Recently we have had clients from Michigan who are goat farmers and goat cheese producers. They asked us to design them a distinctly busman's holiday, with a strong focus on meeting French goat cheese producers. We spent a week with them visiting chateaux and lots and lots of cheese related visits to cheese affineurs, artisanal cheese makers, farmers, and a winery which just happens to be co-owned by a cheese merchant who does cheese and wine pairings.
Our very last farm visit was to Limouzin frères, between le Petit Pressigny and Preuilly sur Claise. The Limouzin family farm Alpine dairy goats, Blonde d'Aquitaine beef cattle and Percheron draft horses on 150 hectares.
The goat shed.
The Alpine dairy goat herd is around 350 animals, which is large for this area. They live in a spacious barn in cohorts of 40 does. The barn is very high roofed to aid ventilation.
The feed storage area.
The goats eat hay and a mixture of grains, virtually all of which, plus the straw for bedding, is grown on the farm. The Limouzins even make their own canola pellets by crushing the seeds to extract the oil and pelletising the 'waste'. The oil, which is too rich for goats, is sent to a piggery.
The feed mixer control panel.
The farmer can dial up or down the percentage of triticale, oats, maize, mineral supplements, canola and soy pellets, depending on which cohort of goats the mixture is for. Some farms feed their goats a smaller percentage of grains and add haylage (the stuff in the big plastic bales) to the combination of feedstuffs. Silage is never fed to dairy goats as it is too strong and produces a noticeable and undesirable flavour in the milk.
The goats are fed their late afternoon grain mix.
The goats eat 2 - 2.5 kg of hay each per day and about 1.3 kg of grain mix each. The mixture of grains they get may vary depending on their age or whether they are pregnant, dry or milking. They spend all year inside, which is a typical husbandry management decision for this area, and get their hooves clipped twice a year. The farm is worked by 8 full time people and 3 apprentices in total, 1 - 2 of which are responsible for the care of the goats (with another 1 - 2 in the dairy). Having them shedded means the cohorts are easier and less time consuming to manage.
Dairy goat herds on pasture are relatively rare in the Touraine and farmers who choose to shed their goats seem slightly defensive when asked about it. In the old days goats were grazed on the hillsides too steep to plough, eating everything from herbs to saplings. There is general agreement that the quality of the cheese is better if the goats get to graze outside, and especially if they can browse in the forest or scrubby hillsides.
However goats become accustomed to living inside and if the farm wanted to change to a pasture based system they would have to acclimatise the herd over a period of years. One positive reason for shedding the goats is it reduces their susceptibility to intestinal worms, for which they have to be treated. The worming treatment can affect the milk and consumers are concerned about pesticide residues in foodstuff.
Goats eating a mixture of grains and hay.
All the goats are ear-tagged to provide traceability. The ear-tag goes on when they are just a day old, even on the male kids which are taken at 2 - 3 days old by a farmer from Deux-Sevrès who fattens them for meat.
Kids, about 2 - 3 weeks old.
February and March is the main kidding season, so there were lots of cute baby goats in the shed when we visited. Not all the goats give birth at this time though. Some are impregnated so they give birth in October, others are not impregnated at all and kept milking. The female kids are kept to replenish the herd. The males are mostly sold to the Deux-Sevrès farm for a couple of euros each, with a few kept and fattened by the Limouzins for meat or products such as terrine which they sell in their farm shop or La Charette, a shop run and supplied by a group of 13 local farmers at the agricultural high school in Tours.
Very young kids, under a week old, drinking milk.
The kids are removed from their mothers immediately they are born and never suckle. They are fed milk formula which is mixed by hand twice a day. The temperature is very important and the milk substitute must be at 45°C when mixed and 38°C when the kids drink it. If the temperature of the milk is wrong the kids get bloat and die. They are disbudded (their horns removed) at about 8 days old.
Not all the does need to get pregnant every year. The Limouzins are moving towards a 5 year cycle where the does are first impregnated when mature enough then milked continually for 5 years before being impregnated again. Once they are pregnant they are dried off so that they cease lactating for the last two months of pregnancy. When they give birth they are immediately back in the milking parlour (although their milk is discarded for the first 5 - 6 days). The 5 year cycle means that most does will only have 1 - 3 kids in their life. The oldest goat in the herd is 10 years old.