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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So Much to Tell — Thank you Claudine

So much to write about. I’ve really let time get away. But then can’t I deny I’ve been hugely busy. Babies have been born, more aptly called kids. Enormous bellies and distended udders have released over 25 pounds of flesh and bone and a gallon of colostrum. Imagine carrying all that! We could nearly hear those joints creaking.

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Today’s total is 37, but there are more to come. Still four does to kid of the 28 who were bred.

But for two who’d been bred before we purchased them, our does seemed to carefully time the arrivals of their little ones to the appearance of Claudine Espigue, my very dear and supremely competent and generous goat cheese maker from Provence. For many who visited me in my last incarnation as a tour guide of culinary and wine delights in Provence, you may remember her and her wonderful cheeses. Well, she has just sold her herd and retired, in time to be able to make the trip across the Atlantic to assist and coach us as our does kidded.

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Somehow, amidst all the confusion of the fall breeding season, we were able to collect our gestation estimates and get her here all the way from St Martin de Crau just at the right time. I picked her up at the TC airport at 11pm on Sunday night and Monday at 5AM we received our first of a dozen calls to come that a kid was on his way. In fact that first one went quite well. A doe of two years birthed two beautiful bucks (one I very much want to keep for future breeding). Image

Over the next week and a few that Claudine was at my side we were called in at 3AM, midnight, 9:30pm, 7AM, noon… from our beds, from a friend’s house, from the creamery (where we’d begun to play with milk and whey). Each of our team got a chance to work with Claudine by their side. We had a few very difficult births, a couple even had sad endings (two still born boys). Yet having the experience of a life-time and the calm presence and great humor of Claudine alongside us  transformed those moments from terrifying to profound learning.

With the help of some dear friends who invited us over, her time here was not only work – Claudine is now quite convinced that Michigan harbors some superb cooks, fantastic local cuisine, beautiful homes and pretty darn good wines. She’s discovered the joys of Muck boots, walking atop an iced over beach, jeep rides along a snowy bluff, and daily snow storms. Her cooking lit up my home and warmed our tummies. Where did she get all that energy to cook when I was perpetually pooped from all those short nights?

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It is now two weeks since she returned to a far warmer corner of this world (and far greener, no doubt she’s eating asparagus and strawberries as I write this!). From fifteen kids at her departure the number has more than doubled. Each member of the team has had his or her moment of glory and we’ve a pen full of the most beautiful kids as proof.

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With the kids comes milking the does. And with the milk of the does comes making cheese. And with the kids comes the need to feed them on a punctual and regular basis. And with all this comes lots of things to keep clean, be they swept, shoveled, power-washed or scrubbed. And with that making of cheese comes cleaning molds and pasteurizing and washing and turning and flipping and tweaking all those wonderful cheese caves we’ve put in our creamery. Image

Thank you Claudine for helping me inaugurate our creamery with your cheese skills and flavors. And thank you to so many for this very very full and fruitful kidding season. It is our first with our full herd together, our new team in place, and our building pretty much ready to roll. Onward and upward.

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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Kids and more kids

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Goats are funny and wonderful animals. They learn very very quickly. And amongst the things they can learn is to rely heavily upon their herdsmen. If you give too much, if you’re too present, if you’re too helpful… they’ll get into the habit of letting you do all the work. You occasionally get a doe mom who just stops pushing, waiting for someone to help her put that kid into this world. So, you need to be there, yet resist the urge to intervene. But when you’ve a doe who’s done all the hard work of getting a kid’s head out of her and then she just stops to rest, but keeps moving around, even possibly hitting that head agains the wall of her box….. Well, we do just jump in and help out then, holding her still, and getting that little one out of her and under her nose so she can clean it off and show it some love.

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Clearly our feeding regimen and many sunny winter walks with the goats has paid off. They are in top health, even after this terribly long winter being mostly indoors with pasture time still off in the distance. Oh there are a couple with a bit of scraggly hair and some rough patches on their backs. But nothing that some spring sunshine and fresh browse outside won’t cure quickly enough. Now, if only winter would finally cease and permit some greenery to appear…

 

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I do love being around our does and their little kids. This is a time when the does are particularly affectionate and quick to nuzzle and come up for a scratch on the head. The kids play, leap, climb and tumble, often atop their mom’s who lounge patiently on the straw. We’ve left the kids with their moms for these first couple of weeks and so we get the crazy sight of multiple kids going after the teats of one of the more patient does. They still do prefer their moms, but you get the feeling that some does just have a bit more maternal instinct than others, and the kids sense it. Depending on when you look into the barn, you’ll catch them in one of four stages : going after a teat, napping in clusters and piles of kids, standing on their hind legs to reach the hay in the feeder, or climbing/leaping/playing. But then again, those are the four stages of many a life, no?

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Kids in the barn means milk in the creamery. Our new milking stands are getting a workout. It took the design skills of 5 of us, tweaking, brainstorming, testing, to get to the final set up. But it works like a charm. The goats have learned to manage it very quickly. They still want to go backwards on occasion (as they did last year), but that’s manageable. Milking is now a vastly more efficient act. IMG_3632

Our first cheeses are rolling out – literally logs and rounds and tubs. Smooth, creamy, lovely. I love this time of the year when it’s all just ramping up, one step at a time.

 

Ready for those kids to come

This time last year was many things : a time of hurriedly getting our kidding supplies ordered, testing out our new milking stand with hugely pregnant goats (recommended by many books, but not particularly easy to accomplish when you’ve humongously pregnant goats more akin to young cows than “goat size”); pushing the many workmen still on site to please!!!! get the creamery ready for the milk to come, ditto the caves; the snow fell thick and deep through to the end of March, but somehow nothing like this year.

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