No Kidding Around
I've had a thing for goats for as long as I can remember.
They’re smarter and have better personalities than cows, and their milk makes some of the best cheese around. When I was growing up in rural Hawaii, our neighbors raised a small herd of goats. I loved watching the animals graze their way through the jungle that saddled our driveway, and we’d buy fresh milk when there was extra.
In recent years, I’ve been hearing about local families raising a couple of goats in their backyards. As a big urban homesteading enthusiast, I’ve wondered about the possibility of trying it myself. The only reason I haven’t is simple: I’m a renter. When I become a home owner, though, I’ll bypass backyard chickens entirely and skip straight to goats.
In the meantime, I figured I’d visit Heidi Kooy’s Itty Bitty Farm in the Excelsior District to find out what it takes to care for these four-legged friends. Heidi is the only goat keeper I’ve heard of in San Francisco, aside from a guy in Noe Valley who likes to walk a tiny pigmy goat around like a pet. (Oakland is a different story. There’s apparently a nice little community of goat owners there.)
From the outside, Heidi’s house looks like all the other modest two-story homes on her block. As I ring the doorbell, I wonder if I’m in the right place. But then I notice the late-season tomato plants crawling over the exterior stairwell. Heidi buzzes me in and we head out into the backyard.
In two minutes flat, I have yard envy. The terraced earth is rambling and muddy, but it also has everything I could dream of. There are raised garden beds, a combined goat and chicken pen, and an open roaming area for the animals. We go down a set of haphazard stairs to the pen, and she lets all four goats out at once – Lucy and Ethel, two full-grown Nigerian Dwarf goats, and Lucy’s two-month-old kids, Fred and Ginger.
They wiggle free and start munching on the leaves that have fallen off the nearby loquat tree. Fred and Ginger are especially curious, and they nuzzle in for a petting like dogs. I indulge their request and soon Fred is butting his head against my legs, my boots, and every other surface he can reach.
We sit down next to a new pile of alfalfa hay and the goats alternate between snacking and interacting with us. As Heidi tells me what it’s like to raise them, I attempt taking notes, but soon the kids are trying to eat the pages of my notebook. Fred then nibbles at my belt and Ginger keeps going for Heidi’s hair. Nearly an hour passes this way and I never want to leave.
My idealism is dampened some by the details Heidi recounts. She’s had to put a fence around everything green in the yard, for instance, and there isn’t a speck of grass in sight. One tiny mandarin tree has been eaten within an inch of its life, and she points to a spot where a grapevine used to be before goats ate it down to the roots.
On top of that, these animals aren’t cheap. Heidi keeps the yard stocked with bales of alfalfa, grazes them on the neighbor’s weeds, and feeds them a supplemental grain mix. Now that Lucy has kidded, Heidi gets around three cups of milk out of the deal every day. And while it’s great not having to buy milk or cheese, financially Heidi’s probably breaking even.
Goats also require your attention several times a day. The milking takes around 30 minutes every morning. Feeding them and keeping their pen clean and dry can also be a chore, especially in winter.
Lucy will give milk for eight to 10 months after kidding, and Heidi will soon send Ethel off to another farm with a billy goat for a monthlong “romantic getaway,” so she’ll get pregnant, kid, and start giving milk as well. All in all, it’s a lot of work, and goats can live to be anywhere from 10 to 15 years old, so it’s not the kind of setup that allows for occasional days off. When Heidi and her family go out of town, they have to bring in a farm sitter.
Goat ownership also calls for a serious level of comfort with mud and muck. The pen at Itty Bitty Farm gets cleaned twice a year and Heidi collects the old manure and hay into a giant compost pile. And if a doe, or lady goat, gives birth, chances are high she’ll need help. (“That part wasn’t too bad,” recalls Heidi. “I just had to put my first two fingers in a few inches and they popped right out.”) Another important piece of the puzzle is cooperative neighbors. Luckily, Heidi’s originate from other countries where urban livestock is much more common. Of course, in some scenarios less tolerant neighbors can be bought with occasional farm products like eggs and milk.
Just when I have Goat Theory 101 down, Heidi makes a proposal. “You wanna see what owning a goat is really like?” she asks. “Come over at 7:30 a.m. and you can milk Lucy.”
One day the following week, we make good on our plan. I wake up before dawn and make another trek out to the farm. When I arrive, Heidi’s daughter is pouring fresh goat milk in her cereal.
Heidi loans me some mud boots before we trudge out into the backyard. Down in the goat pen, she has a milking area set up. It’s really just a table with a yoke-like devise to hold Lucy in place on a tiny landing. Heidi puts down a milk crate for me to sit on, right at the edge of the deck.
There are goat pellets scattered around the landing, but when I remind myself that they’re just hay in another form, I really don’t mind so much. Heidi sets Lucy up on the table and puts a bowl of grain in a bin attached to the fence to distract her. While Lucy digs in, Heidi hands me an alcohol-saturated wipe and shows me how to clean off Lucy’s udders. I realize I’ve never been this intimate with an animal’s underparts.
Below us, Fred and Ginger start bleating like they’ll never see their mom again, and we get to work testing the milk. Heidi places a stainless steel cup and strainer under Lucy’s udder and shows me how to squeeze the teat all at once from the top to the bottom. I have to use my thumb and forefinger around the top, while squeezing my pinky around the actual teat. It isn’t nearly as easy as they make it look in the movies. It takes me an embarrassingly long time to make a tiny stream of milk come out.
The milk looks good, so Heidi takes out a suction device called the “Henry Milker.” It’s pretty basic technology, but Lucy is a stubborn goat, and Heidi says that before the Henry Milker, she would struggle for upward of an hour milking Lucy purely by hand, only to have the goat put her foot in the milk. We pump with a small pressurizer so that when I put my hand around the udder, the milk is released in a thin stream. The liquid still comes out relatively slowly.
We switch teats, and after half an hour has passed, we close up shop. Lucy is once again free to be with her kids. She makes a come-to-mama bleat and Fred and Ginger bound up the stairs to drink whatever is left in her udders. While they drink, their tails don’t stop wagging.
I’ve never had to work so hard for milk. As we carry the jar up to Heidi’s refrigerator to cool, the liquid is more like white gold to me.
As I leave that morning and join the commuters on Muni, I look down and notice mud on my jeans from Lucy’s hoof. I wonder if I smell like a barn and decide I don’t mind. I’m reminded of something Heidi said as she was pouring goat milk into a pot to make cheese right before I left the house. She believes that urban farming isn’t about rejecting city life, it’s just another interesting way to recombine the old and the new. Heidi may milk her own goats, but she also uses the Internet to blog about it and to share tips with other urban homesteaders.
I’ve always been driven by creative lifestyles. So although the challenge of running a mini goat farm feels somewhat daunting, I’m now inspired to try it myself – once I have some land of my own.
Nigerian Dwarf goats are a great choice for backyard husbandry. As the name implies, they don’t get very big and they produce a good deal of milk for their size.
If you’ve done some urban farming and you’re ready to take it to the next level, check out Heidi’s website (http://ittybittyfarminthecity.blogspot.com/) . She offers advice about raising goats while documenting her own trials and tribulations.