By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — New fluid goats’ milk quality standards ushered in by the Vermont House of Representatives last week will let goat farmers maintain a slightly higher somatic cell count in their herds — a move legislators hope will encourage some conventional dairy farmers to transition from a flagging cows’ milk market to more lucrative goats’ milk.
The new standards, according to the House Agriculture Committee, will provide more flexibility and economic opportunities for these farmers.
“This is a great opportunity for Vermont farmers who are struggling with low milk prices to transition to another form of farming where prices are lucrative and the demand for the product is high,” said Speaker of the House Shap Smith, in a statement.
The bill the House passed sets the somatic cell count limit for grade A raw goat’s milk at 2 million cells per milliliter, up from 1 million per milliliter.
Somatic cells are a kind of white blood cell that increases in the presence of pathogens.
In cows, a high somatic cell count usually indicates a sick animal, but in goats, it can mean the animal is still in breeding season or nearing the tail end of the milking season. Some farmers reported having to dump milk that could have otherwise been sold because of high somatic cell counts.
In testimony to the Agriculture Committee, Websterville-based Vermont Butter and Cheese, a proponent of the new legislation, said it has the capacity to process 10 million pounds of goats’ milk a year, but currently only processes 4 million. Half of that amount comes from goats out of state.
Conventional bovine milk prices fell nearly 50 percent early this year, dipping to $11 per hundredweight for some farmers, a figure that comes in below the cost of production for most farmers. Meanwhile Vermont Butter and Cheese paid an average of as much as $46 for the same weight of milk over the last year.
But converting from cows’ milk to goats’ milk is a more daunting prospect than some legislators, and farmers, might realize, according to some local goat farmers.
“There is a really high turnover rate in fluid goat producers,” said Hannah Sessions, who runs a Salisbury goat farmer. “I’ve always thought people are better off with cows.”
Sessions, along with her husband Greg Bernhardt, runs the Blue Ledge Farm, where the family milks 65 goats and produces their award-winning goat cheese. They sold fluid goats’ milk in 2001 and 2002 while they were building their cheese plant, but Sessions said that fluid milk sales didn’t necessarily pay the goats’ way.
“Goats are not like cows,” she said, noting that there’s a widespread misconception that goats are just “little cows,” when in fact the animals belong to the deer family and require a different farm environment.
Previously, fluid goats’ milk was held to the same standards as cows’ milk, despite biological differences between the animals.
Goat farmer Chris Lekberg, who farms in Brandon and sells his milk to Blue Ledge Farm, said that the somatic cell count rules were just one way that state regulations lumped cows and goats into the same category. He thinks the change will ultimately benefit goat farmers.
Sessions, on the other hand, expressed some ambivalence at the change.
“I’m a little discouraged that (the Legislature) feel(s) like they need to change the standards for goat milk to invite people in. If anything, the standards should be maintained,” she said.
Higher somatic cell counts could affect higher bacteria counts in milk or raw milk cheese, Sessions said — but she said she could understand why this may not be a problem for larger processors.
“If (farmers are) going to ship to Vermont Butter and Cheese, they’re going to pasteurize that milk,” she said.
She acknowledged that there’s “always more of a market for goat products than there is goats’ milk.” But Sessions said that production drops significantly when a producer switches from cows’ to goats’ milk, noting that a decent goat will give about eight pounds of milk in a day.
“You’re lucky to get a gallon a day out of a goat,” she said.
In addition to using their own goats’ milk in their cheese-making operations, Sessions and Bernhardt buy roughly the same amount of goats’ milk from Lekberg’s farm Brandon. That’s unique, Sessions explained — the only major market for fluid goats’ milk in Vermont, she said, is Vermont Butter and Cheese.
“They’re doing the best that they can to support their producers, but it’s definitely challenging. You have to milk a lot of animals,” Sessions said.
In the long run, Lekberg said that goat farming has been far more stable than bovine dairy farming.
“I tried dairy cattle in 2002, and the market was terrible,” he said. “The thing about goats’ milk, and organic dairy farming, is that it doesn’t follow the fluctuations of the normal markets for fluid milk. You can make cost-cutting decisions, and still know what your inputs are going to be.”
He didn’t know if many conventional farmers would consider making the jump to goats in the years ahead, ruefully noting that “a lot of people kind of look down on goats.”
Still, he said goats are an option that farmers who are passionate about dairying shouldn’t ignore.
“I suppose that for the people who really want to stay in farming and stay in dairying, it’s really an option,” Lekberg said.