America’s New Dairyland: Goat Cheese
By Jeanne Carpenter | Photos By Becca Dilley and Jim Klousia 0
In Wisconsin, many a community’s claim to fame is the local cheese factory. But one cheese company in Wisconsin is helping take the state’s goat cheese industry to the next level by supporting a new Dairy Goat Herd Management program at the Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore.
Montchevre, located in the tiny village of Belmont (pop. 986) employs 250 people and is today the largest goat cheese factory in America. Known for its award-winning, French-style goat cheese, Montchevre surprised the dairy industry this spring with a $100,000 gift to Southwest Tech to develop a certificate program for dairy goat producers, educating them on providing high quality goat milk.
“Having Montchevre as a leadership partner on this project accelerates our ability to begin marketing and offering courses in 2017,” said Derek Dachelet, dean of industry, trades and agriculture at Southwest Tech.
The new Dairy Goat Herd Management program includes 11 online courses, five mentorship courses and a two-day, hands-on Dairy Goat Academy. The program, the first of its kind in the United States, focuses on the production, financial and management skills of a dairy goat operation. Attendees get hands-on training and develop skills with kidding, breeding, milking and general chores. The inaugural set of classes debuted in May, with another round scheduled for November.
Montchevre was founded in 1989 by French cheesemakers Jean Rossard and Arnaud Solandt in Preston, Wisconsin, and then moved to Belmont in 1995. The company combines traditional French cheesemaking techniques with daily shipments of locally sourced, fresh goat milk to produce its versatile line of popular cheeses, with several of its innovations becoming today’s industry standards.
Recently, Montchevre made headlines by becoming the first goat cheese manufacturer in the United States to produce non-GMO chèvre, or fresh goat cheese. Attaining non-GMO status starts with the feed fed to the animals. All certified non-GMO feed must have begun as non-GMO seed, which is difficult because in North America, 88 percent of all corn, sugar beets, soybeans, canola and cotton are genetically engineered, and more than 70 percent of all packaged foods contain GMOs.
To meet a growing public demand for non-GMO cheese, Montchevre worked with heritage seed companies and feed mills to source non-GMO seed, provided those seeds for farmers to grow, and then worked with feed mills to separately process their harvested non-GMO crops into protein pellets (soy-based with minerals) that goats are fed at milking time. Eighty percent of a goat’s diet is alfalfa hay, which must also be grown from non-GMO seed.
All of Montchevre’s non-GMO milk is produced by a group of farmers in central Iowa. The milk is trucked and processed separately at the Belmont cheese factory. The Iowan farmers are part of a vast network of 360 farms Montchevre supports in the Midwest, most of them in Wisconsin. That means 360 farms depend on Montchevre for their livelihood, and that’s a responsibility Jean Rossard does not take lightly. He visits farms regularly, and the company employs three full-time field employees to work directly with dairy goat farmers to troubleshoot problems.
Dennis and Elaine Schaaf are dairy goat farmers who ship their milk to Montchevre. The pair farm near Mineral Point and got into the dairy goat business nine years ago. Before taking on goats, the couple milked cows for 30 years. “Physically, there’s no comparison in milking a cow versus a goat,” Dennis says. “A cow steps on your foot, you’re going to hurt in the morning or take a trip to an emergency room. A goat steps on your foot and you just shoo it off.”
The Schaafs have successfully converted their former cow barn into a goat-milking parlor and, last summer, built a new open-air, free-stall goat barn, where goats are free to roam large, open pens filled with fresh straw bedding. Free-choice alfalfa hay and fresh water are always available. Goats also have access to pasture, but Dennis says they hardly ever go outside. “Goats don’t like sun, and they don’t like water. That means if it’s raining, they stay inside. If the sun’s out, they stay inside. About the only time you’ll see them in the pasture is at night when it’s not raining.”
The Schaafs milk 240 goats twice a day and bred 350 goats last fall in anticipation of expanding this year. Goats milk seasonally, so the Schaafs generally have a break from milking in December and January, but they are trying to shorten that window by breeding females year-round. This also helps Montchevre maintain a more consistent flow of milk to make into cheese yearround. The Schaafs’ herd is made up of a cross of Saanen, Toggenberg and Alpine breeds of goats.
In a young but growing industry, Dennis and Elaine have milked goats long enough to serve as mentors to upand- coming dairy goat farmers. They say three farmers in their neighborhood switched from milking cows to milking goats last year, with one farm turning operations over to their child to become the first second-generation dairy goat farm in Wisconsin.
Milk is picked up about every three days from the dairy goat farms and hauled to Montchevre, where three shifts of employees make cheese around the clock, 363 days a year. The current pay price for goat’s milk in Wisconsin is around $38 per hundredweight (100 pounds of milk). That price is holding steady because of a constant growth in demand for goat cheese. In comparison, the pay price for Class III cow’s milk (milk processed into cheese) ranges from $12 to $20 per hundredweight, and is set by a federal milk marketing order. It takes about 10 goats to equal the milk output of one cow, hence the higher pay price for goat’s milk.
Rossard says more farmers are becoming interested in switching from milking cows to milking goats, and the demand for goat cheese is increasing every year. “We’re already planning another factory expansion,” he says. “Our goal is to process 100 million pounds of milk this year, and we’re well on our way to meeting that goal.”