by Khaiti French of Clayton, WI
My excitement for the arrival of the babies grows as the momma goats’ bellies swell in their late pregnancy. This is a wonderful, exciting and nerve wracking time of year. My worry over troublesome kidding presentations fills my restless sleep with nightmares. But, the promise of spring is nigh, and the miracle of birth always takes my breath away. Getting outdoors in the dead of night to check on the goats, even if it is arctic out, is a surprising joy. The freshest air comes over the farm right before dawn; a pure & clean, star-filled air. The dark blue reflecting on the remaining snow has always been one of my favorite sights in the world. If I had no other reason to be outdoors in the dark hours of early spring, I’d be missing this glory. After I check on the goats, I walk back up the icy path back to our tiny house glowing with warmth, I see the woodstove smoke against the moonlit clouds; smell the caramel toffee essence of this particular oak we’re burning in the woodstove. It is a magical and sleep-deprived moment to see this place and know I live here and feel so grateful.
With a bucket of warm water for the thirsty girls, I go out again into the dark morning to check on the 7 pregnant goat ladies. At the opening to their shed, Honey, my black Oberhasli doe, is eating hay voraciously, paying little attention to my arrival. All the other mommas come looking for treats when, suddenly, I hear a baby cry from the back of the pitch-black shed. I can’t see anything, but I know goat babies have arrived. Usually I’ll observe the goat momma in labor first, not kids born without any warning! I move my flashlight beam around on the hay littered ground, and find two tiny damp kids cuddled against the wall. I’ve decided that this year I’ll be selling the goat kids right away as bottle babies. I don’t need any more milkers, nor do I want to deal with the rambunctious bucklings for 6 months before harvesting them. I just want to milk goats. So, with a bit of a guilty twinge, I gather the two newborn kids into my coat and bring them into the house. Honey calls out as I leave with her babies, but she’ll be ok. This is how most dairies operate. Bottle-fed babies are much friendlier and instantly love everyone, so they will be easier for their new owners to handle and bond with.
Inside the house, after a good, brisk towel rub down and iodine dipping of their navels, the twin kids are toddling around in the kitchen almost instantly. I grab a bag of colostrum from the freezer to defrost, which I’d saved last spring, just in case. I take some adorable photos of the twins and post an ad on Craigslist. I go back out to the goat shed to milk out Honey’s colostrum, and clean her up from kidding. I bring two buckets with me, one with warm, soapy water and a soft towel for cleaning her back side and udder, and one full of hot electrolyte/ molasses water for her to drink. She’s confused with me smelling like her kids, I’m obviously not a baby goat. I hitch her to the cattle panel and wash her up, then begin to massage her udder. Udder stimulation aids with delivery of the placenta, as well as helping let the milk “down” out of the milk ducts. As I talk soothingly to her, she assumes the typical dairy goat crouch, back legs slightly spread apart. I milk her into a pint jar, but not much milk is coming out. Her udder feels a bit congested and solid, so I massage it with the warm soapy towel. Over the course of the day, Honey and I go through the routine of milking along the fence, so I can give her colostrum to her kids. Thank goodness for the frozen stash I had in reserve. The kids don’t understand the bottle right away, but our puppy Belle is happy to help clean off the sticky mess from their faces as they learn. At the last milking of the night, I bring Honey up to the milk stand for the first time. She hops right up and eats ravenously. I am relieved to feel her udder loosening up and see her milk quantity is increasing.
Ah, the price I pay for tending pregnant goats. I’m a goat doula, a walking zombie, rather delirious and foggy eyed these days. I stayed up really late last night, waiting to see if Desti would deliver her kids in the frigid night. She’s the last pregnant goat left, and she just looks ready to explode. She’s a waif-like Nubian who carries her babies down low, so her belly stretches almost to the ground. Her pregnant profile reminds me of an aphid’s swollen abdomen. I’ve been obsessively watching her, and yesterday afternoon I was sure it was finally her time. I found her standing forlornly in the corner of the shed, pawing the ground, turning her head to her sides, making her muted moo-like call to her belly and her babies within, stretching and arching her tailbone and back… these are all signs of her imminent kidding. I was falling asleep by the woodstove reading “My Life in France” by Julia Child waiting to do my last check on her at 2am. Still nothing, so I crawled into bed with my clothes on so I wouldn’t resist leaping out of bed when the alarm went off in 2 hours. Sleepless nights are pretty commonplace for me this time of year.
Two hours later, there’s my alarm, and out I go to check on Desti again, and nothing has happened yet. I guess it’s not her kidding time? She did this to me last year, so I should know better. She’s curled up in a goat pile with her herd mates and our Australorpe rooster who is too enormous to fly up onto the roost in his old age.
Sitting on a rain soaked log stump next to the milk stand, I can feel the moisture wicking up into the denim seat of my jeans. My one hand is grasping a cold glass mason jar, the other a warm, hairy teat. I feel grateful for our simplicity here, and I love the close personal interaction with each goat. They do drive me crazy sometimes, but we are getting into the swing of things nowadays. It feels good. I don’t ever want to be milking so many goats I don’t have this time and attention to detail. I love sitting there next to my goat as I milk, hearing the chorus of ducks in the background, and smelling a delicious breakfast cooking. As Brenna came up to the milk stand, I heard some curious honking noises, and scanned the horizon. From the East came two pristine white silhouettes and a noise like clowns honking their bugle horns. A pair of trumpeter swans flew low, right over our farm, and I feel that rush of goosebumps to see and hear them so close. What magic can be absorbed in my outdoor milking parlor!
All 7 goats are in milk now, producing over 5 gallons a day together. The fridge is so packed full that the half gallon milk jars nearly leap out when I open the door. This is what I wanted and planned for, introducing all the goats to the buck last fall. There’s no need to suggest to them what is supposed to happen — the horny ladies flirt and twirl around the buck when they smell him, and totally ask for it. Animals are very clear on procreation, they want to do it. After the kids arrive, the mothers make much more milk than what their kids need, thanks to the selective breeding involved with domestication. I knew it was getting crazy when I had to bring 4 1/2 gallon jars out with me at each milking. It won’t be this heavy for long — goats tend to peak with their production in time with the age of their kids — so after 4-5 months of making milk, they begin to drop off in production a bit. This heavy milking time is the time to stockpile cheese. I have been culturing and aging my glorious feta, big platters of it lie on every available surface in the house. My feta represents all that an amazing farmstead cheese should- it is the result of my goats, my hands, my breath, our house, the air, how I milk, what they eat, how I treat them… these little things all add to the terroir of my own cheese. It is a divine cheese. Closing my eyes to inhale the potent creamy aroma after slicing open the drained curd, I rub them with salt and arrange them just so on the salted platters. Carefully I break off a piece and plop it into my mouth; it’s astoundingly delicious cheese.
I didn’t always appreciate my feta though, it terrified me at first. I was a Velveeta-fed child. The only cheddar I had tasted before becoming a vegan in my teens, was the artificially powdered version found in a box of mac and cheese. My friend Heidi was my first Feta “guinea pig.” She said it was incredible. I thought it was too strong tasting. She told me to keep at it, and soon I was converted to loving my own cheese. How odd to be making cheese and not even know if it was good, or if THAT was supposed to taste good! That’s what I got for being a vegan and starting to milk goats & make cheese. That was 7 years ago… and here I am, with 9 gallons of milk to transform into cheese today.
Goats are one of the most incredible homestead animals. They are usually affectionate and sweet, with such funny and smart personalities. Goats give so much goodness for the amount of hay and grain they eat. One cow weighs 1,000 lbs. or more and gives 4-8 gallons of milk a day. One goat weighs around 130 lbs. and gives around a gallon — can you see the difference in feed conversion? Goat milk is also much better suited to make really naturally flavorful cheeses, as it has many more short-chain fatty acids than cow’s milk. These fatty acids give goat cheese that tang that cow cheese can never achieve.
I milked goats for 9 wonderful years. My first year with goats, I jumped in enthusiastically with 2 fresh does. It was a challenge and a steep learning curve: How do you get the milk out, how do you keep the goats in the fence, how do you keep your goat from kicking over the bucket, how do you deal with your hands cramping up, and how do you maintain any sort of social life when you have to be at home every 12 hours to milk? I just loved milking my goats though, it was such an intimate and rewarding experience twice a day. I loved the goats’ hay scented breath, I loved the cold jar becoming warm as it filled with fresh, hot milk. I loved making cheese. I loved goats for their quirky ways and the abundance of goodness they gave to me.
I made creamy yogurt, all kinds of cheeses, and even developed my own lovely milk-based soap. I never sold the fresh dairy products, although I took donations occasionally over the years. Last summer, however, we had an unannounced visit from the Department of Agriculture after someone claimed we were selling goat cheese at a farmer’s market. After the officials left, my knees were knocking and my love for milking goats was squelched. I have a very logical fear of going to jail. We didn’t have any sort of an official goat dairy facility, just a wooden milking stand under a lean-to. I wasn’t a licensed cheesemaker, I just made delicious cheeses that I liked to eat. Since my goat’s dairy products could not be legally distributed without an enormous investment into a Grade A dairy, I decided to pare down my goat herd. The amount of time I was spending milking 7 goats and making all that cheese, without any income as a result, was not sustainable for our new, small scale farm. The one milk goat I kept will provide all the milk I need for my handmade soaps, which are legal to sell and distribute.
Goats were my gateway from veganism to becoming an ethical omnivore. Each spring, the male kid goats that were inevitably born brought questions of what to do with them, and I decided to participate in the full circle of life and death, milk and meat. I didn’t witness the first male goat being harvested, but I did tack his gorgeous skin up on a tree to dry over the winter. I did participate in the slaughter the second time, helping a friend harvest the beautiful ruby colored brother of a set of triplets. Then, that fall, I hosted a Goat Butchery class taught by a skilled goat butchering friend. We did it again the following year. Then I found out that that was illegal, to allow people to slaughter animals on your property. You can slaughter your own meat on your own property, but to sell the meat, the goats have to go to a licensed slaughter facility. We sold a few properly and legally butchered kid goats over the next couple years, but when it comes right down to it, there’s no way to really make a profit on goat meat unless you scale up your herd quite a bit. At this point, I was 8 years into my goat journey, and a bit hardened. I was not that excited about the idea of having hundreds of goats. They are a challenging animal to deal with, as they are incredibly smart, but also so stubbornly dumb sometimes. They beat on each other, they get stuck in fencing, they can have parasite problems, and they get out regularly and destroy the garden and your precious apple trees. The list of goat positives to negatives was starting to weigh heavy to the negative.
Maybe the visit from the State last summer was the best thing to happen to me. By backing out gracefully at the right time, and for the right reasons, I can still reflect on my golden goat days with a glad heart. Spring was always my favorite time with the goats, the time of fresh goat babies and lots and lots of milk.