I've talked before about the trouble with finding ethical, sustainable and humane meat. It is, in large part, why I work so hard to have a farm. But once you open your eyes to the perils of meat, you start to feel that spidey sense tingling when looking at other food sources. And so I turned, reluctantly, to dairy.
Ahh, dairy. Milk, cheese, cream, butter. All nutritionally dense and excellent foods. And if purchased from conventional sources, filled with cruelty and disease. Pure awesome.
My journey started when I read a book at the urging of my good friend in Texas. The book is called The Untold Story of Milk and I can't recommend it unless you like horror stories or forever want to be skeeved out in the milk aisle at your local grocery store. Large scale meat production in this country is pretty scary, but dairy production is not far behind. And like meat, the poorer the animal, the poorer the resulting food, so it's not just for ethical reasons that we need to improve dairy. It's behooves us and our health as well.
Here's a fun factoid: The average grass-fed dairy cow has a lifespan of 15 years. The average confined, conventional dairy cow has a life span of 42 months. 3.5 years. An animal that is so sick as to live a quarter as long as it should is not exactly the kind of animal that I want to be producing milk for me to drink. True, a lot of those animals are culled early, the second their production drops, but majority of them are culled because of disease.
I will spare you some other, truly horrifying facts (like what those cows are fed, bacteria counts, and rampant udder infections) and skip straight to my personal quest. While I still lived in the buzzing metropolis of Austin, I found a local producer of grass-fed raw milk. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to discover the many benefits of drinking properly-handled raw milk, and just say that my body was very thankful to have the nutritionally dense food source.
Raw milk sales are a bit of a gray market in some states, and Texas is worse than others, so I was happy to see that you can buy raw milk in the store in Maine as soon as I arrived in New England. I no longer felt like a shady criminal trying to score some milk. In my own state of New Hampshire, you can buy raw milk directly from the farmer at markets or from their farm. I found a local dairy that produces certified-organic, raw milk from heritage breeds (the Holy Grail for milk snobs such as myself) and have been a very satisfied customer.
Except there's one problem, it's hard for me to get it. Because of the location of the farm and the timing of the midweek markets, I can only score some milk about once a month. And raw milk of such delicate quality is only really good for drinking for about 10 days. After that time, it's better for cheese making or other "value-adds". So there are the times of plenty every month, and the dry times, where I look aimlessly in the fridge, jonesing for some milk. There had to be a way I could be in milk all the time...
This fall, at the local fair, I spent a lot of time in the dairy barn and got up close and personal with some beautiful cows. They are pretty amazing creatures, but quite large, and a bit too much to handle on my small land, especially since a cow would directly compete with the horses for grazing. Not to mention the learning curve of caring for such an animal and the initial expense; young cows can run a couple grand easily.
So, I thought, what is appropriately sized for small farms, produces a reasonable amount of milk per day, doesn't compete with the horses for grazing, and is easy on the eyes?
It was at that point, walking around the fair, pondering this very question, when I stumbled upon the dairy goats. And it took all of about 30 seconds for one to look me in the eyes and it was all over. I was in love.
I rushed home and did some research and settled on a breed: Nigerian Dwarf. These diminutive goats stand about 2' at the shoulder, eat little food, but produce a large amount of milk (up to 2 qts per day). Their milk has the highest butterfat percentage of any goat breed at 10% (compared to about 3% from cows). As I did more research, I uncovered that the majority of the world drinks goat milk (about 72%) and it contains more protein, vitamin A, and calcium than cow's milk.
All good things, but what about the taste? Every time I mention goat milk to people, they curl their nose and talk about the "goat musk". One closer inspection, most people have never tried it. I recently tried raw goat milk from a local farm and found it did not have any musky taste at all. Goat milk will absorb a musky flavor and smell if the does are housed with the bucks. Handling is also important. It is best to chill the milk as soon as possible.
So having made up my mind that goats were the New "In" Thang for 2010, I found a breeder in Maine and arranged a visit. Now let me forewarn all you readers who might think that buying a goat is a good idea. If you visit a breeder with 60 or so does and a dozen kids, you WILL buy goats. Because they are so darn cute. I am not joking. Consider yourself warned.
My goats "helping" to mulch the asparagus.
My first visit to the breeder, I bought two does for, let's just say, mid three figures. Not cheap animals by any stretch of the imagination. These are not $25 Craigslist goaties. I wanted a quality, proven milker and healthy stock and this breeder delivered. And, she had all the great qualities I look for in a mentor: understood livestock, not just pets, was obsessive about the details, obviously had good stock, and brutally honest.
Not too sure about that first snow fall...
I bought a 8' x 10' shed with a cute dutch door and brought the goats home. They've been with me since October 18 and we're already very bonded. The older goat, Jolene, is almost 3 years old and VERY pregnant. She is due to deliver March 7th and from the looks of her, I am expected triplets at least. Amy is 7 months old and not old enough to be bred. She's a little whipper snapper and tons of fun and she zooms around.
Once Jolene delivers and her kids are established at about 2 weeks, I will start sharing the milk with them. Jolene was previously leased to a goat dairy, so she is an old pro and a proven producer. Once her kids are fully weaned, I can expect up to 2 quarts of milk a day from her. In preparation, I have already started making my own cheese from our raw cow's milk. I hope to eventually get enough does to produce all our dairy needs.
What an adventure, but definitely the highlight of 2009.