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.
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.