Biological Farming of Milking Goats

July 2008
Goats are very susceptible to worms under intensive farming conditions. Some drenches can be effective but have long withholding periods in milking goats where the milk is being used for infant and other specialty foods.

Jeff & Fiona Graham decided to house their goats and cut and carry pasture to them. This solved the worm problems but created another waste bedding mixed with dung, urine and uneaten fodder.

They solved the problem by composting the material, and now produce considerable amounts and mix it with other plant/soil nutrients for their own use and for sale to other farmers.

They are strong believers in biological farming and have an unusual but apparently very effective approach to soil and pasture management. By boosting the soil biology (the morass of living fauna and flora in the soil) they are working at increasing the depth of topsoil, the quality of pasture, and sequestering atmospheric carbon. They believe they are carbon neutral and in the near future they will be carbon positive, potentially with carbon credits to sell.

Jeff & Fiona Graham lease the 97ha milking goat farm from Fionas father. He farmed it for several decades before they became sharemilkers in 2000. They cut and carry on 40ha and the rest is gullies and steep sidlings that cant be machine cropped. They used to run dairy grazers on the steep 50ha but they have now got rid of those because of the drought and the shortage of haylage for winter. Instead they are grazing the goats outside during the day on fine days, and feeding them only one load of grass and some baleage in the mornings.

Before we took over in 2000, the farm had only ever done 10,000 kgMS. In three years we got it up to 21,000kg but then hit a brick wall because of the worm burden, the low quality of grass and the poor soil biology. Looking back I can now see that we were trying to milk more goats but getting less average production, says Jeff.

We should have been milking fewer goats and having higher average production. We couldn't do that until we got the biology right and that is essentially what we have done by putting them inside and feeding them there. The first year we did that we went from 21 to 25,000 kg, in the second year we went up to 34,070 kg, and this year we did 31,300 but we reared our own kids on our own milk which is worth over 2000 so we really did 33,700kg in a drought year. I'm sure this year will be just as good.

Last year they milked 380 goats, but financial analyses (they are members of eCOGENT) indicated they would be better off milking 320, so they have reduced numbers but expect to do the same production because they have culled the lower producers and have more space and fodder for the others.

They only have to increase by 6 kgMS per goat to do the same production as we were doing with 380, with a lot less work and a lot less overheads, says Geoff.

High producing goats need to be in peak condition all the time. Last year the Grahams stock were averaging 100 kgMS each, and since they weigh only about 50 kg they are doing double their body weight in production, so it doesn't take much to debilitate them.

Worms affect goat condition and production markedly and once they get down in condition they are susceptible to other things too. Because we are producing a niche market product for baby formulas etc our Co-op will not allow us to use drenches without 60 day withholding periods for the most effective drenches, and that is just not economic, says Geoff.

Some drenches have only 35 days withholding period but they are only 70% effective. We found vinegar and garlic were just as effective as that and there was no withholding period.

Composting Initially we did it because we had all this waste product coming out of the end of the goat shed and we didn't know what to do with it. Secondly, the Co-op pegged my production at 28,000 kg so I thought well that is going to cost me $100,000 how am I going to make it up? So we looked at selling the compost and rearing kids for meat production, the latter is not going as well as we would like it to yet. So I concentrated on the compost. First-time up with the compost I made four or 500 tonnes, and I put the whole lot on the farm at 9 tonnes per hectare to give it a kickstart. In hindsight it didn't do any damage but it was probably quite wasteful, we should have sold some and put less on because a little and often is better.

Then we got into the biological approach using 1 tonne of lime, 250 kg of dolomite, 300 kg of compost which is the carbon source to make the lime 40 to 50% more effective because it holds in suspension, and compost is the best form of carbon provided that it is made properly. We added four litres of molasses per hectare as well to feed the biology, and that has really got things going. As recently as last night a truck when out of here with 15 tonnes on board of that mix for a local farmer, and I suspect in another six months we won't be able to keep up with the demand.

We use fine lime and dolomite plus the compost and molasses which are both sticky and we mix it all up and when we put it in the fertiliser truck it just flows and spreads easily. We will put on our property twice a year and we will also use foliar feeds.

I'm also taking advice from compost expert, and if soil tests showed that a particular farm is deficient in mineral or something we can add it into the compost before it leaves here, so can be tailor-made to suit individual farms. The compost is sold for $75 per cubic metre. The lime and dolomite etc is extra.

What I did was get 100 tonnes of lime and 25 tonnes of dolomite alongside it and then mixed in the compost and molasses with my telehandler with the cubic metre bucket on it, and then got trucks to spread it around the farm. To do 97 ha with all that it cost me $8,000 including spreading and cartage but of course that didn't include the cost of compost. It is low energy low technology mixing but still effective and of course the biology mixes it up all up when it gets to the soil.

Doing all this improves our profitability by about $30,000 per year. No nitrogen has ever gone on this farm but it has had plenty of 30% potassic super in the past, and soil tests show that phosphate retention is pretty high but by getting the soil biology right and putting on calcium it is actually releasing the phosphate. So in a sense we are mining what is in the soil bank. I think it will be eight or nine years before we need to put on more phosphate and potash but it will be interesting to see.

Before we started on this track our Brix levels were seven and eight on a good day, and on a bad day when it was raining and cold they would be three or four. Today the levels 16 and 17 on a good day and only go as low as eight or nine.

We know that when the Brix levels are up around 15/16, when the goats are lactating they are not interested in grain in the shed because they have had the carbohydrates out of the grass, they are not hungry, and that will save us $50,000 per year in grain purchases, and because they are not hungry they are not eating down to where the worms if they are outside. They eat less grass, they don't need so much and they eat less growing as well and give more production.

So we have really improved in a short space of time through using compost and environmentally friendly fertilisers. The goats are getting a lot more out of the feed that they are eating because it is high in carbohydrates plus the fact that the worms are just not in the plants because the plants are too healthy. The cycle of the worms going through the goats has been broken. Part of the whole soil biology cycle is to never have less than 2100 kg of dry matter per hectare on your pasture, and so we set our mowers to that height. We are not grazing down to that level and we are not cutting down there, and the worms dont like healthy biology. It shows in the faecal samples, in goat condition, and look at our profitability and bottom line. Profit is what it is all about, keeping our overheads down.