I’ve always loved goats. My grandmother kept sheep for a long time, but they were unsatisfactory and herdish. Scattering in all directions when I barged into their pen to pet their mouldering fleeces. Nearby were two goats, a lady and a gent, but they were deemed too dangerous for my attentions. Which, of course, made them all the more interesting.
Then a few years ago, I met some pygmy goats at a county fair and I was enchanted by their nibbly little lips and direct, curious faces. So when Dairy Queen and I got an invitation from manager Scott Bice to visit Redwood Hill Farm, we jumped at the opportunity. DQ, the Potato Non Grata, Sir Loin and I would spend the day reveling in goaty stares, flopping goaty ears, and admiring goaty antics.
Oh, and also Redwood Hill is a small, family-owned dairy that makes wonderful cheeses and yogurt using old-fashioned, humane methods. That too.
DQ confessed during the drive north to Sebastopol that what she really wanted — in addition to sampling as many cheeses as possible — was to milk one of the goats. "I've never milked anything before," she said. (She's child-free and a city girl, whereas I went to farm camp for several summers and have milked a cow.) "It sort of scares me. The fleshy primal-ness of it. But I want to try it."
It was a hot, muggy day in Sonoma. Scott greeted us in a tie-dyed purple t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. We immediately began sweating in our jeans as we walked down from the house to the first goat pen.
Scott's parents started Redwood Hill Dairy in 1968 to sell goat milk, which they did door to door in glass bottles; his eldest sister,Jennifer, took over the farm in 1978 and started branching out into other products and show goats. They have a lot of champion goats on the property! Who wants goat milk? Well, chevre, goat feta, and other goat cheeses speak for themselves, of course, and the milk and yogurt are often sought after by people who can’t digest cow’s milk (slightly different protein profile). Redwood Hill is now the No. 1 yogurt producer in the natural-foods market: they make Trader Joe's goat yogurt for them, and you can find them in Whole Foods and similar supermarkets under their own label.
Scott was very patient and laidback as he led us four goatourists around the various paddocks and explained how the operation runs. His parents retired to Hawaii when he was 8 — Jennifer is 20 years older — and he only moved back five years ago, with his wife.
It's a true small farm, about five or six acres, with a residential property on one side and thick woods on the other. There are around 325 goats on the farm right now, about 90 of them kids. You can keep goats in a smaller area than cows (obviously), making raising them on small farm plots a more viable option. Which is not to say that the Redwood Hill goats are crammed in or in any way smooshed. They’re all separated out into nice pens by age group with indoor and outdoor bits and fencing that’s a perfect size to stick curious noses through.
There are four types of goats in the herd. The La Mancha, which looks like it has no ears, is a particularly smart and sneaky goat that can figure out how to open fences. (Kind of like our Man of La Muncha, although his ears are normal size.) All the goats on the farm have names, and the La Manchas answer to theirs quite eagerly, according to Scott. The Saanens are white with stickie-out ears. They’re the "Holsteins of the goat world" — high producers. Same with the Alpines, though they come in many colors. And the Nubians, the sweet, shy (for goats) Nubians, with their floppy Basset-hound ears and high-butterfat, rich milk. The idea is that you can combine the milk of all these goats after milking to get a brew that is high enough in volume to sustain the farm (thanks Saanens!) but has plenty of butterfat (go, Nubians!) for a nice creamy base from which to make your yogurts and cheeses. So Scott and Jennifer tweak the composition of the herd to give them the results they want.
We met some youngsters first, about four months old. The goats are grouped by age, so the little ones don’t get bossed around, and to keep care and feeding simple. They are weaned from their dams after just a few days, for two reasons: there’s a goat disease that mothers transmit through milk, and early weaning makes the kids more personable. "If he's raised on a dam, he'll be skittish of humans," Scott said. Weaning also helps when they sell a kid: she can nurse from a bottle soon as she gets to the new dairy. The kids are "budded" — their horns are removed — in the first week so they can't hurt each other when they butt heads.
Babies get a milk-and-yogurt mixture a couple times a day. One pen of little kids was just being weaned off their daily milk lunch, but they got a reprise thanks to us: Scott agreed to give them a snack so we could see the "lambbar," a white, 5-gallon bucket with a belt of nipples connected to a tangle of tubes on the inside. He poured in the pasteurized goat milk and hopped inside the pen. Before the bucket even hit the ground, the kids were all slurped up to the bar. One tried to bump its neighbor away, but Scott gently pushed the offender back to its own station. Meanwhile, in much-practiced movements, he sort of straightened them out with his hands and brushed their flanks and backs like a mother goat would do when nursing.
We also saw the older ones, who get alfalfa and bean hay but aren’t giving milk yet, and the 2-year-olds who have had their first kids and are producing milk. More on those ladies in a moment.
The finale of the preliminary spin around the barn was the lumpy smelly billy goats, or bucks. They have enormous testicles, and boy do they stink. And this time of year is when their smell is mildest, Scott said: when the does are in heat, watch out! When a particular doe is ready, they do some genetics thinking and pick a likely male for her. Then they pop the happy couple in a pen together for a while. "We let him get'er once, and then we let them hang out, be lovey-dovey for a while," Scott explained. There's not so much post-coital snuggling, however. "After about 15 minutes they'll do it again."
One particular billy is named Clinton because he "doesn't care what animal you are, he'll jump on you." Clinton has a long yellowing white beard and a sly look; his horns have fused together low on his head with a decided bend, like overgrown toenails. (He was born elsewhere and not budded: they can't bud them when they're older because sawing them off is painful and makes them dislike humans, plus then they might need antibiotics.)
Of the male kids born at Redwood Hill, about half are sold to other dairies for breeding — Redwood's goats are champions and much sought after — and the other half are sold at auction to be raised for meat. (It's considered tasty eating in Caribbean, Mexican, and some Asian cultures.) Goats live about 12 years. The ladies' prime milk-producing years are from 3-5, although they can easily do so until they're 8, some until 10. When Redwood Hill's goats stop giving milk or can no longer be used for natural breeding, Scott tries to find homes for them. (Goats make great lawn-mowing pets.) Many go to Slide Ranch, a sustainability education facility in Marin, as practice goats. A few — the ones that are not good with people — will be auctioned off for dinner.
One of us had the bad manners to ask Scott whether he'd ever eaten goat meat. He was pretty offended. "No way! I couldn't. They're my friends — I know all their names," he said. However, Redwood Hill also raises some poultry. "I eat those meat chickens. I don't mind that — they have no personality." By contrast, some of Scott's goat ladies won't get down off the milking platform unless he gives them a kiss. "Those are the ones that we have to find pet homes for.I would never let them go to auction."
On Thursday: Part II — Got goatmilk?