Say Cheese!

Fate occurred the other night over dinner. I looked over at the Farm Fairy, and said, “We should make cheese here soon.” Her response? “How about Tuesday?” And thus it was so. Tuesday morning began a somewhat more epic procedure than I was expecting, but it was pretty cool. A gallon and a half of fresh, raw goat milk began its journey towards pressed curdy goodness. Using a basic Monterey Jack recipe, we commenced.

Thermometers aplenty, cheese cloth (aka a juice bag from cider making and a pillow case), colanders, pots and a curd-slicing knife (aka bread knife) assembled on the counter, we set to work. Oh, yeah, and that work involved slooooooowly bringing the whole milk to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and then holding it there for a half hour. Add mesophiliac starter. And then bringing it to 90 degrees again. Then adding rennet. Then bringing it to 90 again. And again. And again.

Fortunately, my friend was employed as a microbiologist in another life, and was thus used to this type of activity. Apparently, making cheese is very similar to plating microorganisms in agar, and her infinite patience largely outweighed (out-wheyed? heyo!) my eagerness to get to the next step.

Unfortunately, my stove top is a temperamental beast, and it really, really really wants to run hot ASAP. Even though we kept checking on everything and turning it down, for some reason, 90 degrees was not what it wanted to do. It would bounce between 80 and 100, but not 90 freaking degrees.

It was okay, though. We still got curds, and it smelled pretty good. Less like cheese and more like… cottage cheese, which I gather is about the same process except with a zig instead of a zag. Most cheeses and curds are really just variations on temperature, cooking time, pressure during pressing, and ingredients added. You can see in this photo the curds separated from the whey. For a gallon and a half of milk, we got about 3 cups of curds and the rest back in whey. I began to see why cheese is so expensive!

We strained out the curds, and used – get this – my Victorio brand seed
sprouter for the press. It was perfect! There were small drain holes in the bottom of the dish, I had a glass container that was almost the exact right diameter to fit into the “press,” and there was even a whey catchment container to go underneath. Four cans of beans for a weight, and a plastic plate for weight distribution, and we had ourselves a press. Check my mad scrounging skills, yo.

After that, it was 12 hours of pressing to get the rest of the whey out and firm up the block. My setup, though ingenious, was rather precarious in nature (especially in a house as chaotic as mine) and I was glad when the Jenga Cheese Tower was no longer necessary.

Once it was done pressing, it went to the drying stage. At this point, I began to realize that we hadn’t… quite done it right. It was supposed to take up to 3 days to dry correctly, but it was pretty darn dry right out of the press. After discussing it with my friend, it turns out that we cooked it too hot, and the curds… um. Did a thing, and then they hardened. BUT. The cheese was definitely delicious. It was very mild and had a distinct Monterey Jack flavor, even though the texture was more like a Peccorino Romano or Parmesan block.

It didn’t make it to the waxing stage, if I’m being honest with you. We kept stealing slices off of it, promising to wax it the next day – but then it got to the point where I couldn’t bite down into it anymore. It was a sad day when the cheese was no longer viable as food, but such is the way of these things. It just means I’ll have to try again. Good thing I have some critters in my back yard that make milk….

An Ode to (Another) Chicken

This morning, I had to euthanize my daughter’s favorite chicken.

Also, good morning to you, too.

I’ve had to do this before with other chickens, since I’m not the best chicken veterinarian. I gather that it takes patience, attention to detail, diligence and patience – even then, it’s almost always a crapshoot. There are folks who can nurse a chicken back from the brink of death; I sure wish one of them had been here for little Lady Fluffington.

I found her underneath the walkway a couple of nights ago, wet and muddy. I had noticed that the silkie egg production had gone down, and hadn’t thought anything of it – but when I saw her huddled up, I knew I’d missed a crucial cue. I might have been able to save her if I’d started investigating when the egg count went down, but I figured it was all the snow and weather arrhythmia doing it. Silkies aren’t exactly reliable layers anyhow.

For two days, she was in the house, and I literally had to hold a little dish of water infused with electrolytes and antibiotics up to her beak for her to drink. Whatever it was took her downhill fast, and this morning I found her lying on her side, barely breathing and burning up with fever.

I had several talks with Zoe about what was happening over the last few days. “She might die,” I told her.

“It’s okay, Mama. I know you’re trying your hardest, and I’ll be sad if she dies, but I won’t be upset.” She would pat me on the shoulder, and I wondered how in the hell I ended up being the one comforted. I tried several variations on this theme, but each time, she was sad, but resolute. “I know that chickens die. It’s okay.”

Zoe is at her Nana’s house today. I took little Fluffington out to the edge of the property, apologized to her, and ended it quickly. I buried her beneath an Oregon grape plant, partially so Zoe can go say goodbye when she gets home.

Farm life is the best life, I told myself while going into my husband’s office for a hug. Best is not synonymous with easiest, though. Connection – whether to people, animals, the land, anything – will at times be painful. But a life of disconnection is far worse, because in order for me to feel this much pain about a silly little fluffball, I had to have experienced great joy with it: hatching it from an egg, watching children play with it, seeing my daughter care for it, collecting eggs, seeing it hold its own against the big birds, and giving it baths whenever it got too muddy to clean itself. Years from now, someone will remember a funny story about the little black silkie who would “bork” back at you if you called, who let children pick her up without complaint, and who would sit in your lap if you sat still long enough.

Life, especially for little chickens, is fleeting. I’m glad that hers was a good one, and that it enriched ours in the process.

Hoof Trimming

Much like yours and mine, goats’ toes require maintenance – but unlike you and me, they are unprotected from the elements, so extra care needs to be taken in making sure they’re trimmed well and often.

Unfortunately, whenever I’m trimming hooves, my hands are kind of full, and I feel a little silly asking my husband to come out and take pictures instead of working for his real job, so here’s a photo of him modeling the milk stand where the hoof trimming takes place.

Today, a gal that’s been coming out to the farm to learn about goats got to help out with trimming the hooves of our entire herd. It took two hours, but everyone got a pedicure: Abigail, Buckbuck, Sketti, Star, Hefe, Peach, Zelda, Cosmo and little Luna. That’s 36 hooves! We couldn’t find my favorite tool of all time (pictured here), so we used a set of tree pruners and a couple of different knives. There are official tools, and then there are the tools that work for you. Whatever does the job best is what you should use.

Trimming hooves isn’t hard, but there is technique to learn: what healthy hoof material looks like, side wall vs. pad, what the quick looks like, and the most important one of all – holding onto a hoof, and a knife, without stabbing yourself, while a goat is kicking repeatedly. I realize that sentence was overwrought and had lots of grammatical errors, but I feel it got the point across.

At any rate, no stabbings occurred, despite a few close calls with Sketti and Star. Luna was too tiny to fit her head into the grain bucket, so she got a pile of grain on the floor of the stand. Peach was as mellow and unperturbed as Buckbuck (seriously, you can do anything to them if there’s grain involved, even moreso than with Abigail). Cosmo… well, little boy Cosmo needed cuddles while his hooves were being trimmed. He required hugs, and pets, and a loving bosom to lay his little head upon while his delicate hooves were being done. My visitor bravely volunteered to snuggle him while I trimmed, and I deeply regret not having taken photos while he took solace in the cuddles.

I really enjoyed showing my friend how to trim hooves, and the goats are all now free from overgrowth, hoof rot, and cracked hooves. It was a definite good day.

Why Rabbits Didn’t Work For Me (And How that’s OK)

It’s incredibly difficult for me to admit I can’t do something. When I decide something should happen, it takes more effort to stop me than it does to just… help me do it right. My husband calls it being “bloody minded,” and it’s one of my defining characteristics.

However, it goes hand in hand with one of my other defining characteristics, which is… impatience. When I want something, I want it NOW, and in conjunction with the bloody mindedness? Well. Sometimes, that ends up with friends pulling up in a truck, delivering 15 rabbits while we frantically scrabble together makeshift cages for them as they’re being unloaded.

Fast forward through the winter, and I have learned more about rabbits than ever before in my life. I have learned how to sex them, how to breed them, how to do basic veterinary care, feed them, supplement that feed, clean cages, crossbreed correctly, butcher, store and prepare them.

I have also learned, however, that I definitely didn’t know the finer details of what makes an efficient setup, and in the process learned that I can spend up to an extra hour a morning on a frozen day making sure four extra pens have accessible water. I have learned that some of them are better housekeepers than others, and that some dumb bunnies poop where they’re supposed to sleep no matter what you do (and as a result, how to care for a rabbit yeast infection). I learned that even though family members are incredibly supportive of what I do, not everything that I find acceptable is to them as well. A lot of people put rabbits into the same category of animals as kitties or dogs, and the idea of eating bunnies is distasteful.

I also learned that, on a scale of poop stink, rabbits are horrible. And that meant that the weekly cleanings of their cages did not get done on a weekly basis, because the way the rabbit cages were set up meant that I was using my hands instead of a shovel – and poop at the end of a shovel is far preferable to poop in a trowel just at the end of your arm.

All of this aside, though, what it really came down to is that I wasn’t enjoying the rabbits. I had no desire to write a blog called ‘Rabbits of Our Lives,’ and I definitely didn’t go play ukulele to them on clear days when I need to practice in front of an audience. I wasn’t able to walk into their enclosure, sit down with them, and watch them interact with each other like I am with chickens and goats. In the end, that’s really what matters: you have to love the experience of farming, or you’re not going to succeed. As far as rabbits were concerned, I was failing. I mean, I kept them reasonably clean, fed and checked them twice a day, and kept them healthy, but that was the end of it. There was no joy.

So I put an ad out in one of the myriad farming groups to which I belong, and within a day, my offer of rabbits and their hutches was taken up. This last weekend we drove out to meet the couple, who took the whole kit, and we drove away empty handed. And it was really freeing. Now that the rabbits are gone, I feel a huge relief. My mornings are a joy again – the most aggravating part is waiting for the lady goats to finish their breakfasts before going back into the pen – and I am done in 20 minutes if all I’m doing is basic maintenance.

If I do rabbits again, I will be doing it very differently than I did – but I don’t really feel the need. Hubby and I have agreed to try a different approach to meat animals – namely, chickens – and so until that stops working, we’re just going to focus on the systems we have in place. And maybe get an alpaca. Or a sheep. We’ll see.

Maaaaama

There aren’t many more exciting things on a farm than baby animals. Zelda, Peach, Luna and Cosmo are all old enough to frolic together now, and there are times during the day that the traffic on the street alongside the goat pen has slowed to a crawl so everyone can take photos and video as they pass by. I’m not even joking. The babies are neighborhood celebrities, and everyone from the local schoolbus to the local police officer stop to say hello to the babies.

I’m used to it this year, but last year it sort of weirded me out. When we lived in town, it was unnerving to have people look at our property. Were they casing the joint? Did they see something they were going to complain about? Ugh. Now, though? I’m glad to see everyone enjoying the farm animals. We have little kids visiting pretty regularly, and big kids too. Baby goat snuggles are pretty much the best thing in the world when they’re small enough to hold in your arms.

All four babies are also big enough to start eating hay, so that means they’re all old enough to be separated from mama at night. The older two babies are more or less used to it by now, but… the two little ones are very put out. Last year when I separated them it darn near broke my heart to hear them crying for mama – mostly because it actually SOUNDS like they’re saying “MaaaaaaMaaaa!!” I’m telling you, it doesn’t matter what species they are, little ones can really tug on a mom’s heart strings. Here’s a photo of Zelda, who the kids have elected their tiny herd leader. She stands on the little half house inside the stall, and yells out the window at me. I’m fairly certain she was elected leader because she’s the damn loudest.

Tomorrow morning, I start milking Star again. Hopefully, this time around she won’t be my “tap dancing idiot,” as I have called her in the past. Signs don’t point to any change, though, considering that when I was checking her udder a few days ago she put both back feet into the milking bucket at the same time. That takes skill and dedication, folks.

Wish me luck. If you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll be able to tell when I’m done – the babies will be done yelling, and I will be done cussing.

In the Stillness

It snowed about 2 inches, give or take, over the course of last night. With the lights from the riding arena up the hill, it felt like 6am at 2:30am when I woke up to let my brother’s little dog out to potty. APPARENTLY, when you’re itty bitty and you are too excited to potty when you’re playing with your big dog friends, you can’t hold it all night. I found my frozen bare footprints on the back porch this morning, from when I was standing there yelling through gritted teeth for the little creep to come back inside. Something scared the bejeezus out of her, so she came running with hair standing on end. Oops.

But back to the stillness, the utter calm of a snowy morning. Kiddo isn’t  feeling too good, so I sneaked out to go milk before Ranger would wake her up. There were no footprints, no nothing. The neighbor hadn’t gotten down the hill to open his gate and say hi to the baby goats yet. Modern homes have the constant drone of electronics in them, and to go outside in the utter quiet is sort of awe-inspiring. The trees feel taller somehow, and I feel smaller. If it were a little warmer, and I didn’t have stuff to do, I would just stand there like John Travolta in that movie where brain cancer made him a genius (Phenomenon, Google informs me).

Until, of course, I go out to check on Hefe, who is out with the big boys because he’s trying to nurse off of his mama again (weaned for a whole year, he is. Super successful). We put up a child’s playhouse for him to stay in to get out of the cold and wet, and I even put some hay in the window in such a way that the waste would fall to the ground and be bedding for him. Nope. I wish I’d had my camera ready at the time, because I found the little idiot wet, cold and freezing, with snow literally iced to his horns. He hadn’t gone into the playhouse at all last night. I think he slept under the maple tree. I facepalmed when I found him, and I facepalmed again writing this. He’s such a sweet boy, but at the same time, I keep thinking “Bless his heart,” which is southern for “Good Lord, what a dummy.”  I brought him into the main pen again, and just… decided to deal with it another time. I went out to check on him again later, and he’s fine now. Still a little wet, but he’s drying off, and he’s not shivering.

The long and the short of it is that we need to build the Goat Containment Facility 2 to even start to minimize weather- and goat math-based chaos (who gets to be in with who when, like with wolves and sheep and cabbages), and that’s in the works this month. The Grumpy Farm Hand is slated to spend some vacation time digging… if it ever stops snowing. Now this isn’t the Midwest or anything, but digging holes in snow sucks no matter where you’re from. You get wet, the ground is heavy because it’s wet, and the outdoor temperatures hover right around freezing. Pretty sure fence-digging doesn’t happen in winter in North Dakota, even if it’s only a couple of inches.

He’s from Texas, by the way. The Farm Hand.

He’ll have fun.

Lest We Forget

Star is getting all the attention right now for her brand new babies, but it’s important to remember that Abigail is still being a great mommy, and a tremendous milker! I had heard that the second freshening (lactation cycle) would be more productive than the first, but man, I had no idea. Last year, Abigail was producing a quart per milking, one in the morning and one at night. Now, with one milking in the morning, she’s producing two quarts easily – this morning, two and a half! Poor lady
was waddling her way to the milk stand as fast as she could.

She’s been my best milker this whole time, patient and productive. She lets anyone milk her as long as there’s grain in front of her, even two-year-olds! It’s rather impressive. She doesn’t even mind it when her babies are at the pen gate crying for her – she knows she’ll be back in there with them soon enough. I kind of suspect she prefers to be milked by human hands than nursed on by kids; I mean, hands don’t have teeth. And when she’s milked out and put back in the pen… well, she gets her exercise running away from the hungry babies! But don’t worry. They eat hay and grain just fine now, so they’re FAR from starving.

Lil’ Big Boy

Watching Cosmo playing with his cousin Peach makes one realize that he’s a *very* big boy. His cousins are a little better than a month old, and he’s… days old. He’s so much like his daddy, Buckbuck, too: he’s slow, steady, docile and kinda… well. Slow. Not much perturbs him. He sat in the Grumpy Farmhand’s lap for 10 minutes yesterday without so much as a peep. He’s gonna be a sweet, sweet pet for the family who’s taking him.

Cute Fluffy Babies!

After the excitement of Luna’s slow start (my heart is only just now starting to beat at a normal rhythm instead of going ninety to nothing), the babies are doing what they do best: be freakin’ adorable. Seriously. The two new babies are very distinct, even moreso than Zelda and Peach, and it’s really interesting.

Abigail’s girls were tightly bonded right from the start (you can see in the photo), hardly leaving each others’ sides except for brief sessions of running and jumping – but then you would find them laying together on the ground, sunbathing or just huddled together for warmth and comfort. Star’s kids, though, are not as tightly bonded. They routinely sleep in different little houses, and don’t need to maintain close proximity like their cousins. They still play together and follow mama around, but it’s clearly not the same kind of bond as their cousins.

Luna is the more active of the two, surprisingly. She is constantly hopping, jumping, kicking and “running” as much as a three day old can manage. Cosmo, on the other hand, is much slower and steadier, and isn’t as interested in the frolicking as his sister. He is HUGE, though. He’s almost the same size as his cousins. He tries to play with them, but they’re so much nimbler and faster than he is that it’s comical. They’re trying to figure out how to play with him, too, but it sort of comes off as bullying unless you understand how goats work. Peach tries to push him into running, but he… just sort of moves along as far as she pushes him, then stops and looks at her like “What was that about?”

Star is recovering, but as the subordinate female in the herd, she doesn’t have the same access to all the food resources like Abigail. I have been feeding Star a third time during the day to make sure she gets everything she needs – she doesn’t like to eat a lot in one go, since it keeps her away from her babies too long. She is much more protective of her kids than Abigail – Abigail’s like “thanks for babysitting, human, I’m gonna go take a nap” – and Star gets nervous if she loses sight of either baby for very long. Again, I think it’s a subordinate female thing.

I realize it might seem a little “crazy goat lady” to pay so much attention to all the critters’ personalities, but it’s hard not to notice when you’re out with them at least twice a day. I’ve helped them give birth, I’ve treated them while they’re sick, I’ve played with them, fed them, groomed them, milked them – it’s a surprisingly intimate relationship. I’m excited to have Zelda grow up with me, because she’ll be the first generation of milkers who I’ve raised from birth.

I read once that dogs must consider us gods, because we are there when they’re born and there when they die of old age. I don’t know about gods, but there is something deeply profound about being there for the entire lifetime of a creature.

Sheesh, sorry, this went from ‘omg fluffy!’ to philosophical. I can’t help it, though. My heart is so full when I think about these animals, whether they’re little fluffballs or cantankerous old farts. It’s a good life, if you can get it.

THEY’RE HERE!!

After all my bitching and moaning, the babies are finally here! I took a photo of Star’s lady bits this morning, and shared it with a couple of farmer friends – and another friend who didn’t believe I had photos of a goat’s vulva, lol – and noticed that hey, it sort of meets the description the gal from the Country Living Expo gave me.

And I did my chores and went inside, because that’s how it works.

Well, then I went back outside to check on everyone later, and realized that Star wasn’t out in the sunshine with everyone else – so I looked into the stall, and sure enough, she was lying down, straining. I ran back inside, grabbed the birthing kit (antiseptic, a knife, towels, gloves, etc) and stopped just long enough in the Farm Engineer’s office to inform him of the situation and that he should “call people.”

When I got back out, Star was in the thick of it, and I noticed… a nose! And hooves! Awesome! But upon further examination, the hooves weren’t pointing the right way. They did not, in fact, belong to the baby whose nose I could see. Both kids were trying to come out simultaneously. That’s not going to end well – and after much study and research on my part, plus a lot of instructional pictures, I knew what I had to do. Don’t read this next paragraph if what I’ve told you so far has made you uncomfortable.
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I stuck my hand into Star alongside the babies, and pushed the one to which the toes belonged to the “back of the line.” I actually managed to get in almost up to my elbow, because I had to figure out who belonged to what. Star howled, because duh. I mean, I have small hands, but come on. It was all about as gross as you can imagine, but at the same time… not too bad. I was wearing gloves, after all. And I was still wearing both gloves when I pulled my hand out!
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After that, the whole thing took ten lousy minutes. Ten! A little boy and a little girl both came out hollerin’ and covered in goo. The boy (on the right in the first photo) is significantly bigger than the little girl, much like with Zelda and Peach. I did end up having to take her inside to dry all the way off, since it was so cold that she couldn’t retain body heat enough to get moving to nurse. My friend Christina and I pretty much force fed her colostrum with a soft syringe, and once the baby’s tummy was full and her fur was dry, we gave her a jacket and gave her back to mama.

That would have been the end of it, but baby girl still wasn’t nursing – older brother was getting in the way too much. So, I did what any good farm mama would do, and got down on the ground to support the baby while she nursed. Here I am, covered in goaty effluence, laying on goat poop (pebble and myconium styles!), holding up the babe so she can successfully latch onto Star. After a few minutes of her nursing, I let go – and the baby managed to do it all by herself. The ulcer that had previously been planning to move into my stomach sadly packed its bags and left when I saw baby girl strong enough to nurse. That is to say, I was quite relieved.

While the baby was in the house, Ranger did his darndest to help clean her off, which didn’t seem to perturb the baby too much. Here is mama Star, who looks SIGNIFICANTLY more comfortable now, with little baby girl “Luna” and little boy “Cosmo.” Those won’t be their names forever, unless the wonderful family who’s going to take them home in a few months happens to like those names. In the meantime, though, the little stellar goat family seems to be doing quite well. GoatWatch 2017 can finally be called off. Thank God.