OYF winners take unexpected path to success

Sometimes, ones’ dreams take an unexpected path to fruition. That’s exactly what Patrick and Cherylynn Bos experienced on their road to creating a successful farm and food operation
that’s far from typical for the prairies. The couple — named national co-winners of Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program award for 2015 — run Rock Ridge Dairy in Ponoka,
AB, a 1,200 strong dairy goat operation that keeps major grocery stores throughout western Canada stocked with goat milk and cheese.

“Are we really going to milk goats in the heart of Alberta’s cattle country?” That’s exactly what the young couple asked themselves when the concept first surfaced.

Patrick knew at an early age he wanted to be a farmer and, encouraged by his father to get some outside training, studied livestock production at Olds College. Cherylynn, a self-described “townie,” earned her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Alberta before deciding she could learn to love the farm lifestyle if Patrick was there. Married in 1997, the 22-year old newlyweds farmed alongside Patrick’s parents.

“They were very supportive as we tried to work out the farm finances,” says Patrick. “They gave us free rein to change the farm in ways to suit ourselves.” Shortly after the honeymoon, they purchased and calved out 50 bred heifers.

Cherylynn and Patrick Bos with their children from L to R: Connor (11), Amelia (12), Adelle (5), and Jocelyn (9).

“Then reality set in,” he recalled. “We saw that we couldn’t raise enough beef cattle on the farm’s limited land base to be financially viable and we had to find some other way to make the farm work for us.”

An article in the local paper about a new goat milk-processing facility in town caught their eye, and Patrick joked they should maybe milk goats instead. Cherylynn pondered the idea and was soon convinced it had real potential.

“Needless to say, Patrick wasn’t as thrilled as I was,” laughs Cherylynn. “Born and raised in town, I wasn’t privy to such information, so Patrick started to explain the totem pole of farming to me, and how goats just happened to be pretty much at the very bottom.

“But it just seemed to make sense for our situation and the facilities we had available on the farm,” she says. Cherylynn warmed Patrick up to the idea and soon, their old dairy barn was converted into a goat milking parlour. Let the adventure begin!

“Dairy goats were relatively new to western Canada and very few people were pursuing it as a commercial venture,” says Patrick. “We knew it was going to be risky, so we moved forward with one theme — do it as well as you can for as little money as possible.” And, as added security, they both kept their day jobs until they were sure their idea had legs.

A small herd of 50 goats soon grew to 170. “Our learning curve was steep,” says Cherylynn. “We realized goats were much more clever than cows, and would spend their days devising ways to escape from their pens,” she laughs. Then came a setback when the processing company that bought their milk began to pay sporadically, leaving the couple to wonder whether they should stick it out or walk away.

“Fortunately, we never gave up our day jobs and that kept us out of debt,” Patrick says. In the spring of 2004, that processing plant declared bankruptcy. “Actually, it was the best thing that could have happened because it set into motion the chain of events that forever changed our lives and our farm.”

The couple soon found another customer for their milk, a nearby cheese farm. But, when the owner expressed his desire to retire, it became clear that in order to succeed, the couple needed to be able to process their own milk. Cherylynn went to work at the cheese farm to learn the craft with the intention of launching their own cheese products.

“The cheese we made while renting a facility got us into the market with Happy Days, a goat milk company in B.C.,” says Cherylynn. “It agreed to take all the cheese we could produce, and once they discovered we were building our own plant, asked if we would bottle fluid milk for them.”

Finally they had something to take to the bank, along with a business plan to guide their enterprise to the next level. The couple’s first home-processed goat milk was on grocery store shelves by 2006. Next came construction of a new barn, with cost-conscious Patrick and one worker doing most of the building themselves.

The goat numbers climbed again, with about 400 does visiting the barn twice a day for milking. As the market expanded, several other local families began milking goats to supply their new processing plant.

The next logical step was dividing the processing facility so cheese production could be done in a separate area from fluid milk production. In 2010, with the assistance of Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) and federal Growing Forward initiatives, 10,000 square feet of space was added along with more automation to improve efficiencies.

To support their new processing facility, Patrick and Cherylynn now needed to increase milk production. At that time, their parlour could only accommodate 60 goats at a time, which made milking very time consuming.

“We decided the parlour, too, had to change,” says Patrick. “I researched different systems and since none existed in western Canada for goats, I travelled to Holland to see what style would best suit our needs.” As it turned out, no existing system could accommodate their unique situation.

By combining parts from various systems, Patrick helped create his vision, with the help of some development grants and cooperative manufacturers. The customized high-tech parlour will eventually be able to milk up to 900 goats in just one hour.

“We believe it will be one of the most efficient, low-maintenance, user-friendly goat rotary milkers in the world,” he says. “The system, once running smoothly, should be able to reduce our milking time from nine hours per day to about two, which will drastically improve the sustainability of the farm, and better the lives of ourselves and our animals.”

Along with the new parlour, another barn has been added, with capacity to house up to 1,200 does comfortably.

Now the question is, will Ponoka’s cattle country be transformed into a goat milking haven? Not likely. The couple point out they’re in a niche market that survives on a delicate balance of supply and demand.

Rock Ridge Dairy is a far cry from the traditional cattle operation Patrick and Cherylynn originally envisioned for their life in agriculture. And while getting there has taken them to some challenging places that required a lot of commitment and dedication, they say the ride, and the view, has made it all worthwhile.