Juan Hernandez, along with his wife, Maria Feliz, and his 32-year-old son, Juan Junior, owns and manages a herd of about 80 purebred Saanen dairy goats in the town of Agustin Gonzales, Mexico. Agustin Gonzales is in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, a 20-minute drive from the beautiful colonial architecture and cobbled streets of San Miguel de Allende. When Hernandez and his family began milking goats almost 20 years ago, they made cheese on their farm. Because San Miguel de Allende attracts tourists from all over the world, the family was able to find a good local market for their goat cheese in the city’s excellent restaurants. Recently, however, Hernandez purchased a 500 liter, refrigerated, stainless steel, bulk tank.
Tim King, writer (left), and Juan Hernandez, Mexican goat dairy owner, have a connection through friends and relatives in Minnesota. King writes and publishes a Spanish newsletter and is acquainted with members of the Hernandez family in the United States. Photos by Jan King
“Depending on what time of year it is I can fill the bulk tank in one or two days,” Hernandez said. “Then I put the cold milk in my pick-up truck and drive to the cheese plant. It’s only a 20-minute drive.”
The milk stays cold on the short trip even though there is no refrigeration on the truck.
The cheese plant processes milk from a number of other dairy goat farms in the area and distributes it to nearby Guadalajara and Mexico City. The two cities have a combined population of 15 million people so the market for goat milk products is substantial.
“The refrigerated bulk tank allows us to focus on raising goats and producing milk,” Hernandez said. “Making cheese and selling it was a lot of work.”
Hernandez who has been milking Saanens for 20 years, returned to his birth place after living in Mexico City and Chicago. The place where he was born is under the deep waters of the manmade lake known as Presa Ignacio Allende. When Hernandez was a boy, his brothers and sisters played along side the banks of the river that the government dammed up. Now the people who lived along the river live in the village of Agustin Gonzales. The water from Presa Allende is used only for irrigation of the large farms in the valleys below Agustin Gonzales.
Does inside the barn in Agustin Gonzales, Mexico.
Hernandez returned to the area of his birth because he preferred rural life. His life isn’t as rural as a farmer in the United States, however. Maria Feliz can walk from their home to the grocery store and back in a short time. Their front yard, which includes an orchard of oranges, grapefruit, limes, apples, cherries, and plums, is actually part of the village.
The Hernandez farm and farmhouse are modest, clean, and well kept, including the goat yards. Although production is not great, the herd of goats provides an adequate middle class living for three people. Juan, Jr. went to high school in the U.S. but, like his father, the younger Hernandez prefers the rural life and working with the goat herd, in Mexico.
In mid-October of 2007 the Hernandez family was milking 50 does and feeding about 30 kids. A large number of the does were going to freshen in November. For the most part, they milk the does through or dry them off for only a couple of weeks before refreshening.
The Hernandez’ horseshoe-shaped barn separates the does into three separate pens that are open to the elements on three sides. The center of the barn houses the tractor and allows access to all livestock pens.
The does are separated into a series of three free stall pens that have a roof and a back wall but are otherwise open to the elements. The combined pens make up a horseshoe-shaped barn. The center of the barn houses a Massey Ferguson tractor and also serves as an access point to all the livestock pens. One leg of the horseshoe barn contains the area where Juan, Jr. chops silage for feed. The corn stalks are cut whole from the field and brought in to be hand fed into a small electric chopper. Some of the fields are adjacent to the farmstead. Others are some distance away.
Hernandez does not separate his bucks from the does. Each of the pens includes a group of does and at least one buck. There is also a hospital pen and pens for kids. In October one of those pens had a group of 15 five-month-old doelings. These doelings had a young buck with them.
All milking is done by hand. The milking parlor is in the central area of the horseshoe shaped barn and has easy access to all the pens. The parlor is elevated so milkers can stand up. There are on and off ramps. Milk is hauled in buckets to the milk room where the bulk tank is located.
When the senior Hernandez began milking goats in the mid-1980s the Mexican goat industry had already seen dramatic growth. Between 1970 and 1980 the demand for goat milk increased by 60 percent and an increasing demand for meat caused a 384 percent rise in prices, according to Mexican agricultural statistics.
Since then, the American Dairy Goat Association has worked with Mexican goat producers to improve standards, genetics, and production. In 2005 Sheila Nixon, on behalf of ADGA, was invited to judge the First National Dairy Goat Show in Celaya, Guanajuato. Celaya is just one hour from the Hernandez’ farm. According to him, the best, and largest dairy goat herds in the country are near Celaya. The year Sheila Nixon judged, the Best Doe In Show and Best Udder was a three-year-old owned by Rodrigo Conejo of Salamanca, Guanajuato. Salamanca is not far from the Hernandez farm.