Phukamyao: Modern Goat Farming in Thailand
Rusty and Bencharat Turn a Goat Farming Profit with Milk and Cheese
Caring hearts and a shared passion for both modern goat farming and sustainability of the land commonly join souls in the same region — or across continents.
A wide-eyed Texan firmly planted his feet in Thailand’s rich soil. Clovis F. “Rusty” Hebert, Jr. relocated from Humble, Texas to join his wife, Bencharat, in her native country. Rusty taught himself how to reap and sow from their land, raising goats and calling both their property and modern goat farming their “career.”
“I now call Ban San Pa Sak my home. Our 1.2 acre (6 rai) farm, called ‘Phukamyao Goat Farm and Micro Dairy,’ is in Northern Thailand, 110 kilometers south of the Laos border. I married a Thai national; we met in Bahrain. I could not resist her beautiful smile, and Thailand was the logical place to raise the family. It’s her home.”
Each of their dairy does enjoys five square meters of space, says Hebert. “Air circulation is massive. The herd is pastured daily, weather permitting.”
Their closest major city, Chiang Rai, is 110 kilometers away. Most of Hebert’s family is still in Humble and Louisiana.
The Dynamics of Selling Goat Dairy Products in Thailand:
With no idea where to begin with a dairy goat farming business plan, Bencharat took pasteurized milk around to local folks and businesses.
“This worked,” said Hebert.
He then began experimenting with aged cheeses.
“This did not work. We moved on to fresh milk products like chèvre and cottage cheeses and yogurt in June 2016. Feta cheese was the next phase. We’re also experimenting again with aged cheese. Goat milk kefir (a fermented probiotic beverage similar in taste and texture to drinkable yogurt) is our main source of culture rather than mesophilic or thermophilic. The kefir milk has all the same proponents and adds unique quality to our products,” said Hebert. “Coincidentally, this was about the same time I was laid off from my job. I doubled down on making goat milk products and now we sell everything the herd produces. Customers are waiting in line.”
Their farm is about 500 meters (1/3rd of a mile) from their own home. Deep bedding is a unique feature in the does’ home, similar to an open plan with no stalls.
“The deep bedding material is layered on bare ground with bio-char (carbonized rice hull), teak shavings or sawdust and topped with rice hull,” said Hebert. When they replace it with new bedding, the old becomes natural fertilizer, loaded with the nutrients or waste from the goats. It goes back into the land where they grow their forage. “There is zero odor in our homes.”
The goat farm is all family, and only family.
“We have no partners. Bencharat is the manager and fills many other roles. Our daughter Nuttabon is the ‘milk boss’ when she’s home from University of Phayao. Pattharavadee, our youngest, helps around the home and takes care of the dogs when on break from school. Most of the time, the herd is cared for by my wife and her mother,” said Hebert. “It is a huge job.”
To supplement farm income, Hebert travels internationally every other month, on a seven-hour flight from Thailand to Oman, where he’s employed as a field service technician with a major oil and gas service company.
“I am considered a commuter. I started working overseas in Saudi Arabia in 2006. I’ve worked in all Arab Gulf countries, Malaysia, China, Burma and Indonesia. My wife stays home and manages the farm. It is a full-time job for her but that’s only a fraction of the work she does at home. She (and I) help with two parents, raise two teenage daughters, have two pit bull dogs and three ‘ankle biters.’ I cannot possibly thank my wife enough for all the love, hard work and diligence she pours into our whole family.”
How the Business Evolved
The Heberts’ farm began as a hobby, after Hebert attended an Echo Asia Conference on farming and sustainability in Thailand and Southeast Asia. “Raising dairy goats seemed very appealing and it didn’t take long for the ‘fever’ to spread to my wife.”
Hebert’s mind was also bursting with ideas about sustainability. The family was already gardening, growing rice and fruit trees. “We added earthworms, fish, ducks and chickens. It was unmanageable. We decided to focus on goats, dairy products and growing our own feed. This has been a more workable solution.”
Although dairy products like milk are common in Thailand, goat milk is not. “Myths about the taste of goat milk are numerous,” said Hebert. “Once someone tries our milk, they’re immediately transformed into a fan.”
The goal is to have 50 milkers, although the Heberts have enough housing and land for 100.
“Goat milk is our prime product. Many people prefer raw, so they can make what they want from it, like cheese, yogurt, soap, lotions, or just to benefit from drinking the natural flora in the milk.”
The Heberts recently remodeled their milking parlor and kitchen to accommodate business.
“It is complete. It is beautiful. Two dual sinks, counters with collection and pasteurizing area. Lights everywhere. All floors were cemented. We only need to add the new multi-goat milking stanchion to complete the parlor in preparation for 2018 milking season.”
Although the family sells to individuals, they’ve placed some milk products in small markets. They’re also proud to be the first dairy to sell bucks to the University of Phayao Agriculture Department for their livestock programs and also house them there. With nearly 15 bucks expected at the farm soon, they may sell some locally.
The Heberts keep mixes of Thai Saanen, Sable Saanen, and British Alpine goat types.
“We do not have any purebred and find it’s not value-added. Our goats are common but produce uncommon-quality milk,” observed Hebert. They have one alpha buck, three of his sons, and 19 does in the herd. When the bucks aren’t used for breeding, they are separated from the does.
“It is widely accepted that housing bucks too close, or with does, can give an ‘off flavor’ to the milk. We also don’t want unexpected pregnancies. We prefer to know when does are pregnant and approximately when they will kid,” said Hebert.
“Sometimes, the does are a bit vocal (when in heat), starting as early as July, and have bred as late as December. We use a breeding and kidding calculator developed by Fiasco Farm. The kids are separated after 24 hours but are all hand-raised and receive mother’s milk by bottle, then we feed them cow milk from a neighbor’s farm, after one month.”
The herd will be closed this year, which means they only breed from within the herd. It does not take on outside stock, as a management tool to prevent infectious disease. “But we know a small goat owner we may work with whose goats are descendants of our alpha buck.”
Hebert says, “We will improve our biosecurity in 2018 to prevent infectious disease from spreading to our herd.”
The Heberts grow baby corn, and chop the whole plant, after removing the ears for sale or personal consumption. The corn silage is stored in locking plastic barrels.
“We also grow Napier grass, Ruzi grass, Pangola hay, banana, mango and papaya. We use 34% protein soybean meal, molasses, pineapple silage and a 16% protein dairy cow pellet.” Hebert credits a mentor, Sanctuary Natural Farms, with developing a proprietary vitamin supplement for their ration, which they’ve now slightly modified.
Hebert says, “I’ve often dreamed of having our farm recognized. Goat Journal is making it possible. Wow! I am stoked.”
Amy is a twice-Emmy-award-winning meteorologist, storm chaser, and writer. She and her husband own a diversified farm in Kansas, where Amy especially enjoys taking care of their commercial cattle herd.