Note: Another new reader asked if I could say a little more about the goats. Here’s more.
If you were to come to visit right now, you wouldn’t see The Milk Truck until you started to get out of your car. But the moment you opened your door, the little vacuum cleaners would stick their heads in, just to make sure there’s no food on the floor. You see, at my house, there’s always food on the floor. My children drip crumbs and leave apple cores, and the litte vacuum cleaners feel it is there job to clean up.
But let’s back up. The little vacuum cleaners are Tekiah (Tekky) and Arava. They are small goats, born this autumn – each one weighs about as much as a Corgi dog, or a 9 month old human, and they would like to be your friends. Especially if you have food. Or, if you aren’t going to feed them, they’d like you to pet their heads, or hold them, or let them play king of the mountain on your car. You don’t mind little goat footprints on your car, do you?
(That’s Tekky when she was a lot littler, along with an assortment of the guys in my life)
Along with the little vacuum cleaners is the mid-sized one – Bast is a teeanger, born last spring. She’s still baby enough to want you to cuddle her, but grownup enough to know when you want her to do something she doesn’t want you to and get out of arm’s reach. She’s a soft cream color and cute as a button.
Right behind comes The Milk Truck and her cohorts. Mina is a golden buckskin color, and she’s not called the milk truck for nothing – every day, her job is to fill that milk bucket, and by gosh, she does it. She’s a stickler that one – she does her job, and you’d better do yours, so the hay had better be tasty, the water bucket clean, and there had better be grain in that dish every single second that you are milking, dammit. What does a goat have to do to get some service around here?
(Mina has places to go and things to do)
The grey and white goat is Selene, Tekky’s Mom. If there’s any food, she’d like it first, thanks, and the heck with the rest of them. Otherwise, why don’t you stand there for a bit, and let her rub her head against you – there’s an itchy spot. Oh, and can she taste your shirt, because it looks foody.
Behind her is Maia, Arava’s Mom. She looks like nothing so much as a miniature deer – she’s refined and delicate looking – you can tell elegant, shy Arava is her daughter, and chunky, bouncy Tekky is Selene’s. Maia would, if she could talk, happily tell you that she’s much nicer than Selene, who is really your generic goat, whereas she is particularly awesome, and nothing like these other goats. And while she’s telling you about it, do you mind if she nibbles your shoelace? All the best goats do this.
Hanging shyly back in the background is Jesse – solid, round, fuzzy in her winter coat. Jesse never puts herself forward, she’s not demanding or pushy. She’s just sweet – if she could to talk it would be a shy, quiet little voice with lots of “if you don’t mind…” kind of interspersions. If you reach out to her, she’ll shy away, but keep offering her your hand, and maybe scratch her neck for a minute, and she’s your best friend. She’s also an awesome little milker, doing a good job for someone in her first year.
The great thing about goats is that they are all your friends – your new best friends, in fact. They can’t think of anything better than to be with you, and in fact, if you don’t shut your car door fast enough, they’ll be delighted to climb in and go for a ride. They’d be happy to come in the house with you, too, if you don’t remember to close the gate. Remember, goats were the first animal domesticated after the dog, and from the archaeological evidence, it looks as though they pretty much chose us – started hanging around us. Their feeling is that having chosen to be with humans, they’d like to do that all the time – so if you don’t object, they’d love to come stand on the dining room table for a while and talk to you. Did we mention they love to climb?
There are a few things in my life that are really weird to people. Most of my life looks a lot like everyone else’s, or at least someone you know. Lotsa people have wood heat, or clotheslines or keep cool houses. A surprising number have gardens, chickens and do things like knit and can. But there are a few things that make my life look really weird to other people – cooking on a woodstove, not having a fridge and the goats are probably the top three. The idea that your milk comes out to say hi and frisk you for apple cores is probably not in most people’s vocabulary. But at my house, everyone meets the milk.
Why do we do it? Well, part of it is that we really like goats. I have a lot of animals – and except perhaps for the cats, the goats are my favorite of the lot. Goats are like dogs, except less cooperative. They love you, but don’t fawn upon you. They are warm and sweet and make a ton of milk for what you feed them. My goats, being Nigerian Dwarves are the size of a largish dog, and two of them in milk produce about a quart and a half to two quarts a day (depending on time of year). Two full sized goats might produce as much as 1 1/2 to 2 gallons a day, but this is more milk than my family needs, plus I can pick a goat up and carry her if she’s in my way.
Right now, my goats are producing less milk, because I’m not a commercial producer who has to maximize production – that’s as it should be for me. It is cold, the goats are using more of their calories to keep cozy, and they have switched form mostly green feed to more hay. While we up their grain intake a little to compensate, we’re also reducing our expectations. In the longer term, my hope is to get everyone on the same breeding schedule (at this point we have them on spring and fall, because we couldn’t get the goats bred last winter), and allow our milk production to largely dry up in the winter, and be truly seasonal.
We produce our own because milk is a particularly difficult issue to do sustainably. If you are lucky enough to live by a dairy that produces a lot of its milk on grass, that’s awesome, but most of us don’t. And unlike meat, much of which can be produced on either human food scraps or on grass and pasture, most dairy requires grain – grain that could feed human beings.
Now it is perfectly viable to give up milk, but the thing is, we live in a wet, rainy part of the US and have a lot of steep, rocky, grassy pastures, as well as a lot of brush and woody margins. Culturally, we’re from dairy cultures (eastern european jewish for Eric, Northern European for me) at least in part (there’s other stuff in there too), and we like milk – we do eat yogurt and cheese, and my kids drink milk. Moreover, even if we didn’t, fats are an interesting issue in cold climates – it is a lot harder to raise vegetable fats in quantity out here – we have no olive trees, and while nut oils are real possibility, we’re years from a harvest on that scale. There’s a reason why animal fats, particularly dairy, were the primary fats of many cold places.
It makes a lot of sense to use that grass and brush and woodland margin to raise meat and milk – and it would make even more sense to see more people turning their lawns and the marginal weeds around their property into milk and meat. That’s why we raise suburban-yard sized goats – because we’re hoping more people will have their own milk goats at home.
The advantage of these particular goats is that they produce a fair amount of milk on a small amount of grain, given good hay and pasture. Some of that grain we raise ourselves – my goats are eating corn, sunflower seeds and amaranth from our garden, and get as substitute for some grains some root crops as well. Other we buy locally and organically. But on a comparatively tiny amount of purchased feed – about a cup and a half per goat per day, my goats are producing a lot of milk. With organic milk at about $6 gallon locally, producing my own for $2.40 gallon or so (my best estimate) is pretty bloody awesome. And, as the goats remind us, they are cute, too. Watching my (human) kids romp with the goat kids is worth a lot.
For people who aren’t going to get a dairy animal, the best way to get good milk is to talk to your local producer. What are they feeding and in what season? The truth is that we can’t afford to feed a lot of human-quality grains to animals – but we also may not need to. Seasonal milk, produced mostly on pasture is a good use of areas like the great plains that can’t be tilled and should be grazed, or on the steep wet hills of the northeast. When the grass is flush is the season of milk. All foods have their season, and milk no less than any other.
So tomorrow we’ll eat cheese – there’s some fresh milk for the kids, but mostly, we are eating summer’s grass in the form of cheese we made when everything was lush, as the goats wandered around, browsing along the weedy margins of our property and the edge of the woods and turning it into food for us. It isn’t always easy to find good, sustainable, healthy, safe food in this world. The good thing is that sometimes it comes and finds you, and maybe checks your pockets to see if they are good to eat.
So if you come to my place, you’ll meet the milk. Say goodbye, Cabritas lindas! (Below is the formal goat departure gesture – it means “we love you and will miss you.” And yes, that’s my mother in law’s car roof they are standing on.)