Milking goats has been one of the most profitable businesses in Dutch agriculture during the past five years. That meant the decision to take over her large family farm was an easy one for Antsje Meekma, 29.
Her dad, Klaas Meekma, started the family farm in 1990. He soon built it to be the first goat farm in the Netherlands producing more than 1 million kilos of milk per year – more than 265,000 gallons.
“In 1993 I built my first barn to hold 300 goats,” Meekma said. “Later in 1998 I built another one for 800 – but these barns are getting dated. We plan to build a new one to have all the goats in one place.”
A former agricultural journalist, Klaas and his wife, Jannie, now milk 1,100 goats. They’re ready to let their daughter take the reins but there’s a decision needing to be made – whether to further expand or not.
The farm extends to 40 hectares – about 100 U.S. acres. Situated at Deinum, it’s well-known for breeding as well as for producing excellent-quality milk. Of the family’s income, 70 percent is from milk production and the remaining 30 percent from selling breeding stock.
“I initially wanted to be a cow farmer but didn’t have the money for quota or the cows,” Klaas Meekma said. “I started with 120 goats and the business has boomed from there.”
Meekma goats produce an average of 1,300 kilograms of milk each per year – about 2,866 pounds – at 4.35 percent butterfat and 3.55 percent protein. Most of the milk is sold to specialist Dutch cheesemaker Henri Willig. Some has been used to produce Meekma beer made from milk whey.
“We have made money over the past five years and need to pay tax now,” Meekma said. “Demand is strong coming from China, who buy the infant-milk powder.
“Our milk costs are in the region of 48 euro-cents per litre (about USD$2.07 per gallon) and sells for 60 euro-cents per litre (about USD$2.60 per gallon). It even reached 70 euro-cents (USD$3.02 per gallon) in the last five years,” he said.
The strict regulations in the Netherlands for manure mean the Meekmas can use about 30 percent to 40 percent of it on their own 40 hectares, some of which is rented out to seed-potato farmers. The rest must be shipped out to crop farms, which the Meekmas pay for. This past year Klaas Meekma paid €20,000 – USD$20,801 – to dispose of the excess manure produced on the farm.
The goats are always kept indoors. They are fed a hay and concentrates mix of 15 percent to 18 percent protein, broken down into 1 kilogram – 2.2 pounds – of roughage and 2 kilograms – 4.4 pounds – of concentrates per day.
This past year has been a difficult one for the farm because the European drought made it more difficult for the Meekma family to cut enough forage, forcing them to outsource some.
“We had to buy lorry loads of hay, which is costing us around 120 euros per tonne (USD$124 per ton),” Meekma said. “It is healthy material and good for the goat’s rumen. Normally we produce 80 or 90 tonnes ourselves and buy in the same quantity each year, but we may have to buy even more due to the drought.”
There are 350 goat farms in the Netherlands but just a few years ago in 2009 a Q Fever outbreak took 50,000 goats out of the industry.
“That forced a bigger demand in the market, which was coupled with the Chinese demand,” Meekma said.
The family’s 1,100 goats are milked twice per day in four milking groups on a 40-place rotary parlor installed in 2012. In addition to the milking groups there are another 900 followers and breeding stock in the herd.
“Right now I am handing the farm over to my daughter and we are building a new barn to hold 1,500 to 2,000 goats,” he said.
But Antsje Meekma said she thinks expanding the herd is not necessarily the correct path to follow.
“It takes one person 3.5 hours to milk all 1,100 goats which, if we increased goat numbers, would take even longer,” she said. “I feel we can add more value to our existing milk supply by increasing welfare conditions for the goats, offering them more freedom and hopefully increasing prices. I would like to build a new more-modern barn to house all the goats in which they would be easier to manage.”
She along with her parents work on the farm; they employ three others.
“Modernizing the business could potentially reduce our labor costs but if we expand this would mean more work, more labor and higher costs,” she said. “Sometimes it is better to stick with what you have and make it more efficient rather than expand, expand, expand and end up in a worse situation.
“Demand for our produce is really good at the moment and I hope it stays that way but you never know when it could drop.”