Preparation was key to saving goat herd

The fresh corn that Dr. Lauren Acton and John Wright planned to preserve on Labor Day is still sitting in their kitchen at their farm near Molalla, Ore. They were sitting in a couple of beat up camp chairs on Saturday 300 miles east in Union, Ore., watching their dairy goat herd adjust to its new surroundings.

Acton and Wright own Tempo Farm, a family goat farm in the Willamette Valley. As fires raged in Clackamas County, they had to move swiftly to prepare to move their 100 goats from their farm all while keeping up with the milking schedule. They prepped the farm and packed their two trailers with supplies all day Labor Day hoping for enough time to make multiple trips to evacuate all the goats. But with fires bearing down on their farm Acton made the hardest list of her life.

“I had to play God,” she said. “I had to make a list of who goes in the trailer first, second, and who doesn’t get in.”

By 10 a.m. the next day the fire was miles away, but they began to feel its heat and knew it was time to go. They had put out an early call for help, and employees, friends, and family were driving toward their farm with trailers from as far away as Washington and California.

They struggled to pack in as many goats as possible, but they prepared to leave 40 behind in an open field with water. They hoped the fire wouldn’t come and the goats could survive if it did.

As they faced this hard reality, they got a welcome call from a friend from California — he had made it to the bottom of their driveway with his trailer. With his help they were able to evacuate all the goats from the farm. Some went to California, some to a friend’s place in Moses Lake, Wash., and rest stayed with Acton and Wright at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds.

Soon, however, the fairgrounds was also under threat. They decided to move again to Grande Ronde Dairy in Eastern Oregon owned by their friends Stephanie and Byron Rovey.

The Roveys were able to offer safety, hay, pens, a secondary milking barn, and even an employee to set up their milking operation temporarily.

“Stephanie and I are colleagues,” said Acton. “But the dairy goat industry is a big family. Stephanie is incredible, and she has saved our hides more than once.”

But Acton and Wright were also very prepared for evacuation. Acton is a veterinarian and has traveled the country showing her prize breeding herd. She’s accustomed to moving animals and she has had a long career managing animal-related crises. In her free moments in the last week, she wrote up a long list of tips for evacuating on her yellow legal pad, hoping to help other people.

“First,” she said, “Do not wait for a level 3 evacuation notice. You cannot evacuate livestock in one hour. Evacuate early.”

“Second, if you have animals, you need a way to contain them safely for loading.” For horses, goats and the like, this means having enough collars and halters on hand for every animal. Cattle should be gathered and ready to load near catch pens and chutes.

Acton said the natural human fear of fire makes it harder to think. She stresses that planning and packing ahead is key. She said medication with dosage instructions, boxes of halters, and some feed should be collected so it is easy to pack and go. She also emphasizes making that “hardest list of your life” ahead of time and marking animals to stay or go clearly with paint.

She suggests bringing everything you would need for your animals in 24 hours. “Hoses, hose splitters, buckets, medication, animal first aid kits, extension cords, portable fencing, tools, wire, and rope are key.”

She also said be prepared to keep your animals in the trailer if you break down or there isn’t room at an evacuation site. “Ventilation in your trailer is key. You also need tarps for shade and weather.”

Finally, she said, don’t forget the “human stuff” like sleeping bags, potable drinking water, a change of clothes, good shoes, medication, cell phone chargers, and most importantly, folding chairs. “Evacuation has meant a lot of waiting around,” she said.

 Evacuation tips

Planning for disasters from the American Veterinary Medical Association

• Assemble an evacuation kit.

• Develop an evacuation plan for all of your animals and practice the plan.

• Keep written directions to your home near your telephone. This will help you and others explain to emergency responders exactly how to get to your home.

• Identify alternative sources of food and water.

• Have well-maintained backup generators and a source of fuel for use in food-animal production operations.

• Keep vehicles well maintained and full of gas.

• Keep emergency cash on hand. (Remember: ATMs may not work.)

Goat dairy traces origins from 4-H project

UNION, Ore. — Stephanie Rovey traces her goat dairy business back 28 years to her first 4-H project at age 12. She can also trace her current stock back to her base breeding herd — 12 white Nubians.

She has been with goats longer than with her five children; longer than with her husband Byron; longer than almost anything. They have accompanied her on moves to college, to Arizona, and to Oregon. While her parents thought goats were a passing phase, her interest and experience propelled her to study agriculture and to build goat dairy business that is now her livelihood.

Today Stephanie, Byron and their five boys — ages 14, 11, 9, 7 and 5 — raise seed crops, forage, and goats outside Union, Ore.

They established Grande Ronde Dairy in 2015 with 20 backyard goats, converting an old barn into a milking parlor. Their goat dairy business grew steadily until 2017 when they made a leap to significantly grow their herd and business. They were buoyed by increasing interest in goat milk and by their milk buyer, Laura Chenel Chevre, a cheese company in Sonoma, Calif.

The magnitude of Grande Ronde Dairy’s growth from a homemade setup to a state-of-the-art facility is quickly understood by the numbers.

The Roveys started with a 10-stall milking parlor and a 1,000-gallon bulk tank in a freezing, converted barn. Today their 60-stall GEA rotary parlor can milk 300 goats per hour and fill their 5,000-gallon bulk tank every three days. The dairy has grown to 350 lactating goats with 200 more coming on by May. At capacity, their loafing barn will house about 1,000 lactating goats plus replacements waiting to come online.

The new rotary parlor has also increased the sophistication and efficiency of the dairy.

Goats walk up a ramp and past a sensor that dispenses grain in the stall feeder. Once in the head catch, the goats’ ear tags are scanned automatically so milk production, content and safety testing can be tracked goat-by-goat.

An employee attaches inflations to the udder as the goat circles past on the rotary parlor. Milk flow is computer-monitored and when flow drops, the inflations drop automatically. Another employee applies a “post-dip” udder disinfectant before the head catch releases and the goat backs out of the stall. Unless she doesn’t back out because — she’s a goat — and goats have what Rovey lovingly calls “personality.”

“Some of these girls will ride the rotary all day long, which slows us down and requires someone to watch them at the exit.”

The Roveys’ GEA brand rotary milk parlor is the first of its kind installed at a goat dairy in the U.S. Stephanie and Byron flew to New Zealand in 2016 to see the equipment in action and tour dairies. They came back inspired to duplicate the New Zealand model.

“In New Zealand dairies have maximized both animal comfort and efficiency,” Rovey said. As she spoke, the wind picked up and the automatic curtains in the loafing barn began to rise. “The curtains open and close based on temperature to keep the goats happy,” she said. The temperature control, deep bedding straw, automatic waterers, and ample room for movement are all by design.

“This is the goat Hilton,” she said. “The goats are content and come to the parlor clean, which means higher milk quality.”

While goats are much maligned as “can-eaters” and “poor man’s cows,” Rovey eagerly lists the advantages dairy goats over cows.

Goats have a higher feed-to-milk ratio, making them more efficient milk producers. They can be bred at seven months and milked by 12 months whereas cows take about two years to become productive.

“Goats also have a 100 percent replacement ratio,” she said, since they generally have multiple kids.

She also sees a lot of room for market growth for goat milk given consumer trends toward more healthful, less processed foods. The USDA also attributes the popularity of goat milk for cheese making to its higher fat content than cow’s milk. More fat per gallon means more cheese per gallon.

“Goat milk is the most easily digested of all the milks,” Rovey said.

A University of California-Davis analysis of goat milk found that it has less lactose than cow’s milk and is similar in protein content. Due to its differing protein structure, goat milk doesn’t elicit an allergic response and is palatable for many people with cow’s milk allergies.

Rovey’s dream is to see goat milk offered as an alternative in school cafeterias and used in infant formula.

“The rest of the world has caught on to the fact that many infants and children are lactose-intolerant,” she said. “In Europe and China they already use goat milk-based infant formula, but we need more powdered milk facilities in the U.S. to make that happen.”

She also sees goat milk as a high-in-protein alternative to nut-based beverages.

“Nut ‘milks’ are like eating margarine,” she said. “They are a highly processed, unnatural concoctions.”

As for the taste, she encourages people to give goat milk a chance.

“Don’t give up on goat milk or cheese because you tried it once and didn’t like it.” She notes that dairy goat management and goat milk processing have come a long way in recent years. Backyard goat milk from the neighbor is not the highly palatable product her dairy produces.

“Any milk will taste bad if the animal is eating weeds,” she said.

By contrast, the Roveys feed 100 percent Triticale, grass, alfalfa, and pea forage from their farm and supplement with grain during milking.

Rovey hopes that major brands establish processing plants in Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

“This would open the door for more producers to transition or grow,” she said. “I started with a base herd of 12 white Nubians,” she said, as she pointed to a few short-eared decedents of her first 4-H project. “We never expected to live in the Pacific Northwest or to have a goat dairy,” she said. “But now even Byron is proud to say we milk goats for a living!”

Student loans an obstacle for many young farmers

It has been said the best way to get into farming is to “marry it or inherit it.” The risks are many and obstacles to entry are age-old — access to land, water, markets and capital. But regardless of whether new farmers married it, inherited it, or neither, one new barrier becoming increasingly problematic is student loan debt, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition.

The national organization conducted a survey of over 700 beginning and aspiring farmers and ranchers and found that student loan debt was a key obstacle to making a living in agriculture or getting started. More than half of respondents were currently farming but struggling to make their student loan payments on a farm income, and one third reported they didn’t pursue farming or were postponing a career in agriculture due to student loan debt. Among these respondents the average student loan debt was $35,000 — a lot for a greenhorn trying to get started on a farmer’s salary.

This survey reflects a national trend in student loan debt. One in five of all American households held some student loan debt according to a Pew Research Center study in 2012. The rates of student loan debt among young people are even higher — 37 percent for those 18 to 29 — and the typical college grads owes the equivalent of two years of income. Nationwide student loan debt has more than doubled to $1.3 trillion from 2004 to 2014. These numbers add up to a national crisis — one that also impacts young farmers and ranchers and the future of the agricultural landscape.

Caleb Howard is a young, part-time rancher and agriculture real estate broker in Joseph, Ore. He feels lucky he and his wife, Katie, left the University of Idaho with a manageable amount of student debt.

“I had a about $17,000 in debt, but if I had left school with $60,000 or $70,000, that would be a different story,” Howard, who studied rangeland management and animal science production, said. “Some students in the same program as me had triple the debt I had. If my wife and I were paying $600 to $700 per month in school debt, we couldn’t afford to farm.”

Student loans are what Howard called “bad debt” because these payments siphon funds away from starting, building, and growing farm businesses in rural communities.

Karie Walker, a Farm Services Agency loan officer in Pendleton, Ore., agrees student loan debt can impede borrowing and farmer success.

“High monthly [student loan] payments can funnel the borrower’s income in one direction and may not leave them with adequate amounts to make their annual farm loan payment,” she said.

While most federal student loans are on a 10-year repayment program, Walker notes that in the 1990s and early 2000s, many students ended up with much longer repayment plans.

“Hefty monthly payments can certainly affect the success of a new operation, especially knowing that they may affect the operation for up to 30 years,” she said.

Just as the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) survey found, people may be delaying a career in farming due to student loan debt. “We have a number of people that grew up farming or ranching, move to off-farm employment, then leave their careers to start farming later in life,” Walker said.

NYFC hopes to address the student loan debt barrier and get more farmers on the land is to add them to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. The program was created in 2007 to help public service professionals such as teachers, nurses, public interest attorneys, government employees and nonprofit professionals pay off federal student debt and incentivize more people to join the public service ranks.

NYCF is pushing for farmers to be included on that list and for farming to be seen as a critical public service.

But is farming a public service?

“Farming offers a public service through food production and stewardship of natural resources that we share,” said Kate Greenberg, western program director for NYFC.

Given the importance of agriculture and the fact that only 6 percent of farmers are under age 35, Greenberg says farmers are a good match for the existing loan forgiveness program.

“Just as we have a critical shortage of new nurses, doctors, and social workers, we have a critical shortage of new farmers,” she said. “Farmers are absolutely critical. This program is one way to build out the pipeline to get more people farming.”

To qualify for the program under the NYCF proposal, new farmers would work full time on a farm that makes at least $35,000 and files a Schedule F tax forms, but would not have to own a business or land. “We wanted to be sure that the people who qualify are building a business or career in agriculture whether or not they own a business or own land,” she said. “We recognize that land access and ownership is not equitable across the country because of historical ag policy and discrimination.”

After 10 years of farming and on-time, income-based payments, the government would cancel the balance of the farmer’s federal student loans.

This approach to incentivizing farming is already being used in New York. The New York State Young Farmers Loan Forgiveness Incentive Program offers loan repayment up to $50,000 for grads who start a farm business within two years of graduating from a New York university and operate their farm five years. So far the number of farmers in the program is small and funding is limited.

Greenberg says making farmers eligible for student loan repayment or forgiveness will support different entry points into agriculture.

“First, multi-generational family farm kids are currently at a crossroads between going to college and taking over the farm,” she said. “Many parents are encouraging kids to get an education, but loan forgiveness would allow them to not have to choose between the farm and a college education.”

Second, she notes that many new farmers are first generation farmers who don’t know they want to farm until they get a college education.

Third, she says, “You have to think about future farmers that may not even be born yet.” She argues the future norm could be much easier entry into farming. Loan forgiveness could help pave a pathway back to the farm and reverse the rural brain drain. “Being able to return with an education builds rural communities.”

What advice can aspiring farmers and ranchers take about managing student loan debt?

Northwest Farm Credit Services (FCS) Relationship Manager Andrea Krahmer said student loan debt is factored into assessing a borrower’s credit worthiness and the level of student debt matters. However, Krahmer also said Northwest FCS offers loan programs specifically for new and small farmers.

“We can be flexible with underwriting guidelines and extra student loan debt may still be OK with some positive offsetting credit factors,” she said.

Krahmer and FSA loan officer Karie Walker both advise that maintaining credit worthiness, regardless of the amount of student debt is key. So is paying student loan debt on time every time.

According to Krahmer, “it becomes even more important to use credit sources responsibly which includes having good credit scores and minimal other consumer debt beyond student loans.” Krahmer explained that student loan debt is not like a car loan, which has a physical asset to offset the loan liability. “Knowledge obtained from attending college is certainly an asset but not something that can be recorded on a financial statement.”

While he can’t put his college education on a balance sheet, young rancher Caleb Howard believes getting a bachelor’s degree was worth it. He also advises there are other options.

“I wouldn’t change my college experience for anything in the world, but maybe a trade school is better preparation for less money,” he said.

Until student loan forgiveness is widely available to new farmers and ranchers, Howard said you can get ahead of your debt while in school. “Get a part-time job. It will go miles.”