Ethical Dairy Finds Solutions to the Disadvantages of Goat Milk Production
Humane Farm Animal Care—Free Range Goats Raised Naturally on the Dam
Reading Time: 8 minutes
The disadvantages of goat milk production include some animal welfare issues. That is the sad truth about dairy. Kids are normally separated from their mothers at a young age to maximize the quantity of milk that can be harvested. Young males, old does, and poor performers are normally culled. Another downside of dairy production is the neglect of heritage breeds. Sorène dairy goat farm has found a workable solution to these ethical issues so that their rare-breed goats can enjoy long lives and excellent emotional welfare. In addition, free-range goats enjoy the wild mountain valley, with loving care but minimal control from goatherds and their livestock guard dogs. Sorène’s ethical dairy solutions are a unique and successful formula for raising dairy goats naturally and meeting the highest standards of humane farm animal care, while producing an organic and eco-friendly product.
When Valérie Corrège and François Garnier decided to become goatherds in the wild mountains of southern France, they had some very precise ideas about things they wanted to do differently from conventional agriculture: they wanted to produce organic goat milk, while avoiding any kind of cruelty. They wanted to share their lives with goats rather than exploit them. They wanted to formulate a truly eco-friendly and ethical dairy.
Saving A Heritage Breed and Organic Dairy Farming
Formally teachers of the arts and philosophy, they shared eight years happily reading and discussing life together before developing this idea. Although life was good, they felt they wanted to be closer to nature, and fell in love with the Cévennes region. While helping out a local farmer, they were inspired to buy land and set up the Sorène goat farm. They also fell in love with the local rare breed: Chèvre de Massif Central.
This heritage breed is sadly endangered (only about 800 head), due to the preference for high-yielding milkers; yet they are hardy, friendly, and manageable, and their milk is of superior quality. Their varied coat colors, patterns, and lengths attest to their genetic diversity.
After learning the basics hands-on at a goat farm, Valérie and François read up all they could from books, with plenty of advice from local goat keepers. To please the bank, they started up as an artisan cheese-maker and earned the organic labels Nature & Progrès and Agriculture biologique. The first few years were very hard work, with a challenging timetable of milking, taking the goats to pasture, making cheese, and selling at local markets, working seven days a week with only three days holiday per year, plus the emotional pressure of caring for goats: feeling responsible for the life and death of each animal. “Goats need a lot of surveillance,” Valérie admits.
Avoiding the Disadvantages of Goat Milk Production
Even from the beginning, they resolved to follow a no-cull policy and raise female kids on the dam to provide the most natural lives for goats and their kids. As Valérie points out, “Goats have a highly hierarchical social structure which is organized in families: we respect that, so we don’t separate kids from their mothers. Obviously, that yields less milk (since the kids suckle until eight months old)—it’s difficult financially, but we don’t want to do otherwise. Another example: within a herd there are always some obsolete goats who give very little milk or not at all. It doesn’t matter: they are here; we keep them, and no-one is going to the slaughterhouse.”
However, they painfully had to admit that they had no happy solution to the excess of young male kids, which were sold to be raised for meat. François explained that they needed a lot of milk for making cheese, requiring at least 60 working does to make ends meet, and they were only able to save a few of the male offspring.
In a moving passage from their book, Valérie writes, “If they are ‘my’ animals, the ownership is mutual. I am as much theirs as they are mine. All my attention and my time are dedicated to them. My worries are all about them. Each birth will bring, as it does every year, intense emotion: a mixture of anxiety (because not everything always goes well), happiness at seeing new life coming forth and the tenderness of mothers for their young, and admiration of the kids’ beauty. There will be joy when it’s a girl that we will keep at Sorène. And of course, the heartache when it’s a boy: we can’t keep them all (there would be inevitable inbreeding problems). Some will go to other farms as breeding stock; others we find homes for as pets (they are then castrated); but others will be sold to be raised for meat and slaughtered at three months old. This is a painful reality: do not imagine that it is easy or indifferent for the farmer. We bring them into the world; we love them. At this time of the year, we question whether it is legitimate to do that: if we have the right to see kids born and decide their fate.”
How to Run an Ethical Dairy Farm
For the partners at Sorène, the solution to this dilemma presented itself in the form of soap-making, to which they switched in 2016. “We soon decided to make skincare products rather than cheese so we would need less milk; and so we could breed less often, have fewer births; then we can save them all.” Bucklings are raised on the farm by their mothers. Those that are not sold for breeding are castrated and sold as pet goats.
Nevertheless, cheese-makers too can find an affordable solution to this matter. Valérie knows of ethical dairy farms that keep 60–100 milking goats and manage to raise young males on the dam, giving them three months of good living before taking them to the slaughterhouse. The only issue they cannot control is the conditions at the slaughterhouses. A good solution would be a mobile butcher that sends trained technicians to the farm. In that way, the kids do not have to suffer the stress of transport or face the risk of poor handling at the abattoir.
Organic labels in Europe ensure a higher standard of humane farm animal care as well as environmentally-friendly farming practices. Products with these labels fetch higher prices than those of standard agriculture. Nature & Progrès is even stricter: disbudding is not allowed, as it is a painful procedure and a mutilation of a natural and functional body part; feed must be 100% organic and preferably locally produced; animals have access to pasture for at least seven months of the year, and herd replacement kids must be kept on the dam. Sorène has managed to surpass these standards.
The goats are taken out whenever the weather is good to browse the seven kilometers of isolated wild valley of mainly chestnut and oak. The goatherds accompany the herd while the kids are young, one leading, one following behind, with the help of livestock guard dogs (who are raised within the goat family) blocking or herding when requested. When conditions are right, the goatherds slip away secretively, leaving the goats to browse free range.
Raising Goat-Kids on the Dam
Kids stay with their mothers within the herd full time until they are six weeks old, when they sleep overnight in a stall within the maternal enclosure, so that mothers can be milked before the kids rejoin them. Otherwise they stay together until fall, when the bucks join the adult herd. Immature females are temporarily grouped away from the adult herd to avoid early mating, as they benefit greatly from a long maturation. After the breeding season, the bucks move back to their quarters, although they still join the females on walks to the valley, fitted with anti-mating aprons to prevent fertilization of doelings. At this point the goatlings rejoin their mothers. Within the day they are back in their bonded pairs, and they often stay close for many years, adult daughter sleeping beside her mother. The filial bonds are obvious, but even as kids they spontaneously form peer groups and lead their own social lives. Valérie notes how they all develop very distinct personalities and independent habits.
Ethical Organic Skincare and a New Way of Life
The skincare range includes soaps, solid shampoos, and lip balm, which combine the rich creaminess of the breed’s milk, which is three times richer than donkey milk, with organic essential oils and their own honey. The products are sold from 52 outlets throughout France, including city organic boutiques, and online from their own website. The packaging is beautiful, simple, and recyclable, providing a totally environmentally-friendly product. As another source of income, the shepherds’ lodge by the goat-house, used by Valérie and François during the kidding season and bad weather, is available for holiday rent during the summer. A new initiative for 2019 was goat therapy for mentally handicapped people, who could enjoy caressing these friendly goats.
This life has not so much been an escape from the city as an opening of new horizons for the couple: they feel that you only have one life, so you must make the most of it. They get to work together, and preserve their independence from city life. They do not feel the need to have Internet on their phones; they just connect when they want. This way they feel they really get to see people when they visit. Despite their full-time occupation, they have the chance to pursue other inspirations: François has gone back to his music and Valérie, to her writing. Even the goats enjoy music and drama performances in the goat-shed—when they are not stealing the scenery!
Originally published in the November/December 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.
Sources: Corrège V. 2015. Chroniques Chevrières. Sorène – Une Chèvrerie en Cévennes.
Margaux Gilquin. 2017. “Raconte moi ta chèvrerie” Valérie Corrège – Éleveuse de chèvres dans les Cévennes. mgchroniques.
Pierre Girard. 2019. Mise bas : J’ai assisté à une naissance émouvante. YouTube.
Photos by Valérie Corrège and François Garnier, © Sorène, 48800 Les Aydons, France.