ORFORDVILLE — At milking time, the animals at O'Dools Dairy can hardly wait to get out of the barn and into the parlor.
It's as though the milking parlor is a celebrity nightspot, and they all want to be a part of the action, to see what exciting new things are going on in a place they've been twice a day for most of their lives.
Sometimes things get unruly, but more often it's like a Marx Brothers sketch, with three animals trying to get through the doorway at once, each wondering why she's not making headway.
It's just another day in America's Dairyland, expect the animals have never said "moo" and would like nothing better than to nibble on your sweater, notebook, pencil or anything else they can reach through the fence.
Yes, in a land known for cows, there are many goats.
"We have more dairy goats and dairy goat farms than any state in the nation," said Dave Thomas, UW-Madison animal scientist and extension specialist. "Iowa happens to be second."
In 2005, Wisconsin had 38,000 dairy goats in 165 herds. By 2010, that number had increased 80 percent to 68,000 goats in 212 herds.
How did that happen?
"The forage is conducive to the dairy cattle industry," Thomas said. "We have the milk processing tradition and that allows both dairy goat and dairy cattle to flourish in Wisconsin."
In other words, what works for cows works for goats—sort of.
"The facilities can tend to be a little more spartan," said Dave Wachter, UW Extension dairy and livestock agent in Grant County, which used to have one of the highest dairy goat concentrations in the nation. "Goats are usually in loose housing, and they usually do OK on pastures."
Loose housing means they aren't in stalls like dairy cattle.
Goats are easier to handle than dairy cattle, but what about a market for the milk?
Goat cheese maker MontChevre has a plant in Belmont in Lafayette County. Other plants include Woolrich in Lancaster in Grant County and Mt. Sterling in Crawford County.
They could use more milk, according to Orfordville goat producer Aaron Dooley.
Dooley's career in dairy goats started when he was a youngster in 4-H. His parents weren't farmers, but by the time he was 18 years old, he was ready to run his own operation.
Dooley is part of an industry that's trying to meet increasing market demand while at the same time managing slim-to-none margins.
"We used to be the farthest farm on the milk truck route," Dooley said.
Dooley's might be the oldest dairy goat operation in the county, but it's not the only one.
Randy and Mary Adamson started out as dairy cattle farmers and converted their operation to dairy goats. This year, their daughter Sarah Adamson won best doe in class at the Wisconsin State Fair Junior Show with an animal she picked from the family's herd.
Dooley said a farmer down the road is thinking about converting from dairy cattle to dairy goats.
Part of the challenge is having enough goats to make it worthwhile for the milk truck to stop at the farm.
One hundred goats will produce about 600 pounds of milk a day. That translates into about 70 gallons. A good Holstein herd of the same size would produce about 8,000 pounds per day or about 930 gallons.
"It's an interesting industry," Wachter said. "It's a pretty low profit margin business."
A 2006-07 study showed the profit margin for dairy goat operations was about $4 per hundredweight of milk. A hundredweight is about 11.6 gallons.
"The margins are really thin and have gotten really bad lately," said Dan Considine, President of the Wisconsin Dairy Goat Association.
Considine has been in the business since 1965, has been president of the American Dairy Goat Association numerous times and has been awarded the title of premiere breeder.
Farmers might be covering their costs but aren't getting much—if anything—for their labor, he said.
This year is going to be especially difficult for farmers. With the drought in the Midwest, specialists are predicting that the cost of hay, grain and food supplements might reach record highs.
So raising dairy goats won't make anybody rich.
"I think people stay in the business because they like to work with the animals," Considine said. "From a personal perspective, they are beautiful animals; I like their personalities, their friendliness."
No getting away
Dooley loves the animals, but he also wants to run a profitable business.
"I like them. They're easy to handle, and they don't need as much area," Dooley said.
Some of the dry goats can go out to pasture, too.
Dooley's herd consists of Alpines, Lamanchas, Saanans, Toggenburgs and many crosses.
He has 1,200 goats—600 milkers and 600 dry stock. Every day he milks from 4:30 to 8:30 a.m. and then again for four hours in the afternoon. Then there are barn chores, feeding, fieldwork and all the other duties associated with farm work.
The milk truck comes about every four days. At peak production, the farm was producing 450 gallons a day, and the truck was coming every other day.
His wife, Kim, and his children Hannah, Levi and Jaxon all help out.
The goats seem to like the family—or at least are excessively curious about everything that's happening outside the pen.
Open the door from the milking parlor into the barn and 600 heads turn to inspect you. Then a wave of goats jog briskly up to the fence to see what's new.
In the yard, visitors and family members get the same response.
Snouts come through the fence and begin to nibble on everything within reach. It's the human equivalent of asking, "What's this? How about this? And this?"
One of the goats routinely leaps into the milking area of the dairy parlor, runs back to the barn and then jumps over the fence into her pen.
In the middle of the yard, goats surround two giant blocks of hay. Goats climb over other goats, others scale the sides of the giant bales for a dining experience with a view.
"They don't care when they're eating," Dooley said of the goats climbing over each other.
Dooley has been deliberating an expansion to 2,000 goats—MontChevre can use the milk.
But he's cautious.
"I think there's a lot of farms this winter that won't make it," Dooley said. "There are a lot of farms that have to buy their hay, and I raise the majority of my hay. This is the first year I've had to buy any hay."
He raises corn, soybeans and hay. The corn and soybeans are sold as a cash crop.
Like most dairy farmers, he is tied to the farm, and that's one reason he's reluctant to expand.
He has a high school student from Janesville who helps some evenings, and he can fill in—a little bit."
"I never get away. My wife hates it," Dooley said. "I can go away for about three days. Our plan to get bigger—that's why I hesitate. Then we could never get away."
That's not what his wife says.
Once they took a trip to Jamaica together.
"After about three days, I was like, 'I'm ready to go home,'" Kim Dooley said.
She acknowledged that it is a life with challenges and then added, "I wouldn't exchange it for anything else."