One Family’s Adventure With Raising Kids
IT ALL STARTED WITH HEIDI, who captured the hearts of legions of children – including Cachell Cox. When Cachell was 11, she read the book about the five-year-old orphan who went to live with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps. She was mesmerized by the descriptions of the frolicking goats, each with a distinct personality. So when her parents Candace and Mitch told Cachell in 2011 that they were moving the family from Edmonton to Castleton and asked their daughter what it would take to get her excited about living on a farm, she said goats. They bought three Nigerian Dwarf goats and so began their goating adventures.
Nigerian Dwarf goats are a miniature breed of dairy goat originally from West Africa. Candace, an energetic 48-year-old in gumboots, chose the breed for a number of reasons. For one thing, they are small, less than two feet tall at the withers. “Our motto is that we will not have any animals that we cannot carry,” she says, laughing. They are also friendly creatures and easy to work with, ideal for so-called family milkers.
It’s a cool April day when I follow Candace and Cachell, now 17, to the barn to see the goats. Twin babies, just two weeks old, are bleating at the top of their lungs, while a third butts a hay bale. A long-legged ewe lamb nurses from her mom. Two mother cats are sleeping with their kittens, curled in a nest of straw that a broody hen made in the opposite corner of the barn. This is the busiest maternity ward I’ve seen in a long time.
Two more sheep and one more lamb, three milking goats and their three kids and two dozen or so chickens are all eagerly waiting to get outside. Candace throws open the doors to their pens and there is a stampede of fur and feathers, flapping wings and clattering hooves – a cacophony of bleating underfoot and squawking overhead. Once outside in the sun, everyone seems to have the Spring wind up their tails. The kids jump, leap and twist in wriggly bundles of pure joy. The word ‘gambol’ must have been invented to describe their antics. One of them is a nibbler: Potentilla likes to chew, and pulls on Cachell’s jeans and buttons and shoelaces, making a sweet pest of herself as Candace and I chat.
Candace grew up on a mixed farm of cattle, pigs and crops in Saskatchewan. But even though she has farming experience, goats were new to her and she had to learn how to raise them. There is a small library of goat reference books in her kitchen with titles like The Whole Goat Handbook and The Backyard Homestead. Google has also been a great resource, as has a goat-keeping neighbour, and it helps that Candace likes to hang out in feed stores where there are always people ready to offer advice.
The Coxes’ place, Mill Farm, sits on 18 acres off a winding road in Castleton. The barn is about 450 square feet. The pen is about 1,500 sq.ft. and is home to all the animals on the farm. I am about to find out you don’t need a large goat herd on a large farm to produce marvellous cheese.
The milk from Nigerian Dwarf goats has the richest butterfat content of all breeds – 6% – so the cheese is extra rich and sweet and not at all ‘goaty’.
Candace and Cachell take Fauna, a regal black-and-white beauty, to a milking stand outside the barn. Fauna was separated from her twin babies overnight so that she could be milked this morning. Normally, milking season doesn’t begin until July and lasts “until Cachell gets tired of getting up before school,” says her mother, so today’s milking is just so I can see how it’s done. Of course, goats don’t produce milk unless they’ve had a baby. Goats mature quickly and can be impregnated at about 10 weeks of age. Once the babies are eating solids, usually after a few weeks, milking begins.
The milking stand is a raised wooden platform with slats through which Fauna happily sticks her head and starts munching on goat kibble. Candace holds Fauna’s back legs while Cachell squats on a short stool and begins milking. It doesn’t look too difficult so I ask if I might try. It’s trickier than I thought, but Fauna is focused on her food and doesn’t object to my fumbling. I manage to pull a few squirts then happily turn the job over to Candace, who efficiently fills the bowl with warm, white milk in about 15 minutes. “We get faster as the season goes on and our hands get stronger,” says Candace.
Nigerian Dwarf goats can produce 1-2 quarts of milk every day, so there is no running out. In fact, it’s hard to keep up. What the family doesn’t use right away, they freeze. The frozen milk is used to feed tiny newborns, who need to be supplemented twice a day.
Back in the sunny kitchen, a green-and-white polka-dot cloth hangs above a bowl on the counter. It’s been hanging for about 15 hours, dripping whey into the bowl, the watery part of the goat’s milk that remains after the curds form. “I love hanging cheese,” says Candace. “I feel I’m connecting to the history of humankind because this hasn’t changed – cheese still has to hang.” In the summer, she hangs the cheese outside, from a tree or a clothesline, “just as they did in pioneer times.” Cachell takes the bag down, lays it on the counter and opens it. The soft, rich and very white goat’s cheese looks perfect. She carefully removes it from the cloth and puts it in a bowl, adds some non-iodized salt and gently stirs the cheese until it begins to look like – well, like goat cheese, chèvre. I don’t know why but I thought cheese-making would somehow be a lot more complicated. It’s also a lot less expensive than I imagined. The $90 they spent on the necessary microbes and coagulant has lasted two seasons. And because they sell the babies every year, the goats pretty much pay for themselves.
Candace scoops the cheese from the bowl, puts it on a sheet of parchment paper and rolls it into the familiar log shape of chèvre. She makes a few plain logs and then rolls several on a plate of dried basil from last year’s garden, coating the cheese in the fragrant herb. Out come the crackers and we dig in. The cheese is smooth and mild and absolutely delicious. The milk from Nigerian Dwarf goats has the richest butterfat content of all breeds – 6% – so the cheese is extra rich and sweet and not at all ‘goaty’.
Everything is used; nothing is wasted. They make cheese, yoghurt and soap from the milk, and all the animals are fed the whey, which is rich in protein. Candace also uses the whey in her baking because it acts like a buttermilk substitute and makes gorgeous bread and cookies. They toss the frozen cheese into lasagna and on top of pizzas all winter. What they don’t use, they give away to friends. The rewards of backyard goating are many, but one of the biggest for Candace is that it has provided precious – and priceless – mother-daughter time.
But there are challenges. “Goats get into everything,” says Candace. “They constantly challenge our fencing. When we first had the sheep, the goats broke into the feed pen and knocked over the grain bins. Then the sheep followed and ate themselves to a state of bloat. We were able to treat and save the goats and two of the sheep but we lost our prize Gotland ewe, which was upsetting and expensive.”
Thankfully, most of the mischief they get up to is funny, but Candace says it can take a while to see the humour. “We were doing renovations that required locating the utility lines on our property. When the locater came, he left the map of the lines on our front step. I walked him to his truck at the bottom of the driveway and as I came back up, a goat was standing on the step, calmly chewing the papers.”
Cachell’s childhood dream of cavorting in the meadow with adorable goats turns out to be a little grittier than she imagined. She loves them but they do need a lot of care – daily. It doesn’t matter if there’s a snowstorm or she just doesn’t feel like trudging to the barn to feed or milk or muck out their pens. “If I don’t stay on top of cleaning their pens, I have to clean the whole barn,” says Cachell. So it isn’t all fun, especially for a 17-year-old with dreams of becoming a translator at the United Nations in New York. Her mother looks at her soon-to-launch daughter, who stands tall and confident and makes a prediction: “I think she’ll end up on a little farm with animals one day.”
1 gallon of fresh goat milk
2 drops of liquid rennet dissolved in ¼ cup nonchlorinated water (Candace uses a vegetarian alternative of this coagulant and water from an artesian well on the farm)
1/8 teaspoon Mesophilic DVI MA culture
½ - 1 teaspoon non-iodized salt to taste
Yield 1¼ pound
Heavy cooking pot (large enough to hold 1 gallon of milk)
Old tea towel (Candace says not to use cheese cloth because the fibres stick in the cheese.)