A not so raw deal
Elly Hushour may have stumbled into farming, but her dedication to the health benefits and unique flavor of raw goat milk, cheese, yogurt and meat has turned her stumble into a stride as Patches of Star Dairy continues to grow.

By Amanda Kimble-Evans

September 15, 2005: Elly Hushour was in the market for goats' milk. It was 1986, she had just given birth to her first child and she had read that goats' milk was an excellent source of nutrients for nursing mothers--superior to cows' milk by far and easier to digest. A woman who raised show goats lived nearby, and Elly approached her about making a purchase.

In a classic example of the old adage, the neighbor sent Elly home with not just a bottle of milk, but a way to milk for herself. “I just wanted milk and I wound up with a doe and two babies,” Elly recalls. And milk she did. Today, Patches of Star dairy produces 13,500 gallons of milk a year, which Elly sells direct to consumers as yogurt, soft cheeses, feta, and in its raw form, literally. As a licensed manufacturer of raw milk and raw milk products, Elly is able to supply a fast-growing niche of health-conscious customers with the pure, unadulterated food they so desire.

Patches of Star didn’t grow from one goat to 62 overnight. When Elly’s original doe passed away, she thought that was the end of her “goat phase." But, by that time, Elly was knee-deep into goat-showing.

“When I went to my first goat show, I came in dead last and I couldn’t figure out why. I learned later what I needed to do--what I needed to look for--to place. After a while, I learned to pick animals with good structure—a strong udder.”

This eye for “body” has proven useful in choosing does for milking as well. Elly says most conventional goat dairies don’t pay attention to the body of their herd. If a doe has poor structure and steps on her udder, she’s simply culled. Coming from a show background, Elly knew that a clipped, clean, well-structured animal means longevity. And longevity just makes good business sense.


Photo by Lynda Farrell

In 1999 the herd had outgrown her house. “There were babies in my bathroom, on the floor, in the tub--they were everywhere.”

So the herd grew from one to 20, despite her husband’s disbelief, and eventually outlasted that first marriage. In 1999 the herd had outgrown her house. “There were babies in my bathroom, on the floor, in the tub--they were everywhere.” She was working a 14-hour-a-day job at FedEx and milking goats in the mornings and evenings. And back then, according to Elly, goats and Pennsylvanians didn’t look at each other very favorably. “Most people were, like, ‘Goat cheese? Yuck!’”

Raw milk, on the other hand, was a black market hot ticket item. Elly was continually approached by individuals clamoring for raw goat milk for health reasons and they were often willing to purchase it “illegally.” She couldn’t argue with the market. Besides, it wasn’t that long ago she was on the hunt for goat milk herself.

In 2001, Patches of Star dairy became licensed to sell raw milk. They were working on leased property, their new barn was unfinished and the cheese room was not yet completed to spec, but bacteria and coliform counts were so low from milking parlor to finished product in three consecutive tests, the authorities had no reason not to pass Patches of Star with flying colors.

From milk to cheese

Today, Patches of Star milk is tested three times a month and Elly participates in the Dairy Herd Improvement Registry (DHIR) program, which not only ensures the quality of her product but also helps her make decisions about her herd based on the genetic profiles of the lines. A trained supervisor comes out to the farm and checks that each animal has a tag number, then watches each animal through the milking process and weighs and records her production.

A sample of each doe's milk is sent off to the processing lab, where it is tested for butterfat levels, bacteria counts, and other quality indicators. The results are forwarded to the Registry facility, which then sends Elly a report on each girl’s monthly milk production, her current potential based on past performance, and who’s meeting or not meeting expectations. Over time, the Registry can develop transmitting possibilities and forecast good breeding sequences.

Patches of Star lines have been on record for the past eight years, which amounts to much more genetic information than Elly always uses, but, she says, the program has saved her time and money in the long run. “They can tell you if you breed this goat to that goat you will get a very good or very weak animal according to the percentages. We did it by hand for a long time, but, at a point, it just gets too complex.”


Photo by Lynda Farrell

“None of my goats are wild. They all love to be handled and talked to. If I were standing in the middle of goats that weren’t handled they’d be running or acting aggressive rather than nibbling on my shirt.”

In addition to the numbers required by the DHIR program, all the goats are named according to line, which helps Elly keep each individual’s genetic character and milking performance in mind. The names also lend a fondness to the interactions between woman and beast at Patches of Star. Three does surround Elly as she stands in the stalls. One leans comfortably into her leg, another nuzzles her hand and the third decides she prefers cotton tee shirt to alfalfa hay.

“None of my goats are wild. They all love to be handled and talked to. If I were standing in the middle of goats that weren’t handled they’d be running or acting aggressive rather than nibbling on my shirt.”

But these emotional ties have a practical angle. Wild goats are difficult to herd, to treat, to milk. In a small, hands-on operation, there’s no room for wild goats. The relationship building begins a birth. The babies are separated from the mothers immediately and bottle fed. It makes the kids easier to handle as they grow older and makes the does more willing to be milked. The mothers then enter the milking schedule.

The milking parlor holds 14 animals, which can get a little chaotic at times, especially when the does were first introduced to the layout at the current location. “They were used to the old system which was pretty straightforward. In the door, up the ramp, get milked. Training them to the new system was wild. We happened to make the path from stalls to parlor more complex. After a few weeks of chaos, they figured it out and the old girls started showing the new girls how to do it.”

The milk then needs to be brought down in temperature for bottling. Patches of Star has a 200-gallon bulk tank, but they don’t produce nearly enough to fill it. Instead, they fill the tank half-full with water kept at 34ºF and float a number of 5-gallon stainless steel containers full of milk in the water. The unusual method allows them to chill the milk in less than half an hour and leaves the door open for expanding production.

The milk usually runs 2 to 3-1/2 percent butter fat, which thrills the health-conscious. “Everyone is into low-fat. When I get 6 percent, the taste is awesome, but people want the low-fat.” But it’s the 6 percent milk, Elly says, that makes the best cheese.

Patches of Star’s current line of cheeses is primarily composed of soft varieties, which Elly prefers because they offer a better milk-to-cheese conversion. “It takes a lot of milk for a little bit of cheese when you do the hard, aged varieties. And people like to use the soft cheese in everyday eating. You can replace any sour cream or cream cheese in a recipe with chèvre and it’s perfect.”

She does give a nod to hard-cheese fans with her feta. Fortunately for both soft and hard cheese aficionados, the feta doesn’t always turn out as planned. “I was supposed to be making feta. The girls had a nice 6 percent butterfat and, in seconds, my feta turned to something entirely different! More soft and creamy. Rather than throw my non-feta cheese away, we packaged it as marscapone. All the customers love it.”

To market, to market

And Elly caters to those customers. She sells at farmers’ markets in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York and by custom order at health food stores. She's currently in the process of transitioning her herd to organic, which will lend another level of specialty to her products.

“The hardest part is marketing. But when you sell to a cooperative, you have quotas. Your production might drop in the winter, but your quota doesn’t. I don’t want to be an employee of anyone.”

Elly also keeps in touch with her roots. As someone who once searched for a source of raw goat milk for health reasons, she identifies with (and sells to) the health conscious market where her raw milk and colostrum (a pre-milk product high in antibodies) are in demand. “A human can digest goat milk in 20 minutes, cows' milk takes 1 hour. You can put a new born human infant on goat milk and he/she will do fine. You can’t do that with cows' milk.”

At first glance it would seem the customers dragged Elly out of show goating and into milk and cheese. But she claims chasing those customers is her biggest challenge and selling direct was more a matter of personal standards.

“The hardest part is marketing. Most dairies in Pennsylvania sell to DairyLea, the biggest buyer in the Northeast. They don’t want to deal with the marketing, the people. But when you sell to a cooperative, you have quotas. Your production might drop in the winter, but your quota doesn’t. I don’t want to be an employee of anyone.”

Those personal standards also lead her into the goat meat business. Sending young bucks to the auction house, although standard practice for dairies, left Elly wondering if it was necessary for Patches of Star. “The auction houses don’t really take care of the babies,” says Elly. “So now I do it myself.”

Patches of Star throws an average of about 60 bucks a year. Some of those bucks will be butchered and some will be sold as breeding stock. Elly prefers to butcher around 90 pounds—somewhat smaller than standard. Despite the decreased yield per animal by butchering young, Elly has found it yields a higher quality meat.

Most of the Patches of Star meat is sold at farmers’ markets in New York, where a large immigrant population, more familiar with goat meat, resides. But in the past year or two high quality combined with an increase in goat meat consumption in the US overall have meant more sales to the general public.

As for the goats she sells as breeding stock, well, it’s back to her show goating beginnings. Elly finally figured out what to look for in an animal after a few bumps and bruises and established herself as a woman to watch on the show circuit.

She was placing very well at national shows and that didn’t go unnoticed by the buyers who often attend the shows to identify new suppliers. When the buyers found out she was bilingual, they began opening doors for her she never thought possible. She started selling breeding stock to Mexico, the Philippines and Cuba. “There was only one problem. I had 20 animals and they wanted 200.” So she became an exporter. But trying to export, show, raise four kids—“It was crazy.”

She started selling breeding stock to Mexico, the Philippines and Cuba. “There was only one problem. I had 20 animals and they wanted 200.” So she became an exporter.

Moving from show goating into production made for a better fit with her burgeoning international trade and Elly has managed to establish herself, again, as a woman to watch. Starting in 2000, she began working with an exporter who takes care of most of the leg work. She currently has interest from Vietnam and Israel in addition to her existing accounts. Unfortunately, the border closings over the last few years due to mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) have drastically reduced international trade in agricultural animals. When trade is possible, Elly insists the buyers play by her rules. In early May she was looking forward to a visit from Cuban buyers. “Cuba officials are coming here in three weeks to pick out which girls they like. But I choose which set they can pick from. I only show them the girls I’m willing to sell to them on that day.”

And the buyers respect Elly’s demands. Her participation in the Dairy Herd Improvement Registry means all her herd information is made public, and this has been very good for international business. “The buyer will pay a premium for the registration. Having that background information can mean the difference between a $100 goat and a $500 goat.”

Not only does she produce premium-quality goats, but she works with market demands to fill niches larger farms can’t. “Cuba is looking for bucks and eight-month-old does. I’m the only one with girls this time of year.”

Building a better herd

The quality of Patches of Star goats and goat products can only partly be explained by a good structured animal. How Elly manages her herd should certainly get the bulk of the credit. Going organic will mean a few changes to the current herd management plan, but Elly already incorporates a range of holistic practices that should allow her an easier transition.

She currently gives a single vaccine and says she will continue to do so as part of her herd health maintenance protocol. She’ll just have to follow a stricter quarantine policy. “It’s easier to prevent infections and prevent disease than to treat. And, you have happier animals. If one vaccine can save their lives, then it’s worth it.”

To control internal parasites, she uses garlic and apple cider vinegar and feeds her herd in trough feeders instead of on the ground. According to Elly, goats are notoriously picky eaters and won’t eat any food that falls to the floor. Once her pasture is ready, she will also be maintaining a strict rotational grazing plan.

Feed is an interesting question for Elly. “Goats are not cows and they are not sheep,” she says. “People new to goating often think they can use feed for ruminants interchangeably, but that’s not the case.” The Patches of Star girls get a grass/hay mixture in the morning to get their rumens working, grain feed during the milking process as an incentive, and another offering of grain (with baking soda, an organic mineral mix and kelp) about an hour after milking, followed by alfalfa hay. In the evenings, the girls get bean pulp filler.

For a while, Elly was buying and mixing her own feed. She worked closely with a veterinarian to develop a combination of grains that was both nutritionally and agriculturally appropriate, but was unable to continue that process when they moved to their current location. She’s gone through a number of commercial feeds that have just not given her the quality she’s expected. This year, she’s preparing to create another feed plan as part of transitioning to organic.

Elly’s rotation plan is a fairly standard four-paddock, three-week system on clover, orchard grass and alfalfa. The goats will use two, half-acre paddocks at a time and be moved to the next two after three weeks. This fall the girls will have continuous access to pasture. Since the current property is a work in progress, the paddocks are still under construction. In the meantime, Elly’s training her nine chickens to graze in the resting paddocks to reduce parasites and assist with breaking down the manure.

The field that fronts the property is planted with sunflowers, a high-protein seed that Elly says is a perfect winter feed (or anytime treat) for the herd. “Sunflower seeds have good fiber and fat and the girls just love them.” The sunflowers also make a great backdrop for customers who visit the farm--although when the flowers are mowed down in their prime it has left more than a few of those customers wondering why.

Beyond the farm

Elly’s quick to educate her buyers about the sunflower fields, though, and more. When the barn was designed on the new property, Elly made sure viewing windows were a part of the plan from the very beginning. The cheese room has been oriented to allow for a view from the “store front,” an open space with self-serve coolers stacked nose to tail with milk, yogurt and an assortment of mouthwatering cheeses. The milking parlor is visible through a span of huge windows in a hallway running down the center of the barn.

In fact, educational tours have already begun at Patches of Star Dairy, beginning with a Girl Scouts session last year and a class of local school children this summer. And every tour ends with a treat. The kids this summer were met with malted goat milk and honey chèvre on graham crackers.

Elly’s in the process of putting together a curriculum she can submit to local school board members for a semi-permanent program; one that involves both in-class education and a trip to the dairy. “Letting kids grow up not knowing agriculture is terrible. When they get here, they’re afraid. By the time they leave, they’ve had a chance to play with the babies and see there’s nothing to be afraid of. If you educate the children, they can make wise decisions when they get older.”

Last year, Elly decided to take leap and go full time with Patches of Star, and she hasn’t looked back. “I enjoy it. It’s my passion. When that baby is born and you feed it it’s first bottle, all those 14 hour days are worth it.”

THE BREEDS

There are six popular dairy goat breeds (Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian, Oberhasli, Saanen, Toggnburg) and two popular meat breeds (South African Boer, Kiko) in the US. When choosing a type of goat for a small operation, it’s not all just a matter of production. Each breed has its own personality, its own characteristics and you have to be able to work with the breed you choose.

 
Elly’s Picks


Elly with tour group.

 

Saanens: “I picked a breed according to what I like and the Saanens are it. They’re laid back, quiet, easy-going, and aren’t shaken up by anything. They’re good milkers and one of the taller breeds. We call them Gentle Giants.”

LaMancha: “My daughter loved the looks of the LaManchas so I bought one for her birthday. They’re a little bossy, but they produce milk with a nice butter fat. For people who want ice cream, it’s beautiful. We’ve got three or four in the herd now.”

South African Boer: “The Boers produce a high quality meat and they interbreed well. We bring our male Boers in to breed yearly with the Saanens. The females will be kept for breeding future meat goats and the males will be sent for processing.”