SWEABURG, ON – Three years after talking with Farm Management Canada, Oxford County goat herder Ian Mayberry looks back at one major achievement over that period of time with a genuine sense of pride.
“A clean bill of health for our goats was my major goal,” he says. “That has been accomplished and now, as well as improving the level of production, I also want to classify the animals. It doesn’t really get any easier but with a certain level of financial comfort; we also want to concentrate more on paying down the debt.”
Raised on his parents’ (David and Kathryn) Oxford County dairy and cash crop farm, Ian was always certain he would end up in agricultural circles. In 1997 his parents sold the cows and began winding down their operation.
Living in the Melbourne area of Australia at the time, Ian was driving a truck for a living. In 1999 he married his Australian girlfriend Vicki and four years later they moved back to Southwestern Ontario, set on establishing himself as a producer and taking over his parents’ operation just outside of Sweaburg.
“It was the birth of our son Hayden that triggered the return to Canada,” he explains. “My parents mentioned that they knew a fellow who had milked goats. I had Iooked at other ideas but then the perfect opportunity presented itself.
“The fellow was selling his young stock of goats in March of 2005 so we made the purchase and started milking them. In hindsight, I am very happy with the choice. That was a time of turmoil for the hog industry.
“We had come home, on the 19th of May in 2003, just a few days before BSE was detected in an Albertan cow. The goat industry back then was quite small when we started with no real import or export of animals to any degree. So for those of us who just wanted to produce milk there was no real effect from the disease.”
Back in 2003 Ian and Vicki started out with about 200 acres, with corn, wheat and beans being the main cash crops. When he spoke with FMC in September of 2009, he said they were milking about 125 animals with another 125 as replacement stock. In addition to helping Ian, Vicki also worked part time with local general practitioner Dr. Thomas Mayberry.
Ian’s son Hayden was then six with his sister Kate only four.
For the next three years Ian found himself occupied with one major health issue – one that had to be dealt with in an orderly fashion.
“It’s a long story to tell,” Ian says. “Goats get a type of arthritis that can affect their joints and also their lungs. It can cause pneumonia and affect their udder. It radically reduces, can actually completely stop milk production.
“When we first started the work, we set aside a part of our production cost, wherein we would allot a few cents a liter for herd improvement. We did a lot of artificial insemination and after we felt comfortable with that, we decided to clean up the arthritis that was hitting goat herds throughout Ontario.”
Last year they hit a peak of almost 270 milking animals.
“We were taking babies away from their mothers at birth and raising them on artificial milk on a different farm,” Ian continues. “This was to eliminate this disease which is passed from the mother to the kid through the milk. We raised the young animals on another farm for almost a year and half.
“This spring we sold all our animals that were left here, cleaned the barn out and moved the new herd back in. We only started milking about six weeks ago, approximately 85. We have another 140 replacement stock.”
Extremely pleased with the results, he says the herd’s health is very good – a positive sign for the future of the operation.
“We want to build slowly to about 200 animals,” Ian adds. “Depending on production levels, 200 is a comfortable number for one person to take care of. “Vicki, still works off-farm, but also helps me in the mornings and afternoons.
“We have a young girl who helps out Wednesday and Friday nights, so I can spend a little time off to be with the family. Kate is now 7 and loves all animals she comes into contact with while Hayden, who is 9, has no real interest in the barn. But it’s maybe too early to say what they will do in the future.”
While the main cash crops remain much the same, the acreage has increased from 200 to more than 300 acres.
Ian’s parents are retired but are still major participants in the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. His father is also the mayor of Southwest Oxford.
In terms of marketing, Ian says it’s a relatively easy process for the raw milk.
“We joined the Ontario Dairy Goat Co-operative,” he says. “We market it to them and I’m also on the board of directors. If you want to move the raw milk, there are plenty of processors out there for products like cheese or ice cream.
“But to develop some of those products like yogurt, well that is very hard when you have to deal directly with distributors and grocery store representatives. It’s a big undertaking for farmers so the co-op is very useful for all of us. The coop does the selling, let’s you know how much milk they need from you and how much they can market.
“So far we’ve seen demand for goat milk increasing by five to 15 per cent over the past several years so were are very pleased with the way the market is going.”
And what about the initial decision to become goat farmers back in 2003?
“It was certainly the right move,” Ian says. “It’s a great lifestyle and we’re extremely happy we managed to deal successfully with the health issue. You have to be patient but in the end it’s all worthwhile.”