Stickney Hill Dairy thrives on processing about 5,000 pounds of goat milk per week during winter months and nearly 30,000 pounds per week during the flush summer months when goats produce more milk.

Manager Cheryl Willenbring said goats are like deer, seasonal animals that flush in early spring when kidding (birthing season) begins and milk abundantly until late fall and early winter. Stickney Hill Dairy is just a few miles west of Kimball and only a mile or so from the popular Powder Ridge Ski Area.

Stickney Hill, in operation since 1999, produces just a single type of goat cheese called chevre (cream cheese texture) and processes this cheese into six different flavors.

“We have retail customers in the Twin Cities, especially through the food co-ops like Linden Hills Food Co-op, but also Kowalski’s, Lunds and Byerly stores,” Willenbring said. They also sell nationally through Super Targets.

She indicated Stickney Hill is one of only a handful of cheese processors specializing in goat cheese. They source goat milk from seven dairy goat herds currently and are looking to expand as the goat cheese market continues to grow. Each of these family operations has a mixed goat herd of 80 to 180 Alpine, Saanen, Nubian, LaMancha and Oberhasli breeds.

Prolific goats

One of these family operations is Randy and Mary Orbeck who with their seven children run a dairy goat operation on their hobby farm near St. Martin.

In a telephone interview in March, Randy said their herd of 65 milking goats (about 100 total counting replacements) was wrapping up lactations so his two sons, Adam, 17, and Aaron, 13, were only milking 10 currently. However, the new kidding season was just beginning and would be lasting into April.

A few goats do milk straight through until kidding but eight to 10 months is the normal lactation. This will be the third year of milking dairy goats for the Orbeck family.

Alpine and Saanen make up the bulk of their herd. Goats are prolific with twins, trips, even quads. “Last season we had three runs of quads so bottle feeding definitely is part of the care giving,” Orbeck said.

This prolificacy certainly permits a rapid expansion, if labor, feed, housing and milking parlor are also expandable.

Goats are about 14 months of age at first lactation with singles the norm the first birthing. Up to eight lactations is the productive span of a dairy goat but the third and fourth lactations are prime milk production lactations. Up to 20 pounds of milk per day is doable for top individuals, but the Orbecks peaked out at 16 to 17 pounds per day in their first two years of milking goats, with a yearly average of about 8 pounds this past season.

They machine milk, twice daily with Mary, Adam, Aaron and 11-year-old Grace also helping in the parlor, a double 8 (eight goats each side) but at this stage they have only four milker units so it’s a 1 1/2 hour routine when milking the entire herd.

Why goats?

“(It's a) potential backup income if needed, but also it’s a great opportunity for getting our family totally involved in our hobby-farm business,” Randy said.

Dairy goats are labor intensive so good management tops the list of “must do” for a successful operation. “My two sons are doing a great job. Even though we’re still relatively new to the business, my family has really taken hold of this hobby. Feed costs are the biggest economic challenge. And we’re still learning. That first year was a terrific learning experience for all of us,” Randy said, reflecting on some veterinarian costs and herd health issues that often are the price of being a “rookie” in the livestock world.

His description of their dairy goats?

“Independent creatures that don’t always easily adjust to a new environment. They certainly thrive on TLC (tender loving care). They love being pampered.” He also describes them as friendly and easy to handle, which made goats the best fit for his young family. Ben, 8, Maria, 6, John, 4 and Clarence, 2 are the other four children of the Orbeck clan.

Even though the bulk of their milk goes to Stickney Hill Dairy, Orbeck indicated a few families with allergy problems when using regular milk now stop at their place for goat milk. “We don’t charge a price, just suggest ‘free will’ donations as our way of helping out some of these families.”

Orbeck is also a U.S. Postal Service contractor and has nearly 20 employees in the task of collecting mail from a U.S. Bulk Mail Center and delivering to post offices within central Minnesota.

Certified recognition

Stickney Hill Dairy recently received the Certified Humane Raised and Handled label, the first dairy in Minnesota to join the program. This label assures consumers that goat herds delivering to Stickney Hill Dairy receive a nutritious diet and must be raised with shelter, resting areas and space sufficient to support their natural behavior.

“We believe in the practices of the Certified Humane program. Our goat milk producers definitely practice TLC of their herds. We’ll probably peak around 12 to 15 producers,” Willenbring said.

One of their bigger producers is an Amish farmer with a goat farming operation about 100 miles from Stickney Hill.

A crew of five women run Stickney Hill Dairy, generally processing cheese six days of the week but office and shipping operations are a five-day work schedule. A Minneapolis businessman, David Lenzmeier, native of the Kimball area, owns the business.

Willenbring said the seasonal nature of the product is one of the major challenges of being a goat cheese manufacturer. That’s because of the flush of milk production from goats during the summer season, then decreasing supplies into late winter, early spring.

Cheese is shipped every day with a five- to six-day period from delivery of the goat milk until the processed cheese products are ready for shipment. Rigorous health and sanitation requirements go hand-in-hand with the production of cheese. Samples are pulled and tested for antibiotic levels on each bulk tank of milk delivered to the dairy before that tank gets unloaded.

“We’ve never had a hot load (rejected because of antibiotics). That’s because we’re very particular with the dairy goat producers that sell to us,” she said.

Why the goat cheese growth?

“Because it tastes good and it’s especially good for your health,” said the ladies at Stickney Hill Dairy. Willenbring said, “because it is easily digested, people with lactose intolerance or food allergy issues generally have goat milk and goat cheese in their diets.”

The small fat globules and the small protein agglomerates facilitate the action of the digestive enzymes on the milk, making goat milk readily digestible. Moreover the goat milk-protein gel formed in the stomach is softer than that formed by cow milk.

In the 2008 American Cheese Society competition, Stickney Hill Dairy earned first place in the Pumpkin Spice Chevre category and third place in the Peppercorn Chevre category.

Nicole Neeser, Dairy, Meat, Poultry and Egg Inspection Program manager with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said it is difficult to get exact numbers on goat herds in Minnesota because new herds are starting and existing herds are quitting on an ongoing basis. She estimated there currently are about 45 Grade A dairy goat operations permitted to sell milk. However, more than 150 goat farms now dot the Minnesota landscape with many selling for cheese products, yogurt and specialty sales for health purposes.

“That number is a significant increase over just five years ago when there were only a small handful. Most herds are more than 100 goats because that many are needed to produce large enough volumes to make transporting milk worthwhile,” Neeser said.

“The goat industry definitely is a growing entity in Minnesota, and nationwide for that matter,” said Curt Zimmerman, MDA livestock development specialist. But like the dairy industry, dairy goats have their challenges when it comes to somatic cell count.