By Choice, by Chance, by Design... they all Make the Grade!
By Chance, by Choice, by Design… they all make the Grade!
Tomorrow I turn 30. This time last year I was crossing my fingers we'd be using the new milking parlor by my birthday. Well, we were a week late, but it was close. Here's hoping my birthday wish for this year, starting construction on the creamery, follows the same pattern. In the interim, how about a little history about the herd. Its not quite a "How To" for starting a goat dairy, but gives insight into how some of us get here!
Who would guess the most influential experience on a UC campus would be milking goats? Dairy goats are addictive, and after being introduced to them during my freshman year as an Animal Science major I couldn’t kick the habit. Six years and two degrees later and it manifested as the Chevre Noir herd. The UC influence can be seen in the herd composition as well, with Chianti (son of Davis’ 2x National Champion Beaujolais) and Cognac (son of their Top Ten La Mancha doe Chalupa) as herd sires, and the incorporation of daughters from the universities’ Oberhasli line. Of course, in true UC Davis tradition, it also means those Oberhasli does get bred to a La Mancha buck… in a collegiate herd you aim to make the Grade (the term used to describe a crossbred dairy goat)!
After finishing my bachelors degree I moved to France to learn farmstead cheese making on a farm called Fumailles. Integral to the cheese making of Fumailles was the Poitevine, a disappearing breed, indigenous to the Poitou-Charentes. The goats are noteworthy for two distinct characteristics: aesthetically for their long black coats, and genetically for the predominance of AA and BB α s1 casein protein genotypes. AA and BB α s1 caseins are more fully incorporated into the cheese, making these goats desirable for their high cheese yield. I left Fumailles with a name for my herd, Chevre Noir (which translated means Black Goat), and a research project, identifying α s1 genotypes in the goats back home to select good cheese making animals. At the age of 23 I moved back to California to start grad school and my own herd.
Grades were the natural choice of “breed” for starting the Chevre Noir herd. Admittedly in part for the inherent uniqueness of each animal; airplane ears and giant nubbins are just plain cute. Additionally it gives me the freedom to hybridize high milk production with high milk solids, without being limited to animals of a single breed. However it also meant I could get them cheap. Redwood Hills, like many commercial dairies, tries to maintain an even annual milk supply by breeding some goats to kid out of season (fall instead of spring). For simplicity, these spring matings are frequently crosses, as spring kidding is the most hectic time of year on a goat dairy. The resulting 15 grade doelings of the 2005 fall kidding at Redwood Hills thus became the foundation of Chevre Noir. With a vinyl carport, tarps and the use of my bosses yard (as a grad student I was living in student quarters on campus) I was able to raise my first kids while finishing school.
In 2006 I graduated and began working for Redwood Hills. I relocated the herd to Sonoma County, where I broke ground on a 30’ x 30’ barn on my uncle’s property designed to allow the herd to grow as I tried to come up with a plan for starting my own creamery. Around that same time discussions began with Sarah Bennet of Navarro Vineyards about starting a farmstead creamery in Mendocino County. The herd grew from 15 to 85 over the next three years, with modifications to pens and additional sheds to shelter the increased herd. In the fall of 2009 the new dairy was far enough along to relocate the herd. I sold half the animals to Sarah, so that we were equally invested in the herd. The herd has expanded to its final size of 108 milkers here. It is still predominantly cross bred, with breeding choices based on alpha s1 genotype, structure, and milk production.