the end of an era

December 17, 2013 · 21 comments

nubian goat // Wayward Spark

I’ve come to a realization that in order to maintain a level of sanity and scheduling stability, I have to regularly let go of hobbies and commitments that take up significant amounts of time. About a year ago, I quit doing photography, writing, and social media for Gathering Together Farm (a job I really enjoyed), and in August, I passed on my role as rental coordinator at my local Grange. I though that giving up these activities would provide an abundance of free time to fill as I pleased, but unfortunately, that was not the case. With the start of the school year came drop offs and pick ups, conferences, parent club meetings, and evening programs. The cuts had to go deeper. And now…after seven years, I’m giving up the goats.

I did not come to this decision lightly. I never even considered ending my dairy run until a couple months ago. Those routines were firmly embedded in my life, in my identity. Milking is also probably the most homestead-y thing we’ve got going out here (that I’m responsible for at least), and for the most part, I really like it. But once I had the idea, once I realized how much time (and money) I could save by not milking, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I think when I first moved out here to be with Henry, I had a lot more romantic Little House in the Big Woods visions. Since then, I’ve come to my senses just a bit (except in regards to maple syrup. I have definitely not come to my senses over maple syrup.) When I started milking my first goat, Bella, I found it to be the kind of endeavor that I could really throw myself into physically and mentally. It was a challenge, and everything was new and exciting. I needed to have something other than mothering to focus on at least for a while. Milking isn’t shiny and new for me anymore, and I have a laundry list of skills and crafts I’d like to try out if I ever had any extra time. Milking has become just another chore.

Here are a few of my thoughts about the pros and cons of this decision making process:

We don’t have cow milk allergies. We’re not raw milk enthusiasts. We’re not even milk connoisseurs. We do have access to high-quality, relatively inexpensive milk available at several local grocery stores.

I do not love kidding time. The kids are adorable, of course, but the preparations and the birth itself (and the potential complications after) are stressful. Seven years in, I still don’t feel very qualified to handle some of the situations I could end up in. Learning new goat midwifery skills is interesting, but it’s certainly not fun, especially when the outcomes are bad. And bad outcomes hit me pretty hard.

Dairy animals (most livestock in general) are for folks who pretty much NEVER want or need to be away from home overnight. As a person who only RARELY wants or needs to be away from home, it’s still not a good fit. Maybe it would work if we had a neighbor that was really into goats (which we don’t), but I feel like asking someone (even Henry) to milk for me is just too much. Even if someone were willing to do it, they’d never do it just the way I wanted. Henry’s brother homestead-sits for us on occasion, and though I really appreciate it, I’m always so relieved to be home afterwards and able to put things back in order. Is this partially a problem with me being anal about my milking program? Most likely, but that’s not going to change any time soon.

I love our little goat barn, but I don’t love our “pasture” setup. First off, it’s not super convenient to get into the fenced area, and because of that minor barrier, I don’t spend as much time communing with my goats as I should. My goats also don’t have a large area to forage or run around because of the layout of our property and the fact that Henry has cool natives and ornamentals planted everywhere. This means that my goats eat dry hay almost exclusively, which is more expensive than forage and doesn’t offer the kind of seasonality in the milk that I’d like to experience.

For about six months outof the year, I spend a fair bit of time every day working on goat and dairy-centric activities. I do chores and milk every day, and I make cheese or yogurt often and wash ton of milky dishes. That said, if I were really into it, I would spend even MORE time training and grooming goats and brewing up more advanced cheeses and dairy products. I feel like after seven years, I’m only half invested time-wise. I should either go all in (several hours per day of taking my goats on walks, cutting fresh forage for them, developing different types of hard cheese, etc.), or I should get out. Because I don’t have other things in my life that I’m willing to give up for the sake of my goats and my dairying aspirations, I think the better thing to do is get out completely.

Producing our own milk is definitely more expensive than buying good milk. We spend over $500 per year on hay (and that’s big bales of clover that we have the infrastructure to handle and store instead of small batches of more expensive alfalfa) and more on grain, veterinary supplies, and barn upgrades.

The milk from one goat milked only once a day is too much for our family. We do drink and cook with milk, and we do eat a lot of cheese at home, but I also give a LOT of cheese away. My friends and family love this about me. I kinda love it, too, but when I really pencil it out, it’s hard to justify the amount of time and energy I put into it if I’m giving a good portion of the product away.

This would be a good place to say that there is no part of me that wants to (or has ever wanted to) turn my milking and cheesemaking into any kind of a businesses. That would be logistically impossible and highly unpleasant. Period. Dairying is a just a very time consuming, complicated hobby for me.

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I will probably never be able to eat fresh chévre again if I’m not making it myself. For reals. I’ve had too many people tell me that my cheese is the best they’ve ever had, and other creameries’ goat cheese is just so dang expensive that it doesn’t seem worth it. That said, I’ve probably already consumed a lifetime’s worth of goat cheese already, so maybe I don’t need any more.

I like the way telling people I have a dairy goat gives me instant street cred (of a sort). I’m no expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I like having a depth of knowledge on a subject (cheese specifically) that people are interested in but know almost nothing about. I like being an educator on the biology, chemistry, and animal husbandry of dairying.

I like milking. I like the rhythms and routines. I like that keeping goats gets me out of the house even just for a little bit every morning. I like cuddling with healthy new kids. I like the taste of my own chévre and yogurt. I’m proud of what I’ve learned and what I’ve accomplished. But there are other things that I like, too, and I have to remember that time spent on goats is time taken away from other interests and endeavors.

At this point, my biggest worries about the decision to get rid of my goats is about who and how and when. In my experience, I’ve found selling goats to be fairly difficult unless you send them off to the auction or a livestock buyer. The private market for goats is relatively small. Most folks who already have goats, have more than enough of their own goats, and if they’re going to buy new ones, they usually want particular breeding lines or registered pure breds. Bella is actually registered, and the rest of the herd are the product of her bloodlines crossed with a registered buck, but we never went to the trouble of filing papers for them. Most folks who currently don’t have goats are not looking to get goats. I’m hoping to find an individual or family that’s been thinking about getting a solid but not particularly fancy dairy goat. There are not a whole lot of individuals or families in this position, even fewer who are localish.

I am so very thankful that Henry’s already found a new home for Bella, my original doe who served me well and gave our family plenty of milk for four years. I feel like I made a commitment to her to let her live out a long retirement here on the homestead, and now I’m sort of breaking that commitment. The thing is if I’m not going to have a milking goat, I’d rather not have any goats at all, not even an old, retired pet goat. Knowing that Bella will be moving on to a good home where she’ll be cared for and loved (and not eaten), is a huge relief and lets me rest much more easily with my decision.

I still have to sell my dairy doe, Minnie, who’s bred and due to kid in late March or early April as well as her two kids from last spring, Teela and Bow. I’ll probably put up an ad on Craigslist, even though I haven’t had much luck selling goats that way before. I’ve heard about folks getting positive results from classified ads in Capital Press, a weekly western ag newspaper, so I might try there as well. Or maybe YOU need a nice dairy goat? (hint hint, nudge nudge)

I hope this isn’t the end of my dairying experience. Maybe someday when life circumstances are different I’ll get goats again, or maybe I’ll find a place to help out with a friend or neighbor’s dairy animals without having to make such a big commitment. Even if I don’t venture back into dairying, I have no regrets about this seven-year run. It’s been pretty good.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa December 18, 2013 at 2:38 am

Wow, Camille, what a lovely post. I think you capture well the crux of most homesteading endeavors: that dance of economy, health, personal satisfaction. It’s easy to say that growing your own and doing for yourself is cheaper, but that’s rarely the case in terms of pure dollars and cents, and so I think the other pieces of the equation carry so much more weight.

Even though I was never as all-in with my goats as you’ve been, so much of what you write in this post resonates with me, on a broader level. I have also been thinking so much – in the weeks since this most recent move, certainly, but really in the almost-year since we left Virginia – about the things that give us security and identity, and how uneasy or painful it can be to let them go, but about how I’m still me, even with the loss of much that I loved. And just as you say: there has been room to discover new things and connect with new people in ways I might not have been able to before. For me it doesn’t make the losses easier, exactly, but I do see that life goes on and that I am made of far more than the goats I milked or the chickens I tended or the fields I walked.

(I AM struggling with milk access here though! In NY we had access to a great dairy, much cheaper and SO much less work than producing our own milk. Here we don’t, and I’m not happy with any of the grocery store options. I don’t know anything about the living conditions of the conventional or organic dairy, and the organic stuff is UHP which I don’t like at all, and none of it is pastured. I’ve seen pastured (non-local) milk in one spot but it is, for now, way way out of our budget. Sigh. I’ve become spoiled.)

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Karen at A Glimpse Into My Reveries December 18, 2013 at 2:34 pm

UHP? What does this mean?

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Camille December 18, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Ultra High Pasteurized, I believe.

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Camille December 18, 2013 at 8:54 pm

That’s such a bummer that you can’t get good milk in NJ. I usually buy milk from the local non-organic but also non-RBGH dairy that has a pretty good reputation as far as I know. Henry also knows the guy who runs a nearby Organic Valley dairy, and he’s supposed to be a really good farmer and nice guy. I could get raw milk, but it is expensive and not necessarily what I want. There are UHP milks available in grocery stores, but there are almost always better alternatives, too.

In many ways, I feel like I’m wussing out with this decision. I’m showing people that I can’t hack it. The thing is that I have been doing it more or less successfully for a long time, and now I’m just making a decision on my own terms about what works best for us. I have weird feelings about what that decision means for my identity, but I’m willing to deal with that if it means more time to pursue other things.

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abby December 20, 2013 at 11:23 am

funny you would say wuss, because all I could think was – wow, what a tough decision that took some guts to make. It can be hard to be honest with ourselves about time / energy balance (at least for me, with the bigger, seemingly more important things that occupy my time) and let go of what’s not contributing positively anymore. The potential for what you will now be able to fit into your life is exciting!

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Roxana December 21, 2013 at 9:26 pm

What Abby said! Camille the fact that you successfully stuck with it for seven years!! That’s awesome. It has to be a tough and emotional decision. Good for you for recognizing that you are ready to move on. Sorry I missed you guys this week I was super bummed about it. Work. :/

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Nancy December 18, 2013 at 10:50 am

I have tears in my eyes reading this !

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Camille December 18, 2013 at 8:47 pm

You’re probably going to miss them more than me.

(“Nancy” is also my mom.)

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Dixiebelle December 18, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Best of luck with the transition, you’ve obviously thought hard about it. & are doing what you need to but I am sure it will still be difficult… But hopefully easy, or rather, a relief too.

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Camille December 18, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Sad but SO liberating!

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Ned December 18, 2013 at 2:40 pm

WOW! That caught me off guard. I just started following your blog a couple of weeks ago and have been going back reading older posts. I just finished reading all the goat posts yesterday so I didn’t expect this one.
As someone who has a full time job off the farm and trying to build a homestead in what is left of my day I understand. There are only so many hours in the day. It was hard when we got rid of most of our goats and our Billy. They were just scrub goats used to clear the property but it was hard to let them go. We kept 6 of the original ones to help maintain the property but there will be no more kids. That is probably the hardest part, not having them jumping and dancing around every spring. Sometimes I start to feel burnt out and I haven’t gotten to the dairy part yet. I decided to go with miniature cattle instead of goats for this part of our little homestead. Our cow should give us a calf in the next couple of months. Then I will have an even better understanding of what you are going through.
I wish you all the best in your future endeavors and thank you for sharing a small part of your life with us here.

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Camille December 18, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Dairying is a whole lot more work than just keeping livestock, but the rewards are pretty sweet, too.

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Issa Waters December 18, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Thanks for writing this. I like this kind of reflective writing about farm life, because the mental balancing of the costs and rewards of farming activities are hard to access these days. I raise pigs, sheep, and chickens, and I’ve had some interesting balancing acts going on in my mind at various times about them. I really appreciate this peek into your thoughts about your goats.

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Susan December 18, 2013 at 5:52 pm

I empathize with you completely. My father has been raising goats since I was in first grade and I am now in my forties. He has such a deep commitment to the animals that at one point he was up to 58 goats on 2 acres of land. This past month he lost 10 goats which brings him down to about 23. Monitoring the general health of the animals throughout the year as well as the added stress during kidding time is more than a full time job; he routinely gets up during the night. Although the original intent was milking the goats that soon became overwhelming and was abandoned leaving him with a herd of pets. I know that he loves his animals and parting with them is hard but caring for livestock is a full life job! You hit the nail on the head with this blog post and I commend your hard work in coming to this decision…It does not come easily.

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Camille December 18, 2013 at 9:01 pm

We have three pets (a dog and two cats), and that is plenty. I can’t imagine how having dozens of pet goats would be much fun anymore.

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Marie December 18, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Have been a follower/fan of your website for over a year. I read your update and had tears in my eyes; I can imagine how hard of a decision that was for you! You have been a good shepard! Make sure Henry hugs you extra!

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Granny Sue December 19, 2013 at 6:09 am

I have recurring urges to get another Jersey cow, and then remember being tied down, annual bouts with trying to get the cows bred, and the fact that with only two of us, why on earth do we need that much milk? I loved my goats, I loved my cows, but at this point in my life, when a gallon of milk lasts us a week, I don’t want the time commitment and money commitment involved. Your homesteading adventures are interesting because they’re common-sense–you’re not trying to be the “model” homestead, you’re living the homesteading life and that includes making practical financial decisions and finding what works best for you.

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Kira December 19, 2013 at 8:32 am

I recently started reading your blog and have so enjoyed learning about the different projects you’ve taken on, the choices that you’ve made, etc. I appreciate your honesty in this post because it hits so close to home for me — my husband and I would love to go even further into homesteading than we currently do (which is very little, with lots of big dreams) but the reality is we have two young kids, both work full-time, etc.

It seems to me that just about everyone has to try and find the balance between going all-in and making sure things make sense from a time, money, and sanity standpoint. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, and you’re right… who knows what could change in the future?

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Renee December 22, 2013 at 5:54 am

I’m sure you’ll miss the cheese and some of the antics but your reasons make perfect sense. That said, I’ll miss your stories. I’m sure many of your readers will feel the same. With that in mind, here’s an interesting goat story I just read on NPR. Amazing, really.
http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2013/12/13/250846078/whats-that-clinging-to-the-towering-wall-and-why-doesnt-it-fall-off

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Karen December 27, 2013 at 11:25 am

All good things must come to an end. You are not less committed just focused on other committments. I always enjoy reading your posts!

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Nessie December 27, 2013 at 2:24 pm

A decision I can see that was well formed and thought out. We only have two goats but the responsibility we have for them is one of the reasons we at not on holiday right now. They at also the reason that we don’t have as many trees on out property. That said they are my children’s companions and are delightful characters.
It is not easy to make big changes like these but I am sure you will feel so free that you will blossom with the next adventure. Great writing. Thank you for your story.

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