Jun 3 2010

How to Milk a Goat in 35 Steps

For my first blog post ever, I thought I’d channel the master: little Catherine.  For those who don’t know, Catherine used to keep obsessive, hyper-literal journals that explained –  in precise detail – what she was doing or how something worked.  She had a particular fancy for toilets.  Yesterday’s toilets are today’s goats – so here, in careful detail, is how to milk 90 liters of milk out of 27 goats in about 65 minutes:

1)  Walk to the washing/sanitary machine in the milk shed.  Nod to Jean Claude, who will smile and say something you don’t understand in French as he milks the cows.  Laugh like you understand what he said.

2)  Attach the rubber washer that will eventually rest between the milk jug lid and the jug itself to the jug’s lid.

3)  Remove the milk hoses from the washing machine valves and attach them to the nozzles on the lid of the milk jug.  If the Americans were the ones to last attach the hoses to the machine, untangle the knot of hoses.

4)  Place the lid on the milk jug.

5)  Attach a bungee cord with a simple hitch to one of the jug’s handles and hook the ends of the cord to the other handle.  The various positions of the cords, with their attendant advantages and disadvantages, are a dissertation to themselves.  I’ll stick to the basics.

6)  On the other end of the hoses are vacuum cups.  There are two cups per hose and two hoses per jug.  Loop the hoses around the hooks on the top the milk jug to keep the hoses and cups off the ground.   Think to yourself: why are we so concerned with the cups touching the ground when we don’t wash the udders before milking?

The Setup

7)  (Repeat steps 2 through 6 on second jug.)

8 )  Bring the wheel barrow to the milk shed.

9)  Places jugs on the wheel barrow and wheel them to the goat milking shed.

10)  “The milking shed has a large vacuum, which is connected to a set of pipes.  There is a long pipe that runs along the milking stand, which has three valves.  There is a compressor on the lid of the milk jug that has a hose.  Attach the hose of the first milk jug to the first valve on the vacuum pipe; attach the hose of the second to the third valve.”  This is a direct quote from one of Catherine’s toilet journals.

11)  There are eighteen goat stations: put one scoop of feed in each station.

12)  Herd the goats into the pen that is nearest to the milking station.  Ignore the 54 horns you must push past to get back to milking station.  Ignore the stare from the bearded goat that knows you’re a rookie.

Come on, gals, please?

The Goat Whisperer

I'm going to eat your cap.

13)  Open the door that leads from the pens to the milking platform, allowing only a few goats in at a time.  The milking station has a nifty locking system: as a goat put her neck down to eat the feed, she simultaneously locks herself in and opens the gate for the next goat – who repeats the process.  Unless it’s the small, black goat, who doesn’t like the idea of getting her head locked in a feeding trough, and likes to turn around in a panic and try to push her way back into the pen. Swat her on the bottom with a plastic tube.

14)   Turn on the master vacuum.

15)  Once the first eighteen goats are locked in and eating away, place the first two vacuum cups of the first jug on the first goat and the second two vacuum cups on the fifth goat.  (Cows have four udders; goats have two.)  Repeat in mirror image with the second jug.  To place the cups on the udders, hold the first cup between your thumb and index finger and the second cup between your index finger and middle finger.  Carefully align the first cup with tip of the right udder.   (An improperly placed cup can force the tip of the udder to fold in on itself – a“kinked nipple,” one might say — which blocks the milk.)  Align the second cup with the tip of the second udder.   Appreciate the satisfying “thomp” that accompanies a goat teat being sucked into a pneumatic tube.

The Usual Suspects

16)  The jugs’ compressors switch the vacuum force from one cup to the other with each cup recieving about a second of primary force per suck.  Suck; switch; suck; switch; . . .  Check the clear tubes that emerge from the cups to make sure that milk is coming from each udder.  If there is no milk, grab the udders in both hands and pull the milk down toward the cups.  Be surprised at how clean the udders are. Unless you touch the warm crusty spot between the two udders. That’s different.

17)  Wait for the milking to complete.  This takes approximately 2 minutes per goat.   You can tell when the udders are dry based on their size and whether milk can be seen in the clear tubing.  Each goat produces about three liters of milk per milking.  (The goats are milked twice a day: at around 8 a.m. and at around 7:00 p.m.)

Thomp, Thomp!

18)  Move the hoses from the first goat to the second and from the fifth to the sixth, repeating the process down the line until all of the goats are milked.

Almost there

19)  Wait for the goats to finish eating if they have not already finished.  They’ll cause trouble if you don’t.  Trust me.

20)  Open the door to the outer pen.

21)  Release the master lock on the locking mechanism.  The goats will lift their heads and proceed in a less-than-orderly fashion out the door to the outer pen.  Be ready for the black goat that thinks heaven exists on the other side of the milking station and invariably tries to spring from the herd.

22)  Repeat the process with the second set of goats.  Since there are only 27 milking goats on the farm, the second set includes only nine goats.  Move the jug that was attached to the third valve on the vacuum piping to the second valve.  Attach the cups to every other goat – moving each set of cups toward the middle of the line of goats.

Let me at that cap!

23)  Once the milking is complete, detach the compressor hoses from the valves.

24)  Turn off the master vacuum.

25)  Place the full jugs on the wheelbarrow, and wheel them either to the cheese lab; or back to the milking shed.

26)  If in the milking shed, place three strainers over the opening of the milk vat.  Place a paper filter between the first and second strainer.  Detach the lid and pour the milk in the vat.  Laugh with Jean Claude, knowingly.

27)  If in the cheese lab, place a thin strainer over the large plastic milk container before pouring in the milk.  (Each container holds about 100 liters of milk.)  Wink to the cute girl in the window putting labels on the yogurt containers.

(Or, in this case, herding goats.)

28)  Place the lids of the milk jugs near the washing/sanitary machine and attach the hoses that had been attached to the lids onto the valves of the washing machine.  Remove the washers.

29)  Place the cups (pointed down) into the bin near the washing machine and arrange the tubes in a way so as not to tangle them for next time.   Watch as they tangle.

30)  Scrub the lids with soap, using a pipe cleaner or tooth brush for the valves.  (The washing machine hook up is to wash the inside of the hoses and the cups – not the lid or the jug itself.)

31)  Rinse the lids.

32)  Scrub the inside and outside of the jugs, rinsing at least twice to remove all of the soap.

33)  Place the jugs upside down on the drying rack.

34)  Scrub the floor.

35)  Return the wheelbarrow.

Easy peasy!

I was feeling pretty cocky after drafting this post.  I went to milk the goats with a swagger.  The primary goat tender – Elder – gave me a thumbs up as he checked over my work before turning on the master vacuum.  He gave a puzzled look and cocked his head.  One of the jugs was hissing.  I had forgotten the washer – the very first step after walking to the shed.  Très embarrassing.  I shook my head with disappointment, “Ah, Katrine.”

Jun 2 2010

The Cheese Factory

It’s only been two days since I ate my first pigeon gizzard, and already there’s tons to write about — life moves fast on the farm (while at the same time moving very slowly). I’m increasingly reminded of that children’s book City Mouse, Country Mouse. Does anyone else remember that one? (Peter has no idea what I’m talking about.) Two mice switch places, and hilarity ensues? That’s pretty much what’s happening here.

The other night, for example, I was feeling pretty good about myself for my goat milking skillz, and as Peter took the canisters back to clean them (watch for his upcoming blog post, “How To Milk A Goat in 35 Steps”), I asked Laurent if I could help him with anything. He suggested that I feed the goats with something called “le foin” and pointed me toward a bunch of bales of some farm-y looking stuff. Then he continued on to tend to the cows. Wanting to impress him with my hard work (if lack of ability with a pitch fork), I lifted up the bales by hand, untied them, and filled the entire trough with what I thought was food. I worked quite hard at this, and for quite some time. Sure, it occurred to me to wonder why the goats had no interest in the food I was giving them (they kept walking up to it and then walking away), but no matter. I was a farm hand! Doing farm things! When Laurent came back, I proudly showed him my work and asked him it was okay.

He paused, looked at what I’d done, and turned to me with a furrowed brown. “Tu les as donne la paille,” he said. Translation: “You gave them straw.”

Now, for those of you out there who, like me, don’t know the difference between hay and straw in English, let alone French, here’s the deal: hay is dried grass, sweet-smelling and flecked with flowers, and is something that goats really like to eat. Straw, on the other hand, is the bedding that they poop on. A big difference, and one that was not lost on Laurent (or, for that matter, the goats), who tried to figure out some way to say it was okay, but eventually agreed that I should probably just empty all the straw into their pens and start again. “Don’t worry,” he said to me in French as I threw handfuls of straw onto the goats, who looked up at me, confused. “I won’t tell Peter.”

Another goat moment: I was standing with Isabelle by the goat pen and noticed that some of their udders stayed larger than others even when they were done being milked. (The family likes to say that the udders look like upside down hearts — but they’re really  more like butts.) “Why is that?” I asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Some of them just have bigger udders.”  As she spoke, I noticed that Isabelle herself is quite busty — and it occurred to me that since a goat’s udder is essentially her breasts, it makes sense that not all udders would be the same. I tried to express that to Isabelle by pointing at her chest, then mine, then the goats’, and then laughing. I’m not sure if the message made it through.

Anyway. Since last I wrote we’ve been joined by a Portuguese apprentice named Elder, who wears a red jumpsuit and lives in a trailer that is essentially parked in the goat shed. He really likes goats, cheese, and trying to get Peter to drink more wine at lunch. He also speaks quickly, and with a thick Portuguese accent. He’s a master with the milking canisters, and has been training Peter in his ways. As for me, I’ve been spending my mornings in the laboratoire de fromage — the cheese workshop — which sounds very similar to (but is very different from) un abattoir — a slaughterhouse. Yesterday I spent several hours ladeling curdled milk into small cups for cheese, and stuck labels on yogurt containers. Sometimes I wonder if we’re helping them at all.

But today was different. After spending a half hour emptying cups of cheese onto my hand, flipping them over, and putting them back in the cup (a process known, unsurprisingly, as “turning the cheese”), the cheesemaker, also named Isabelle, showed me the first step of making fromage blanc — you put cheesecloth in a bucket, fill the bucket up with a mixture of curds and whey, and then lift the bag of cheese out of the bucket and leave it on the counter to drain.

“Ca va?” she asked, after showing me how to do it, and then walked into the other room to make butter. No problem, I thought. Isabelle is not much taller than I am, and she had no problem lifting the sack out of the bucket and placing it on the counter. So I dutifully filled up the bucket, tied up the top — and then, as I moved to lift the bag from the bucket, realized that it weighed approximately 40 pounds. (No joke.) Making things more difficult, the bag had suctioned itself to the bottom of the bucket. I stood there for a moment trying to hoist the bag out, reluctant to call attention to myself by asking for help, but also unable to remove the bag. It was too heavy to shake, and I couldn’t take away a hand from the bag to remove the bucket, so instead I kind of swayed from side to side,cow-like, hoping the gentle movement would break the suction.

It did. Unfortunately, when the bucket finally came loose, it threw my weight backwards, which made me lose my balance (the floor is covered in whey, which it turns out is quite slippery), which made me reach out desperately for something to catch myself, which made me drop the cheese bag onto the floor. It landed with a wet thwap as I reached out for something to catch me, which turned out to be  a metal sheet balanced on plastic horses that was covered with hundreds of cups of cheese — the very ones I’d spent the morning turning.

I had a momentary vision of the entire sheet flipping over as I crashed to the ground,  landing on top of the sack of fromage blanc, a hailstorm of petits chevres arcing up into the air and down onto my head as both Isabelles rushed from the other room to see what had happened. Luckily, however, the sheet did not flip; instead, after glancing around quickly to see if anyone had seen me, I hoisted the fromage blanc off the ground and dropped it on top of the other sacks on the counter, hoping that cheese cloth is considered an effective barrier for floor-borne bacteria.

Things went smoothly for a while until Isabelle asked me to watch a bucket of milk she was cooking over a large propane flame. Unfortunately, however, she didn’t tell me what to watch for — only that if there was a problem, I should turn off the gas. I stood there for a bit trying to look like I was actively watching — by which I mean stirring the pot every time she walked by — and then, as she filled a bucket of cold water to cool off the milk, I noticed that the thermometer reading was rising fast. Before I could say anything, the cream  erupted into bubbles  and began spewing out of the top of the pot. “Nous avons un probleme!” I announced as I reached for the shut-off. This turned out to be exactly the “probleme” about which she was concerned, and she became so paranoid about milk spilling over that later on, when her leg brushed against a piece of plastic bag that made the same sound as boiling milk, she lunged across the room so fast I actually had to catch her.

After the milk and fromage blanc disasters, I was ready for something simpler — which turned out to be measuring precisely 70 grams of jam into approximately 150 glass jars. Apricot, pear, red berries, lemon, chestnut, something called myrtle that smelled like blueberries . . . there were a lot of glass jars, but you know what? I did a damn good job. Unfortunately, my success was rewarded with the task of filling even smaller plastic cups — 96, to be exact —  with precisely 12 grams of jam each, which I poured using a big icing bag filled with jam and opened at both ends. Not only did it take me close to 45 minutes to do one tray, but by the end, my apron looked like I’d killed someone.

Last up was putting tops on pots of fromage blanc. You’d think this would be easy, but the plastic containers were just soft enough to crumble if you pushed too hard on the lids, which had a frustrating tendency to open on one side just as I was closing them on the other. I tried to carry on a casual conversation with one of the Isabelles as I worked, chatting in French about the details of biodynamic wine (“It is involves the moon?” I said, “And poop? And goat horns?”) while trying to get the goddamned lids to stay on. As I repeatedly felt the lips of all the containers I’d already finished, I reailzed this whole endeavor — the jam measurement, the cheese turning, the lid placing — would be horrible for someone who is OCD (or, for that matter, me). Forget about wondering if you left the oven on. I had 60 containers of fromage blanc to check on, over and over again.

I think I did them right. But if you discover that your yogurt has 18 grams of berry jam in it instead of 12, or if your fromage blanc spills on your pants when you pick it up — or, for that matter, if your cheese tastes like floor — I apologize. It’s probably my fault.