Goat Sector Growing, Herds Need to be in Top Shape

Photo courtesy of Paula Menzies

What did you do on your most recent vacation? Ski? Go south? Binge-watch Netflix?

Not Dr. Paula Menzies. She spent her vacation writing the final chapters of a book…on udder health for dairy goats.

It wasn’t especially relaxing. And it won’t end up being a best seller on Amazon or Chapters. But the book, released last month at the Ontario Goat annual conference in Woodstock, is the first of its kind in Canada to support this vitally important part of the rapidly expanding goat industry.

“Ontario is quickly becoming the North American leaders in goat milk production,” says Ontario Goat executive director Jennifer Haley. “It’s a very exciting time for the industry’s evolution.”

Menzies says if the goat dairy sector is going to grow in a sustainable fashion and take advantage of its increasing popularity, producers – with the help of veterinarians — need to pay close attention to their herd’s health. If they don’t, it’s a house of cards.

Menzies, a professor of ruminant health management in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, is trying to make producers’ jobs more clear-cut with the guide, which she wrote in her spare time (including vacations) over the past four years. Four colleagues contributed: Dr. Jocelyn Jansen, Michael Forman and Phillip Wilman, from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), and PhD candidate Colleen Fitzpatrick, now at the University of Saskatchewan.

Photo courtesy of Paula Menzies.

Photo courtesy of Paula Menzies.

The result of their effort – which was supported by the partnership program between the University of Guelph and OMAFRA, Ontario Goat and Hewitt’s Dairy — is a weighty 200-page spiral-bound tome, appropriately called A Guide to Udder Health for Dairy Goats.

But despite its size, Menzies says it’s not the definitive document, not a technical manual and not a reference book.

Rather, it’s meant to guide Ontario’s 250 or so licensed goat milk producers through a well-rounded udder health management regime, and keep both producers and livestock vital.

Indeed, dairy goats — which Menzies notes “are not little versions of dairy cows” — have their own unique needs and special problems, ones that are not always mirrored in dairy cattle.

For example, goats are particularly susceptible to Johne’s disease. They also suffer from an infectious abortion issue. As well, they are prone to chronic wasting (sometimes called thin goat syndrome). And ketosis can be prevalent in late pregnancy. For problems related to udder health, the dairy goat guide is now available.

But it’s not only producers who will find it useful. Menzies says that as the industry speeds ahead, herds are popping up where none previously existed. In many case, farmers can’t ask mom or dad for their sage advice, because they’re first-time goat farmers without family connections to the industry.

All this puts pressure on veterinarians in those areas. Even though they might not understand the fine points of veterinary care for dairy goats, they’re suddenly being called on to offer their services.

“Veterinarians who can offer health management programs to goat producers are becoming a more important part of some rural practices,” says Menzies. “We want to help them succeed.”

Ontario Goat’s Haley says the lack of knowledge about the sector has caused many struggles, and prompted some producers to exit the industry over the years. But as the industry’s evolved, veterinarians and others have found ways to provide information to producers, to help reduce the cost of production and increase their overall yields.

“The new udder health guide compliments a number of new resources goat producers now have access to,” says Haley. “It’s an important resource that focuses specifically on the care and management of the goat’s udder to ensure both new and existing producers are aware of best management practices that can help improve milk production and the overall health status of the doe.”

Photo courtesy of Paula Menzies.

Photo courtesy of Paula Menzies.

Keeping livestock healthy is always an imperative, but it’s even more important – and more of a challenge – right now, with herds growing to support the increasing demand for goat cheese and goat milk products.

Haley attributes the demand to several factors. First, consumers’ food palette is ever-widening, she says. As well, there is an increased awareness of alternative dairy products, some motivated by health choices (goat milk is tolerated differently by some who may have issues with cow milk). Finally, changing demographics sparked by immigrants who have a cultural familiarity with goat products is driving demand.

As a result, the awareness of goat cheese and goat milk products is higher. That makes it more top of mind, at home and at restaurants.

Haley says there’s also an increased demand from export markets, primarily the US.

So all told, there’s a need for more goat milk from producers – and for good health for their herds, supported by information such as the new udder health guide.

Producers can get a copy from Ontario Goat.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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