Archive for the 'goats' Category

Goat Girl, or, The Milking Life

Sharon October 18th, 2009

I’ve had many people email and tell me that my stories of cute little goats make them want to get them – but they aren’t sure they’d want to have to milk all the time, or don’t feel like they have a sense of what the requirements are like, so I thought I’d write about what it is like.

My life as a goat girl (in reality, Eric does slightly more milking than I do, so not all days involve me milking twice a day) begins around the time I get up, when I begin sterilizing the milking equipment.  I soak each implement – the quart sized glass mason jars we milk into, the milk strainer, the strip cup and the pint jar that holds the teat cleaning mixture, and the bowl I carry everything in in a solution if either iodine and water or bleach and water (just a very small amount of each), or you can purchase a special mixture to sterilize with.  A much more dilute version of the same solution is used as a teat wash and dip.  We keep the sterilizing mixture in a closed container and reuse it several times, so there’s not much to it – just rotating the various pieces through.

  Eli’s bus comes at 8:20 or so, and so I like to be out milking by 8am – the kids come out with us and play or help out, according to age and ability.  The goats have their routine completely down at this point – the first week or so, while they got settled, we had to allow more time, since they were jumpier and we were less competent, but now things go smoothly for the most part.

Brad Kessler’s superb new book _Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese_ includes a much longer version of this story, and one of the things he observes is that herding people can’t seem to shut up about their animals – their cattle or their sheep or their goats hold a lot of their attention. This is true of us as well – Carla Emery observes that when you milk an animal, you get into their emotional life – you are taking the place, in part or whole, of their baby. I’m not sure it is fully possible to milk by hand, every day, and not get bound up emotionally, as well as practically, with your animals.

Selene is the first one on the stanchion – she’s herd queen, and she knows it – no one would even consider pushing past her.  Selene and I have had a complex relationship.  She’s a troublemaker – if a fence can be jumped, she jumps it (these are little goats, fortunately, so 4′ fences will mostly keep them in, but Selene is challenging), if there’s a way to kick over the milk jar, she will.  She’s better behaved for Eric than for me, and I used to come back in the barn saying that when it came time to sell goats, Selene would be first in line.  Now she has plenty of wonderful qualities – she’s affectionate and sweet, but Selent used to drive me nuts.

But that was before she gave birth.  Selene gave birth huddled against me, and she clearly wanted me there – she was afraid, and wanted to be near her human.  As she delivered, she began to lick me all over, as though I were her kid – frantically, she licked my arms my hands, as though I were her baby, and she was through this process.  Ever since then, she’s treated me as though I were one of her own, rubbing against me and nickering her mother call to me when I come out.  All the tension has gone out of our relationship, and now I’m hers, and she’s mine, and I can’t imagine the farm without Selene.

We keep the goats in the barn at night because of the coyotes, so we let Selene out, and she leaps on the stanchion. Tekiah, her kid is hungry and gets a small amount of grain, and we milk Selene out.  First, I wash her teat with the sterile solution, to remove anything that might contaminate the milk.  The first two squirts are shot into a glass cup, so I can look at them to make sure there no signs of mastitis  or contamination.  All is well, so I continue, two handed, squirting into the jar.  The milk foams and the milk makes that milk noise as each spray hits the milk before it.

We have a tool called the Maggidans milker, which is rather like a breast-pump for goats – it makes milking a bit easier and faster – you still have to finish the process by hand, but we got it for me because I have carpal tunnel syndrome, and while two goats didn’t bother me, four were pushing it.  It is also useful because with it, with five minutes practice, almost anyone can milk well enough to be able to cover the goats for a few days while we’re out of town – it means that milking doesn’t require any special skill.  Milking manually is not hard, but it does take a little practice, and if you have arthritis, carpal or bursitis, a milker can be helpful.  

Selene, however, I never use the milker with – she’s a fast, easy milker, and in less than five minutes, I’ve emptied her out.  As a first freshener (after kidding the first time) she was an unimpressive milker, but she’s improved a lot this year, so I’m pleased.  Now it wasn’t always this way – when we first began milking, it took much longer, because we were slow and they were unpracticed too.  But once you get good at it, it is very simple.

Selene goes into the pen in the pasture, and out bounces Bast. Bast is a half-grown teenager, just about six months old.  She’s about 2/3 the size of the adult goats, and like any teenager, hasn’t decided yet whether she’s a grownup or a baby – she still plays with the kids, but she’ll be ready to be bred in a month and a half.  She’s still small enough, however to be able to climb out through the hay manger, slipping between its bars, so she can snabble grain from the other goats.  Isaiah is deputized to chase her off, after she’s had her rightful share of feed.

Maia is next – Maia is a beautiful goat, she looks just like a deer in miniature, dark brown, with a streak of darker brown along her spine, and a long, narrow body shape.  Selene is much less pretty – and much less perfect in her conformation, sort of your utility goat.  Maia, on the other hand, comes from great milking lines, and walks in beauty like the night.

She’s also an easy goat – she jumps up, eats her grain, gets milked and out again.  Her kidding was like that – we got up, there was a baby goat in the barn, she’d even cleaned up most of the mess.  She’s a remarkable producer, particularly on her far teat (goats have two teats like us) – we used to joke that half of each day’s milk came from Selene and Maia’s near teat, while the other half came from the far.  The only criticism I have of Maia is that she’s not that devoted a mother – don’t get me wrong, she’s fine, but she definitely feels that her baby will be fine while she goes off and browses for a while.  If Arava is calling, it is Selene, devoted Mom, who will come running to Maia’s baby and guide her back to the rest of the herd.

Both Tekiah and Arava were fathered by Wiggy, who is a goat of splendid conformation and good milking lines.  Part of the process of having goats is improving them – for Selene, better udder attachments and more capacity are part of the goal, along with a slightly more streamlined conformation.  With Maia, you’ve got a really great milking goat meeting really great milking lines, and you can already see that Arava is a promising kid.  Tekiah is more solid, like her Mom, although just as beautiful. The two babies leap and play together, climbing the woodpile or playing chase or investigating one of the cats.  They are about the same size as a full grown cat now, and they spend their days playing together and following the herd.

When we were just milking Maia and Selene, I could feed and water both goats and milk them both out in about 15 minutes – and that because Maia is a slow eater.   With four milkers and three young goats to tend, morning chores are up to about half an hour.  After Maia goes into the pasture, out comes Mina.

Just as I was once amibivalent about Selene, Eric struggles with Mina – she doesn’t like him much.  For me, Mina will hop on the stanchion no problem, and patiently wait while I milk her out.  For Eric, Mina, the color of cream with patches of yellow, might get on the stanchion, or she might not.  Mina, you see, is a wily old goat.

Her previous owners, my friends at Weathertop farm, used to call her “Mina the Milk Truck” – she’s a huge producer, and her genes have done a lot to improve their farm.  They sold her to use because they already had many of her daughters and granddaughters, but told us that if we wouldn’t take her, they’d keep her.  We wanted her and her lines – Bast is Mina’s granddaughter, so we got two of the Mina-line.  But perhaps because she’s older, and because she’s a thinker, Mina is a self-controlled goat, driven by her own desires.

That means that unlike all the other goats, a scoop of grain won’t necessarily lure her where you want her to go. In my hands, it generally will.  But she delights in making Eric crazy, refusing to get on the stanchion, or go into the barn at night.  And she’s fast – once we’re chasing her, it is all over.   And he’s the one coming in stomping his feet and saying “if it weren’t for the milk…”  But I don’t see us selling Mina the Milk Truck anytime soon – not until she’s done her magic on our herd. Plus, my kids adore her – she rubs against them and lets them stroke her ears.  She’s the uber-mama, with a taste for anything young – she adopted Bast when Bast left her Mom.  And we respect her smarts – the other goats can’t resist a treat, but Mina, Mina does what she wants.  You have to admire her self-restraint and intelligence, even when it is annoying.

The final goat out of the barn is alway Jesse – brown with white spots, and thick around the middle, she’s cute, but not all that elegant looking.  But she’s an astonishing producer for a first freshener, and just about the sweetest creature ever.  There’s never any problem with Jesse – she’s not pesky, she’s always last in line, but always ready to be scratched or come over and cuddle.  She’s the youngest of the adult goats, and from lines we also wanted to add to our farm.  She produced twins last year – including a male good enough to be as a buck (very, very few male kids are sold as bucks, most are wethered (neutered)), and the nicest doe kid our friends, who have had more than 50 babies born on their farm, had ever had. 

By the time all four goats are done, we have about a quart and a half from the morning milking (remember, Tekiah and Arava are still nursing, so Maia and Selene are producing substantially more than this).  The evening milking, which Selene and Maia don’t take part in (daytime milk is for their babies) will be about 2/3 quart, for a little over 2 quarts a day.  When we were milking Selene and Maia, both first fresheners (their first kidding, they produce less milk than they will in later kiddings), we were getting a bit over a quart a day.

For a family of six, a quart a day was just about enough to meet our needs for milk for drinking and cooking, but not enough to cover yogurt, cheese and other dairy needs.  A family where the adults drank milk (neither Eric nor I do, as a general rule, except for the occasional cup of cocoa) would need more, while one where little dairy is consumed (or with fewer people) would obviously need less.  A full sized dairy goat might give you a gallon a day.  A cow would give you five gallons a day.  While this offers many possibilities, for most families, this probably means some milk going to waste.  The good thing about small goats is that for their size, they give a lot of milk – but manageable amounts.

I bring the milk inside and filter it.  The milk is in two glass quart jars (we don’t have a milk pail), and gets filtered into a half-gallon glass jar.  Both the jar and the lid have been sterilized, and we use a very small, disposable milk filter that catches any loose hairs or other matter that might have fallen into the milk.  Once filtered, we don’t pasteurize it – we are very careful, however, to watch our goats for any sign of illness.  We believe that on a very small scale like this, raw milk is both safe and beneficial – we’ve found that Eli seems to have a happier digestion with raw milk, rather than pasteurized.  That said, however, had I been pregnant we would have pasteurized.

What does it taste like?  To me, it tastes exactly like rich milk – Nigerian dwarves have an extremely high butterfat content – much higher than any other goat.  So the milk is sweet and tastes rich, but there’s no goaty flavor to it at all.  When it begins to sour, it may have that goat-tang that one associates with goat cheeses, but fresh and chilled, it tastes like milk – very good milk.

Beyond the ordinary routine of milking, there’s not much to goat care.  Goats were the second animal (after the dog) to be domesticated, and their long history of being with people means that they really like being around us.  So a lot of what we do is simply spend time with them – we leave our goats loose to roam around the property (what we don’t want them to get at, we fence them out of), as long as we’re home.  You don’t have to do this, of course – they can be kept in penned areas quite easily, but the goats are happy to roam with the kids or with us.  So when Simon is out playing, they accompany him to the creek, and browse the trees there, and while I’m fixing the barn door, they are up eating goldenrod.  Without a person to accompany them, they stay mostly in the yard, or wander about eating down the willow forest in the back.  Browsers, who like deer prefer leaves and bark to pasture, they are useful at clearing out trees you don’t want – or, if you aren’t careful, things you do ;-) .

They won’t go deep into the woods by themselves, but they will follow you – I thought I was the only person taking goat walks until I read Kessler’s book, but I really enjoy taking the goats for walks.  They follow you happily, enjoying both the sense of safety they get from human beings, but also, I thnk, the companionship – they are social creatures, and they have a long history of socializing with us.  We try and make sure they get plenty of browse, and thus all the nutrients they need.

You don’t have to have woods – goats are very flexible creatures.  You can bring them all their feed and keep them in a small space, perhaps cutting roadside weeds and bringing them tree prunings.  Two does would fit very nicely in most surburban or even decent-sized urban backyards.  They will eat pasture if that’s what there is available.  But their preferred foods are a mix of things, and they prefer to reach up, rather than down, to get their feed.

We worm them once a week with an herbal wormer that we get from fiasco farms, and we also feed pumpkin seeds now and again to keep the worm load low.  We trim hoofs every month or so – it takes about 5 minutes a goat.  They have access to hay most of the time, but they prefer browse and eat it only to compensate.  They obviously need clean fresh water at all times, and goat minerals.  We also give them a little supplemental copper sulfate (goats have a high need for copper).   Other than kidding and breeding, that’s pretty much it. 

There are four parts of goat handling that you might find unpleasant.  First, of course, there’s manure.  To us, this stuff is gold, so we don’t mind it at all.  Goats are fairly tidy creatures, they poop little dry berries that is wonderful on the garden.  We clean the barn out every few weeks during the summer, and then in late fall and not again until spring, just adding plenty of dry bedding, so that the lower layers are composting and warming the barn. The smell is not unpleasant at all – merely earthy.  Buck goats do smell, but most small folk won’t keep a buck, they will have only does or does and wethers.  We take our goats to be bred, or borrow a buck – eventually we might get a buck, but we’re not there yet.

The next unpleasant bit is vaccinating – it is vastly cheaper to do this yourself and it really isn’t hard – most vaccinations are given subcutaneously (under the skin) and can be done while the goat is in the milking stanchion.  My goats don’t make much of a fuss, and I’ve never had trouble with it. Not everyone vaccinates, this is a ymmv thing, but we do.

Those are the tiny unpleasantnesses.  The next part is associated with kidding.  They are banding and disbudding. Banding or burdizzoing are methods of castration – unless your buck kid is amazingly perfect, you won’t want him to breed.  For nigerian dwarves, which people like as pets and lawn mowers, the males are salable – if they are neutered.  So you have to do it.  I haven’t done this yet, but I’ve seen banding done, and it is fairly quick, if not very pleasant for the kid.  Disbudding, which cauterizes the horns so that they don’t grow (yes, I know this is unnatural, but goats with horns are dangerous, and it isn’t to the animal’s benefit to end up at the sale barn or eaten because they accidentally hurt someone’s kid, or dead, because their horns got caught on the fence), is pretty unpleasant.  It lasts only about 30 seconds, but it isn’t much fun.

Finally, there’s the question of what to do with extra males.  You don’t have to breed every year to make milk – most goats will lactate for a couple of years without breeding, but you may want doe kids for sale or replacement, and you will find that the goats make more milk if they are bred annually.  Plus, babies are very appealing.  Doe kids can be sold or kept and are obviously useful.  But what about the boys?

The options are these – the thing about Nigerian dwarves, as mentioned above, is that people like them as pets.  Because goats are herd animals, a small family or single person who wants only one doe will need to get another goat to keep them company, and might want a wether, or someone who just wants goats to play with.  So far, my friends who have been doing this longer than I have never  found it difficult to sell a wethered male kid.  I’ve heard otherwise with larger breeds.  You can also use them as pack animals – the fact that they love to go walking with you can be used to your advantage.  In this case, larger goats might be better, but a couple of wethered nigerian boys are the perfect companion for a couple of kids off for an afternoon’s picnic.  Or you could eat them. 

This last is a hard option – we have both sheep and goats on our property, and the difference between them is striking.  When a strange person walks towards a sheep, the sheep mostly walk away.  When a strange person walks towards a goat, the goats come on over to check you out and see if you’d be fun to play with.  We butcher our own turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese and will butcher our lambs once we have them – and all of us accept that the sheep on our pasture will end up in our freezer.  The goats are a harder thing – they are just so personable it is hard to imagine eating one, even though I like goat meat.

At this point, as long as there is a market for male wethers, we probably won’t eat our goats.  Eventually, as times get harder, we probably will.  I’m not fully reconciled to this, however – but I suspect I’ll get more accustomed as time goes on. I do warn prospective goat keepers, though, that goats present a particularly difficult problem in this regard.

They eat some grain each day – about 2 cups per goat per milking.  We’ve experimented with cutting this back, and find that we can cut it back a little in the summer, but that for optimal milk production, they do need it.  A bale of hay with two goats lasted us about 10 days to two weeks, depending on the season. With 7, it lasts 3.  My estimate of annual upkeep costs, absent the cost of the goats themselves, is about $150.00 for two milking does – more like $300 for my four plus kids.  A gallon of locally produced organic cow’s milk was $6.00.  With two first freshener does producing a bit over 2 gallons a week, we made back our investment in 12 weeks, and the rest of the year’s milk was effectively free.  The numbers will be different for you, of course, depending on the cost of hay and grain, etc…

We paid $325 for each of our five goats.  It is certainly possible to find them for lower or higher prices.  Registered Nigerian Dwarf doe kids or milkers will sell for around that, depending the quality of the genetics and their milking ability.  Wethers (neutered males) sell for about $100.  Most goats will twin most of the time, so you can expect an average of about 2 kids per goat per kidding, half of whom will be female.  The sale of kids can provide an offset to the cost of initial investments in goats, housing, etc…

One of the reasons I’m so interested in this breed is their extreme thrift – they produce a lot of high butterfat milk (that is, not only is it sweet tasting, but it makes a lot of cheese per gallon) on comparatively little feed.  I’m beginning to experiment with how they do on alternate supplements – mangels, pumpkins, high protein leaves like malinga…etc…  What interests me most is the possibility that they could provide a meaningful way for people to convert yard scraps, garden wastes and marginal weeds to high protein milk, with few purchased inputs.  I’m just starting to explore how different forms of management might work for them, while obviously taking good care of my girls.

The big thing that I think stops people from milking is the idea of having to do this dull chore twice a day, every single day, but we really haven’t found this to be a huge issue.  Right now we’re milking twice a day, but since we plan to eventually allow our herd to peak around 10 does in milk, our longer term plan is simply to milk once a day, in the mornings, leaving them with their kids during the daytime.  10 goats, milked during the higher-yield morning milking should give us plenty for all our dairy needs, and should reduce the time in evening chores dramatically to just feeding and watering. 

When the kids are 3 - 10 weeks,  we could conceivably go away for a weekend and simply leave the does with their kids, just arranging for feed and water.  We’d see a small fall-off in milk production afterwards, but it is doable.   Each doe is also dry for two months before her delivery, and during this period, there’ s no milking (although you can breed Nigerian’s year ’round if you want to and have milk all the time) and it is also easy to go away.   

But with the milker, which reduces the skill level, we honestly haven’t had any trouble getting someone to tend the goats – our standard goat care person is Killian, a 14 year old whose grandmother is the next house over.  Killian earns money for online gaming, and he and his Mom (who keeps her horses at her mother’s and thus is over every day) come and milk the goats morning and evening.  This has been a great arrangement for us, and permits us to go away regularly to visit family.

We’re also not that good about making sure we milk at exactly the same time each day – mornings are pretty consistent, since morning routines are pretty consistent, but evenings we’re flexible – if we’re going out to dinner with friends, we might milk early.  If we’re going to be coming back late, we might milk late.  We try not to be so late that the goats are suffering (full udders get uncomfortable) and consistency does result in the maximum production, but quality of life enters the occasion too.  The goats seem pretty adaptable to this reality.

Most importantly, however, we love milking – the goats are warm, and again, we’re tied into their lives.  We look forward to seeing them, to petting them and seeing how they produce tonight.  We hold the babies and feed them grain from our palms and brush the goats until they shine.  Dairying is an emotional relationship – a family thing – they are caring for you and you for them.  It is hard to explain to someone who hasn’t done it – it seems like it would be work – and it is, but work in the sense that helping your kids with their homework or doing something for a beloved family member is – it is reciprocal, imbued with emotion and ultimately, deeply pleasurable.


Question for my Livestock-knowledgeable Readers

Sharon September 16th, 2009

(Just fyi, if you are squeamish, you might want to skip this post.)

So Selene and Tekiah are doing great, happy and healthy so far, but I’ve one major concern – instead of fully expelling the placenta, as we were told to expect, the remnents of it are still hanging out of her 24 hours later.  I obviously know better than to touch or pull on it, but I’m wondering when I should start being concerned about retained placenta causing an infection.  Does this require a trip to the vet (expensive and to be avoided if possible, plus then I get goat placenta in my car ;-) )?  An injection of an antibiotic?  Nothing?  I’ve googled and have seen all of these answers.  I’d love some advice – otherwise, everything is going beautifully.

 Thanks so much!


Chad Gadya!

Sharon September 15th, 2009

There’s a classic Jewish folksong, sung at Passover that has the title of this essay as its refrain – it all began “with one goat kid.”  And so it was here today – in many ways the beginning of our return to life as a full scale farm began with the birth of chad gadya.

Selene actually bore twins, a beautiful spotted buckling preceeding our new doeling, but the buck was born dead.  I don’t know if I could have saved him by intervening sooner, but dead he was, no matter how his mother licked him or how I rubbed him and tried to clear his mouth and nose so that he could breathe. 

Selene was huge, vast and wide, and I’d wondered if she’d bear triplets from her size, but at the moment I realized that the buckling was not going to wake, all I cared about was that there be another baby, so that all her hard labor not be for nothing.

And so it was – out slid a dark brown kid with a white stripe across her back.  Shaking her tiny brown head and sneezing, she was up and moving within minutes, nursing shortly after, the picture of life and health.  And we were the richer by chad gadya.

I’m sorry for the loss of the buckling, but that is the way of farms – things are born and things die, sometimes both at once, and as heartrending as it is, it is part of the great delight of a whole life.  I told my boys, grieved at the death of the buck, that they were fortunate, even when it was hard, because they got to know more about life – and about death – than most kids their age.  Better to touch life, even when it is shot through with death.

A nigerian dwarf goat kid is about the size of an 8 week old kitten – she weighs 2 lbs and fits comfortably in one hand, a perfect, tiny little creature full of life and energy.  Born 3 days before the new year begins, we’ve named her “Tekiah Gedolah” which is the final blast that the Shofar (ritual horn) blows, a long, unbroken blast that ends the holiday, the literal call that awakens the world to the start of new and promising things.  And she is very much that, our one kid goat.


Eating Animal Products Ethically

Sharon April 2nd, 2009

Several people have asked me recently to give them some guidelines about what the best choices are if they are going to eat animal products.  I realize that plenty of people happily eat no animal products at all, and I admire that choice, although it isn’t mine.  I think people who limit or eschew animal products for ethical reasons are making one possible good choice.  That said, veganism isn’t likely to be everyone’s decision, so it makes a lot of sense to think carefully about how to eat animal products wisely and sustainably.  Colin Beavan once asked me to write this piece for him, but I had to keep it under 800 words, and I just couldn’t do it – some things can’t be summed up quickly.  So apologies in advance for the length of this essay.

I’m going to try and keep the focus here not one whether vegetarianism/veganism is the ideal choice, but on how to make good choices. I’d be grateful if people in the comments would try and keep the focus too.

For me this comes down to a fairly simple set of principles, but ones that aren’t always self-evident, particularly if you don’t think much about where your animal products come from.

1. First and foremost, given a world-wide food crisis, and a rapidly increasing number of starving people in the world, all animal products we consume should come from animals that are not or are minimally competing with human beings for food – that is the primary food source of our meat, egg and milk producing animals should be plant materials that humans can’t eat in perennial pasturage that preserves soil, sequesters carbon and supports wildlife - not grain products that feed human beings.

This, I think is the most central point – if we are going to eat animal products, our animal products should put us in competition with starving people who eat grain as their primary food source as little as humanly possible.  If at all possible, this should go double for our pets.

2. No industrial animal products.  I realize this is a tough one – for low income people, this often means giving up meat and dairy.  But with the exception of low income diabetics, who may require protein dense meats, I’d say that this one should be an absolute policy – industrial meat is bad in so many ways that it should be the first thing we give up.  There are inexpensive options for animal products that are humanely raised – local chicken producers will sell just about all the chicken feet you could possible eat, giving you an unending supply of chicken soup (best chicken soup out there, too) for very little.  Most producers have trouble selling organ meats and other unusual parts. 

 I generally try very hard not to set rich folks and poor ones up against each other, and I know this does – rich people can buy all the grassfed beef they want (well, not quite, see #3), while low income people are probably thinking “great, she wants me to eat liver…” but the economic, ecologic and other costs of industrial meat are so severe that I can’t justify industrial meat in any way.  We’ve just got to stop eating it – and it isn’t good for us either.

For low income pet owners, this is a tough conundrum.  Industrial culled meat has made pet ownership widely possible, even cheap.  It also makes feedlots profitable – 1 in 7 feedlot cows is deemed unfit for human consumption.  If those animals were unsalable, it is likely that industrial meat production would be a lot less economic, but because these products (and euthanized pets) can be incorporated for very low cost into industrial pet food, it makes industrial meat producers more profitable.  This is extremely problematic – but so is suggesting that low income people who love and care for their animals stop feeding them, or bankrupt themselves with expensive food.  It is one thing to suggest that omnivorous people go vegetarian, another that obligate carnivores like cats or even meat-eating omnivores like dogs that are more difficult to raise on a vegetarian diet be forced to adapt.  The only answer I have is to trust that my readers will be as ethical as they possibly can, and make the best choices they can.  If you can afford to feed your pets decent food, please, please do so. 

3.  A truly local animal based diet, aware of seasons, land use and carrying capacity.  What does this mean?  Well, in the future, if we are to raise animals ethically, we’re all going to have to eat a lot less meat.  And I’m tempted to write here that we should probably all consume meat like that right now – but I know that many small scale animal food producers depend on a loyal base of customers who now are probably eating more chicken and lamb than they will be in the future.  I don’t want to undermine the systems we need to feed us.  So I guess what I’m saying is that eating animal products produced sustainably should begin with the recognition that in truly sustainable societies, meat, milk and eggs are seasonal products.  It should also include no waste – that is, if you are going to buy an animal, you should eat all of it, not just the best parts, and make broth from bones, etc… and also we should be learning to cook and eat with fewer of these products.  A study at Cornell a few years ago found that a sustainable diet that maximized the number of people who could be fed in New York State included about 2 oz total of animal products per person, per day.  In much of the world, people eat much less than that.

4. Eat animal products that support methods of husbandry and slaughter that are ethical – they are humane, they minimize chemical usage, and they allow animals to live as natural a lifestyle to the species as possible.  Humane slaughter issues apply equally to the production of milk and eggs as to meat – that is, there is no retirement home for hens past their laying years, nor for male calves borne to lactating cows, etc…  All animal products involve slaughter at some level – so find out how they do it, or investigate veganism.

What does this actually mean in practical terms?  Why did I put not eating grain ahead of humane slaughter on the priority list?  How does that actually play out in terms of different foods?

Well, in practical terms, I think this means thinking hard about where our animal foods come from.  At the root of it, we are morally and personally responsible for the way animals live their lives and die in our interest.  Disinterested eater is not an ethical position.  I know some people would much rather not know all the details – IMHO, this is one of those “tough patooties” things – the huge impact of meat, the clearing of land for growing grain for livestock, rising grain prices for the poor and their hunger - all those things are issues that animal product eaters are responsible for.  We cannot become less responsible by refusing to think about them - period.  If you don’t want to think about it, go vegan. 

I put not eating grain at the head of this list because personally, I believe that human beings outrank animals in the hierarchy of priorities.  I realize some animal lovers will order things differently, even think I’m deeply wrong for being willing to slaughter animals (this is not hypothetical for us – we eat home-raised meat).  I can accept that worldview, although I don’t share it.  But I believe right now we are facing a very, very dire situation – one that could lead to the deaths of many, many human beings, and that in such a urgent crisis (the food situation may have slipped off the papers, but it has only gotten worse), the biggest obligation we have is to keep human beings alive and allow them to have enough to eat. 

Forty percent of the world’s grain gets fed to livestock.  Aaron and I spent two years researching _A Nation of Farmers_ and everything we found led us to the conclusion that we are very rapidly approaching a bottleneck in our ability to raise food production to meet rising demand for food.  That’s a recipe for starvation, all over the world.  It is already happening – more than 125 million new seriously hungry people were created in the last year.  Many of the gains that were lifting people out of poverty have been lost, and we are expecting to have to feed half again as many people, with big appetites for grain in the form of meat, dairy and eggs.  Climate change is the big wildcard in this situation – if, as seems likely, climate change accellerates past natural tipping points, we are likely to struggle to feed our population.

The only way we are likely to avoid massive world hunger in the coming decades is to cease having human beings, their pets and their cars compete with the world’s poor for human food – more than half the world’s population mostly eats grains in their most basic form.  The same half of the world’s population spends 50-90% of their income on food – so while increased demand for meat or biofuels may merely inconvenience, as the price of food goes up, for other people it is the difference between life and death.  And human life is not something you play games with.  As much as we like meat, eating meat that has eaten 8lbs of human-edible grain and helped increase the price is not ok.  Milk and eggs raise the same difficulties.

But that doesn’t mean that none of us should eat animal products – in fact, animals can enable us to feed more people, if they are used wisely and carefully.  Animals can be raised on land that is too steep, rocky, wet or dry to grow grain or vegetables on.  Animals can make use of weedy plant materials that need to be removed, or of food scraps and food waste that human beings will not eat, and can be carefully used to reduce the need for fossil fueled tillage.  Moreover, as we transition towards a local agriculture, animals can make it possible for small farmers to produce their own fertility and make better use of their land than they could otherwise.   

And appropriate breeds for appropriate conditions (not just climate, but economic and social conditions) can make more animal protein available.  We’ve tended to have an industrial view of the world, in which maximal production is always what is most wanted.  But maximized production can actually reduce available food – for example, in _Becoming Native to this Place_ Wes Jackson discusses a study done in Germany, where local breeds of goats that gave very small amounts of milk were crossbred with high producing Saanen goats.  What happened is that the goats produced a lot more milk – but it became much harder to keep them – the original goats had only produced a few pints of milk a day, but had done so on minimal pasture, hay and scraps, and had done well in the climate.  The new cross-breeds needed better housing, better quality hay, and grain – which meant that in two villages, one where cross breeds had been introduced and one where they had not, in the one where they had not, almost all households had goats and milk, while in the one where the crossbreeds were introduced, only the fairly affluent members of the community had goats, while most farm households had no milk at all.  Helena Norberg-Hodge documents much the same thing with the replacement of the high-glacier adapted Dzo with Jersey cows.  As often is the case, industrial production means more total food production, but far less food access.   So one of the major projects we’re going to have to engage in is finding locally appropriate breeds of animals that meet our real needs.

For those who want to include animal products in your diet, there are some really good options out there.  But you have to know something about how they are produced.  So let’s take a look at that.

1. Eggs – I won’t bother going over the horrors of industrial egg production, including the debeaking, the millions of dead chickens, the manure… etc… let’s just leave it at “don’t buy your eggs from industrial producers if you can avoid it.”  But even good egg producers have some issues – while it is possible to raise most entirely grass fed meat, and some grass fed dairy, it is harder (although not impossible, but tough on a very large scale) to raise eggs on a diet that doesn’t include some kind of grain.

Aaron does it – he has an arrangement with a couple of local food producers to save kitchen scraps for him, and his chickens are raised almost entirely on the pasture in their yard and local restaurant scraps.  On a very small scale this isn’t that hard at all, particularly if you have any access at all to food waste.  We have experimented with a similar relationship to a friend who produces food, but we simply don’t travel the distance to her store often enough to avoid mold and other things we don’t want to feed the chickens, and other rural dwellers may have the same issues.

Some breeds of chickens, particularly landrace breeds from countries that are still poor, like the Egyptian Fayoumi and the Black Java have reportedly done very well at foraging entirely for themselves – they are traditionally raised in countries where no one actually feeds the chickens.  Their yield is lower than other breeds, but if you live in an appropriate climate (they would find our cold weather tough, I’m told) and can live with more moderate egg production, that’s one possible answer for home scale production. 

During the spring and summer, our hens get fairly minimal quantities of organic feed – for 25 hens, we are using less than two cups of feed a day.  I would like to get this lower, and indeed, have been steadily reducing it over the last year.  One thing that has really helped is to make sure that *every* single bite of human food not eaten goes to the poultry – down to making sure the water that the pan with the burned rice or bit of oatmeal in it goes in the pan for the chickens.  In the winter, however, they are eating more, since there is no foraging area, and we are trying to compensate for that by feeding more of our own production.  This isn’t perfect – a lot of what we’re growing could be eaten by people too, if anyone wanted to buy our amaranth or worms, which thus far, they don’t seem to, but my long term goal is to barter eggs for food scraps with my neighbors. 

Most commercial egg producers use a fair bit more grain than we do, as far as I can tell, and in cold climates, winter feeding requires a fair bit.  One strategy for minimizing that competition is to buy your eggs during spring and summer when they are flush, when hens are producing the maximum number of eggs with the minimum number of inputs, and either make egg season your primary egg-eating time, or preserve some eggs for winter.  Another good choice is to do your own experimentation with reducing grain in your own chickens.  Eggs, at this point, are the food for which there is the least-good solution, but they also convert less grain to higher quality protein than meat or milk.  So it is a mixed bag.

2. Milk – this varies a lot by the practice of husbandry.  Your local milk may be pastured, or it may not, and how much of the year, how much grain they feed, and what other practices they use vary an awful lot.  In this case, you really need to get to know your dairy person.  Unfortunately, laws about dairy also vary a lot from state to state – in some places, someone practicing very small scale husbandry, even experimenting with primarily grass fed dairy (and there are some grass-fed dairy producers out there who use no grain at all), can sell their milk, in some places (like New York) they can’t – they can’t even give it away.  What is available in your area is going to vary an awful lot.

Now here’s one place that I’m a little ambivalent about “no industrial” – industrial dairy farming is often not good, but with the exception of the really huge operations, dairy farming tends not to be quite as awful as confinement egg or meat production, or feedlots.  Most dairy farmers can’t afford a lot of extra inputs, so they aren’t going to feed any more grain than they absolutely have to, and a lot of them pasture their animals and don’t spray their pastures simply because that’s the cheap way to raise milk.  The same reasons often apply to why they don’t use BGH – the cheap way is also the good way.  So I don’t insist on no commercial milk – in fact, there’s a real chance that your local convenience store dairy is the most ethical milk you can get, if there’s no one selling direct, particularly in areas where there are a lot of Amish dairies.  But you should do your research.

And again, with milk (cow, goat, or sheep) or its products (butter, cheese, etc…) you want as much of the food value to come from grass as possible.  Permanent pasturage is an ecological good – it supports more wildlife than anything but a forest, and lots of manuring can mean that the organic matter in the pastures sequesters as much carbon as a forest.  There are areas of the world (grassland plains) that *should not be tilled* and until we develop perennial grain species really ready for prime-time, pasturing animals is one of the best options we have for marginal, eroded, steep, etc… land.  If you can find a grass-only dairy, or one that is conscious of this issue and produces its milk with as few concentrates a possible, great.  If you raise dairy animals, before you try this, do a lot of research into animal nutrition – milk production in animals (including humans) requires some calorically dense material – light graining is often necessary.  Farms that grow their own are another possibility.

Most of all, remembering that milk is also seasonal is important – if you are going to make cheese and butter, or eat a lot of trifle (and probably none of us should eat a lot of trifle ;-) ) and custard, do when the grass is lush and plentiful in your area, rather than when the pastures are dry or the snow is three feet deep.  Remember, this is normal – food is seasonal, eggs and milk and meat too.  It was not usual for most people to have ample milk in February, or tons of eggs in November.

Meat: There are a lot of ways to look at the animal slaughter question, even among people who worry about slaughter.  Some people eat milk and eggs, and either ignore the slaughter involved in these, or accept that they are doing what they can and reducing overall animal slaughter.  Some people differentiate between kinds of animals, rejecting mammals, but eating poultry and/or fish (my friend Jesse calls this “beady-eye vegetarianism” – ie, he’ll eat any animal with beady eyes, but if it has big brown cute eyes, he won’t) for various reason.  Other people, particularly in non-vegetarian Buddhist cultures, actually make the opposite distinction – they argue if you are going to take a life, you should take as few lives as possible to feed as many as possible, and would thus say that killing a cow is more ethical than killing 50 fish.  I’m going to leave fish off the table here, and I’m also going to refrain from choosing between these viewpoints.  I think that every person who consciously tries to minimize their impact, even if the conclusions they come to are different, deserves respect.  What I’m going to focus on is the impact of different meats.

Ruminant animals – sheep, goats, cows, buffalo etc…  can generally be raised entirely on pasture and hay to butchering weight, and in fact, until not really that long ago, that was how all animals were raised.  In many countries, they still are.  IMHO, there is really no reason for feeding grain to these animals at all.  That, of course, means that we’ll all be eating less beef, but in the rich world, that would only be good for all of us.  For these animals, raising them entirely on pasture is simply the way to go.  Ideally, you want them to be raised on land that wouldn’t otherwise be used for other kinds of agriculture – which means that people living on the prairies would be producing a lot of beef, lamb or buffalo again, while the rest of us would probably have less. 

Cull animals – these are the side products of egg, milk and breeding production, and they are an inevitable consequence of these practices.  If you are drinking milk, that means that the cows are having calves, or the goats kids.  Half of these babies will be male, and since any given herd only needs a couple of males (and may not need any on site with Artificial insemination), most of those will be killed, as will some of the female kids/calves that are not well suited to becoming future dairy animals.  While some very small producers can create markets for neutered animals, and while we may see some return to draft (which also creates markets for neutered animals) oxen or goats, this will probably be true for a long time.  The other category of cull animals are those adult animals that are either no longer suited for breeding, or past the age of production – old hens, rabbits that eat their litters, goats that throw a defect, sheep that don’t mother well.

And the thing about these cull animals is that culling (assuming that you don’t think the whole project of livestock is wrong, which some people do) is necessary.  That is, the breeds of animals that can live on what is available and thrive, while also producing human food in local circumstances are the product of vigorous culling – of human breeding of animals for their locality.  If we want to keep appropriate livestock at all, we’re going to be culling animals.  Some animals can simply be relocated, but really responsible breeders sometimes are going to say that this animal simply can’t improve the breed, and should be removed.

Most of us do not eat older animals, which many culls are – this involves different techniques (old hens are perfect for stewing or coq au vin, older ruminants also need long periods of wet cooking to tenderize, and can be helped with marinades), but this kind of meat eating is one of the more ethical options.  These are also good choices for feeding to pets – some high quality pet foods rely primarily on these older, organically raised animals, or you can buy the meat directly sometimes. 

Poultry and pigs are not ruminant animals – they are omnivores that should be raised on minimal grain, but will often be raised using some grain or legume foods.  Both, however, can forage and can be fed on human scraps (remember, you want good food scraps – if you pork is raised on twinkies, its value will be lot less than if it is raised on past-prime produce).  So ideally, you want your chickens or your pork to come from a producer who is getting as much food as possible from woodland (pigs can be raised on acorns and in the days of chestnuts were often raised on chestnut mast), food scraps and/or pasture, and feeds grain minimally.

 Geese are a major exception to the poultry rule – they can live in fairly cold climates on pretty much forage alone.  One of ours escaped some years ago and lived several years (before she was caught by another creature) on our local pond, surviving quite happily.  Geese are the one really grass-fed bird, and if raised that way, are a great option. 

Rabbits (though sadly not kosher) are also a great option – in many places, rabbits are raised entirely on garden scraps and marginal weeds that are cut, and can be dried as hay.  Most people use pellets for convenience, and you’ll get higher production that way (and while not perfect, alfalfa pellets are considerably better than grain, if the alfalfa doesn’t come from irrigated pastures, which can be tough to find out – actually, rabbit pellets aren’t a terrible feed supplement for many animals, instead of grain, again, assuming it isn’t California irrigated or something), and probably will want to choose animals well adapted to that form of production, but rabbit is also a meat that people and animals can eat pretty sustainably.  Rabbit can’t provide all the fat in a human or animal diet – it is too lean, but it can provide much of the meat for many people.  The problem is finding a producer, and one who uses sustainable methods – this is a potential backyard food niche, if you can build a clientele.

Hunted/snared wild meat – like eating more meat than you might eventually because you are supporting local producers and there is more local meat than beans, or because you live on a farm and have more eggs than you can donate to the food pantry, this is one of those “doesn’t necessarily work if everyone does it, but isn’t a bad idea now” things – in many cases, highly edible animals are overpopulating local areas or are a major pest problem, but because of our prejudices against eating certain foods

Remember, also that meat is seasonal (does it feel like I’m repeating myself?).  Other than very small lambs and broiler chickens in late spring early summer, in much of the country, there isn’t much meat in the spring and summer in the natural order of things?  Why?  Because sustainable meat producers mostly reduced their costs and the number of animals they had to carry through on stored food in the fall.  The ones they kept were breeders, and the babies born haven’t had time to eat enough to be eaten (this is somewhat different in hot, dry places).  Meat is most abundant in the late fall and winter, when the animals have put all the weight they can on by eating their pastures or foraging.  If the situation is different with your producer, ask why – for example, older hens may be culled in the spring or summer.  But mostly seasonal eating means not a lot of meat in spring and summer, but lots of eggs and milk, while the eggs and milk taper out in the fall and winter.  This is a natural cycle, it is normal, and it is worth being aware of if you are trying to eat sustainably.

While I consider it essential, I should add that I’m really reluctant to put the “no grain” policy in truly absolute terms, because so many small, otherwise sustainable producers are using as little grain as they can.  We are among them – we use a small amount of commercial feed for our goats and poultry.  And I’d get rid of both animals, if I didn’t think that modelling and developing both breeds and practices for low-grain, or eventually no-grain husbandry was so important.  If you know farmers making the transition, or working on finding a balance here, support them.  The reality is that deindustrializing agriculture is a big project, and all the people involved in it deserve your assistance.



Dairy Food Preservation and Storage

Sharon January 8th, 2009

Ok, folks, today we’re going to cover the storage and preservation of dairy foods and faux-dairy foods.  That is, how to keep your milk and what to do with it.

 Let’s start with types of milk storage:

1. Dry milk.  This comes in several forms (nonfat, full fat, low heat process) – the low heat, full fat tastes the most like regular milk (note that I did not say “just like regular milk).  The non-fat powdered lasts the longest – more than decade if stored in the right cool, dark, dry conditions.  Works fine for most milk uses, except perhaps drinking straight, although if you gradually mix it with regular milk, upping the proportion of powdered, you can cut costs and get children, at least, accustomed to it.  I keep some of this stuff, but I don’t love it since it all comes from industrial dairy – there are organic versions, but they are pricey and industrial organic.

2. Evaporated milk – milk reduced.  Can be used in baking, for coffee, or diluted to make something sorta drinkable if you add a lot of other flavors.  Keeps a long time in cans, expensive.  Not something I bother storing.

3. Condensed milk – sweet.  Ok for making key lime pie and pudding, not really milk. 

4. Powdered faux-milks – rice, soy… I don’t use these, so I’m not real famliar with them.  Readers here have reported that they are ok.  Probably better than nothing if you will be relying on them.

5. Cheese.  This is the traditional method of storing milk – turn it into cheese and keep it in a cool place.  Yogurt, kefir, and butter are other traditional methods.

6. In an animal.  In this method, you grow grass or save it as hay, and add some supplemental grains or roots, and the animal produces a daily supply of milk which doesn’t need to last too long.  Extras become cheese,  butter, kefir and yogurt.

7. In the form of soybeans or rice to be made into soymilk or rice milk.  I have a soymilk maker, which we use mostly for making tofu.  It does require electricity,

We have chosen a combination of #1 (we do store some powdered milk and use it in baking, and to thicken yogurt), #5 and #6.  Our two little tiny goats give an enormous amount of milk for their body weights – at this point, on the low end of their lactation curve, a little less than a quart of milk a day.  It takes about 10 days for the two of them to eat a small square bale of hay (they get hay from November to April), and they get a few ounce of grain and sunflower seeds each day.  A quart a day keeps us in yogurt and milk for drinking and baking, but not in cheese or enough, say, for dairy based soups.  So eventually we’d like to move primarily to on the hoof and cheese based dairy.

But while I think more people could have tiny goats than do (mine weigh about 55 lbs and are the size of a comparable dog, quieter than dogs, can be picked up by a healthy adult and carried where you want them to go and don’t require a ton of space, although they like it – perfect critters for a suburban yard), and it certainly would be possible eventually for neighborhoods to, say, go cooperatively in on a small cow that would rotate around the neighborhood lawns, most of us aren’t there.  But whether you are using powdered milk or real milk, you can make quite good yogurt, cheese, kefir etc…

Yogurt is incredibly simple.  You do need a starter – you can order funky starter cultures online from the resources at the end, but really the easiest way is to go to the store and buy a brand of plain yogurt that has live cultures on it.  A couple of spoonfuls of that will seed your next culture. 

If you are using powdered milk, mix up a batch, if you are using fresh, just pour it in a pot.  Heat 1 quart of milk up until bubbles form around the edge of the pan.  Stir in 1/4 cup of powdered milk (yes, over and above what you’ve already used) if desired – this will make the yogurt thicker and more nutrious. 

Take the yogurt off the heat, and let it cool until you can just put your finger in for 10 seconds. Stir in 2 tbsp of yogurt with live cultures.   Pour into either a thermos or a jar and put in a warm, draft free spot.  Leave for 6 hours, and check – it should be thick and yogurty.  All set! 

Yogurt will keep for a few weeks at around 50 degrees, or less time in warmer weather.  But it keeps longer than milk.

What about non-dairy folks?  Must they suffer life without yogurt?  Nope, here’s a recipe for making soy yogurt out of soymilk – I’m told it is good for things like tandoori chicken (which I might try since the regular type isn’t kosher):  I’m told, but have not tried, that canned coconut milk can be turned into yogurt as well, by following precisely the same directions, and adding a small amount of dairy yogurt (or you could order powdered cultures).  This obviously would be a less efficient way of preserving coconut milk than keeping it canned, but might provide a tasty (I’m told it is pleasantly sweet and great with fruit) yogurt substitute for non-dairy households.  Let me know if you try it.

Kefir is a cultured milk product that, like yogurt, slows down the decay of milk, but doesn’t stop it.  But it is tasty in its own right, and extremely good for you.  Among other things, it has very small curds, so babies can eat kefir, and the bacteria in it can help you with digestive difficulties, even more than yogurt.  To make kefir, you need to order or barter some kefir grains – there are sources down below, or you can find someone with some and get some from them.  Once you have it, it stays alive as yogurt does, with a little from that last batch. 

 One advantage of kefir is that those who are lactose intolerant can drink kefir and eat kefir cheese in many cases (not all, and people to build up a tolerance) because the critters in the kefir eat almost all of the milk sugars (lactose) in the milk.  So if you haven’t been able to eat milk or yogurt, you might be able to enjoy kefir.

Here are instructions for kefir making – kefir can also be made on coconut milk and some soy milks – lotsa info here:

Making butter: Butter keeps nigh on forever frozen, for several months at fridge temperatures, and for a month packed into one of those butter keepers.  I won’t go into the details of how to make your own, since Crunchy Chicken has already done that.  If you are going to do it regularly (and note, you can’t do this with non-fat powdered milk), you’ll want some kind of butter churn, available at

If you need to keep butter in hot weather, or for a very long time without refrigeration, the best strategy is to turn it into ghee, or clarified butter.  This is not quite the same in taste or texture (it is somewhere between a liquid and a solid at room temperature), but it adds a buttery flavor and will last many months at room temperature.  Instructions are here:  For those with abundant milk when the weather is warm, ghee is a way of having year round homeproduced fats.

Ok, on to cheesemaking.  This is not an area I’ve explored nearly as much as I’d like to – we’ve only made farmer’s cheese/chevre with our goat’s milk so far, and I’ve tried Barbara Kingsolver’s Mozzarella Recipe (which I won’t reprint here for reasons of fair use, but it is in _Animal Vegetable Miracle_).  So I’ll take you as far as I’ve gone, and then offer some resources.

1. Yogurt Cheese/Labneh – this is not a true cheese, but it is damned good stuff, and a much better choice for your bagel taste-wise than cream cheese.  All you do is take your yogurt and put it in some cheesecloth, and suspend it over a bowl.  Leave it overnight, and what’s left is yogurt cheese.  You can mix in herbs, put it in a jar and cover with a bit of olive oil, and it will last for a month or more in the fridge or at cool temps.  The liquid is good in fruit smoothies, or stirred into oatmeal.

2. Farmer’s Cheese/Chevre – with slight variations, these are the same – the latter is made with goat’s milk, the former with cows …usually.  Take 1 gallon of milk, 1 tsp salt and the juice of 1 large lemon (or 4 tablespoons of bottled).  Put milk and salt in a heavy bottomed pot and heat over medium heat until it boils, stirring regularly to prevent burning.  When bubbles form at the edges, turn off the heat, and stir in the lemon juice. The milk will begin to curdle – the when the process is complete (maybe 10 minutes)

You can also stir in pepper, garlic, jalapenos, whatever before you add the lemon juice.  Experimentation is good.

Line a fine colander with cheesecloth and pour the milk through it.   When it is through draining, pick up the cheese curds and squeeze to get rid of remaining liquid.  What’s in the cheesecloth is the cheese, the remainder is whey.  If you have a copy of Sally Fallon’s _Nourishing Traditions_ she has many, many suggestions for fun things to do with whey, or you can give it to the chickens or whatever.  Pack into a container and store in a cool place for a month.  This is *great* crumbled over a salad of greens and fresh tomatoes, or over winter greens, sliced apple and dried cranberries.  Yum!

More cheesemaking info:

Cultures, rennet, info:

Coming up next…kitchen equipment you need…and don’t.


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