Dairy goat farm reduces waste, improves profitability by feeding a TMR

Posted on March 7, 2024 in Dairy Goat Performance

By Sarah Varney, Vita Plus dairy goat specialist

Lester Sterken, and his wife, Helen, own and operate Musty Meadow, a dairy goat farm in Delavan, Wisconsin.  Sterken grew up milking cows on his family farm next door and previously farmed there fulltime.  He never expected he would end up milking goats for a living.

“I had extra time with our new [cow] parlor and hired help, so I bought two goats just to see what they were like,” he recalled.

Sterken milked those two goats by hand and his fondness for dairy goats grew quickly.  His herd of two seemed to turn into 30 overnight.  While milking 30 goats by hand, Sterken decided he needed to either fully commit to milking goats or quit.

Sterken said he toured a couple of different farms before he started construction on his own facility.  On each tour, his main question was, “Is this profitable? Can I make a positive cash flow?”

In 2015, he built a brand-new dairy goat facility and started shipping milk.  Today, he milks between 600 and 700 does.  The milking barn is made up of four pens, each of which can house up to 200 head.  The barn has curtain sides to help with ventilation and temperature control.

Sterken milks in a double-16 parlor.  Ideally, two people milk the goats, especially when many first-fresheners enter the lactating herd at the same time.  A crowd gate in the holding pen brings the does into the parlor; they do not receive any feed during milking.

Feeding a total mixed ration
To improve profitability, Sterken said he took a different approach to feeding his goats.  From the very beginning, his milking goats have been fed a total mixed ration (TMR).  Sterken had easy access to corn silage and haylage from his family’s dairy farm next door, so he said feeding a TMR made sense.

The TMR consists of a 50:50 corn silage-to-haylage ratio; about 25% of the TMR is a protein/mineral pellet.  In addition to the TMR, one large square bale of baleage and half a large bale of grass hay is split daily between four pens to help slow the rate of passage.  Does also have ad libitum access to a molasses lick tank in the pens.

Sterken said he has observed less waste in the pen when feeding TMR versus feeding straight hay.  He noted that goats “sure are picky” and it took several weeks for the first group to adjust to the feed.

There is about a skidsteer bucket of refusals daily.  Sterken said the lactating does don’t like to lick the bunk clean and he also never wants them to be hungry enough to lick the bunks clean.  He said he lets the goats tell him what they need.  For example, if he notices they’re eating more and the TMR is nearly gone, he will increase the TMR at the next feeding.

Youngstock management
Shortly after birth, kids are placed into pens and fed three full feedings of colostrum – typically as much as they want.  They transition to milk replacer and are fed by bottle the first week of life.  After that, they are placed in a pen of 12 kids and fed as much milk replacer as they want from a nipple pail twice a day.  Kids have access to water and grain immediately.

Sterken’s kid barn is thermostat-controlled and ideally maintains a temperature at or above 55 degrees, which is achieved by in-floor heat sourced from a wood burning stove kept outside the facility.  In the winter, two fans and a couple of cracked windows help maintain good ventilation.  When weaned kids move to the next facility, they are fed a pellet-and-hay diet.  At about five months of age, they are introduced to the TMR with additional hay.  Sterken said introducing youngstock to the TMR so that it is familiar prior to freshening is one of his biggest pieces of advice for any farm considering a TMR.

An eye on profitability
Sterken’s family sold the cow dairy next door in 2020, but he is still able to purchase corn silage and haylage from the new owners, which he said still makes the most sense in terms of economics and nutritive value.  Building his own bunker would be a big investment and would increase the risk of potential silage spoilage, but putting a bag on a gravel pad wouldn’t be ideal either.  With his current arrangement, keeping the silages fresh is easy because 600 cows are also being fed from the piles.

Sterken said, if he could give advice to fellow dairy goat producers considering a TMR, it would be to stick with it.  Goats don’t like change and it can be easy to say “this won’t work” when they turn up their noses at first. Sterken said the lack of waste with TMR is worth the initial stress of trial and error.

He concluded, “That’s all there is to it.”

Category: Dairy Goat Performance
Doe nutrition
Feed quality and nutrition
Kid nutrition