The ladies line up twice a day at the Avalanche Cheese Company's dairy goat farm, anxious to munch on grain while providing milk for such artisan cheeses as chevre, "Lamborn Bloomers" and "Midnight Blue." Each doe has its own personality, and a name — Angelina, Quandry, Quinoa and her sister Ginger, Rose, and Arroyo, the queen of the herd.
"These girls make good cheese," said Bob Isaacson, a two-year veteran dairy and field manager for Avalanche.
The Avalanche dairy, located on the north edge of Bone Mesa near Paonia, has produced milk for cheese since 2008. With the exception of a few purebreds, the goats are a cross between Alpines, Saanens and Nubians, all selected for their production capacity and milk quality. Milk is shipped daily to the company's creamery in Basalt.
Owner, cheese maker and restaurateur Wendy Mitchell came into the business after learning the fine art of cheese-making in Scotland. Mitchell, who lives in Aspen, wanted to keep the creamery in Basalt, but needed a good supply of goat's milk. Unable to afford farmland in the Roaring Fork Valley, she purchased the land outside Paonia and started the dairy. "It's a very complicated business model," said Mitchell, and it has made for some interesting challenges.
Mitchell grew up in the city and suddenly found herself immersed in a totally new world. One of the biggest surprises, she said, was the goats themselves. ""I just can't believe how great the goats are," she said. They're so sweet and personable. "I didn't know that going in."
Now that she's established a goat herd, a great market for her cheeses and a solid staff at both operations, Mitchell is investing resources into creating a completely organic and sustainable dairy. "That's what we're striving for now," said Mitchell, who seeks to honor each facet of her business, including workers. "I feel we are custodians of the land and the animals."
The dairy started with 48 milk goats and has grown to 130 this year, with a goal of 200. So far, not many complaints from neighbors, said Isaacson. A chef by trade, he didn't know much about goats in the beginning, but he did have cheese-making experience. Today he's comfortable discussing everything from which grains make the milk taste best to animal first aid.
Kidding time, which starts in late winter, is the busiest season, said Isaacson. That's when milking begins and when the kids need regular feeding, an almost constant job that requires six seasonal workers. "It's also the most fun time, because you have baby goats everywhere. They're so cute and you're watching all these births, which is so amazing."
The kids feed solely on milkfor about a week, then are introduced to water and solid foods, although they remain on milk for several weeks. The last 34 were weaned recently, said Isaacson, which means one less time-consuming chore. Next spring, the dairy plans on about 200 new kids.
The does get milked twice a day. "They're so happy to come in because they get grain," said Isaacson. They're fed about three pounds a day, or roughly a pound for every three pounds of milk produced. They consume a ton of grain every five to six days. "But, you know, they like it. That's their favorite part of the day, eating the grain."
Goats are orderly animals, and milking order is established in the first weeks after kidding. Each doe knows where she belongs in the parlor, and can get very upset if out of order. "The first couple of days or weeks after they kid, it's chaos in the milk room," said Isaacson.
Some struggle in the beginning, like the one gal that milking parlor operator Cory Obert said would lie down once in her stall. "She seemed like a lost cause," said Obert, "but eventually, she snapped out of it and now she's great."
Once in the stall, their identifying number is entered into a computer system that tracks production. The system, which is new this year, helps identify the best producers and breeders.
The goats are milked mechanically, 24 at a time, though they don't seem to mind. The milk goes directly into a vacuum tank, where it's chilled to about 50-60 degrees through a radiator system using underground cistern-stored water. From there, it goes into a holding tank and is cooled to 38 degrees before it is pumped into a transfer tank in a horse trailer and driven daily to the creamery.
"The whole system gets sanitized every day, twice a day," said Isaacson. "As much as we use it, it's a pretty clean operation."
The dairy currently produces about 140 gallons per day. Peak production is reached about 60 days after kidding and tapers off as the summer goes on, explained Isaacson. Milking ceases sometime in December. "When we dry them off, they're ready to be dried off, for the most part," said Isaacson, although some goats are hesitant to give up their grain. By that time, the does are pregnant and need to put energy into making babies, "and we want them to stop milking for the same reason."
Dairy goats are worked pretty hard, said Isaacson, and have a life expectancy of about 12 years. As the goats get older, they are retired. "Most dairy farms would probably cull old milkers, take them to the sale barn or something," said Isaacson, "but so far, the farm has plenty of room for them."
During the dry winter months, fresh cheeses like the chevre disappear, but the aged products like cheddar and blue remain available, said Mitchell. With work at a slowdown, energy is focused on maintenance and special projects.
Isaacson admits that there's still much to learn about the operation, and about the goats, which are notorious for finding escape routes. "Thankfully it doesn't happen very often... They get into the alfalfa field and you're in trouble, which is usually what they get into," he said with a laugh.
Since about 400 goats now live at the dairy, herd management is a big part of the operation. In order to keep fields healthy and parasites down, goats pasture an area for between three to six days, then move to another location. After they move, one of three pivot systems waters the field, and the ground is allowed time to recover.
To keep costs and shipping down and increase sustainability, the dairy is working on a plan to produce all of its own grain and feed. The goal is to have healthy fields and reduce the import of feed to zero.
To reduce the need for water, a waste-water system is being designed that will return the water used to clean the milking parlor onto the fields. Paonia architect Bob McHugh, who designed the farm's loafing shed and the interior of the milking parlor, is assisting with the project. The milking area must be washed down twice daily, which requires 750 gallons of water, said McHugh. That water, which is solar heated, will eventually be reclaimed and applied to the fields.
"There's a lot of good stuff in that water, a lot of minerals," said facilities manager Gene Wallace.
To further reduce the need for water, the dairy also uses soil-building techniques, and homemade compost is applied to the fields.
Mitchell isn't content to remain stagnant. She's planning some new products, including link sausage made of pork and goat meat, and cured meats, for which Mitchell said there is a growing market. To ensure quality, the dairy is raising Gloucester Old Spots, a heritage breed of pig known for its high fat content and quality of meat. "We're raising the pigs ourselves," said Mitchell. "That way we know the quality is good and the animals are treated well."
The dairy currently employs three salaried and seven hourly workers, and another six workers are brought in for kidding and feeding. In this time of high unemployment, the jobs are a welcome relief for the area. "I think it's kind of neat that Wendy provides all those jobs," said Wallace as he passed a field of young bucks. "I'd like to see more of that."blog comments powered by Disqus