An essay about an urban Mom learning to live in the country and milk goats.
|The Tyrrany of the Goats: Seeking Simplicity in the Country
Not long after 9/11 Barbara Kingsolver authored a book of essays in response to the tragedy that has so greatly altered the worldview of most Americans. Her book Small Wonder, touched me deeply. In her essay Lily’s Chickens she states,
“If we are blessed with an abundance of choices about food, we are surely also obliged to consider the responsibility implicit in our choices. There has never been a more important time to think about where our food comes from. We could make for ourselves a safer nation, overnight, simply by giving more support to our local food economies and learning ways of eating and living around a table that reflects the calendar.”
Her words, particularly her further description of the actions she takes to feed her family responsibly, had a profound impact on me. Initially, I felt inadequate to the challenge her words offered. My husband’s favorite story about my two year old was that when asked who cooked at our house, Nathaniel would say, “ Daddy cooks, Momma orders.” In terms of growing things, I had a demonstrable talent for growing Zinnias, but my postage stamp yard was not sporting a vegetable garden. All of our animals were of the pet variety whose greatest contributions were friendly licks and sometimes fleas! I could not imagine having the time, understanding, or skills to make the kind of commitment she has made to tend to her family’s food choices. I felt a little embarrassed by the excesses of my lifestyle and resolved to look more closely at the burden of my choices on the environment, the people and the animals that inhabit this planet with me
I have been slow to move from my thoughtless consumerism to a more careful conserving lifestyle. I have changed things incrementally and mostly been patient with myself and my family. I am a stay-at -home mother of four boys whose career as a Montessori teacher has been interlaced with years at home, birthing and caring for young boys. For twenty-five of my thirty-nine years I lived in the city. Today, my family and I live on twelve acres in rural Southeastern Wisconsin where I grow a large vegetable garden and am still a bit stunned that my daily schedule is now dictated by two gentle creatures, our dairy goats
For several months before we purchased our goats, I engaged in a grown-up version of “let’s pretend.” When I felt ill or the rain was torrential or the snow deep, I asked myself how I would feel about having to milk the goats. I considered the loss of freedom not only daily but also my ability to just pick up and go. Truthfully, as the owners of many pets we were never that free to travel on a whim, but we could certainly stay out all night or hire in help with ease. Milking goats twice a day entails a certain skill or willingness which greatly narrows the field of available help. How would I do living under what I was half seriously referring to as “the tyranny of the goats”? Would I feel resentment or joy at dawn and dusk each day? Well, I am beginning to find my answer to those questions.
For over a month now I have been tending two beautiful Oberhasli dairy goats. Berry (a four-year-old doe) is sweet and well versed in the art of milking. I know that my milking speed has increased because she is no longer pawing at the front of the milking stand or threatening to place her foot in the milk bucket as I try to squeeze the last half of the milk out with throbbing hands; in fact, my hands are no longer throbbing at the end of a milking session!
My second goat, Grace is a ten-month-old doeling with a dainty face and a playful demeanor. Although I am not milking her yet, it was important to purchase a second goat. Goats are herd animals, and have a strong preference for companionship. I bought two registered goats with strong milking lines in their genetic backgrounds. These two goats will be the matriarchs of my goat herd and the quality of these initial does will impact the quality of the whole herd. Beginning with one goat already in milk will give me the opportunity to learn all of the skills and routines of milking before I add those involved in breeding, birthing, and tending newborn kids.
Developing my milking skills begins at 5:45 a.m. when I roll out of bed into my jeans and begin collecting various parts of my milking supplies in order to reach the barn by 6:00. My husband, an early riser by nature, has been surprised to see me not only awake but coherent before six each morning. He is right to be surprised; I have always loved the quiet of midnight, and until recently, my guilty pleasure involved returning to bed to snuggle with my five year old as the bus pulled away with my older boys. Morning hours have always been something to manage or get through not something to leap into. Lately, I am leaping!
The goat house was here before us and was not placed for efficiency or economy of motion. It does however make for a pleasant morning walk. The sky is streaked with pink and the air is thrumming with birdsong. I pause and try to catch a glimpse of the sandhill cranes when I hear their staccato calls. It is early spring here in Wisconsin.
As I pass my still dormant garden beds and begin to turn the corner towards the woods, I hear Grace’s high-pitched greeting followed by a deeper call from Berry. When I enter the goat house both goats stretch up and lean over the stall, apparently happy to see me too. Berry clambers onto the milking stand as soon as I open her stall door. She waits patiently for me to close the stanchion and settle down by her full udder with my freshly scoured milk bucket. The pungent odor of goat blends with the scent of my tea tree oil and grapefruit soap mixture as I clean her teats
As I milk her, I feel a sense of connection to farmers across the Midwest who are up at dawn along with me milking goats, cows and even sheep. The quiet communion with the animal, the ping of the milk against the bottom of the milk pail, the quieter sound of milk against milk as the pail begins to fill, and the gentle pressure of my goat’s weight as she leans slightly into my shoulder. I wonder about women across the world finishing their evening milking as I complete my first milking of the day. I am definitely in good company as I milk; dairy goats produce 4.5 million tons of milk each year, making goats the number one source of milk for human consumption worldwide. Goats were domesticated before cows and sheep, so I am also aware of the ancientness of this simple exchange between Berry and I.
After I complete the milking I set the milk aside while I offer Berry a treat of Puffins Organic brand corn cereal. Her previous owner gave her an animal cracker before and after each feeding, the Puffin cereal is my answer to the cookie. Berry waits patiently for me to unhook her stanchion and turns neatly into the doorway of her stall as I push it open. My doeling Grace charges hopefully towards me at this point in our ritual, and I often give her a turn on the milking stand where she takes a few bites of Berry’s leavings and receives a good brushing. Then I scrub and refill their water bucket, open the goat-sized door to the paddock, and toss a flake of hay into the hayrack. I often pick out their stall and add some fresh bedding. I am aware that as the temperature moves up out of the thirties I will want to get my milk cooling in the house sooner. I am curious how we will all adjust to this shift in routine. Goats are creatures of habit and like consistent routines of care. In fact, goats are so particular about their routines that many goat experts suggest making a slight variance in the routine part of the routine! How will Berry respond if I change water and hay before attending to her full udder, or will I be happier walking the milk in to the house and returning to finish my chores. Spring is on its way and we will develop these new routines together.
The full arrival of spring will also herald the beginning of my miniature rotational grazing program. I have purchased an electric fence and will be moving it around our several acres of pasture this growing season, giving my goats fresh pasture as well as fresh opportunities to clear our land. Today, though my goat house routine ends with a final look at all of my latches and a hard pull on the door to close the interior to anything but goats.
Once I depart from the goat house and walk back toward my still sleeping house full of boys, my focus shifts to the precious milk contained in my pail. I have left my strainer and container on the counter in the kitchen. I remove my boots and flannel over shirt, and wash my hands. I pour the milk through a filter in the strainer to remove any bits of hay or stray goat hairs that may have fallen into the milking bucket. The milk looks bright white and creamy as I pour it into the cold glass container I have removed from the freezer door. I then place the milk jug back in the freezer and leave it there to cool for about an hour and a half.
Before I acquired my goats, I read a number of articles that addressed concerns people have about the goaty taste of goat’s milk. The key to avoiding this appears to be a quick cool down process. Many people recommend bathing the jar of milk in ice water in the sink or refrigerator. Because I use both sides of my sink to wash the milk bucket and strainer, I decided to pre-cool the glass container in the freezer and hoped the temperature drop would be sufficiently quick. I was very concerned about my initial milk flavor, because if I was going to replace the 5 gallons of cow milk my boys normally drink each week with goat milk, I knew it would need to taste familiar.
I was nervous enough about the possible difference in flavor, I convinced my 19-year-old son (who is much admired by his younger siblings) to speak up in favor of the goat milk regardless of its initial flavor. I figured that even if it had an off taste at the beginning, I would learn to create better conditions for sweet tasting milk. Well, I definitely spent unnecessary time fretting and creating deception. The goat milk tasted wonderful from the very first day, and we enjoyed taking pictures of the boys and their cousin Isabel with milk moustaches as they reveled in goat milk from our very own goat.
I have grown my own vegetables for several years now and love providing my family with a homegrown meal. I have found an even deeper sense of satisfaction as I have answered five year old Zachary’s requests for goat milk in his cereal, used the milk in my bread recipe, morning tea, mashed potatoes, or cornbread.
My friend Jen and I are learning to make goat milk soap, and plan to start a farm based business selling the soap to help pay for our goats feed and some of our land costs. I am having to reserve some of Berry’s goat milk each week for soap, because my boys have happily upped their milk consumption to meet Berry’s production of between six and seven gallons of milk a week.
We look forward to next year when both Berry and Grace will kid. They call this freshening in the goat world. It refers to the birth of the new kids freshening the doe’s supply of milk. We are hoping to end up with doelings next year to add to what will eventually be a herd of about six milking does. It is common for does to carry twins and even triplets with an expectation of a 200% herd increase so a doeling or two is likely.
Some of these kids will be bucklings and grow up to become either bucks or whethers. A whether is a goat that has been neutered. They are sometimes kept as pets, companion animals for families with just one doe, or used to clear the scrub from overgrown land. When we were trying to choose a name for our farm, we considered calling it “Invasive Plant Farm”, and we look forward to the impact goats will have on some of our scrubbier pastures.
Some goat owners sell their bucklings to the burgeoning goat meat market. One of our neighbors had her two bucklings slaughtered at the end of the fall season last year and found that her family enjoyed the taste of goat meat burgers. We imagine keeping any bucklings through the fall season and have not yet determined if the goats will become food for our family or another.
I have spent some time with bucks and know I am not ready to keep my own for breeding. Their odor is quite a bit more intense than the does. My milking does have an initial pleasant horsey smell, with a musky undertone that is a bit stronger. The bucks are musk, musk musk!! I understand that often bucks enjoy the attention of their owners, and many owners keep separate buck clothing because the smell is so hard to remove from material they have even brushed against. At least initially I plan that my does will visit boyfriends on other farms and return home. I am also interested in learning more about artificial insemination which expands the possible lineage for my goats beyond the distance I can comfortably transport them.
One of the most difficult parts of being a new goat owner is my lack of experience. I know it is important to observe my goats closely for changes in behavior, weight, interest in food, or activity level, but I don’t yet have a good sense of what is normal for goats or for my particular pair of goats. I watch them, I fret, and I look forward to becoming an old hand at caring for goats, when most likely I will fret about more complex goat problems! Until then, I will continue to read books and magazines, search the Internet for various opinions on goat behaviors, and depend on the kindness of the experienced goat owners in my part of Wisconsin.
I am not changing the world but I am changing my world. Owning dairy goats is one way that my family and I are choosing to live more simply, to understand better where our food is coming from and to learn what it means to care for animals well. My oldest son tells people that not only do I want to know where my food comes from I want to know the farmer and the name of the animal involved! At nineteen, his comment on my choices contains both a note of sarcasm and some pride in the thoughtful choices made by members of our family. He also likes to compare our activities to those that took place in homes during the eighteenth century. In truth, our home is filled with modern conveniences many of which we depend on, and we are learning to balance what we want with what we need. Goats are a part of that balance for us. They represent a step down the path toward a simpler life and a kinder relationship with the land. Our large garden was step one and the fuzzy chicks, step three, are flopped over asleep in their box on the living room floor. We are hoping to finish our chicken coop before they learn to roost!