Monday, April 19, 2010

None More Goat

Over the rainy and cold weekend, we had some new friends over to the farm to take a look at the goats and our setup in general. I could fill a book with the things I don't know about farming, but I have learned a lot about this particular piece of land. Since my new friends are also looking to buy a small farm, I am happy to share my personal mistakes and minor triumphs about "City Girl Moves To The Country, Buys Goats".

One of the topics that was discussed however is that, apparently, I don't talk about the goats enough. Additionally, when I do talk about the goats, I do not properly convey their cuteness.

So, at the risk of stating the obvious: My goats are cute!

Therefore what follows is a completely content-free post. It's just pictures and videos of goats being cute. Because my readers demanded it. And I deliver.

Brego is my cleanup man. Amy is not so sure...

Freya, meet Brego.

Goats doing what they do best: yard work!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Palace Fit For A Chicken

When we bought this little forested property, we found an abandoned child's playhouse built by the original owners. It was in pretty good shape, only because no one ever tread upon it. We decided to turn it into a chicken coop and with two adults using it several times a day to collect eggs, the foundation started to slip. The original owners had constructed the foundation using only two 4x4 posts and some sort of creative "header" made up of a warped 2x6. The whole coop made the structural engineer in me cringe.

The coop the day we moved in. Abandoned for 15 years.

Right before we got chickens. Not too crooked... yet.

In addition to live load, this baby supported some snow loads.

Prior to rebuild. Right fore is collapsing.

With all the recent rains, the coop was in very real danger of falling down the hill, so we decided to rebuild the foundation. For this project, I uses poured concrete piers, 6x6 posts and a sistered 2x6 headers. Designing the foundation was the easy part. The hard part was lifting the coop off the old foundation to level it and build the new foundation underneath. Lucky for us, our downhill neighbor happens to own everything you could ever need in life. And this weekend, I needed two 2.5 ton jacks. And, of course, my neighbor had them so I was able to borrow the jacks for the heavy lifting of the coop.

Jacks holding the coop up while we rebuild the front right column.

New foundation.

Like all major projects, it took twice as long as it should have, but the finished result is very, very stable. We could not get the coop perfectly level or square because the decade of falling downhill had changed the entire frame. In fact, once the new foundation was in place, we had to rehang the door latch because the whole coop had moved so much. We also added a roost underneath the coop so the ladies can hang out someplace dry on rainy or snowy days. We filled in the base with sand, so they can bathe when the rest of the ground is covered in snow. In short, it's chicken heaven.

Elevated coops are wonderful in the north. The chickens always have a nice place to hang out, regardless of the weather.

Once the pasture clear and logging is complete, we will reseed the grass at the base of the coop and plant some nice chicken-proof shrubs. I am glad to get this particular project out of the way, and glad that our lovely ladies have a safe place to live once again.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Goats Vs Cows Vs Full-Time Job

A reader asked some very good questions and I thought I would respond with a full post so everyone can see my reasoning, instead of hiding a very long response down in the comments.

The first question was why did I choose goats instead of cows or one of the miniature breeds of cows. That is a very, VERY good question and I hope the small amount that I have learned in the last year can help someone else in a similar situation. Initially, I was very interested in mini-cows, Dexters specifically. I did a lot of research and their land requirements are not excessive, they produce 1-2 gallons a day which is completely sufficient for my small needs, and they do very well in New England climates. Every now and then, I see a sale ad on Craigslist and I wax poetic about my cow that never was.

I ultimately decided on goats for a couple of reasons, but the biggest was that goats are more suited to my land. I have 5.5 acres of land total, and will probably have 3.5 acres of open pasture available after everything is stumped, graded, seeded, etc. My land is rocky, on a slope, and was an old growth forest. I will be applying 2 ton per acre of lime, but it will still be a battle for years to grow good pasture on this acidic soil. I also happen to have two big grazers already competing on my land: the horses. Whatever grass I might grow will be primarily for the horses and then any left over will be for the sheep, pigs, etc.

Notice I did not say goats. Goats are primarily browsers (like deer) and they can and will eat grass, but they do best on browse. The kind of browse you find in a New England meadow which has not been managed for pasture. Goats have a very high mineral requirement and the brush has deeper roots to bring those minerals to the surface. Raspberries, shrubs, pine, etc. Anything they can get to really. And my land, for the foreseeable future, will be growing plenty of browse. Sheep, cows, and horses are grazers and will compete for grass. Goats can eat "the rest of it", the stuff along the tree line or in the darker, less hospitable reaches of the land.

Additionally, goats are smaller and "more manageable" which is a completely subjective assessment, but it works for me. I own a draft horse. I know big animals. But I didn't even want to deal with full-sized goats (which can pull 400 lbs, strong little critters). So I chose mini-goats (which still pull 200 lbs, I am somewhere south of that number. Yes, my 2' goat pulls me around). Mini goats can be housed in smaller pens and are low impact. They don't turn any patch of ground into instant mud (like my horses). They need only a 4' fence, versus a 5' fence for standard goats (cows are easier to fence, by far). Pound for pound, they produce more milk with less feed.

Ah, but how much milk? I think it's reasonable to expect 2 qts a day from a good mini-goat producer, which is not anywhere close to the production of even the smallest cow. Standard goats can give a gallon or more a day. But here's the kicker. With three or four goats in milk, I can stagger the breedings and never be in a dry period. With a single cow, once she's dry, you wait... wait... wait... for milk. If you need smaller amounts but want it daily (which also ties you down to the farm, etc), then more little goats might be a better way to go.

Goats have a much smaller "setup" charge. Ever price a good milk cow? They are completely worth their price tag, but for a first time ruminent owner, I wanted something with less cash invested. Of course, that is slightly cruel to think about, but a very real practicality of farm life. My goats are housed in a little shed, 8' x 10'. I did not have to build a larger barn for them. Also, I milk my goats in my basement. They walk down the stairs of the bulkhead just fine and I can keep my basement cleaner than I can keep my barn. A cow would need a bigger setup and I would obviously not expect them to go down stairs into my basement. The way my land is situated, there is not a really good location for another barn and milk parlor, so even facilities weighed into my decision.
Properly handled goat milk is not musky or "goaty". It is sweeter than cow's milk and has a slightly different texture (the milk is naturally homogenized), but it is definitely as palatable as a drinking milk. So you really don't give up anything there. Goat meat is not really as good as beef, in my opinion, so if you want to butcher the male offspring for your freezer, cows make more sense, and more meat.

And finally, I just love my goats. I am biased since I have never spent a considerable amount of time with a good dairy cow, so feel free to disregard this last item. A dairy animal is an animal with which you will bond heavily. You will spend a great deal of time, twice a day, pressed at her side, smelling her skin, feeling the heat come off of her body, grooming her, caring for her. You have to not only like your dairy animal, you need to love her. My little Jolene, as the matriarch of my goat herd, and the sole milk producer at this time, is by far the most important animal on this farm. I am intensely bonded with her. So if cows are your thing and not goats, please get a cow.

The second question was if I thought I would produce as much food if I didn't work from home. This is another good question and one I consider almost daily. I think the answer is "Yes", if you don't also have another full time hobby, like riding horses. During the growing season, our weekends are usually full of farm work and if we didn't have to also ride 5 times a week or go to horse shows, we could fit it in more easily. But make no mistake, this farm is our life, it's pretty much all we do. We don't have TV, we don't really go to movies. We eat out maybe once a week and that's usually lunch on the way to the hardware store for some project. We very rarely get to go hang out with friends partly because we are rural and far away, and partly because we can't take 6 hours out of our day to sit around and drink beer, as much as we would like to. But we've made the farm our priority, at least for this Five Year Plan, and so we are committing everything we have. It is possible to get an evening away (milk early and then again when we get home) and once we find a good farm sitter, even more time away. I have friends who take very long vacations from their farms with the right farm sitter. It's very doable. We just haven't done it yet. But this year is the year. I haven't had a real vacation in eight years, and I WILL GO ON VACATION THIS YEAR. Just as soon as the kids are weaned, and the pasture is seeded, and the goat paddock completed, and the drainage lines dug, and the outdoor garden planted, and... and... and...

I think I just made my point.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Safe Milk

I have been consuming raw cow's milk for about five years. As I mentioned previously, it was getting more and more difficult to purchase the milk, due to the location of the farm and demand exceedingly supply. Some days, I would make the nearly 2 hour trip to find them sold out of the day's milk when I arrived. Now *that* is disappointing.

So I got my goats and now I have one in milk and slowly but surely, I've been able to snatch one or two cups a day from her without too much trouble. Once the kids are weaned, I can expect around 2 quarts of fresh milk daily from just the one goat. Once all of them are in milk.... pure milk heaven. I will be able to supply all the cheese, butter, and milk products my family needs.

A reader recently asked how I prepared the milk and how I knew it was "safe". As a raw milk veteran, I have heard this question many times. But now, instead of discussing theoretical facts (you are more likely to get sick from eating deli meat, per capita, than drinking raw milk), I can talk specifically on how I handle my milk and how I have no problem drinking it.

If you are remotely interested in learning more about the safety and health benefits of drinking clean, properly-handled raw milk, you can start at or read an excellent book called The Untold Story of Milk. There is no question that contaminated milk from confinement cows living in horrid conditions 100 years ago made so many people sick that pasteurization (which reduced child mortality from 50% to 7% in Chicago) was a miracle. But a simple fact remains: if the milk is not contaminated to being with, you don't need to sterilize it. Just like irradiating beef because of fecal contamination doesn't make the meat clean, it just means you are eating radioactive cow shit. Keep the fecal material out of the meat and you don't have to irradiate it. Raw milk from healthy animals does not, in itself, contain pathogens that make people sick.

And really, that's where it all begins for me: healthy animals. I purposely sought out a breeder of dairy animals (not pets) who had a herd which annually tests negative for three terrible zoonotic diseases: CAE (Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis), CL (Caseous Lymphadenitis), and Johne's disease (linked to Crohn's in humans). I looked at milking and production records, but also at biosecurity practices of the breeder, who lectured me as soon as I arrived on the property on how to keep the animals from being exposed to pathogens which can make people sick. I paid handsomely for these goats, but there are no bargains when it comes to your food. If you are considering buying that $50 goat on craigslist from an untested herd, think again. Don't gamble with your life.

Luckily, goats are easy and cheap to test, so I will continue to test for the big three diseases annually. I need to wait until the girls are 6 months old before they get added to the testing cycle.

I feed my goats as well as I can, with fresh hay and organic grains. But I don't feed them as well as they deserve, which is to be rotated on fresh browse and pasture daily. Once the pastures and orchard are established, I hope to do better. My goats have free access to fresh minerals, powdered kelp, livestock yeast, and baking soda. A properly working rumin is the key to a healthy goat. And a healthy goat is your best defense against pathogens.

Since my goat is about 24" tall, her udder is only 7 or so inches off the ground so a normal milk pail is too tall to fit under her. I bought a seamless, stainless steel sauce pan with no rivets or creases inside the pan. This is important so you can properly sterilize the pan. Some people milk into plastic, but I find that plastic scratches and so you can get bacteria in the scratches which is difficult to sanitize. My stainless steel pan is washed with the dishwater once a day and also hand sanitized with a dairy cleaner to remove milk stone.

Once the milk leaves the goat, it becomes my responsibility to not contaminate it. Before I milk, I place the doe on the milking stand and brush her off, hoping to dislodge loose hairs. I then use a commercial udder wash (iodine based) in a bucket of warm water and I sponge off her udder and her belly (both of which have been shaved) with a clean disposable milk towel. I use another clean milk towel to dry her. I then wash my hands thoroughly.

Once the doe is clean, I milk the first three or four squirts from each teat (goats have only two teats) into a strip cup which is designed to help you identify clumps or flakes or other signs of mastitis. Plus, the first few squirts have the potential to contain the most bacteria, so those are discarded. Once we're all ready to go, I place the pan under the goat, grab both teats and start milking.

The first couple weeks of milking were disasters and the milk was discarded. I was too clumsy and would end up with milk on my hands or dripping back into the pan. I don't want milk running over my fingers into the pan. Now I've gotten the hang of it, so I can milk directly into the pan without any additional contact. Once the pan is full, I immediately pour the milk through a specialized milk strainer which removes any foreign material like hair or flakes of skin and the milk is placed immediately in a clean glass container and in the fridge.

I then dip the goat's teats to avoid mastitis and depending on her udder condition, I might massage her with some bag balm or other moisturizers. I also take this time to check her over again, make sure there's no heat or lumps in the now empty udder, no weird discharge from her eyes and nose. I give her a carrot and she goes back with the herd.

Easy as pie. The milk is then consumed or used in cooking. I don't have enough milk yet to make cheese or other fermented foods, but that will come soon. I have no doubts as to the health and quality of the milk. I haven't examined it under a microscope or had it tested, but it tastes and smells good and I've had no ill effects.

As a side note, I did unwittingly perform an experiment where I left milk out for four days in a bowl, completely forgotten in a corner of my kitchen. Not only did the milk not sour and start to smell, but when I finally discovered it, I saw it had clabbered. Intrigued, I stuck my head in the bowl to get a good whiff and I smelled... cheese. It smelled like feta. Not sour. Exactly like cheese. I did not try the milk, because you really are supposed to clabber milk by covering it with a cloth to keep foreign contaminants out. But I will try to clabber some milk soon.

People have been consuming milk from their own dairy animals for millennia with very few problems. Like many aspects of agriculture, the real problem arises in trying to concentrate milk production and then ship the product many miles to the waiting population. From goat to fridge to my tummy is a short, and sweet, trip. I also have the ability of being picky with the milk. If a stray hair gets in the milk prior to straining, I can choose to give the milk to the dogs. I know exactly what gets in the milk and since I will get more milk tomorrow, I can be judicious. A little common sense goes a long way.

A little common sense also applies to the dangers of food borne pathogens. I live with someone with a somewhat compromised immune system, so I am very aware of pathogens that make you sick. However, we are much more likely to be killed riding our horses, or even eating raw spinach, than from drinking our milk. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of ground beef are recalled and people discuss the recall over a Big Mac (arguably they are safe since a Big Mac contains so little real beef), but you mention raw milk to people and they involuntarily gag. Hysteria is a little one sided. You cannot eliminate all risks in life and I view the perceived health benefits of drinking our milk far outweigh the possible consequences. To me, life is about living deeply and richly and I feel better when I have my milk. This is my choice alone, however, and I respect everyone's individual choices when it comes to their body.