RIVERSIDE, Iowa (SmallTownPapers) -- It might come as a surprise to local residents, but the Kalona area is known throughout the dairy goat world as a hub for herds possessing the best in milk production and other sought-after traits. Among these breeders is Mark Hostetler, whose 160-acre "Bethel Farm" is located across the county line in Iowa County. On one Internet site, Hostetler is credited with having the highest milk-producing goatherd in the world. He doesn't know if that is true, but will admit that he isn't aware of any other herds that can beat his own.

Through the use of meticulously kept details on every goat on his farm, Hostetler said his breeding goal is to improve the herd's traits such as efficient use of feed, milk production, low maintenance, ability to kid by themselves, have good feet and legs, and withstand being in large groups.

He does this through the National Dairy Herd Improvement Association and a computer program that tracks everything from a goat's production to that of its ancestors, as well as auxiliary traits and recording all the names of its sires and dams.

Hostetler currently milks 210 goats made up of Saanen, Alpine and most recently Toggenburg. He says all three breeds are from the Swiss Alps and he chose them because of their higher productivity and genetic variables within each breed.

Saanen goats are white or cream-colored and are named for the Saanen valley in Switzerland. They are the largest of the goat dairy breeds and on the average produce the most milk.

Alpine goats originated in the French Alps and range in color from white or gray to brown and black. They are heavy milkers.

Toggenburg goats are from the Toggenburg Valley of Switzerland. They are credited as being the oldest known dairy goat breed. They are slightly smaller than the other Alpine breeds, with their coloring ranging from light fawn to dark chocolate - with white markings.

Hostetler's first introduction to goats was while living in Haiti with his missionary parents. They were then his 4-H projects. He began the Bethel Farm in 1998 with wife Gwen.

The pros of having a dairy herd, says Hostetler, are that it doesn't take a large acreage or a lot of equipment - and the price for goat milk has always been stable. A major con, he observed, is that a dairy herd is very labor intensive. That could be why so many area dairy herds belong to the Amish and Mennonites with large families, Hostetler added. Helping him and Gwen are currently four of their five children - "Everyone that can walk." They are Anna, 10', Marie, 8; Micah, 6; and Danielle, 4. Not yet walking is 10-month-old Rachel.

Like cows, the goats are milked twice a day. But other maintenance tasks include trimming the goats' hooves at least twice a year, if not three or four times annually The nannies are bred in July and August, which means any time the Hostetler farm will be bursting with newborn kids. Just mentioning the upcoming blessed events appears to strain Hostetler, whose tone of voice when describing the time as very stressful lets you know that it is an understatement.

Younger goats normally have one to two kids. Older goats can birth three or four - sometimes even five. That averages out to about 2.5 kids per goat. Follow the math for his milking herd of 210 and t the pitter-patter of little hooves sounds for more than 500 kids.

They will come at all times of the day or night. While Gwen sleeps with a baby monitor for Rachel, Mark has one for the goat sheds. He's there for each goat's arrival - aiding in the birth if needed, cleaning the newborns and bottle-feeding them colostrum, which is the milk produced in late pregnancy and right after birthing that contains antibodies that protect the kids against diseases. The newborns are then separated from their mothers.

Hostetler says because of the increased amount and richness of the milk, kids could get sick from drinking too much.

The goats are milked about 10 months of the year, the dry period right before birthing. He estimates his herd produces between 250 and 300 gallons a day. It is taken to a transfer station in Washington where some of the water is removed to make it easier to transport. From there it is shipped to Montchevre, a dairy company in Belmont, WI, that specializes in goat cheese - the largest of its kind. Hosteler says there about 60 different herds in the area that sell to Montchevre. Other herds are located around Bloomfield and as far south as La Plata, MO. Northeastern Iowa is also another area with goat milk producers. The majority of these herds, says Hostetler, are Amish.

While an average dairy goat might produce about 1,800 pounds during the 305 days they are milked each year, Kalona herds average 2,400 pounds or more.

While dairy cattle farmers have been facing years of marginal profits, the increasing demand for goat milk has kept prices steady, if not increasing some. He noted that Montchevre has expanded by 25 percent each year during the past 10 years.

One of the reasons for the popularity of goat milk is its health benefits. Many people who can't drink cow milk because of lactose intolerance can drink goat milk. This is attributed to the fat cells in goat milk being smaller than those in cow's milk - which makes it easier to digest. It is also reported that since goat milk is more completely and easily absorbed than cow's milk, it leaves less undigested residue to ferment in the colon. This is what causes the uncomfortable symptoms of lactose intolerance.

The Hostetler children are so use to goat milk, their father says, they don't like cow milk. He says some people have the wrong perception that goat milk has a bad odor. This could be blamed on the fact that the milk can absorb surrounding odors - so it is important to keep the milking area separate - especially away from the bucks that get smellier during breeding season and as they get older.

Goats have the reputation of being able to eat anything. Goats are often rented for grazing in the Southwest to clear brush and weeds. Hostetler mainly feeds his goats hay he has grown or bought from Colorado. He also buys hay from Minnesota, which has a higher content of grass. He has lately been feeding baled field peas and it seems to be doing well.

Hostetler says he has never advertized his purebred dairy goats - many of the sales attributed to other goatherd owners that can see his herd's records on-line. He tabulates and stores his breeding and milk production information with the American Dairy Goat Association, which has a website. Many of his goats go to other herds in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, with some to Pennsylvania and even the Philippines. The furthest his goats have traveled was to Ecuador, purchased by a doctor bought eight bucks and 17 does. He transported them by trailer to Miami, where they were flown the rest of the way.

It is difficult to artificially inseminate goats. Hostetler says cattle might have a success rate in the high 90 percents, compared to goats at 30 to 40 percent. He has been thinking of getting into embryo transfers.

Goats make good 4-H projects.

"They are safer around young people," Hostetler noted. "They're not going to kick and break a leg."

Each goat at the Bethel Farm has a nametag and Danielle says her favorite is Debbie. Goats have their own personalities, her father noted - some shy, others outgoing and a few just plain ornery. One nanny is an accomplished escape artist that can nuzzle through the gate to push the safety forward and lift the latch. Most goats, he added, can figure out what you want from them - and do the opposite. They also take a lot of dedication with milking having to be done twice a day. The only time he can get away is during the dry period before the kids come. What he especially enjoys during that time is to attend dairy goat gatherings where he gets to talk goat with other herd owners.

Still, despite the hard work, Hostetler says he is glad to be a dairy goat farmer. It allows his family to work together as well as being his own boss - things he values very much.

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