Female mammals only produce milk to feed their young. It’s as true for a woman as it is for a cow, a nanny goat or a ewe. Dairy production, therefore, typically relies on female animals falling pregnant every year and most of the young being sent away for meat along with the less productive older females. So, it’s fair to say, there is typically no milk without meat. But there is a small but growing movement of farmers in France questioning this status quo.
For the first 15 years of his 30 years in agriculture, Jean-Yves Ruelloux went along with this way of doing things on his goat farm and cheese dairy in Brittany. Following the natural hormone cycles of his goats, the females would be sent into the billy in autumn, they would fall pregnant, milk production would cease over this five-month gestation period, the young would arrive in spring and, not long after, they would be sent to the slaughterhouse. The new mothers would be milked until autumn when he would let them ‘dry off’ before starting the annual process again. Yearly pregnancies take their toll on the females and, while Ruelloux has always kept most of his older goats on the farm, it’s more common for farms to send them away to slaughterhouses when their health and productivity declines around the age of four.
“For the goats that give birth every year, each and every year, that’s a lot of suffering in a way. Once, twice, three times. Just ask any woman on the planet if they’d want to have a child every year or every other year. It’s no life,” Ruelloux said in an interview for Les Pieds sur Terre, French public radio station France Culture’s flagship program.
In 2005, Ruelloux decided this had to stop. He had heard about a farmer who had goats that were 15 years old, had only given birth once in their lives and were still producing milk. He tested this out with a few of his goats before switching his whole small herd to the method. Ruelloux claims this has not reduced his production, with one goat in its eighth year of lactation still producing up to 4.8 liters (a little more than a gallon) of milk a day. The interview, broadcast in January 2019, lasted only 11 minutes but its message has been reverberating around the country ever since. While Ruelloux is not an easy man to get hold of, around 80 people have contacted him about his method. Some are vegans who say they would consider eating his cheese, but most are farmers wanting to replicate his method or young people asking to be his apprentice. “It’s not exactly easy to reach me, so if people do I know it’s because they really want to,” he tells Modern Farmer.
Ruelloux, who milks his goats by hand, is critical of what he sees as the dominant narrative in contemporary agriculture: that farmers should always aim to produce more, on more land and with new equipment financed by bank loans, which in turn add more pressure to increase production. Unlike some of the followers he has attracted, he is not vegan or vegetarian. He’s not automatically opposed to the slaughtering of animals and has eaten kid goats born on his farm in the past, but he says certain conditions must be respected. For him, it’s essential the animals do not suffer.
Ruelloux doesn’t have time to offer a full apprenticeship to everyone who contacts him, but he invites them all up to his farm for at least a day. He has been surprised by the interest the radio interview attracted. The attention was not something he sought as, after discretely working in this way for 15 years, he met the French radio journalist by chance while selling his cheese at the market.
Carine Antheaume was one of the many callers who contacted Ruelloux. At the time, Antheaume and her partner Marc were considering giving up the organic goat cheese dairy they had spent 20 years building. They had had enough of the annual cycle of births, separations and slaughterhouses and had begun dreading springtime.
“We just gritted our teeth, because we thought there wasn’t any other way,” Antheaume says at their farm in Thédirac in the Lot region. “You try and detach yourself emotionally, but I don’t think any livestock farmer is immune to it.”
It’s the paradox of livestock farming, not unique to the dairy sector: bringing animals into the world, caring for them and even saving them from illness, only ultimately to send them to the slaughterhouse. When Antheaume turned vegetarian, this paradox became unsustainable. A friend of hers told her to listen to the interview with Ruelloux. Despite working for 15 years for the dairy department of the region’s Chamber of Agriculture before joining her partner on the farm, Antheaume had never heard of such long-term lactation. While there is a lot of information about extended lactation in goat dairy industry reports, this usually refers to an extension of up to two years and is discussed as a way of assuring milk throughout the winter and staggering births over the year.
There is also an increasingly large body of international research on extended lactation in dairy cows, but again this tends to stop at a maximum period of two or three years. A review of available data by researchers from the Aarhus University in Denmark found that extending lactation of dairy cows from the standard 10 months up to 16 could see the same or greater amount of milk produced. However, this could only be said for cows who had given birth to one calf, and results for cows who had two or more were inconsistent. The review, published in the journal Animal in 2019, concluded that extended lactation could also be a way for farmers to lessen the environmental impact of dairy production through reducing the number of calves born and, therefore, the amount of beef produced.
Antheaume is cautious not to criticize other farmers or position herself as having found a one-size-fits-all solution. “We don’t know yet what’s going to happen in spring,” she says.
This spring will be their first without the arrival of kids and the flood of activity that comes with them. It’s a decision they have committed to fully, having sent the billy to live elsewhere in September. So far, their 40 goats are producing less but thicker milk. This is consistent with the findings of a study by researchers in Spain and Egypt. Published in the official journal of the American Dairy Science Association, the Journal of Dairy Science, the study found that extending lactation in goats from 12 to 24 months decreased milk yield only marginally, by about 8 percent, but it increased the fat and protein content needed for making cheese. But with no point of comparison beyond two years, the Antheaumes are forced to rely on Ruelloux’s advice. He assures them that every winter the quantity of milk drops, but it starts up again in spring when the grass becomes more nutritious. The new routine will require milking every day of the year, but for Antheaume, the extra labor is a fair exchange for the relief of not having to send the young away in trucks.
France is the world’s top producer of goat cheese. The country made 120,000 tons of it in 2019. However, France is not a culture in which goat meat is commonly eaten. While there have been efforts to change this, with industry bodies publicizing its nutritious qualities and even launching Goatober, there is little local demand for it beyond that from certain ethnic minorities. As a result, the meat is largely treated as a by-product of goat cheese production. Most farmers sell week-old kids to fattening stations for around $5. How much the older females sell for depends on their health and age, but this generally never goes above $25 and sometimes they are given away to the slaughterhouses for free. In 2019, 547,000 kids and 135,000 older females were slaughtered in France, according to an industry report. The vast majority is exported to Portugal and Italy, where kid meat is traditionally eaten at Easter. It’s harder to track down figures specifically on the destination of the older females, but anecdotal accounts hold that they go into foods such as sausages or are used as stew meat, ready meal ingredients or as meat by-product for cat and dog food.
It’s not difficult to see the contradiction this creates for farmers such as the Antheaumes: For 20 years, they were small-scale producers of organic goat cheese. They fed their goats locally produced organic hay and grains and sold their cheese from their farm and a couple of weekly village markets. And yet they were also supplying an international industrial meat market. Now that they have cut ties with this supply chain, one problem remains: What will they do with the older females no longer producing milk? In exchange for all the milk they have given him, Ruelloux keeps them on his farm until they die peacefully of natural causes. He tells Modern Farmer that his oldest ever goat recently passed away: She was 18 years old and produced milk until she was 13. With few animals and a lot of land, he says it’s a cost he can handle. Antheaume is hoping to place them with people looking for pets or eco-friendly lawn mowers.
The Antheaumes are also taking Ruelloux’s model into unchartered territory, trying it out with eight of their dairy sheep who will give birth to their first and perhaps only lambs in spring.
“Other farmers have said to us: ‘Go for it, go on ahead and tell us how you get on,’” says Antheaume.
However, Antheaume says she understands why some farmers—particularly new farmers under pressure to produce in order to pay off bank loans—might consider this model unworkable.
Photo by Annie-Rose Harrison.
And yet Lila Bruyere, one of the young people who contacted Ruelloux for an internship, is taking the plunge this year. For Bruyere, the key will be to keep both herd and financial investments small. She is borrowing about $18,000 from family and has already secured more than $20,000 in crowdfunding to buy solar panels for the farm.
“A bank would never lend me money for this kind of project,” she says. “You have to prove you could earn a minimum wage almost immediately.”
She will produce a modest 20,000 small goat cheeses a year, and she expects to keep the number of goats on her farm below 20, something that goes against the recent trend in France. Back in 2000, farms would raise an average of 44 goats, but by 2019, this had more than doubled to 115, according to government figures that suggest an increasing number of big farms are keeping 200 to 1,000 goats. Bruyere also did an internship at one of these large farms, an experience that helped affirm this style of farming is not for her. “It wasn’t a farm, it was a factory,” she says.
It’s not an overstatement to say that listening to Ruelloux’s interview changed her life. After being repeatedly told that she shouldn’t become a farmer if she was too sensitive to animals, Bruyere resigned herself to keeping goats as a hobby and trained instead to become a teacher. She says hearing the interview was a “revelation” that gave her the confidence to enroll at an agricultural college.
When I mention this to Ruelloux on the phone, he laughs. “People who are sensitive to animals are exactly the kind of people who should be going into farming,” he says.
All of the interviews included in this article were conducted in French and translated into English. The quotes from the episode of Les Pieds sur Terre were also translated from French into English.