By Debbie James

Goat milk production is under pressure from over-supply but with those challenges have come opportunities for farmers with supply contracts to improve herd productivity.

At Pant Farm, where the Yeomans family produce milk from 600 dairy goats, over-supply in the market meant reducing numbers to meet the needs of their buyer.

They achieved this by taking a more severe approach to culling, says Jess Yeomans, who runs the herd with her husband Gary.

“It had been a numbers game so we were quite pathetic about culling because we had a market for all the milk we could produce but now, if a goat has poor fertility or her yield is low, she goes,’’ explains Jess, the 2018 NFU Cymru/NFU Mutual Wales Woman Farmer of the Year.

Removing the poor performers has resulted in an uplift in yield, from an average of 1,000 litres a goat annually to 1,200 litres.

It was in 2002 that the Yeomans established the goat herd on the 120-acre farm at Llanvetherine near Abergavenny, where Gary’s grandparents had been farming beef and sheep.

Jess and Gary came to it with no experience of working with goats so they started at the base of a steep learning curve.

Why goat milk production? “This was a greenfield site with traditional buildings and we considered a variety of options of what we could do here,’’ Jess recalls.

“We ruled out beef and sheep because the farm wasn’t big enough and the cow milk market wasn’t great at that time.’’

It was the proximity of a cheese factory five miles from the farm that was the catalyst for their new enterprise.

That processing facility, Abergavenny Fine Foods, was making goat’s cheese from imported curd and was keen to secure a local supply.

Gary and Jess negotiated a contract and sourced 100 goats from Somerset - British Saanens, a breed regarded as the goat equivalent of the Holstein cow.

To add milk solids to yield they have since introduced other breeds, Toggenbergs and Alpines.

The herd is milked in a 20:20 swingover rapid exit parlour – it takes two-and-a-half hours twice a day; the couple employ a full time member of staff, Dimitri Antypas, and relief milkers.

The business doesn’t focus solely on goats – there is also a herd of 20 pedigree Welsh Black suckler cows. The herd calves in the spring, in a tight six-week block, and offspring are sold as 18-month stores to NFU Cymru president John Davies for finishing.

The cattle are at pasture for most of the year where Jess uses her skills as an experienced horsewoman to manage them.

She often rounds them up on her 19-year-old Irish cob, Brian. It is a means of exercising her horse while doing something practical, she says.

It was a mutual interest in horses that first brought Jess and Gary together – they met at their local Pony Club in Monmouthshire although it was many years later, while they were both studying at Harper Adams University, that they became a couple.

The whole family has an interest in horses. Tommy and Megan are members of Monmouthshire Pony Club and Jess sits on the committee. Gary is chairman of the Monmouthshire Hunt and Jess is also a member.

Jess’s other off-farm commitments include sitting on the parochial church council of her local church and helping out at the local cricket club.

Away from the farm, Jess works as a farm assurance assessor, promoting quality standards on farms across south east Wales.

When Jess was named as Woman Farmer of the Year she admits it came as a surprise. “I really wasn’t expecting it.’’ But she welcomes it as recognition for women farmers all over Wales.

“There have always been lots of women involved in farming but their role was not recognised until recently, they were always seen as the farmer’s wife with the farmer getting the recognition for achievements in the business.

“I don’t know where farms would be without women, especially when it comes to rearing youngstock. We are good at spotting problems, we are more likely to stop and look.

“We also make sure everyone has eaten, whether it be animals or humans!’’