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Friday 9 December 2016

Goats paying their way in the hills of Donegal

Milking goats is currently returning 75c/l for Alyson McKnight

Ken Whelan

Published 27/04/2016 | 02:30

Alyson McKnight pictured on the family farm which is home to over 700 goats.
Alyson McKnight pictured on the family farm which is home to over 700 goats.
Cian Condon, Teagasc advisor, Padraig Maloney, Ballymahon, Valerie Daniels, Kilkenny, Vanessa Drew, Banbridge & Hugh Daniels, Kilkenny at last week's Teagasc Goat Farming Conference. Photo: O'Gorman Photography.

Alyson McKnight is a busy woman what with over 300 goats to milk and an average of 50 new kids coming onto her goat farm in Co Donegal every September.

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Between the milkers, breeders, new stock and the very new kids, there's about 700 goats housed on the farm located at Glenmaquin near Convoy and they take some looking after.

"When anyone visits the farm they look at the goats and immediately exclaim -"Holy s***," says Alyson.

The 250ac McKnight farm is mixed in every sense of the word. Alyson's parents, Alfie and Mabel along with her brother John, takes care of the family's 80 plus Holstein and British Friesian dairy herd and 100 ewes, which leaves 30-year-old Alyson to look after the goats.

After a lot of thinking, the McKnights decided to take a gamble on goats in 2011 when they bought in goats from local farmers who were either retiring or leaving the business.

The enterprise started with 50 goats and quickly expanded to its current size.

An investment of €60,000 was required to establish the herd and a further €100,000 was needed to house the goat herd and build a 32-cubicle parlour for the bearded milkers.

It's an investment that is paying its way with the parlour producing around 2,000 litres of milk weekly which is purchased by the nearby Natural Dairies company which has a Tesco contract for goat's cheese.

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The current purchasing price is 75c/l which compares favourably to the 24c/l which the McKnight's receive for their dairy milk.

"It's a niche market with a promising future but it is driven by demand," says Alyson. "To secure a contract, farmers must commit to supplying an increasing amount of milk and we can deal with this.

"It would be better, of course, if there were more buyers in the market. If one of your customers loses a contract, then you have to find another for your milk.

"There is good growth in the sector at the moment but if the cheesemaker and milk buyers told us tomorrow they didn't want our milk then we would have problems," she added

Alyson does not intend to apply the brakes at the moment as her nearest competition is some distance away in Co Cavan.

'When we started we kept it simple and labour efficient. One person can milk 200 goats in an hour. We've been lucky to buy good quality stock from herds which were being cut back," she says.

Rations

There are three breeds in the herd - mostly Saanen (high yielding with low butterfat milk) and a good scattering of Toggenburg and British Alpine They are fed pit silage and rations costing €290/t.

Alyson's affection for her goat herd is infectious. "They are easy enough to handle. They chatter and chatter all day and are wild curious and crafty.

"They can figure out how to open the safety gates in the housing unit as fast as you could turn on a light.

"They eat and pick at everything and one night they got into the milking parlour and nearly destroyed the place. We have to put safety catches on the safety gates," Alyson adds with a hint of irony.

The goats are housed all year round because they don't cope well in windy conditions and suffer badly in the heat.

They are less hardy than cattle or sheep and are not good grazers. They will only pick at grass and leave a lot behind them, she says.

Health management is also an imperative within the enterprise as goats are prone to catching pneumonia and other animal diseases, as is housing hygiene for the goats.

For Alyson it's onwards and upwards - a bit like the goat's cheese market, especially the new "hard" goat's cheese that the supermarkets are talking about.

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