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Goats, not cows, the right fit for dairy farm

Smaller size suits Minto family

Goats at Oak Island Acres Goat Dairy in Minto.


Goats at Oak Island Acres Goat Dairy in Minto.

MINTO -- If Red River College ever looks to amend its journalism program, it might want to add "tour a goat farm" to the curriculum.

Barely two minutes in, my tour of the Oak Island Acres Goat Dairy near Minto found me in a tug-of-war with a goat trying to eat my reporter's notebook.

"They love paper, so watch out," warned owner Diane Rourke, adding she's lost several notebooks to her goats. (The old saw that goats will eat just about anything is true.)

Not five minutes later, another goat had leaned over the gate and was nibbling on my notebook again. A short time later, yet another goat was caught chewing on the pages -- ready to swallow everything I'd written, as it were. The lesson for journalists could be like a fumble drill in football: Keep notebook securely gripped while goats try various subterfuge to take it away.

Who knew goats are this cute?

Diane and David Rourke run Manitoba's only commercial-size goat dairy. They have 500 head of goats, plus their kids (goat kids, not their own; the Rourkes have four grown children). Diane runs the goat farm, and David operates their 5,500-acre grain farm.

The advantage for Diane is goats are much smaller than cows. Cows get up to 362 kilograms. Goats weigh in at 45 to 68 kilograms. "I can work with these animals," she said.

Her goats are a bunch of comedians. They always want attention and love being petted. They are curious about everything and show no fear when exploring.

Dairy cows are dour by comparison. "Cows are more standoffish. Goats are very personable. The ones we named, they know their names," she said, like Cookie, Biscuit, Dinosaur and Little Red.

The Rourke family bought the goat farm four years ago from previous owners in éle-des-Chênes, south of Winnipeg. Minto is down Highway 10, south of Brandon. The Rourkes wanted to add alfalfa to their crop rotation -- alfalfa is good for the soil, fixing it with nitrogen -- but needed a market for the alfalfa. "So we looked for a ruminant business" to make use of the alfalfa, Diane said. They already had a very open, well-lit building to convert for the goats.

Ile-des-Chenes means Oak Island in French, and that was the brand name -- Oak Island Acres Goat Dairy -- previous owners marketed under, so the Rourkes kept it. They also retained the customers. The Rourkes are the sole supplier of goat milk for Safeway and Sobeys stores across Western Canada, except in British Columbia, where another dairy shares the market.

They sell to several organic food stores, as well. The milk is shipped to Notre Dame Creamery to be pasteurized and bottled before hitting store shelves. They also make goat cheese, processed at the cheese-making facility at the University of Manitoba's dairy science department.

Goat dairies are regarded as something out of developing countries, but their market in Canada is milk for people with low lactose tolerance. Goat milk has 13 per cent less lactose. Its fat particles are smaller and the membrane on those particles is thinner, so it's easier to digest.

While goats are playful, they're also very trainable. They usher quietly into the milking parlour twice a day without a fuss. Food is provided in a trough in front of them, while two suction-cupped tubes draw milk from their teats. They provide up to 3.5 litres each per day. "They're very quiet when they come in. They just get busy and eat," Diane said.

Another reason the goats are so friendly is they are handled on a daily basis and get to live out their lives. A doe can produce milk for 10 years. The barn is open and spacious with lots of natural light, and with access to outdoor paddocks.

There are some major tasks unique to goats. Their hooves have to be trimmed twice a year.

The operation for 500 goats takes three or four people about five days. If their hooves aren't trimmed, they become lame. The horns are often trimmed, too.

It means early mornings. The goats are milked at 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.

They dairy uses no antibiotics, hormones or growth enhancers. The goat diet is alfalfa and barley. The majority of the family's herd is a Swiss breed called Saanen.

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