Dairy Goats in the Land of Chocolate
In August 2019, I attended a joint COMBAR-ACSRPC meeting in Ghent, Belgium. ACSRPC is the acronym for the American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Consortium. COMBAR is the acronym for Combatting Anthelmintic Resistance in Ruminants. Both groups work to find sustainable methods for dealing with anthelmintic (dewormer) resistance.
Belgium is a small country, smaller (95%) in size than Maryland, but with a much larger population: 11.4 vs. ~6.0 million people. Belgium is best known for beer, fries (Belgium, not French), and chocolate (and waffles).
Belgium has a very small small ruminant industry, composed mostly of dairy goats. Texel is the most popular breed of sheep. The Beltex is Belgium’s version of the Texel. The Texel sheep are often double-muscled, so c-sections are commonplace, performed on about 20 percent of the births (according to one veterinarian). The Belgium Blue breed of cattle requires an even higher percentage of caesarians. Fortunately, the cost isn’t very high (by US standards).
Our meeting included a day of farm visits. We visited two dairy goat farms. The first farm was organic. It milked about 1100 goats, almost all Saanen. Milking was done twice daily in a carousel milking parlor. Milk was picked up every two days. You’re not allowed to raise dairy goats in Belgium unless you first sign a contract with a processor. The second farm milked about 200 does, also almost all Saanen. They processed their own milk into fluid milk, (raw milk) cheese, and ice cream and operated a farm store. They also had about 60 cows, enough to support one robotic milker. The cow milk was sold commercially.
On both farms the goats were kept indoors, in large buildings with fence-line feeding in the center aisles. A gate was kept open so that mature does could venture outside. In fact, this is the only requirement (for pasturing) for organic; does must have the option of going outside. One farm said that the goats rarely went outside and only when the conditions were “perfect.” The farm with the store thought it was important for the public to see some of the goats outside grazing.
The requirements for organic (in Europe) differ from those in the United States. It is permissible to give medication ("as needed") and not lose organic status. In fact, a survey of European sheep and goat farmers shows that animals are dewormed quite frequently. Treatments are usually whole-flock, and not selective, like we advocate in the US. There is also no requirement for a pasture diet. In the US, animals must obtain at least 30% of their dry matter intake during the grazing season (at least 120 days). I like the European standards for organic. I think we could get a whole lot more farms to raise livestock more sustainably, if the standards allowed prudent use of animal health products. US standards compromise animal welfare "big time."
On the two farms we visited, the kids are removed from their dams soon after birth, before they have consumed colostrum. One farm raised the kids (6-8) in plastic cubicles for their first ~10 days of life. This same farm fed cow colostrum for biosecurity reasons. The other farm fed (goat) colostrum from their own farm. The kids are weaned at approximately 8 weeks of age. The males, usually weighing about 12-13 kg are then slaughtered for meat. I'm not sure if the male kids brought more than it cost to raise them.
Kidding intervals were more than 12 months. The goal of one farm was to breed does to kid at 1, 3, and 5 years of age (and no more). The does must be selected to be able to milk efficiently for two years. All of the does had two ear tags. One was an RFID, an EU requirement.
For people who find confinement rearing of livestock distasteful, all I can say is that the goats on these farms were healthy, well-fed, and clean. Their diets were predominantly forage. The goats displayed no stereotypies (abnormal behaviors). Even when they have the choice to go outside, they prefer the comfort of their indoor facilities. Both farms had a "comfort brush," which the goats seemed to enjoy immensely. I would rate animal welfare very high on the two farms we visited.
Belgium was a delightful country to visit. Ghent and Bruges (which I also visited) are picturesque medieval cities. Be sure to put Belgium on your bucket list. You can view the rest of my pictures on Flickr?.
Created or last updated 09.29.19 by Susan Schoenian.