By Ivan Raconteur
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN In just three years, Marc and Sarah Dammann of rural Lester Prairie have increased their herd of goats from one pregnant female to about 150 animals, and for the Dammanns, goats are becoming a way of life.
Things are looking pretty good today, Marc said, but the path hasn’t always been easy.
Marc has been farming since 2002. He worked for a sod farm as well as raising some of his own sod. He also purchased a tractor that year, and did custom plowing and combining.
The next step was steers. At one time, Marc thought raising steers would be part of his future. Unfortunately, he got into the market just before things fell apart. He purchased some animals for top dollar, only to watch prices at market drop dramatically.
He decided he needed to go in a new direction. He had always wanted to milk cows, but high land prices in the area put this dream out of reach.
Then, he started to think about goats. At the time, a neighbor was milking goats. Marc talked to the neighbor as well as other farmers who kept goats. He began to think this could be the right fit for him.
The next hurdle was convincing Sarah, and Mark knew that wasn’t going to be easy. Sarah grew up on a dairy farm near Silver Lake, and was, in Marc’s words, “a hard-core cow person.”
“She said, ‘what the heck are you going to do with goats?’” Mark remembered.
He told her what he wanted to do with the goats, and eventually she began to come around. Marc knew if he could just get Sarah to agree to purchasing one goat, he would be OK.
One of the things Marc likes about goats is that a goat eats about one-tenth of what a cow eats. On 10 acres of land, Marc says he can produce more than enough hay to feed his goats. He grows corn on 15 rented acres to provide additional feed.
“What is really attractive about goats is that you can afford to get into it, and you can afford feed if you don’t already have it,” Marc said.
Goats are also “cleaner” that cows, so manure is less of a problem, Marc explained.
In the end, Sarah agreed, and they purchased their first goat, a pregnant female named Murphy, three years ago.
Murphy delivered two male kids, and the Dammann goat herd was born.
At first, the Dammanns kept their goats at the neighbor’s farm, partly because the neighbor was already set up with a creamery, Stickney Hill Dairy in Kimball.
Marc said unlike selling cows’ milk, there is a waiting list to get in with a creamery to sell goats’ milk.
The Dammanns purchased 15 more goats during their first year in the business.
It had always been Marc’s intention to set up his own barn for the goats, but some unforeseen circumstances led to that happening sooner than he had expected.
First, he was laid off from his job at Ram Buildings in Winsted.
Then, last summer he received a call that dramatically increased his herd, practically overnight. The call came from Stickney Hill Dairy. One of the company’s other suppliers had decided to get out of the business, and wondered if the Dammanns were interested in buying their herd of about 100 goats.
At that point, the Dammanns had 37 small and 14 large goats. Despite the fact that his barn was not even close to being ready, Marc saw the call as a great opportunity to not only increase his herd, but to automatically get hooked-up with the creamery.
The Dammanns talked to the bank and put together a deal to purchase the herd.
Instead of being something that could be completed gradually over time as he had the money, the barn project became an urgent priority for Marc. He started work June 7, 2009, and the goal was to be operational by Sept. 1. After months of work, the project was finally complete Nov. 6.
Mark purchased all of his neighbor’s milking equipment, including a 400-gallon bulk tank.
He converted a structure that had once been a hog barn, and later a shop building, into his goat barn and milking parlor.
This included breaking up part of a flat concrete floor and digging in a trench. There was plumbing and wiring to do. There were walls to build and painting to be completed. A lean-to was added to one side of the building to provide shelter for the goats. Partitions were built for what would eventually be the kid room.
Marc spent countless hours on the project, and Sarah helped when she wasn’t at her job at Plato Woodworking. They also had a lot of help from their friends and family, especially their parents.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today without our parents,” Marc said.
He also did a lot of trading of goods and services to get the project done. He traded a five-bottom plow that he wasn’t using for the use of a friend’s skid loader, and did some mechanical work for another friend who is an electrician in exchange for some electrical work.
In January, the arrival of a new batch of kids increased the herd again. The first kid was born on New Year’s Eve, and after that, things began to happen very quickly. Many of the kids were born during a cold snap, when temperatures dropped to 20 or 30 degrees below zero.
Normally, heat lamps in the kid room are adequate to keep the kids warm during cold weather. During the coldest days, however, the Dammanns put the newborn kids into 30-gallon plastic totes and brought them into the house where it was warmer.
This tested their stamina. Sarah said at the peak, 15 kids were born in a single day. They ran out of totes and were carrying kids into the house in cardboard boxes and anything else that was available.
For goats, twin births are most common, but triplets also occur, Marc said.
“You can double your herd in a short time,” he added.
There was one member of the family who enjoyed this more than the others. Marc and Sarah’s daughter, Savanah, was born last May, and enjoyed having the goats for company.
“She thought it was the greatest thing ever when we had all the kids in the house,” Sarah said.
For the first day or two, the kids are given milk from a 20-ounce soda bottle with a special nipple attached. After that, they are switched over to buckets that have multiple nipples and can accommodate several kids at once. They are fed in this way for six to eight weeks.
The Dammanns have five breeds of goats in their herd. Most are either Saanen or Alpine goats, but Nubian, LaMancha, and Boer breeds are also represented.
The gestation period for goats is about five months. Goats can be milked starting when they are about one year old, and are productive for milking purposes until they are about 10 years old.
The Dammanns are currently selling grade B milk, which is used for making cheese. The cheese from Stickney Hill Dairy is sold at a variety of locations, including the cheese store in Bongards.
The regulations governing milk production for goats are the same as they are for cows, and inspections are completed by the same state inspector. The Dammann’s said they are lucky, because the inspector came out and gave them tips on what was required while they were modifying their barn.
Moving the herd of 100 new goats was an interesting time for the Dammanns. On moving day, the goats were milked at their original farm north of St. Cloud in the morning. They were moved during the afternoon, and that evening, they were milked at the Dammann farm.
The new herd was producing about six pounds of milk per goat per day at the time of the move.
Several people helped with the milking at first, and things didn’t always go as smoothly as they could have, but the Dammanns said they have learned a lot in a short period of time.The goats also learned quickly, and soon, things were going well.
“Those first couple of days were something else,” Marc commented.
Regulating the feed also took some adjustments. Now, only the goats that are being milked get grain, and only in the milking parlor. These goats get meadow hay in the morning, and alfalfa at night. Goats that are not being milked get only meadow hay.
Goats that are not used for milking or breeding can be sold for meat. There is a market for goat meat, but one has to look for it, Marc said.
Marc has an automatic feeder in his milking parlor, and can currently milk 12 goats at a time on his own. He will be able to milk 24 at a time when he has a second feeder ready to go.
Goats can be milked for about 10 months out of the year, and Marc said by planning the breeding, he hopes to be milking year-around soon.
Dairy goats are still fairly rare in this area. The Dammanns said they are only aware of two other farms in McLeod County that are milking goats, and often, those that are milking goats also milk cows.
The Dammanns do as much of their own work as they can, including vaccinating their animals. Marc went to college to learn diesel mechanics so that when he was farming he would be able to fix his own equipment.
“My goal was always to farm, and not have to go to work,” Marc said. “I hope this will be the ticket.”
He said he loves working around the farm, being outdoors, and spending time with his daughter, and the goat operation is allowing him to do this.
“If you set your mind to it, and stick to it, you can make anything happen,” Marc said. “Right now, it’s worth it.”