You could call Tobin Schlegel’s goats a sideline, but that wouldn’t do justice to their powerful role in the development of his farm, or Schlegel himself.
The 29-year-old can now joke that when he and wife Erin first started farming, they would have “made more money serving coffee at Tim Hortons than from the goats.”
“But they were my first love,” says Schlegel. “Neither the chickens or hogs would have happened without the goats.”
The sixth-generation farmer from Tavistock, Ont., got an early start in the livestock business. In Grade 5, he started raising turkeys during the summer and selling them for Thanksgiving. After a few years, he wanted a year-round business, and research led him to meat goats.
“One of the things that attracted me to goat meat was that, unlike something like emu, there was strong existing demand that domestic production couldn’t supply,” says Schlegel. “In 1996, I started with seven crossbred does and for my birthday, my parents bought me a buck. So that was my humble beginnings with the goats.”
By the time he went to university in Guelph in 2001, the herd – and the income it produced – had grown sufficiently that he was able to purchase a house and rent out rooms to his fellow students. That investment and equity in the herd (by then up to 100 does) helped the newly married couple buy the 106-acre home farm from Schlegel’s parents in 2007, stock an existing broiler barn, and farm full time.
“Goats are just a small part of our gross revenue, but they’ve played an important role in building equity,” says Schlegel. “People might think the chickens pay for the goats. But the reality is the goats were equity to get it all going, and more than pay their own way.”
The sale of some purebred breeding goats (now the focus of the goat operation) also provided some cash when Schlegel and another farmer purchased a 3,600-head hog finishing barn in 2011. Goats now generate about five per cent of revenue.
But the animals have provided another benefit by testing Schlegel’s management acumen.
“Goats have a reputation of being able to eat tin cans,” says Schlegel. “It’s true they can survive on very little, but when you put them in a barn and try to push them to their potential, it can be challenging and expensive.”
Schlegel says he loves “crunching numbers” and he did a lot of that as he considered ways to boost the bottom line on the goat enterprise, eventually deciding to build a new coverall barn in 2009, expand to 300 does, and move to total mixed rations, a rarity in the Canadian meat goat sector.
“We’re not only feeding more animals, but doing a better job of it while reducing our costs. And we now spend about the same amount of time in the barn for 300 does as we did when we had 100.”
Schlegel has also been willing to devote time to industry development, and that has earned him a different sort of return.
He was only 23 and fresh out of university when he hooked up with the Ontario Goat Breeders’ Association “because they were looking for young, enthusiastic people to serve on the board.” It was not a great time for the organization – its membership was less than 100 (in a province with more than 2,000 goat producers), its funding was almost non-existent, and there were divisions within the group. But there was also a pressing need for strong and united leadership in the sector, which faced a host of issues ranging from marketing to a shortage of veterinary medications approved for use in Canada.
Within three years, Schlegel found himself in the president’s chair – although he went in with his eyes open about the time commitment that would require. His father Clare has been active in many groups, including leading the Canadian Pork Council during the worst of the hog crisis.
“Growing up, I sometimes needed to spend time in the barns handling problems because Dad was away,” Schlegel says. “So yeah, I knew about that part. But the opportunity arose, there was a need, and I have to say that I’ve found the work fairly rewarding. A small contribution goes a long way.”
The goat breeders’ association has indeed come a long way. It has rebranded as Ontario Goat (ogba.ca) and is seeking to become a marketing board for both the meat and dairy sides, with the right to know who is raising goats and to levy a checkoff. It has formed an alliance with veal and rabbit producers, aggressively pursued short-term funding, and used the money to hire a shared staff of professionals to work on a host of initiatives.
“Ultimately, the industry is going to have to fund this work – and that’s why we’re seeking a checkoff – but you first have to show producers what you can accomplish by investing in research and marketing,” says Schlegel.
“Just bringing people together has been the biggest challenge. When you have a volunteer board of an organization with a voluntary membership, it’s a tremendous accomplishment to be able to put in professional staff resources in order to take things to the next level. We’ve gone from a budget of $30,000 to be able to leverage that into several million dollars’ worth of projects.”
However, it’s also meant time away from the farm, as well as Erin and their two children, ages 3 and 1.
“It’s not just the meetings – it’s the phone calls and the time you spend thinking about the various issues and how you’re going to deal with them,” he says. “It’s fair to say it adds up to hundreds of hours per year and obviously, that’s time you can’t spend on managing your own farm.”
But it’s also been a learning experience and made him a better manager on his own farm.
“It’s really encouraged me to recognize my strengths and my deficiencies,” he says.
“I’ve learned the importance of bringing in other people who have skills and abilities you don’t have. Bringing in the right people for the job is a skill in itself and this has given me a chance to learn that skill. The same is true when it comes to communications. Being able to say what you mean and accurately convey information to others isn’t always easy, but it’s a key to success in any business.”
Finding time to serve in an organization is challenging and Schlegel says he’s fortunate his wife and father have been willing to cover for him on the farm. But he’d recommend it to other young farmers.
“Life is a journey. Getting off the farm and getting involved brings a new meaning to the work at home. So while it’s been a lot of work and a lot of time, it’s opened a lot of doors, too.”
If there’s a lesson in his story, says Schlegel, it’s how something small can grow over time.
“The best piece of advice I received growing up was to put my money into something that would pay me back and grow as an investment,” he says.
“I shake my head when I see a young person who gets a little bit of money and uses it to make a down payment on a fancy pick-up. I like nice trucks too, but you need to invest in things that are going to work for you.”