Respecting the individual ... goat, that is
California goat dairy Redwood Hill proves you can increase herd size without sacrificing management standards. The first of two parts on this successful goat cheese operation.

By: Lisa M. Hamilton

Farm at a glance:
Jennifer Bice
Redwood Hill Farm

Size: 10 acres

Location: near Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, Calif.

Summary of operation: 400 head of Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian, Saanen and Toggenburg breeds. Marketing chevre, feta, cheddars, specialty cheeses, yogurts, and breeding stock throughout the US.

 

Editor's Note:

Our West Coast-based freelancer Lisa M. Hamilton is back from Japan, where she did a series for us on Shumei Natural Agriculture, and reporting again on the many faces of sustainable and alternative farming in California. Recently she filed a pair of stories investigating the rising popularity of goat cheese in the US market. Up first: the management philosophy of Jennifer Bice at Redwood Hill Farm, one of the earliest and most successful goat cheese makers in the state. Next: marketing insights from Bice at Redwood Hill, and from newcomer Ginger Olsen, maker of Capricious Cheese at MyTime Ranch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"We could cut costs right and left and have a cheaper product, but I wouldn’t want to be doing that—I wouldn’t want to be in business.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"We got two of every animal, but goats were what stuck."

'Till they get their fill: At Redwood Hill, hay is served "free-choice". The type of hay varies depending on the animals' seasonal nutritional needs.

The first thing anyone will tell you about Jennifer Bice is that she knows all 400 of her goats by name. Unfortunately, it’s also usually the last thing they say about her animal husbandry, which makes for the misleading impression that she might also sit on a three-legged stool and milk the goats by hand, or perhaps skip among them while wearing some cute European costume and playing a flute.

"Every dairy
animal should have a name.
They deserve it."

I already knew that was wrong, but it seems particularly inaccurate now, as I stand in the adorable-looking red barn watching a procedure that goes something like this: farm manager Marty Holzhauser sticks a Pyrex tube as wide as a quarter into the back end of a goat named Amicale. (“It’s a French name,” he tells me.) He hangs a skinny flashlight inside the glass tube, inserts a thinner tube into her cervix, and through it pushes in a vial of semen frozen back in December 1990. The semen is from Willow Run Armand, a buck from Ohio who sired three grand champion daughters before he died four years ago.

Marty explains that Amicale is “genetically important” to the purebred herd, and that’s why she is being bred “strategically,” i.e. artificially. If she knows it, though, she isn’t letting on. Although the experience makes her jerk her head a bit, she doesn’t wriggle or kick, but just chomps at the grain bribe she was given to lure her into the stanchion.

As Marty makes notations in a log book, I comment that this isn’t the kind of individual attention one would imagine from people who name their goats things like Iris and Chlöe. “That’s true,” he says, looking up to address me intently. “But still I do it with true affection and respect. I mean, I remember her great-great grandmother. I know these goats well.”

Local success, international appeal

Looking on is Plamen Stoyanov, one of six international students who fill out the work force at Redwood Hill. He comes from Bulgaria, where his family has a small farm and raises a few goats. He says that arrangement is standard there; even in Stara Zagora, the city where he studies veterinary science, people return to their villages on weekends to make food for the upcoming week.

Crazy summers: Jennifer Bice, Marty Holzhauser, and the 2002 Redwood Hill Farm interns (photo by Sharon Bice).

And yet what he’s here to study is not modern American husbandry—he already knows how to artificially inseminate a cow. He is here to learn cheesemaking. Now, his grandmother could show him how to make cheese; she has done it her whole life, without recipes or thermometers. (“She just knows when to add things.”) Furthermore, Redwood Hill’s recipes wouldn’t fly back in Sofiya, where mold-ripening is unpopular. What Plamen hopes to learn here is how to make cheese not just for the family, but, as he says, “so that you can earn.”

It’s no wonder the farm attracts students like Plamen, who care about growing a modern business but come from Bulgaria, Thailand, and other countries that retain strong traditions of small-scale agriculture. Redwood Hill makes sense to them because its success lies in having transferred the values of a family-style farm to a thriving, commercial operation. It all began in 1968, when Jennifer’s parents moved the family from Los Angeles to the then-boondocks of Sonoma County, California.

“We got two of every animal, but goats were what stuck,” Jennifer told me in her office, where the wood paneling is nearly covered over with paintings and posters of goats, many of them hers. “They’re friendly, they have personalities. Some people even housebreak them, but I figure I can see them out every window of the house, and that’s enough.”

Her father raised a herd whose milk he bottled and sold. He also started a goat program in the local 4-H, and in it Jennifer learned about raising animals conscientiously. When she and her late husband took over the farm, in 1978, that ethic continued.

“I always say we’re like overgrown 4-Hers,” Jennifer said. “When you’re in 4-H you only have a couple of animals so everything is done to the nth degree. A lot of dairies you go to the animals aren’t purebred, they don’t know one goat from another, they don’t give them the full vet care. We trim their hooves, we vaccinate them, we give them the ultimate feed. Being raised in 4-H and doing everything to the nth degree—that’s how I like it done.”

Challenging factory-farm methods—and assumptions

Until recently, American farmers considered goats “poor man’s cows”, not modern agricultural animals. With little market for their products, there was no reason to commodify them in the way poultry, cattle, and others livestock had been. But with mounting demand—for milk, from the natural foods movement of the 1970s, and now for cheese, from the gourmets of the last two decades—goats are increasingly being raised in conditions that suggest a factory more than a farm.

"People who abuse animals aren’t in the industry long."

The details are familiar: herds of 1000 or 2000 animals; inadequate space; living quarters with no hint of the animals’ natural environment. Instead of premium feed, goats are given food industry scraps, low-quality hay, or an overload of cheap grains. It’s a vicious cycle: because of neglect, the animals suffer poor health; poor health reduces their productivity; reduced productivity requires volume to increase profits; increased volume means greater neglect.

The majority of goat herds in the United States number just 30 to 50 animals, but most are raised for breeding and showing. Because it takes about ten goats to produce as much milk as one cow, their milk production is too small to be more than a by-product. Selling the milk might work in a place where traditions of small-scale food production remain, but in the U.S. it would be unprofitable.

Jennifer admits she would rather have only 50 goats in the herd, but to break even, there must be volume. And so she has increased her numbers—but without sacrificing that basic 4-H ethic.

“A lot of commercial people say ‘I have to cut corners or I won’t make any money.’ We could cut costs right and left and have a cheaper product, but I wouldn’t want to be doing that—I wouldn’t want to be in business.”

Instead, Redwood Hill has stepped outside the seemingly fixed equation that sees profit as constantly threatened by costs. Oddly, this was possible because of the initial lack of interest: Because goat milk has never been a big commodity, there are no subsidies or lobbying groups determining prices, no outlets where farms can dump off lots of cheap product. Americans are all but born with an expectation that cows' milk should be inexpensive, but nobody has preconceived notions of what goat products should cost. So Jennifer was able to set her own standards, and then set her price to reflect how much those standards cost.

Top-quality feed, careful breeding and sensitive handling

Foriegn exchange : Young people from around the world, like Plamen Stoyanov, above, flock to the farm to learn. Many from regions where small-scale farming is still a respected way of life.

To begin with, she doesn’t skimp on food. It’s always the best available, and organic when possible. The daily staple is high-protein alfalfa, but what each goat eats varies constantly. Most months there is lima bean hay, which with its mature beans and full beanstalks resembles the goats’ fibrous wild diet. In the searing Sonoma summer, though, when fiber makes the goats too hot, they switch to red oat hay.

All the hay is served “free choice,” which means it’s available around the clock in the barn, in the yard, and scattered about so even the meek ones get their fill. Grain, on the other hand, is monitored closely. Milkers might eat it for 30 percent of their diet so they don’t draw on their body’s reserves for heavy lactation. Kids get some as they grow, but the “teenagers”—caprine heifers—get none until the last few weeks of pregnancy.

Breeding is similarly monitored. Some does are “strategically” mated, but most just spend an afternoon in a private stall with one of the farm’s many thick-nosed, pure-bred bucks. The pairing happens when Marty thinks it’s time, but he can only guess. I saw him bring Anagram in to join a buck named Cherrypines Stand Out, but after maybe 30 seconds of the doe giving the buck the cold shoulder, Marty pulled her out. “She isn’t ready,” he said, then bent down and used the opportunity to trim the disappointed buck’s hooves.

This selective mating means Jennifer and Marty know the lineage behind each kid, all the way out to its great-grandparents—a control most farms don’t bother with. Pure breeding offers a basic quality control, guaranteeing that the herd is made up of superior goats. Most of the herd could compete in formal contests, and many have done so and won.

There is also a practical reason for the tight control over breeding, and that is Caprine Arthritic Encephalitis (CAE). The virus, which drags on the animal’s immune system and shortens its life expectancy by perhaps half, is a plague among modern goat herds—a recent study estimated 80 percent of the world’s goats have the debilitating disease. Redwood Hill has all but eliminated it.

The meticulous care shown in breeding resumes after the kids are born. Again, to prevent CAE, newborns are not allowed to nurse directly from their mothers. The does’ teats are taped, and the kids’ first meal is a bottle of colostrum that has been heated to kill the virus. Bottle-feeding takes a lot of precious time, but Jennifer thinks the attention it provides is critical. “It keeps us very aware of the animals’ health,” she said. “Only our best employees get to feed the goats, because if you don’t see something at one feeding, the animal can die by the next.”

Kids eventually graduate to pasteurized milk, which they suck out of a white bucket with black, rubber nipples sticking through its sides—a sort of alien doe. Jennifer saw something similar in a catalog for sheep, and now makes them by hand for her herd.

“Others would have them drink straight from a trough or a bucket. We did that initially, but the goats didn’t have the sucking reflex: they would slurp up the milk and then go around all day sucking at the air. They turned out fine, but it seemed not very natural.”

This sense of what seems right or not is often the basis for decisions at Redwood Hill. They once kept the bucks in small, separate stalls, but it seemed unfair. That’s the standard industry arrangement, the argument being that individuals kept just for breeding don’t warrant extra space, but bucks put in larger, group pens will fight. Jennifer figured out that if she introduced the bucks to one another outside of breeding season, they had no reason to fight. By the time breeding season arrives, they are comfortable enough that they direct their instincts across the fence to the does.

As Marty worked his way through trimming all the bucks’ hooves that afternoon, he put it to me plainly: “People who abuse animals aren’t in the industry long.” Whether it’s trimming 1600 hooves every two months or separating the does into two herds so the line to the milking parlor is shorter, the details at Redwood Hill mean the goats breathe easier, live longer, and ultimately produce more. While larger goat farms might yield two quarts of milk per animal daily, Jennifer gets four to eight. While most dairy goats live four or five years, Redwood Hill goats regularly make it to ten.

In fact, a particularly beloved goat once made it to 14 years, Marty tells me. Her name was GCH Redwood Hills Oracle Sonrisa. The “GCH” denoted her status as a permanent champion from having won so many shows; Marty called her just Sonrisa—Spanish for “smile.”

Toward the end, Sonrisa was picked on too much to stay in the pasture, and so she lived in the open space around the barns and along the driveway. Being rather senile, twice she wandered down the road and was returned by neighbors, but mostly she just wandered around with the pet dogs.

Telling me this, Marty’s voice gets soft and his expression loosens. His eyes drift off across the driveway as he talks about her final disappearance, and I think of what he told me moments ago. “Every dairy animal should have a name,” he said. “They deserve it.”