By Tim Simard
It’s dinner time at Ayers Brook Goat Dairy Farm. As if forming a wave, hundreds of goats jump up and clamor toward the fences, bobbing their heads awaiting their meals. Farm owner Miles Hooper shovels hay and other feed to the hungry animals; the bleating of the goats is soon replaced by chewing and snorting.
“They are a lively bunch, especially around feeding time,” Hooper says.
Ayers Brook Goat Dairy Farm sits alongside its namesake stream just north of Randolph village. It’s here where you can find one of the state’s largest goat dairy farms. As traditional dairy farming in Vermont struggles—the volatile milk market in recent years has helped cause many farms to close—some local farmers are looking to either diversify or completely change how they operate.
Goat dairy farming might be an answer to some of Vermont’s agricultural challenges.
“To me, it makes so much sense, and I’ve seen a lot more farmers warming up to the idea,” Hooper says.
Diversifying Vermont’s Dairy Farms
Earlier this month, farmers and state officials met at the Northern Tier Dairy Summit in Jay to discuss the challenges facing dairy farming, as well as potential solutions. One of the major discussions centered on diversifying dairy farms, says Dave Martin, president of the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association. Martin also owns and operates Settlement Farm in Underhill, where he raises sheep and two goats.
“[The farmers] have the land, they have the equipment, they have the skills,” he says. “They’re always looking at different ways to make money, like with making maple syrup or selling hay.”
With goat farming, there may be a real opportunity for dairy farmers to switch herds, he says. “There’s a real demand out there for goat milk. The milk and goat cheese are becoming very popular, so it might be a viable option for some farmers.”
In fact, in an April 2 WCAX story about the summit, Adeline Druart, president of Vermont Creamery noted, “We need a lot of milk. We are looking at 7 to 10 million pounds of goat milk—additional goat milk—that we are going to need over the next five years.”
Life on a Goat Dairy Farm
Hooper believes goat farming has a bright future in Vermont, especially in a state that prides itself as a leader in agricultural affairs. Vermont’s dairy farms, in most cases, aren’t massive operations like you would find in the Midwest and in other states that aren’t as mountainous, he says. Instead, Hooper believes farmers in the state could run a large operation of hundreds of goats with less acreage, overhead, and environmental impact than some dairy farms.
“Vermont has a real opportunity to grow and support goat dairy,” Hooper says. “We, as a state, need to look at agricultural operations that best fit our landscape.”
In many ways, Ayers Brook Goat Dairy Farm was created to be a model for the state’s growing goat dairy industry. Vermont Creamery turned an old farmstead into a goat dairy farm in 2012. Hooper took over operations 2017, acquiring the farm from Vermont Creamery and the company’s co-founder (and Hooper’s mother), Allison Hooper.
Today, Miles Hooper runs a tight ship. Alongside his wife, Daryll, and a small number of employees, Hooper milks about 400 goats of various breeds. They milked more than 500 at one point but scaled back to hone their business.
“Right now, we’re not in a growth mode, we’re in a perfection mode,” he says.
Getting Into the Business
For those who are considering diversification or growth of their current farmland, there is a lot to think about when it comes to starting a goat dairy operation. While most dairy farms have the infrastructure needed to switch to goat dairy, some farmers should be aware of the challenges of changing herds.
“Goats take much more hands-on management. It’s not like switching from large cows to small cows. These are very different animals,” says Carol Delaney, a Montpelier resident who runs a consulting business for dairy and goat farming.
“Goats tend to eat more grain and feed than a cow, which, depending on a number of factors, could make it more expensive in that area,” she adds.
Environmentally speaking, Delaney believes goats may be less impactful. Dairy farms often need several large manure “lagoons” to store cow waste. Goat farmers tend to compost goat waste, which is solid.
If a dairy farmer is interested in switching over to goats, they must be prepared to go all-in, she says.
“You’ve got to go full tilt or not at all. It would be very hard and not very cost-effective to manage both cows and goats,” Delaney says.
Also, proximity to the nearest large goat milk buyer would be vital in keeping costs low, she adds. In most cases in the state, that would require being close to Vermont Creamery in Websterville.
Ayers Brook Goat Dairy Farm, located only about 20 minutes from Vermont Creamery, sells them much of its milk. Hooper also sells to Fat Toad Farm in Brookfield for making caramels. Separately, Hooper raises goats for meat for his side business, Vermont Chevon, and sells goats to Pine Island Community Farm in Colchester.
“Like I said earlier, we run as tight an operation as we can,” Hooper says walking through the farm’s milking parlor, where 40 goats can be milked at once.
Hooper believes the more educated the public becomes to goat milk, the more the business will boom in the state. The public will first need to overcome the hurdle that they are drinking milk from a goat and not from a cow, even if the milk tastes comparable, he says.
“People have to see and taste goat milk to understand how good it is. So much of it is perception, and I deal with it every day,” Hooper adds.