Goat of Many Colors

By Christine Hyatt

Since the late ’90s, when August was first dubbed “National Goat Cheese Month,” much has changed in the dairy goat industry. At the time, the market was dominated by imported cheeses from Europe crumbled over salads, and a few regional artisans were beginning to emerge.

Today, goat cheese is a booming business with small, local producers leading the charge. Oregon boasts more than 15 licensed goat cheese makers who craft everything from fresh chèvre to highly awarded ripened and aged cheeses.

The growth in the goat industry has been a boon for those interested in small-scale, sustainable farming and cheesemaking. Goats are smaller, lighter and easier on pasture than their larger bovine peers. The startup costs for a small goat dairy are significantly less than a cow dairy, making dairy goats a great option for small family farms. Goats are also easier to handle and extremely likeable. 

When Pierre Kolisch started Juniper Grove Farm, Oregon’s first artisanal goat cheese maker, in Redmond in 1987, he established his operation with breeds that were available locally. His initial herd was Nubian, a popular dairy breed with distinctive, floppy ears. Later, he moved on to La Manchas, a breed originated in Oregon, and known for a unique, ‘earless’ appearance. 

More recently, Kolish has introduced Saanen and Toggenburg bloodlines to the herd. He breeds for character as well. 

“There are some goats I don’t like, personally, and some that I do,” Kolish says. “It’s not that I’m against the breeds, it’s just the personality of the individual goats. Some are really likeable; you just can’t help but like them.”

Another common path to cheese is through 4-H projects. The Caldwells of Pholia Farm fell in love with diminutive Nigerian Dwarf Goats when daughter Amelia wanted to raise them. 

“It’s a very common story for cheesemakers to fall so in love with their goats that they find a way to use all that milk, and cheese is a good solution,” says cheesemaker and author Gianaclis Caldwell.  

Pholia Farm is among the very first in the U.S. to use Nigerian Dwarf milk for cheesemaking. On-farm agri-tourism and classes are an educational resource for those interested in the breed or cheesemaking life.

Other producers choose their breeds based on temperament and adaptability to local climate.

Flavio DeCastilhos of Tumalo Farm in Bend primarily raises Saanen and French Alpine animals. “The high desert climate with cold winters is the typical weather where these animals are originally from, so they are well suited.” 

He also likes the temperament of the animals. “Saanen are a little more docile and very friendly,” DeCastilhos says. 

Both breeding and genetics are very important in production of high quality milk. The American Dairy Goat Association maintains a goat registry, compiles milk production records and works to ‘promote the goat’. Through careful recordkeeping and networking, many farms have developed herds with peak performance and ideal milk for cheese.

Goats produce milk in quantities varying with the seasons, with peak production in spring and summer, tapering off in winter as does dry off and prepare to freshen. Two distinct approaches to breeding are popular on dairy goat farms which require milk throughout the year. 

“Typically, lactation in goats lasts about 10 months, or 305 days,” DeCastilhos says. “We spread out the breeding, so we can have milk all year long. There is a seasonal dip in winter, but some goats are always on the milking line. “ 

A smaller percentage of producers have built their herds, focusing on extended length of lactation. 

“We only have to breed them once every four years and only two or three times in their lifetime,” says Pat Morford of Rivers Edge Chevre in Logsden. “It really has helped us with our numbers so that we aren’t overrun with goats.” 

Still other, smaller farmstead producers follow more seasonal rhythms, allowing does to dry off in the winter and ceasing cheese production altogether.

The popular Nigerian Dwarf Goats have a future as a suburban pet. “We send our bucks and does unsuitable for farm or home milkers to pet homes in the city,” says Gianaclis Caldwell. “They are great for weed control and make great pets.”

If goat ownership intrigues you, both Pholia Farm in Rogue River and Quail Run Dairy in Gaston host educational sessions on home goat dairying and cheesemaking. 

Goat milk can be used to make any cheese traditionally made with cow milk. Fresh, soft goat milk cheeses have a distinctive, lemony tang and are very white in color. They pair well with crisp, white wines. As cheeses age, they become more complex and savory, making them ideal partners for bigger, more complex wines.

Seek out a few of your favorites to celebrate the goat this month! You won’t be disappointed.

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