Minding The ‘kids’ helps Boost Production On This Farm

When Jan and Jony Roos talk about their kids, they sound like helicopter parents — they use touch-screen tablets to track how much each one drinks and which ones needs a hand-held bottle or not. What?

All jokes aside, this couple runs a dairy goat business that includes a flock of more than 1,200 kid goats, each vying for a position in their dairy herd. That means the feeding data they collect is financial fuel, because the numbers determine if a kid stays or goes.

It’s that attention to detail that earned Roos Dairy Goats top honours in the 2019 Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program competition for the Ontario region. Looking back on the farm they started from scratch in 2007, Jan and Jony have slightly different opinions about the evolution of their business near Brownsville, in southwestern Ontario. While Jan says he envisioned the rapid development of their farm — today a 2,500-head dairy operation — his wife Jony admits: “It probably went a little too fast for me.”

One of the many things they do agree on is that their four actual children, aged three to eight, will not compete for a place on the farm. “I hope they get an opportunity to farm if that’s what they want to do,” says Jan.

FARMING IS IN THE BLOOD

Jan emigrated with his parents from the Netherlands to Canada in 2000. Jony’s family made the move about five years later. Both families left farms in Holland to pursue agricultural production in Canada. Jan’s family went into cash crops and Jony’s folks raised broiler chickens.

All of that history made it easy for the two, who met through a youth church group, to hoe their own row in the ag business. They chose goat milk because the niche product involves relatively small animals and is produced without quotas. Jan worked on a dairy goat farm back in Holland so they had a leg up on the venture before they bought their first goat.

Only 12 years after starting the business, Roos Dairy Goats is one of the largest dairy goat farms in Ontario, which means it’s also one of the biggest in Canada. The milk is sold to a nearby cooperative, Gay Lea Foods. There, almost all of the Roos’ product is turned into cheese and sold under a variety of brand names, including Hewitt’s and Ivanhoe. (All told, it takes 10 litres of goat milk to make 1 kg of gouda and about eight litres to make a soft cheese.)

BUILDING, LITERALLY, FOR SUCCESS

“I couldn’t believe how hard they work,” says Ron Bowker, who nominated the couple for the OYF award. A long- time dairy farmer (cow), Bowker started working at the Roos farm after he retired. Following in the footsteps of farm hands across the country, Bowker says he just did whatever needed to be done. “I looked after the yearling goats, I did a lot of tractor work, I fed goats, I did some welding.”

Bowker says he hardly noticed when the part-time gig morphed into a full-time job. He stayed for more than three years and, looking back, Bowker says he didn’t just work, he also watched his young employers, sometimes in awe, grow their business. “During the time I was there they built something every summer.”

The Roos’ first barn could handle 500 milking goats. Three years later, the couple built an addition to the barn, doubling their milking herd to 1,000 head. Another extension followed in 2013, allowing them to expand the herd by another 500 goats. By the summer of 2018, a third barn expansion helped boost the milking herd to 2,500 goats.

It takes about three and a half hours to milk the whole herd using a 100-stall rotary milker, says Jony. The business employs one full-time farm worker and four part-timers, year round. During the kidding season, part-time staff swells to 10 to 15 employees. Many of the part- timers are local women who work in two alternating shifts.

IF THE TECH DOESN’T EXIST, INVENT IT

Most of the Roos’ goats are Saanen, a Swiss breed known for its white coat and excellent milk production. The herd also includes some Alpine goats and a few American Lamanchas, a breed known for its high butterfat milk and identified by distinctively small ears.

The couple farms 365 acres, including rented land. About 130 acres is seeded to cash crops like soybeans and winter wheat. The rest produces high-quality grass they bale themselves to feed their goats. “Next year we will grow some sweet corn as well. The goats really like it,” says Jony. They also buy pellets, loose ration ingredients and liquid feed through several nearby companies.

Dairy goats typically stay in a herd for five to six years. In 2018, the Roos started to keep their own kids with an eye to building up their own herd. In 2020, the top-performing yearlings will start to replace culled goats.

To make it easier to collect data on each kid, Jony devised an information collection app specific to their needs. Once she knew what she wanted the app to do, she asked a computer-savvy friend to design the software.

The app is used only on their farm on five computer tablets placed around the barns. Staff use the tablets to record hard data, such as how much a kid drinks. They also note anecdotal information about supplemental feeding or whether kids switch back and forth between drinking on their own and needing a hand- held bottle. Entries are tracked by ear tag number, giving Jan and Jony specific information they’ll use to select yearlings. The app has worked so well for them that Jony is developing a new version that will let the couple track ear tag data from birth to adult milking goat.

If all goes according to plan, the data will help them increase milk production without having to expand the herd. Currently, the Roos’ goats produce an average of 813 litres of milk per animal per year, and they believe genetics and nutrition will boost that figure. “Our goal is a herd average of 1,000 litres a year per goat,” says Jony.

Because information is power (and money), Jony explains that she and Jan milk the goats themselves on Saturday mornings so that they can see the whole herd at least one time a week. The Roos say their willingness to work long hours with their goats reflects their entrepreneurial nature.

Friend and former employee Ron Bowker sums it up a little differently. As he sees it: “They just don’t quit.”