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Milking goats and cows adds value

Michigan producers expand by capturing the goat cheese market.

Jennifer Kiel, Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

May 5, 2023

10 Slides

A hobby herd of goats for showing got out of control and is now one of the most established, if not the oldest, commercial goat dairies in Michigan. It’s also the only dairy in the state licensed for both cows and goats.

Owners Michael Metzger and Rusty Plummer moved to their farm in 1989 and slowly worked into milking about 45 goats. Soon they found themselves working to feed the goats, and by their own admission, it wasn't working.

They went commercial with their goat dairy in 2001.

They built a barn and have since expanded it twice. At one point, Metzger was milking nearly 300 goats, mostly Alpine and Saanen, twice a day.

When COVID-19 hit, one of their main buyers, Zingerman's Creamery in Ann Arbor, Mich., stopped buying milk because restaurants didn’t need the cheese. They culled the herd down to about 70 milking and 200 goats total, but they are slowly rebuilding.

Established on 10 acres is HK New Era Dairy in Onondaga, Mich., about 30 miles south of Lansing.

After struggling for 10 years or so to make ends meet selling milk commercially through the broker, Hickory Knoll Farms Creamery was established in 2011 to add value to the milk. They added a few milking cows, too.

“Part of the reason for that is we use the cow milk to feed kids because the goat milk was so much more valuable,” Metzger explains. “And also, once we started doing farmers markets, people would say, ‘Oh, I don't like goat cheese,’ so we also had some cow cheese to offer.”

Plummer is the cheesemaker and tends to the dry stock. Metzger, who also has a full-time job as an educator for Michigan State University Extension specializing in small ruminant animals, milks and feeds the milking animals.

Milking twice a day, it takes about two hours each milking. The herd is fed high-quality alfalfa hay purchased from a nearby grower. “The dry goats get a first cutting, which is likely a 50-50 alfalfa grass,” Metzger says. “And then I want that pure alfalfa, or as close as I can get, for the milking herd.”

A 16% complete pellet is served in the 20-head milking parlor as enticement. “It's our recipe, and a complete pellet works for the goats because it prevents sorting,” Metzger says.

Metzger says buying feed is their biggest expense, but they’re not interested in growing their own hay. “Even if you grow your feed, there's the opportunity cost,” he says. “What could I have sold that for? I’m not paying any more for my feed than what somebody who grows their own is.”

Plummer adds, “And you have the additional cost of land, equipment and time.”

Early interest in cheese

Plummer made his first batch of cheese when he was 18. “We had two cows, and what we didn’t use in the house, we were feeding to calves or hogs,” he says. “I started making cheese to utilize more of that milk for ourselves. Mozzarella and cottage cheese were my firsts.”

The creamery — an add-on to the house — was looked at as an avenue to preserve the milk.

Raw goat milk is sold to other creameries, and their own creamery, as the farm is set up as two separate businesses. The creamery buys the goat and cow milk from the farm to make cheese.

It serves them well, mainly for tax purposes. “But it also helped us during COVID because of some of the financial assistance available from the government for each individual business,” Metzger says.

At the farmers markets, they sell an array of their cheeses, as well as bottled goat’s milk (bottled off-site), beef, goat meat, and to draw a little more attention, they added chickens and are offering eggs. “It’s one more way to attract customers with our colorful green, white and brown eggs,” Metzger says.

They also sell to individuals and a handful of restaurants and breweries, who use the cheese for dip, topping pizzas and more.

Getting ready for farmers markets is a lot of work. “We spend as much time packaging and getting ready for markets as I do milking goats,” Metzger says.

Adding a pasteurizer

Raw milk cheeses can be sold if they are aged for 61 days. But, to produce fresh cheeses, such as chevre (one of their most popular that comes in five flavors), they had to invest in their most expensive item — a pasteurizer.

For $25,000, the unit can pasteurize between 35 to 65 gallons of raw milk in a batch. It's heated to 145 degrees F, held for a half-hour and then cooled down to about 70 degrees when the bacteria culture is added.

A half-hour later, rennet is added to start coagulation, Metzger says. It stays in the pasteurizer for 24 to 36 hours to finish forming the curd and is then put into cheese cloth and hung to separate the curds and the whey. A little salt finishes off a batch of chevre.

One of their biggest hurdles and expenses is regulation. “They don’t make rules for small creameries and different ones for like Yoplait,” Metzger says. “They’re all the same rules, and the same thing goes for the dairy. Our dairy has the same requirements as a 1,000-head dairy.”

The farm has five state licenses. “Including testing every load of milk, even though it's produced here on the farm with our oversight, it has to be tested for antibiotics, which means we have an antibiotic lab,” Metzger explains.

Four- to 8-pound wheels of hard cheese, from both cow milk and goat milk, are vacuum sealed and stored in a cooler for years — they have some that is 4 years old. As cheese ages, it becomes sharper in flavor.

“With goat cheese, you either love it or you hate it,” Metzger adds.

Cows’ milk serves purpose

Most of the Holsteins in the U.S. produce milk with an A1 beta-casein protein, which some believe may be linked to allergies or an intolerance. A2 milk contains a different type of beta-casein protein, and some studies indicate that A2 milk may be easier to digest.

Their first cow on the farm was a Holstein, who they assume was an A1 producer because of the many troubles the goat kids had, including diarrhea. They bred her to a Brown Swiss, which created an A1/A2.

“Now we have six Brown Swiss, four milking, that are completely A2. and the goat kids are growing really well,” Metzger says. “Goats are all A2 beta-casein, so it's a protein that more closely mimics goat milk.” 

Before the cows came along, both tanks in the milk house, 800 gallons and 375 gallons, were filled with goat milk every week. Today, the smaller tank is used for cow milk. Unlike cow milk, goat milk can be held for seven days and still be considered Grade A.


For years, the farm shipped milk in 10-gallon cans to other creameries, which is perfectly acceptable. However, once the Grade A milk leaves the bulk tank and is transferred to those cans, it becomes manufacturing grade and cannot be bottled. 

“Five years ago, we put a 600-gallon tank inside an enclosed trailer, which is now how we haul it to other creameries and also to a bottler we’re working with,” Metzger says.


Goats are seasonal breeders, like deer, and come into heat in the fall and have five months of gestation.

To ensure milk year-round, the farm has two herds, with one kidding from March into June and the other producing kids in late October.

To create the non-natural cycle, the barn lights are turned on Christmas Day for 20 hours a day to mimic the longer days of summer. On the first of March, the lights are turned off to simulate fall. Only red lights and flashlights are used in the barn.

“Goats will come into heat about six weeks later, and we get October kids,” Metzger says. “We've tried hormones. I usually get 85 or higher percentage with the lights. When we're using hormones, it was closer to 50% or less.”

Spring is still the main season for milk. To get them through the slower times, Plummer is making extra cheese during the abundant months and freezing it.

In April, the goats were producing about 200 gallons a week. It takes 50 gallons of goat milk to make 70 pounds of chevre, and harder cheeses require about 10 pounds of milk (a gallon is about 8.6 pounds) to get 1 pound of cheese.

Parasites and predators

For the health of the goats, they are raised on dry lots — not pasture.

Blood-sucking worms are the primary internal parasite of small ruminants and remain one of the biggest parasite problems of goats.

“As part of the worm’s lifecycle, the egg comes out of the back end of goats or sheep,” Metzger explains. “The larva hatches and then does some maturing depending on temperature and humidity, then it has to crawl up a wet blade of grass and be re-consumed. So, if they’re not on pasture, I've broken that cycle.”

That’s especially important, he says, for dairy goats because there are no dewormers approved for use that don’t require the milk to be discarded. “It’s treated the same as antibiotics. … That milk cannot be sold.”

To control predators, the farm has a seven-strand high tensile perimeter fence with three hot wires, one down low near the ground, one in the middle and one on the top. “That tends to keep predators from going under, through or over,” Metzger says. “We also employ a Great Pyrenees guard dog. We hear coyotes all around, but we have never lost a goat to coyotes.”

Goat meat

Metzger and Plummer are expanding their goat meat business. “Goat meat is really popular now, and I mostly attribute that to a high Muslim population,” Metzger says.

“It’s also because goat meat is probably the healthiest red meat option and people are discovering that,” Plummer adds.

They are also breeding more specifically for goat meat. They have 20 meat does, which are a dairy-Boer-Kiko crosses. “We tend to breed all of our first fresheners to a meat buck,” he says. “That way we can see if they're going to make a good milk goat before we've kept a daughter.”

Goat meat must be processed at a USDA-inspected plant. Currently, most of their goats are going to The Cut in Rosebush, which is about 100 miles north of the farm. “We're expanding and working with a company now that's buying whole goat carcasses,” Metzger says.

Growing interest

Each year, as part of his Extension job, Metzger hosts an event called “Small Ruminants for Small Farms,” which this year included three virtual farm tour videos. “We had 386 people that signed up for the Zoom from 53 Michigan counties, 37 U.S. states and seven different countries,” Metzger says.

“I get calls all the time from people wanting to make goat cheese and wondering if I can help. I’m happy to help, but I start by telling them to have a marketing plan. You can make all the cheese in the world, but you have to be able to sell it. Know your market.”

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About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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