For many years before starting my own farm I fantasized about raising goats. I can't say what it was about goats in particular; I suspect it had something to do with my romantic ideas about milkmaids singing to the cows while milking in the predawn light. But a cow just seemed too big and intimidating, so goats it was. There is so much about an agrarian lifestyle that one can romanticize to the point of delusion. From the outside farming may seem like the simple life, days spent enjoying a quintessential country landscape, nights spent playing fiddle tunes on the porch and sipping moonshine. I am not immune to these fantasies, even after farming and gardening for most of my adult life. Goats definitely fell into this category for me: lots of fantasy tempered by very little reality. Unfortunately none of the farms I worked on raised goats, and I was too unsettled, living in tents and communal housing, to own my own which only furthered my fantasies.
When I finally found a place to call home, I immediately starting scouring Craigslist looking for any local goats for sale. I even agreed to purchase two LaMancha milkers from two different local breeders before we had officially signed the papers on the farm! I found out quickly that like so much else in farming, the fantasy had little to do with reality. Animals get mysteriously sick, randomly kick over full milk buckets, sneakily break out of pastures, and sometimes even eat an entire kale crop. But it is learning to work with the animals, getting to know their personalities and their habits where I really learned something, not only about the animals at hand but about myself: how to be patient and calm in crisis and how to give and receive in a mutually rewarding relationship. Learning to care for my goats has left me loving them more than I ever thought possible. I also feel incredibly empowered around my ability to provide for my family and my community, as all that goat milk becomes yogurt, cheese, ice cream, butter, pig feed, and even homemade soap.
Much of this journey has entailed learning how I want to feed my goats, and how what we feed them directly relates to the quantity and quality of milk they produce. Our goats are fed organic alfalfa as we want to avoid any GMOs in our animal feed or in our own diets. This is an environmental, social, political and personal choice. As farmers who practice organic, biodynamic, and small-scale farming practices I abhor what the big Ag companies are doing to our food system. There has simply not been enough research on how these new lab-made crops will effect our health, or the health of our one and only planet. So regardless of whether you love or hate GMOs, I think it is crazy that these crops have become part of our food supply without any long term, third-party, peer-reviewed studies on their effects within the ecosystem of our bodies and world!
Okay, so enough ranting, back to feeding. As I was saying, we feed organic alfalfa and organic grass hay as the main staple of our goats' diets. In the warm summer months our small herd gets rotated around our two-acre pasture using mobile electric fencing. They spend 7-14 days in each area until they are moved to fresh ground. We use a rotational grazing system to help minimize overgrazing and exposure to worms and parasites. Any goats that we are actively milking get a sprouted grain ration twice a day. This tasty treat gives them something enjoyable to eat while I'm milking and supplies the extra calories they need to produce all that delicious milk through the summer. Our grain ration contains 3 parts organic barley, 3 parts organic oats, and 1 part sunflower seeds. Twice a week I soak a batch of this and put it in a sprouting cabinet in the barn. We feed from just-soaked all the way to fully sprouted. Goats are ruminants and not designed to eat large amounts of grain. Grain tends to ferment in their rumens, which can lead to acidosis and other digestive issues. By sprouting, we are making the grain more digestible, allowing the nutrients in the grain to be more available to the goats, and cutting down on our grain costs as sprouting expands the volume of the grain. And our goats LOVE it. All of our goats also have access to kelp and a high quality dairy goat mineral at all times as well as getting organic apple cider vinegar in their water buckets. We do not use any chemical dewormers on our goats, electing instead to use herbal medicine to keep our herd healthy. All these nutritious foods (browse, hay, sprouted grains, minerals, and herbs) go directly into the milk, so we are directly benefiting from their healthy diet as well.
So now that you know what goes into the goat, we can talk about what comes out. Not poop! I'll save that for a compost blog. I'm talking about the most delicious, sweet, and creamy milk that I have ever had the joy of consuming. Goat's milk is very different from cow's milk in that the lactose molecules are much smaller. The fat in goat's milk is also more naturally homogenized which is why there is less cream separation. The smaller lactose particles and the homogenized quality of the milk make it much easier for most people and animals to digest. Many people who are lactose intolerant can consume goat's milk, especially when it is served raw. Pasteurizing milk kills many of the natural vitamins, bacteria, and enzymes that live in the milk in its raw form. The fats and proteins found in milk are still present after pasteurizing, but the nutritional and probiotic qualities are totally diminished. In fact, pasteurized milk is like a petri dish for harmful organisms. This is why pasteurized milk spoils, becoming totally inedible. In contrast, raw milk curdles and can still be used to bake with or feed pigs. The natural probiotic qualities of raw milk mean it stays fresher longer. In fact, we often drink milk that is up to two weeks old and still find it to be unspoiled and delicious.
We are very proud of the quality of our milk. We think keeping a very small milking herd (we only milk two goats right now!), paying careful attention to diet and pasture quality, and having strict sanitary practices around milking and milk-handling make our goat's milk some of the best around. We also have very happy and healthy goats, which is the best that any milkmaid could ask for!