100 or so by building a new barn is space formerly occupied by a building that recently blew down.
Shawn admits that while his experience milking cows as a youth is a big help, milking goats is different. "Goats are curious and smart," he says. "They will tear a building apart if you don't watch them closely. Nevertheless, we are in it to stay."
Ramaker and Graham agree that the best source of information for dairy goat breeders are other dairy goat raisers and that research information regarding genetics, feeding and management are few and far between.
Montchevre produces some 50 varieties of cheeses that are made under the most sanitary and spotless conditions in Belmont and the marketing is handled out of the California office by company president Solandt.
Belmont Village Clerk/Treasurer Alice Gilman says her town of 950 people is fortunate to be home to two major cheese processors: Montchevre and the French owned Lactalis USA just down the street. "I think they employ over 500 people between them," she says.
Montchevre came from nowhere in 1989 to become one of the nation's top goat cheese processors today and looks toward continued growth. Add the increasing number of cheese factories now making goat milk cheese and the growing demand for the cheese. This means opportunity for Wisconsin dairy producers who make goat milk their dairy product of choice. Why not?
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.