Leon Hay is the proud father to 700 goats. The business director and second-generation owner of Singapore’s only goat farm, Hay Dairies, he has committed the rest of his working life to tending to his herd. Running a goat farm is like raising a very large family, says Hay. And milking goats and feeding them by hand every morning is just a small part it.
“We care for them from the day they are born, till the day they have babies and the day we put them down. We experience all the joys and the sadness of raising them,” says Hay.
He even plays midwife to some of his mother goats, helping to deliver newborns, or kids, when there are complications. The miracle of life is literally in his hands. “We have to put our forearms inside the goat, and find the four legs to ease the baby out,” he explains. “It’s a rewarding feeling that you don’t get working elsewhere.”
Come 2021, Hay might become father to 2,000 goats, if Hay Dairies’ bid for a new site is successful. The current location at the Lim Chu Kang, in the Kranji Countryside area of Singapore’s far north, will be handed back to the government by 2021, after which it will be used by the military.
Authorities have allocated 60 hectares of land within the Lim Chu Kang and the nearby Sungei Tengah area to the 60-odd farmers who have been affected by the takeover. They’ll receive a 20-year lease for the site.
But the new parcel is a tad smaller, so farmers have to get creative on the use of space. The move is in line with Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore’s (AVA) long-term goal of securing Singapore’s local food supply through high-production farming.
Hay intends to increase his goat herd drastically, and introduce new product lines based off his flagship goat’s milk, such as yoghurt drinks, ice-cream and even goat cheese. Hay’s 300 milk-producing goats give out 900 to 1,000 litres of milk a day.
Hay believes it’s possible to keep 2,000 goats in a 2-acre space without compromising on milk quality or the welfare of the goats. If it’s successful, AVA may grant the farms longer leases and encourage more investment within the farming sector.
“It is totally workable. During my granddad’s day, my uncle actually worked a two-storey pig farm. We can incorporate a ramp. We have to show AVA through step-by-step projects that a more intensive goat farm is indeed possible.”
Milk for the lactose-sensitive
Goat milk-based products are a popular alternative for those allergic to cow’s milk. The high levels of Alpha S-1 casein, a milk protein, and lactose in cow’s milk can cause health issues such as eczema, asthma and diarrhoea. Goat’s milk has 90 percent less casein and also much lower levels of lactose.
It’s still a fantastic source of natural calcium – a bottle of 200ml goat milk contains 260mg of natural calcium – and goat’s milk contains all the other vitamins and minerals found in cow’s milk.
Research has also shown that other sources of calcium, such as supplements, can be difficult to absorb, with calcium deposits accumulating in the blood vessels, making them rigid and prone to damage. This may result in a greater risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and some types of strokes, says Hay.
Hay is working closely with food scientists to develop goat’s milk products. This has proven challenging because a strong “goaty” odour is released when the milk is heated.
“Some of the chefs are trying to find a way to make savoury dishes with goat’s milk yoghurt. He still hasn’t found a way to fix the smell,” Hay says. “I have a lot of customers who are diabetics. We are trying to find a way to see what kind of natural sweeteners in the yoghurt drinks without affecting their health.”
Hay Dairies was a poultry farm before the family delved into goat farming. Poultry farming was phased out in the 1980s as Singapore embraced rapid economic development and industrialisation. There were already dairy farms in Singapore so John Hay, Leon Hay’s father and the farm’s founder, chose goats instead.
He brought in mountain goat breeds from Minnesota in the United States. The current herd are their 10th generation descendants, and have become true Singaporean goat breeds. “Their blood makeup is very unique,” he says.
“When they first came over, they took some time to acclimatise to the tropical weather. Down the road, we observed them and began breeding those who acclimatised well for their milk,”
“And unlike cows, goats are a lot smaller and cleaner. They are more like cats,” he says. “They are picky eaters, and have to be familiar with their surroundings to survive … That is why we don’t feed them just anything.”
The goats at Hay Dairies are fed high quality alfalfa hay flown in from the US. The hay is high in protein and minerals, and free of genetically-modified organisms. They are also fed a special feed from Australia made up of grains, vitamins and minerals that is also free from genetically modified maize.
A family business like no other
Hay Dairies opened its doors in 1988. Their journey was fraught with difficulties in its early days. “When my dad first introduced goat milk to Singapore in the mid-80s, the response was very bad. We only had about 80 goats. We had a hard time selling the idea to Singaporeans,” he recalls.
“Back then the internet wasn’t so available and people only drank goat’s milk in the kampung days. The milk also had a strong goat taste and smell. So they shunned the milk. That was the first few years. Whatever milk we had, we drank it ourselves, or we poured it away.”
Hay reckons the best part of his job is “not dealing with people” – at least in a work capacity. “I’ve only had very short stints in accountancy – it feels a lot more peaceful at the farm,” he says.
But Hay is very welcoming to curious customers. Educating people about the benefits of goat’s milk has given Hay Dairies a loyal following, and tours of the farm have been essential for changing perceptions about goat’s milk.
“We were one of the first farms to start farm tours. We were in Punggol at that time and we worked with the other farmers to conduct tours of the farms in the area,” he says.
“We slowly built up a group of very loyal followers who were drinking it out of a need than a want. People who drink our milk have asthma, eczema, stomach ulcers and skin conditions and respiratory conditions. Their conditions have actually improved, and news of our farm spread.”