It all started with a book about food storage. One short chapter explained how to read food labels and identify ingredients. A helping of arsenic and bugs anyone?
The book changed our life. We read food labels in detail, we bought more organic and natural foods, and then moved to the country in North Florida to grow our own — beyond organic — food. A few months later, my husband uttered this fateful sentence: “Honey, what would you say if we had a cow for our own milk?”After researching cows, cost and feed requirements, this turned to: “Honey, what would you say if we had a goat for our own milk?”
We researched dairy goats and found a dairy goat farm an hour away. We visited the farm to look at the goats and learn something about goats. We knew nothing about goats. We liked these funny, floppy-eared Nubian goats, and we liked the owner. This didn’t seem so hard. We went back home, fenced a pasture and built a goat pen with a shelter. Then, we called the goat farm and told the owner that we were ready to buy two dairy goats. We came home with three.
One of the goats, a pretty Nubian named Valentine, was pregnant, and delivered a buckling not too long after. We were a bit worried (ok, panicked), but it turned out just fine. We bought another baby goat as company for our baby goat and now had four goats. We loved the milk. We discovered that we loved the goats. We learned how to milk. We milked on a milk stand in the corner of my husband’s workshop.
Dairy Goat Setbacks
We had some beginner mishaps with the goats that ended badly for the goats, including azalea poisoning in one goat and bloat in another from getting into chicken food. We were so heartbroken, we almost got out of goats before we even started. We learned a lot about keeping dairy goats in those first few months (and much more since). It was a learning curve too steep to be repeated willingly, but which has saved many other goats’ lives since.
Because we loved the milk, we decided to buy one more dairy goat — we came home with four more. That is a story for another time. We had a lot of milk. We learned how to make soft goat cheese. We went to buy a buckling for breeding and came home with five more goats. Another story again. We built three more milking stands, we moved out of the corner of the workshop as we needed more space for milking. We had a lot of milk. We learned how to make soap. We shared the milk and cheese and soap with friends and neighbors. We built more pens and cross-fenced more pastures. We had baby goats. We fenced and cross-fenced more pastures and built more shelters.
When we needed more help, we became a Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) host farm, hosting interns for anywhere from four weeks to six months to help us run the farm and teach them (sometimes they knew more than we did) how to run a farm with all the ups and downs. We learned to grow our own vegetables. We learned to do our own routine vaccinations and animal care with the help of our vet and continue to this day to learn about goats.
Making Dairy Goats Profitable
We built another milking stand. We attended more classes on making cheese and soap. We went to our first farmers market in December of 2010. We sold out. We started going to more farmer’s markets. We made more products. Now, after five years with dairy goats, we have 80 acres, 58 dairy goats, and have taken over the workshop (did I mention it is 60 x 40 feet?) with 8 milking stands, a closed-in dairy kitchen, and a 1,200-square-foot area for making soap. We go to farmers markets every week with milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs and soap. We have a newsletter, a website and we have just expanded into natural body care. Our products are in two local stores and one national store. We are Animal Welfare Approved Certified, a confirmation of our sustainable practices.
All of our decisions on goat-keeping and farming are made after lots of research, but not less often by the seats of our pants. After bottle-raising the first baby, we decided to let the mother goats raise the babies as nature intended. We do not pasteurize our milk, we are a raw goat’s milk dairy. We label and sell our products per Florida guidelines as “pet food ingredient only – not for human consumption.” We minimize the use of antibiotics and chemicals, but we vaccinate, we worm with regular wormers, and we treat sick animals.
We have a loyal and growing customer base. We couldn’t have imagined five years ago when we only wanted milk for ourselves the place we would be at now with our dairy goat operation. Our goals now are to become financially sustainable and to expand the teaching aspect of the farm so we can teach young people willing to learn how to run and operate a farm. We hope to teach returning military how to become farmers (as part of the Arms to Farms Program) and just teach people the value of natural food and a healthy lifestyle. We also need to build a new workshop for my husband. Are we crazy? You bet. Are we happy? You bet. And we still LOVE the milk and LOVE the goats.
Julia Shewchuk owns and operates Serenity Acres Farm on 80 acres in Florida. Serenity Acres runs on solar, is Animal Welfare Approved-certified, houses anywhere from four and eight WWOOFers and interns, and is the home to a small herd of dairy goats, 11 Black Angus cattle, 100 laying hens, 3 horses, 2 cats, 5 house dogs, 8 livestock guardian dogs, and 2 ducks. Read all of Julia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.