An Ode to Mary and Brigid’s Well

At the recent Sydney Royal Show Dairy Awards, we were thrilled to win awards for two of our iconic Holy Goat cheeses, Brigid’s Well and Nectar cow/goat semi-hard.

Our Brigid’s Well, ash covered, with a wrinkly rind, creamy texture and amazing depth of flavour, is one of our earliest cheeses; we have been crafting her since 2007. But the cheese – and the award – means much more to us than a Silver Medal. Our Brigid’s Well cheese was named to honour and cherish our precious time spent with the Kent family.

The genesis of this cheese is from Ireland. The name came from the ages old well that sits on the road verge outside St Brigid’s Church in County Wexford, opposite the Kent family farm. The marker on the well signs that it was enclosed in 1862 but the well is much, much older in the context of Irish culture and spirituality. Brigid’s Wells are sacred sites found all over the country. People visit them to seek solace and healing from the waters and to make offerings. In Irish mythology, Brigid was the Celtic goddess of fire, poetry, unity, childbirth and healing. More recently, she is one of Irelands patron Saints – known as Mother of the Gael.

Our Brigid’s Well even looks like the Irish exemplar – the rough texture of the rind, ashen coating, its shape and proportions. And we do pay our dues and make our supplicants at/for the well every week!

In 1993 we turned up on the flagstep of a rural farmhouse in New Ross, Terrerath, County Wexford where Aine (pronounced “Onya” in Australian) her mother Mary and father Liam were running a small (by Australian standards) herd of 40 calves, a few goats and a flock of guinea fowl. Nothing remarkable about the farm at first sight, but there was something about it that really attracted us, something in the way that we wanted to farm.

Mary especially, had a way with animals and people and the land. She would say things like “did you notice the stillness of the air when you visited the cows?”, or, “when you feed the calves, stay a while with them and sure the one that feels poorly – you will see her”.

That first day, Aine and Mary had us sweeping the square (the farm is set up with buildings, dairy and house around a big courtyard square). Sizing us up. Seeing where we were at. Could we hold a broom and use it? Know how to be aware in our bodies? Complete a supposedly menial routine task? To Aine and Mary, our sweeping the courtyard told them volumes.

It was their way of sensing and observing that was so attractive, and formative, to us.

About the herd. The way that all the animals in the herd recognised each other and had a sense of connection; there were groups within groups. The way that the herd itself was a living thing, a sort of super organism – one brain, many bodies is how you might describe it. Within the herd, each calf had an independence and a strong sense of self, but their desire for the herd connection was very strong,

It was the rhythm of the days and the work.

Ireland was cold! We would work for a few hours and then come inside to warm up with a cup of tea and soda bread, always soda bread. Hand carting poo, cutting hedgerows, berry collecting, making jam, gardening, building and renovation projects. Goats were hand milked and the pails of milk delivered onto the bonnets of the cars parked outside St Brigid’s church whilst the occupants were attending Mass inside.

The life of the farm and the farmers was inseparable.

In the evenings, Mary would come up to our room, light the fire, knit and talk and drink tea with us, tell us stories.

Mary was unforgettable in her openness, her thoughtfulness, her knowledge, her way with animals and sense of the land and its secrets. She encouraged us, invited us into her seeing, hearing, feeling the land, animals and the life around us. We came to know her daughter Aine and see the special relationship they had, from and with the farm.

We embedded ourselves into the Terrarath farm and it into us. It was only three months, but they were significant life changing months. Look at us now, with a beautiful goat herd, our loved land, our team of workers and the cheese. All this was built on those solid foundations.

This blog, and our very special St Brigid’s Well cheese, are an ode to Mary who died last year and to Aine her daughter now finding a new way to live and be.

Postscript. Our Nectar Goat/Cow semi-hard cheese won a Gold Medal at the Sydney Royal.

(Having Set Sail for) Hot Days Ahead

The terrible summer, all around us, continues. We send love and hope to every dairyfarmer, and to everyone, being affected by these devastating fires.

We too, are working on the premise that this summer is the new normal.

Every summer prior to this one, we have been putting actions and intentions in place, so we can be as responsive and ready as we can be, rather than reactionary, when the heat and fire risks hit. But we realise that it’s also unknown territory.

Red gum in full flower

We’ve done our best to make good the conditions for everyone (and everything) on our farm; animals, people (and vegetation, pastures, soils, compost, nestboxes, etc.) everyday, every year.

Summers here now aren’t just ‘business as usual’, we don’t just ‘soldier on’. We make good choices for the welfare of all who come under our care and responsibility and we think about what’s best for the farm as a whole. In summer, winter, and every challenging season.

Two written protocols inform our summer management though (we also believe if things are first taken on and then documented, they will happen) – Hot Response Days and Total Fire Ban Days. Fire Ban Days are obvious triggers, but we have other certain ones that will enact our Hot Response Day Plan, think high temperatures, low humidity and northerly winds, or even Total Fire Bans in the region to the north of us. How the humans and goats are faring, after multiple hot days.

See us moving the goats to cooler pastures, Fire Ban Day, or not

It’s possible to get complacent about the long summer when day after day is, well, hot, hotter, hottest. But we will stick to our protocols, and also learn from them, and from the farm, and most importantly, continue to change things as we learn. For example, on a Hot Response Day, our grazing management plan goes out the window and we focus on putting the herd in one of our paddocks that is well shaded with high tree cover, but close enough so we can closely monitor them. We make sure all outdoor work is completed before 1pm and that our people stay healthy and well hydrated. Wet towels for the goats, too.

Goats enjoying the cooler shade

On a Total Fire Ban day our preparedness goes up a notch, or four. We clear the floor of the dairy and bring the goats inside if there is a fire alert; the goatlings go up on the milking stand, the kids on the eastern side of the shed, the milkers hanging all about all within. And us too. Our recent fire drill (a 42 degree day with a blustering northerly) saw the herd and staff all safe inside within 13 minutes. The goats weren’t stressed because they associate the space with feeding and milking. We have a powerful 80KVA generator which keeps power on and means we can run industrial fans to keep us all cool and keep the smoke out. Plenty of drinking water all round.The Cheeseroom is clad with cement sheeting and aluminium shutters which also protects its coolroom panelling material from flame. In the dairy, the goats (and especially their feet and udders see this link to feet and this to udders) are protected from destructive radiant heat. Our bucks are moved to the rumination paddock – this is our most grazed paddock and closest to the sheds. As good as being in the dairy, without being in it. (Phew!)

On very hot days, we pay particular attention to our most vulnerable – kids and older does. Electrolytes, cool wet towels, bring the older does in with the herd, but take them off the milking line, give everyone extra care where needed.

 

We believe our farming practices may challenge some farming norms. But hopefully, just like our summers, many of our practices will also be the new normal. That we all learn much more from these summers, and for the future of farming more broadly. It’s as important for our staff, as it is for our animals, that we do so. And for our many long and loyal cheese buyers, who ask all those good and specific questions at the farmers markets, or connect with us on-line, for all those retailers and distributors who take on the selling of our cheeses with such heart.

Of course we are well placed, after all our work and thinking, feeling, about farming. We have a relatively small herd and a relatively small team, plus we have accrued decades of farming and life experience. Just like that ship metaphor, it’s much easier to change tack in a sailboat that sits lightly on the ocean, than in a massive container freighter or a huge cruise liner. Yes, we are living in extreme times; it’s not business as usual. But due to good management and a little good luck, we are very happy that we are the ones in the sailboat and not on the Titanic. We feel hopeful and trust that our farm will be capable to manage the new normal.

Obsalim Takes the Cake

Every week we prepare a cake for our staff meeting. But this cake isn’t for morning tea – it’s a poo cake. This poo cake, together with a milk curd test and specific herd observations, forms the basis of our Obsalim practice and is helping us to produce consistently high quality cheese every day, every year, regardless of the season.

If you are a regular reader of our blogs you will know that we love Obsalim! (See this earlier blog post, and this one, for a start.)

We’ve been working with Obsalim for five years now, but it has only been in the last six months that we have been applying the method in a consistent, analytical way – carrying out standard operating procedures, observing, recording, then discussing the results and deciding on a definite action.

Obsalim helps us manage herd health and cheese quality. It gives us instant feedback. This is really empowering for managing our enterprise as we can directly see the impacts of our management actions in the milk, and in the cheese. As Isis said, “I didn’t quite believe it before. Now I do!”.

Since we’ve been employing Obsalim in this systematic way, everyone on our farm has become engaged with it; Paula our office manager, our quality control and dispatchers Julie and Annie – everyone involved in the farm business is learning about these techniques and what is happening in our herd, then discussing what this means for the cheese. We can also rely on the results, regardless of who at Holy Goat is doing the testing.

How do we do it? Using three tests:

  • The Obsalim Cards
  • The Poo Cake Test
  • The Micro-curd Test

The Obsalim Cards – we consider the whole herd, not just individual animals, and at least 60% of animals need to be showing a certain sign (eg. hair/pH – see the card below) to use that card. You also need to have at least three cards to get a result. There’s more info on using the cards here. If we can’t get three cards, we just consider their current grazing (what is the quality and quantity of pasture they are eating?) and their hay (is it short or long fibered, how nutritious?) over the past week. We look at the pH zone on the goats flank, and their eyes.

The pHG area – a critical observational point

The Poo Cake Test – the goats’ manure tells us a lot about their health and digestion. A stable rumen means the goats are digesting every bit of feed and extracting maximum nutrients from it. Which is borne out in their milk.

We are always scanning the poo inside and outside of the sheds, but on Mondays we collect it from a defined area in the holding yards. We take one cup and then wash the poo under running water until the water runs clear, press the ‘poo’ – now more undigested vegetable matter and fibre than poo – into a potato ricer and turn it out onto a piece of absorbent towel. We measure the height of the cake. A smaller cake means more fibre has been digested, a larger cake means less digestion.

Finally we break open the cake and look for any undigested grain and at the fibre size – are the fibres big or small? Ideally there will be no grain visible and only small fibres.

The poo cake after washing and pressing; almost all (small) fibre

The Micro-Curd Test – this is a really quick and easy test to look at the strength of the curd, which reflects Calcium and Phosphorus levels in the milk, plus protein. We can use raw and/or pasteurised milk.

We put decreasing amounts of milk in five test tubes and add decreasing dilutions of rennet, from 100% then 70%, 50% and finally 30%. We look at the size and shape of the curd that forms. Ideally it should be about 4mm thick and should have a slight twist.

If the curd is dead straight, Calcium levels are too high and Phosphorus too low. If the curd is very kinked, Phosphorus is too high. It is easier to increase Calcium levels – we simply add limestone (Calcium carbonate, CaCO3) to the feed. Adjusting Phosphorus is a bit trickier. The adjustments are tiny, for example we might only add 1/4 cup of limestone to the feed and then wait a fortnight to see what happens. It means we can also fine tune our need to add Calcium Chlorine (CaCl) post-pasteurisation.

If a curd forms at the lowest rennet dilution (30%) that means protein levels are good. The micro-curd test allows us to keep our cheese quality consistent all through the year. It is of great benefit to the cheesemaker.

The micro-curd test – look at shape and thickness at each dilution

What Next?

Then we look at the results across the three tests and decide on an action. Often the action is to take no action!

The weekly testing and recording allow us to build a picture of the herd health and milk quality through the year and to see the impact of changes to diet or herd health. For some conditions/cards it will take a fortnight or more to see the results of a management intervention. Other changes are instant.

Here’s an example:

The micro -curd was strong and consistent, showed a good Calcium Phosphorus balance, but the poo cake and Obsalim cards showed a lack of long fibres.

Our conclusions?

Increase the rumination time by taking the goats off the pasture and away from the short green oaten hay, with more time for rumination and digestion:

  • Give the herd longer fibres – we fed out black wattle branches (high in tannins) for two days.
  • Reduce ‘gutsing’ on hay by putting herd in the rumination paddock earlier in the day,
    allowing the herd to ruminate for longer to ensure total digestion.

And the result? We will find out next Monday! Though we have noticed the goats are holding their heads higher and generally coats are in better nick.

Dairy farmers everywhere can be overwhelmed by the quantity of data, information, testing and records that their farm produces and collects. Some of that record keeping is required by agencies and authorities, for food safety, quality control and organic certification. Some is essential for animal health and breeding purposes. But some – perhaps much more – serves little purpose beyond its collection.

In the wide world of dairy data, we see Obsalim – and our three-step weekly test – as critical to our herd and our cheesemaking.

And maybe someone will bring another sort of cake for Monday morning tea?!

 

For more information: