Spring Nibbles

Spring is here, sort of. This being Michigan, a common vision is a pile by the door of muck boots (or wellies), clogs, sneakers and flip flops. I’m never quite sure what to wear when I get up till I sample the chilly (or warm) air with my nose barometer (rather pointy and apt in this capacity). It is a given, that mornings are friskier than mid-day. Or, normally this is so. So I pull on my goat jeans (a might sprinkled in a day or two’s milk and dust), a long sleeved shirt and a couple sweaters – with the option of removing layers as needed. The rare morning calls for a hat and scarf, such as today, May 15th!!!

Yes, there was snow on the ground when I got up. SNOW! Then it sleeted tiny white pellets, a sprinkle of rain, and now the sun is shining gloriously. In France we would call it une journée de giboulée IMG_1004

But back to the goats. The mini-herd is currently comprised of five adult females and their nine offspring, five doelings and four bucklings. The last will be heading off to friends soon to be nourished through to fall, and then to fill their freezer. The kids came in two batches, one cluster in early April – predominantly does – and the second cluster three weeks later, on a full moon, 24 hours after an atmospheric shift to cooler, misty weather – predominantly bucks. As my dear Isabelle told me so many years ago now, generally by the end of a kidding season, you’ve nearly even numbers of girls to boys. And so it is.

Since early May the short goat walks have become long days on pasture. The pasture isn’t particularly lush or rich here – in fact a good chunk of it is on sandy land where clearly the past owners scraped up the top soil and sold it off. But there is sufficient greenery to put out two strands of flexible electric fencing, and keep them there for 6-7 hours, nourishing them enough to lower hay costs. They are moved daily.

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DSC_0167.JPGDSC_0184.JPGMoms are the best teachers for what is edible, as well as a naturally curious and sampling nature. Water is now a drinking option as well, though mother’s milk when within reach is often sought.

DSC_0158.JPGTime permitting, after a day on green grasses, a walk through the woods is in order, exploring what tempts. In this, the spring season, that list includes: young maple leaves, young beach leaves (and the smaller leafy treeish bush beneath it – reminds me of huckleberry leaves, though far taller), and ground cover plants including this one, Dutchman’s breeches. IMG_0983

IMG_1022IMG_1018There’s another single waxy green leaf they nip at in passing, pushing up through the ground beneath the firs, in the same spots where later in the summer there’ll be a lush crop of poison ivy. IMG_1013

They are avoiding these spottled trout lilies and in general the trillium blossoms (though a kid will nip a white flower or two with no ill effects). Wild leeks are only barely poking their heads up, they may or may not go for them.IMG_136720080420TrilliumTrees_730x5835645194348_f63fec694c

With freshening season now safely behind us, as well as high winter and the hard labor of barn-cleanout (3 days, 27 man hours), these once docile does are now lithe and powerful, determined and focused. They know where the grain is stored, they are most adept at slipping between legs and pushing out into the aisle when we enter to refill water buckets, etc., Winter was strenuous only in the refilling and carrying of water buckets. Spring is physical in a completely different way.

In their current temporary digs the physical systems are lacking, eg. no specific post-milking area; a make-shift kids’ pen of old pallets that requires daily tweaking.

It is time to start weaning the kids from their mothers, or at least separate them at night so a decent quantity of milk can be collected in the morning. But without the requisite structural elements, success is still a wistful concept. Amused as I am to find them happily with their moms in the morning, I sigh when I remember the care with which we’d locked them in the night before. I’m in one of those moments where I know what is needed, but must be patient with what is there.

Baby goats – theories…

DSC_0078  Well it’s spring, and that means baby animal season, and in my case, baby goats, kids. I’ve been caring for a mini-herd this year, and have relished the time and space to observe them, to test theories, and to learn.

DSC_0087Following my Provence colleagues’ recommendations on feeding regimens, we stopped graining the does during their gestation, feeding them top quality hay with a high blend of alfalfa, ample amounts of mineral-rich kelp, and a cap-full of organic cider vinegar in their water. As often as was possible through the winter, they were taken out for walks, guided to fallen oak and maple trees where they quickly dispatched the dried leaves, and to pines and firs with branches and needles within reach.

As the season progressed, and their bellies enlarged, no longer were they up on their hind legs going for the high branches. So I would bend the branches down to them. Their caretaker, their shepherd.

They were put back on a very small amount of grain – 1/2 1/2 barley and a non GMO goat blend – three weeks before they were due to freshen. Currently, they get 1 cup a day, of the blended grains and kelp.

So far, they’ve freshened without difficulty, all are healthy, coats, hooves, eyes, energy. In tip top shape. They’re not fat, but then again, I don’t seek for them to be. I want the coats sleek and shiny and their eyes clear, their step light.

DSC_0046As I was advising colleagues out East, seeking sources for their starter herd of doelings, I learned – after calling and writing to over 20 colleagues on the East Coast and in the Mid-West –  that the vast majority of those whose herds freshened in March had bucks. “It was a buck year,” they all said. They couldn’t even fill the advance orders for doelings they’d received.

Contrarily, the does I’ve been caring for, as well as does from a friend’s herd nearby, have been throwing girls. But these have all freshened in April. As of April 1st (or thereabouts), I believe there’s been a shift.

DSC_0066This convergence of events always gets me thinking about elements we don’t normally take into account in our rational/scientific world. Many herd managers, aiming to limit the intense and stressful period of kidding, do their utmost to have their does come into heat together and kid around the same time. And, in areas where winters are rough, we aim to kid in March. (Back in Provence, it was more typical to aim for a February kidding season).

To cluster births we keep the earliest born – in general, their mothers came into heat quickly, and thus, their easy fertility proven, are desirable. We also use teaser bucks – getting the hormones flowing in the does and bringing them into heat by putting a good smelly yet sterile buck in with them, before presenting them to the chosen stud. And we work with a ratio of 20 does to one buck. And divide our herds into sub groups. Light therapy, and hormone therapy are not unheard of, particularly for those working with Artificial Insemination.

DSC_0035I prefer the low tech option, simply putting the buck with the does – calculating out five months for when I could imagine being able to care for babies, when having milk makes sense, observing the best cheese sales’ periods – , leaving him with them for a couple of months, and trusting him to do his work. Colleagues back in Provence, with herds of 45 – 70 goats – would have only one buck for the older does, and a yearling for the year’s new additions. One buck can certainly work his way through a large herd, but it will take him longer, and perhaps this is desirable.

Isabelle used to tell me that by the end of kidding season, there were nearly equal numbers of doe to buck kids. Often, a season would start out dominated by one sex, and then finish up with many of the other. “Nature is perfect” she would say.

DSC_0089And so, this brings me back to my current theory. Between the “buck year” of my colleagues and my plethora of does, we had a powerful shift in lunar cycles. The full moon of Easter. And, five months ago, when all these does were bred, then too there was a shifting of lunar cycles. Before that full moon it was a dominant buck period, after it has been a dominant doe.

So, going forward? is this information/theory helpful? I believe straddling two cycles would assure a good number of does, even if it did mean extending the kidding season for the farmer. It’s time to study the moon and work with it to time breeding and kidding. I believe I’ve at least one colleague who’d be open to working on this project with me.

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Honing skills as I teach

One of the more interesting aspects of consulting is simply being in another colleague’s space, adapting to their methods and organization while sharing ideas and new possibilities. While I tweak the make sheets for the fresh bloomy rind cheeses and test out possibilities for their future blue and semi-soft washed rind cheeses I am concurrently learning more about full-time pasturing goats in the South Eastern United States.

Pasturing ruminants seems like a no-brainer, but it is actually one of the more complicated and frustrating choices a cheese-maker can make. As I look back at my teachers and colleagues in France, it is not for nothing that so many of the Provence-based goat cheese makers opted for a system “hors-sol” meaning that they permitted their goats ample time outdoors, but fed them  hay, whose quality they knew and could control, rather than pasture.

Pasture is an ever changing feed source. Depending on what you’ve planted, and your patterns of rotation on your land, your animals are pretty much getting a different diet weekly. In the early spring it is high in moisture, and quickly digested. It might then come to a peak of nutritional value when it just begins to bud, yet still has plenty of good green foliage. And then it might pass peak, and go to seed. The goats might then prefer the leaves, or seek out any tender leafy plants growing down below. Maybe there is plantain, or clover, or dandelion greens. Or maybe not. Hot days will dry the green stalks faster. Wet days will first of all cause your goats to want to hide out in shelter, wrestling and fighting for the best spots, and encourage various parasites to climb further up those stalks than their normal limit of about 4 inches from the ground (where there are water & dew droplets, there can be parasites).

There is serious skill in managing grass. And books cannot teach you everything, as each farm, each plot of soil, each year’s weather, are variables to be learned over time.

As ruminants create milk by transforming what they eat, we as cheese makers are manipulating an ever shifting primary ingredient. And, so it has been this past week. We’ve had a dramatic moment of inverting solids, when the fat content drops below the protein, and both have fallen from their brief post-kidding high. We must completely adjust the cheese make to adapt to this new reality.

Cheese making is one of those arts where you hear many a prosaic statement. “If it works, don’t change a thing;” and then, “just when it all is working smoothly, it changes overnight.”

I’m pleased to be here from the beginning of the milk season, when the solids were high, through to this point in the inversion, and on for another 5 weeks. In this way, I’m able to offer this creamery various options to manage cheese-makes through the different phases of their milk.

When I reflect back to my experience with my French advisers and consultants, they rarely stayed with me longer than three weeks. Just enough to get a plan of action with the quality of milk I had during their stay. And then, a month later, I was emailing them frantically with my shifting curd, seeking advice for how to return it to the beautiful, smooth texture of our early results.a perfect curd

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Needless to say, I’m grateful for the alacrity of their responses, and for the experience my years of cheese-making have given me. Though in Michigan, as our goats received at least half their nourishment in hay throughout the year, pasturing during the day, but compensating for most nutritional deficiencies at the  manger, the seasonal shift occurred in a less dramatic fashion than I am witnessing here.

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Meantime, some of our earlier cheese experiments are ripening. In particular a lovely cross between a Morbier and Reblochon, with ash in the middle and a beer & brine washed rind. It is now coming into its own at 5 weeks of age. The texture is softening, and there’s a lovely mouth feel. The rind has a nice balance of pungency and bite. It is aptly titled the Rowdy Gentleman.

The first batch of blues have been wrapped, the second will be wrapped today. They are bluing wonderfully. I can’t wait till they ripen further. A minimum of two months will be required for these, and perhaps more. We shall see.

Consulting, Advising, Learning

IMG_0047 A tangle of gorgeous spring blossoms catch my eye as I go out for my evening walk/run in a warm, slightly humid, and ever so lovely place. I’m a world away from the cold, snowy North. And also a world away from my two sons and my four-footed house pets. I’m ‘down South’ with a colleague, to consult and advise throughout this spring.

As I structure the abundance of cheese and goat knowledge I’ve absorbed over the years, a phrase that I’ve read and heard scrolls through my thoughts. So I looked it up (it and many variants) on Google recently,

“They can take everything from you, but they can never take what you’ve learned, they can’t take the experiences you’ve gained from living your life. Those are yours forever.”

In its original iteration, it was written by a survivor of the Holocaust and quotes extraordinary advice from his mother. But many many people have adopted this wise thought stressing the profound importance and value of education and knowledge. And, being in a position of looking forward towards new projects, the depths and riches of what I own inside myself, the power of all that I’ve collected in living a many layered and challenging life is reassuring indeed.

At this moment, I am tapping into my years of research, questioning and questing — my knowledge. And I am doing this to fulfill my role as a consultant, here to share, teach and advise a colleague.

On this exquisite spring day I’m headed to the creamery. The lab coat I wear when ladling makes it all but impossible to not feel the tenderness of my freshly sun-burned arms, a tactile reminder of my  afternoon of plunking copper boluses down the throats (and avoiding some pretty darned sharp back teeth!) of a number of this farm’s pastured herd of goats. Most of the does have freshened and there are about 80 does milking twice daily. In another two weeks we should have the full herd on the stands – including the two mothers photographed below who kidded out on pasture this morning.

IMG_0055My son Leo and I road-tripped down here to arrive on April 1st (he’s since gone back to Michigan for high school). Our descent was timed for the first cheese makes. And, now that the creamery is up and running, the first priority is to get the fresh soft cheeses out to the eagerly awaiting clients, something my colleague already does very beautifully.

As I observe and question, I see where I might suggest techniques to lower the quantity of expensive freeze-dried cultures used here. It would also be possible to adjust the measuring tools for the cheese makes and offer methods to tweak and refine.  I move slowly, not hastily. In my role as consultant, observing and listening is vitally important, equally on a level with advising.

I’m here at a key moment. They’re building a wonderful new aging structure with two large caves, due to be done soon. At which point we will gear up the development and refinement (some great experiments have already been done) of hard cheeses and blues. I look forward to assisting in the balancing and adjusting of the cave atmospheres, sharing my hard-earned knowledge and experience. Caves are complex to master — my colleagues around the world will agree — and I am here to shorten the learning curve. But, mastery is a too powerful word. I would be more apt to say dance, or collaboration. The best caves live and breath and the cheese maker learns to work with his/her caves; how best to encourage & facilitate the good, and limit the bad.

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Much lies before us, and day by day, I take notes & make lists, and see where my knowledge can be of use.

My kids’ dad used to say that his quest in life was to share his knowledge and discoveries. It is a privilege to learn & to integrate the complexities of an art such as cheese making (or in his case Provençale Cuisine).

And in sharing and teaching, I solidify my own knowledge while offering it up to an esteemed colleague.

We all win.

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