Safe and Secure

“If it can move, it can carry diseases, pests and weeds.” *

Last week we met with Tristan Jubb, a Bendigo based vet,  who also specialises in biosecurity issues, working in export marketing and with national livestock bodies.

When you think of ‘biosecurity’ do you think of apples and New Zealand, or frozen berries and China? Well these international issues may be a lot more than just ‘bio’ and also about ‘trade’ and ‘political’ security. Look a lot closer to home and ‘biosecurity’ becomes an issue for every farm, everywhere.

Basically, biosecurity is about managing the on-farm animal and plant health risks, to ensure a clean, healthy environment – and food – for everyone. It’s also about safeguarding farm futures and livelihoods.

We are organic certified, so the issues of managing risk are a lot more familiar to us through the annual organic audit processes. Though in this case, it’s more about managing the risk from contamination through conventional (non-organic) inputs into our operations. So the focus is on buffer areas between us and our neighbours, aiming for peak animal and soil health, and supply chain tracking of our certified organic inputs.

As well, we have the more regular, very intensive, audits of our dairy and cheesemaking operations, covered by our HACCP and Dairy Food Safety Victoria audits. Their focus is on public safety and confidence in our product. Our processing activities have a constant concentration on health and safety for humans and animals alike, but what about the rest of the farm?

This is where biosecurity comes in. It’s no good having all these well documented and well managed systems in the processing part of our business, if the farming side is open to compromise. Last year we had some animal health issues and in dealing with the problem we met Tristan Jubb. We’ve been working with Tristan on developing a biosecurity plan for the farm, but without any trade and political complications!

Most farmers think their farm is ‘clean’ because nothing ever happens, but this thinking is very dangerous. It’s especially important for us, as we aim to refresh and improve our herd genetics. We want to ensure any bucks we bring onto the farm are not also bringing latent or undetected health issues. The same goes for machinery, people, other animals, or any other organic inputs that come through our front gate (or through fences, or via other vectors like birds or foxes, kangaroos or rabbits…) Tristan coins this PATIO – People, Animals, Things Inorganic (machinery, vehicles, etc) and Organic Things (feed, water, seed, etc).

Tristan gave us a run down on the basics of biosecurity and how we might look at protecting the integrity of our farm at three points; before it gets to the gate, at the gate, and after it gets through the gate. Keeping these three levels of protection in mind, all the time and at once, are critical.

No farm is an island, but by improving our farm’s resistance to disease (and pests and weeds and …) and concurrently reducing its exposure to pathogens (and pests and weeds and …) we are in a much stronger space. ‘Resistance’ focuses on good nutrition, minimal stress levels, good shelter, low worm burdens, good genetics, etc. ‘Exposure’ means ensuring high levels of cleanliness and hygiene, reducing opportunities for pathogens/problems to build up. The real challenge is to keep resistance and exposure levels at odds and apart, whilst at the same time being cost effective.

One sick goat might be just an ill animal, but at the same time it may also be an indicator of a much bigger issue, so by keeping resistance and exposure as far apart as possible, we increase the odds of having just one sick goat.

Ovine Johnes Disease (OJD), Q Fever and  Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis (CAE) are the primary disease and environmental health concerns for dairy goat farmers, then follows worms and enterotoxaemia. We can ensure our biosecurity plan addresses these five main issues by looking at the management, environmental and animal factors that contribute to them. For example, with Johnes, we can source disease free bucks (pre-entry/gate), carry out clinical testing of blood and faeces and quarantine the animals (point of entry/at the gate) and vaccinate other goats (post entry/through the gate).

Our next step is to have another session on the farm to discuss the principles, and then start developing our plan for the farm. We can see already where things might be changed, more attention paid, and by walking around the farm with PATIO on our mind.

There are many reasons for farms to be serious about biosecurity. It’s about ensuring the people that work on the farm are safe and healthy, as well as the animals and plants they look after. It’s about immunising the business (not just the animals) against risk, and improving our production and farm efficiencies.

Most of all it is about security and peace of mind, for us, and for everyone who eats our cheese.

More links:


Managing Mastitis

We get many queries from farmers and cheese-lovers alike about animal health. How do we manage specific issues? What are our treatments and protocols? How do organic farms differ from conventional ones? We will cover a few of  these questions through these blog posts and have created a page dedicated to animal health on our website which contains links to more specific issues and treatments.

Our industry is still young. We don’t have the hundreds of years of experience, observation and research to draw on that our French counterparts do. Our knowledge has been hard earned, through reading, talking, watching, and on occasion, and unfortunately, post mortem.

Holy GoastWe work closely with our vets and natural health practitioners, we stay updated on the latest overseas research and we are continually applying what we learn. Two of our key sources of information are the vet Hubert Karreman and nutrition advocate Jerry Brunetti. Keeping farmed animals healthy is a work in progress – every season is different, each goat has their own makeup and we must continually assess, act and react.

A common misperception is that organic farming involves gentle, minimalist, ‘hands off’ animal treatment. ‘I’d farm organically but I don’t want my animals to suffer, so I use antibiotics’ is an oft-heard quote from conventional farmers. The fact is that when an animal is unwell, we intervene, we treat and we do it rapidly and responsibly. We just don’t use antibiotics. And it works.

Animal welfare is paramount in certified organic systems. Yes, the treatment options are fewer and more complex, but organics demands that the farmer be very familiar with her herd, and constantly alert to any behavioral clues or physical signs that all is not well. Goats are stoic animals and won’t outwardly show the first signs of illlness, but when they get ill, they become very sick. It can be too late if you miss those first signs of malady.

This is one of the reasons why we keep a ‘Formulations Book’, rather than a ‘Disease Manual’. We want our staff to be thinking more about signs and symptoms and observing how the goat is presenting, rather than some clinical diagnosis of what might be wrong. By observing key signs in that specific animal, we better understand what might be happening and treat those, rather than the generic goat. The key is early recognition.

We’ve developed a list of signs and symptoms and a set of diagnostic tools to help work out what might be wrong with a goat. We use this, along with our Formulations Book to provide focused treatment for her.

Mastitis, “inflammation of the udder”, is a good case in point. A multitude of causes (environmental, genetic, herd management) can lead to infection (from a range of possible bacteria) so there’s no one answer (or treatment) for it. The udder is a good environment for microorganisms, and most are normal, healthy flora, but if the goat’s immunity is compromised, the udder can also be a harbour for pathogenic bacteria.

Numerous signs and symptoms can be associated with mastitis. If we see any of these signs, the next step is a diagnostic test. Along with using sight, touch, smell and our personal knowledge of the goat, her stage of lactation or stage of gestation and family or treatment history, we will take an anal temperature reading. We test the goat, and the goat next to her on the milking line to get a comparison, gently pressing the thermometer against the anal wall. If it is greater than 40.6 degrees Celcius we know it is time to act.

For mastitis, the CMT (Californian Mastitis Test)  – link to youtube video – is also a valuable tool. It indicates the presence of somatic cells, primarily white blood cells which are an immune response to infection (or injury, or other stresses). You can buy kits. Drawing milk from each teat into separate compartments and then adding an indicator which contains a reactant will show whether there is clotting (clinical) or slimy/gel-like (subclinical) signs of mastitis. The CMT is useful to use on new goats to the line and if we are unsure about things, as it can give us an indication of their state and if all is not well.

Speed of response is paramount. Even if we are still unsure of the specific cause, we can still treat the symptoms. There is no harm. Because goats are so stoic, by the time we do notice something, they may be three or four days into illness.

A more localised mastitis, for instance where there is hardening of the udder, or thickening in the teat, redness, clots in the milk, can be caused by cuts, bites, kicks or scrapes there, which then leads to bacterial infection. Since we milk twice daily this type of problem can be detected and responded to pretty quickly. But it does present in many forms; prominent glands, a sore back foot, so we always check the udder.

Kidding is the time when mastitis is most prevalent in goats. It is a more systemic form and usually begins with a goat being off her feed, turns into milk fever and then mastitis. If not picked up quickly and treated, the goat can cascade to a more serious infection, septicemia, and that can be fatal. We have found a strong relationship between milk fever (or Calcium collapse/hypocalcemia)  – link to earlier post –  and mastitis, so it is important to observe the animal for signs of milk fever and treat before it escalates.

A number of  treatment options are available, depending on how the goat presents. We use minerals, vitamins, herbal and homeopathic remedies, and work with the sick goat for a week to 10 days to bring her back to health. The critical thing is to treat, don’t wait. The first 24 hours are vital.

(See a recent mastitis protocol that we used to treat one of our goats here.)

Prevention is always the best. Goats with good immunity will be able to withstand the odd kick, scrape or cut to the udder. Keeping shedding, dairy and paddocks hygenic as possible and having strong genetics are all a part of this. Nutrition is a key aspect. Having a calm herd, minimal stress, happy groupings of goats. These factors all contribute.

Kidding is the most stressful time for goats (and humans!) especially our maiden does, so having them on a good plane of nutrition is important. The eight weeks leading up to kidding are critical. It’s called “lead feeding” and we have talked about this previously –  link to previous post. As well, we provide ad-lib minerals, mainly Magnesuim, stirred into water and placed next to the drinking water. Ten goats can easily consume this in two days. We also provide salt licks – link to previous post – to provide Boron and other minerals which the soils on our farm are low in.

We would strongly recommend you consult with your vet and animal health practitioners to develop your own protocols for dealing with mastitis. We have provided a guide, based on our own experiences, but your farm situation, your management, and your goats will of course be a different scenario.

Finally, best wishes for a healthy and happy Christmas and New Year period to all our supporters, distributors, retailers, market-goers and cheeselovers. And of course, to our goats.

Holy Goast


La Luna, Holy Goat’s Holy Grail

cheese.Holy Goat_170914_0121 Our La Luna is the best known and most rewarded and awarded of the Holy Goat cheeses.  And who better to rely on for its successful evolution than a nun? Mother Noella Marcellino is known in cheese making circles as ‘The Cheese Nun’. But this moniker suggests more divine intervention, than the scientific rigor and intelligent persistence she has applied to cheese making research and development since the mid 1980s.

Asked to become the convent’s cheese maker at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, Mother Noella’s first attempts were failures; most ended up fed to the pigs, until a visit from a French cheese maker who showed her the traditional way. Since then, the Cheese Nun has championed artisanal cheese making worldwide, as a microbiologist and advocate for diversity and traditional methods.

Mother Noella has been an inspiration and a guide for our cheese making and for La Luna in particular. The Cheese Nun’s special area of research (and the subject of her PhD) has been “Geotrichum candidum,” the wrinkly, velvety, white mold that encases some of France’s greatest cheeses. It is this Geotrichum that produces our signature La Luna.

Geotrichum goats milk cheeses rule in France, but here in Australia (and in the US and UK) they are not the norm.  More Australian specialist cheese makers are now starting to produce Geotrichum cheese, but it’s still considered a minority cheese.

We first started researching and trialing with Geotrichum in 2002. It wasn’t until 2005 that we started making good cheese.

One of the features of Geotrichum is the diversity of strains that exist.  Mother Noella found that in France, Geotrichum strains are regionally specific – particular areas grow specific Geotrichum strains and hence their cheeses are absolutely unique to that area. The differences, even at an individual farm level, were quite astounding. From 180 samples of milk, curd and cheese, 64 different ‘Geo’ strains were isolated. Tightly held (secret!) family cheese making traditions, maintained over centuries, have nurtured diversity and created iconic cheeses, like the Normandy Camembert, St. Nectaire and Reblochon.

The Cheese Nun found that within the Geotrichum genus, there are three different forms or morphologies: “strains with yeast-like colonies that produce abundant arthrospores and have generally low proteolytic activity, strains whose colonies are white and resemble filamentous fungi with a predominance of hyphae and high proteolytic activity, and those that fall in between”.

These three forms give rise to many different strains, all a reflection of their environment, all imparting a different characteristic and taste to the cheese, and as far from processed industrial cheese as you can get.

yes.Holy Goat Farm_160914_0055Like Mother Noella’s research (published in 2001), Swinburne University also looked at isolating Geotrichum strains in some recent research. Surprisingly, ours was very different, with a unique ‘signature’, to the other French Geotrichum goats milk cheeses. It sat on a completely separate ‘DNA branch’ when mapped. Our Sutton Grange strain is a yeasty form.

So in the same way as the French, we have developed a very unique and characteristic ‘terroir’ in our La Luna. It’s a combination of factors – the pastures, native bush and vegetation, water, feed, soils, and the goats themselves that make our microbes – and therefore our cheeses – unique.

Working with Geotrichum involves intricacies and challenge. The organism can be very competitive and will quickly change the microbial dynamics of the cheese room.  A visiting Swedish cheese maker was quite averse to our Geotrichum, saying that in her farm house cheeses they would not develop this rind, they especially didn’t want to have the yeasty form we have, because it would compete against – and predominate over – the white molds that they produce camembert’s and other soft cheeses.

This is true. The La Luna Geotrichum dominates in our cheese room. But we are able to manage all various microbes at work there, so that the Geo only grows where it is wanted. (Though we do sometimes wonder if someone was to fall asleep in the cheese room whether they would wake the next morning with La Luna transforming every moist cranny! We also wonder whether our increasing wrinkles are actually the effects of La Luna, and not aging…)

We strongly believe it is worth the extra diligence and attention to cultivate Geotrichum cheeses. The flavour profile of this remarkable cheese is like no other.

La Luna starts life in the same way as our other lactic acid fermentation cheeses. After the milk is drawn from the goats, it is pasteurised at 63 degrees C for 30 minutes, then it is chilled to 26 degrees C and the starter cultures are added. Curds begin to form slowly over a period of about 20 hours at 20 degrees. We then hand ladle, very carefully, into moulds. The molds are left to drain all day, turned the next night and then the curd is turned out of the mold the following morning, and salted. We reduce the temperature to 14 degrees C. The young cheeses are turned daily until the rind is well formed and the cheese matured. We find that the cheese grows its rind within 24 to 48 hours after ladling the curd into molds.

cheese.Holy Goat_170914_0028The ‘Geo’ transforms the whole cheese. At ladling, the curds have a pH of 4.4 (the same as yoghurt) but as the cheese ripens, the Geotrichum activity causes the pH of the cheese to rise to 4.95. This markedly changes the taste and qualities of the cheese, creating a complex, yeasty, lemony flavour.

Salt balance is a critical part of making cheese. By using salt we are making cheese safe – preserving it – as well as helping to balance and intensify its flavours. Salt is nature’s preservative. When you eat ‘low salt’ or ‘no salt’ cheese, odds on you will also be eating other not-so-natural preservatives, which are added to mimic the role of salt.

From milking, to having La Luna cheese on sale at a farmers market or local providore or regional outlet takes between 10 days and three weeks, depending on the size of the cheese and the maturity sought.

We expect most people will eat their La Luna in one sitting. There’s no better way than serving up a small circle of la luna, cut it into segments like a cake and eating as-is, or just with bread. Cheese is a complete food. The simpler the better. Ensure that you smell the cheese before you taste it (will enhance the taste hit) and warm it slightly in your mouth to let the flavours infiltrate. Take the time to eat and savour it, from the rind to the paste.

If you do need to store your La Luna here are a few tips. Our cheese is a living being and needs to be able to breathe. Our packaging wrap has perforations to allow this. La Luna also requires some humidity. The domestic frig is a very low humidity and drying environment – disastrous, even fatal, for unwrapped or poorly stored cheese. The best method is to leave in its original wrap, in the frig (or place in a plastic container, still wrapped, if you find the smell too strong).

Fresh cheese is best eaten fresh, not stored, so buy the size that suits your needs (hold your mouse over the image to see the size and type):

* Images created by Bronwyn Silver.

Links :

Spring and Rejuvenation


La Primavera, Spring, and thoughts turn to rejuvenation, renewal and regrowth; to new life and productive times ahead. At Holy Goat, Spring starts in August as we welcome the new kids, but they’re not the only rejuvenation taking place on the farm:

We’re enjoying new life and energy.

Spring is … new kids on the block. This year’s kidding has been a successful one for our maiden (first time) mothers. We’ve kept them with their offspring for the first two weeks after kidding and then we’ve transitioned them to the milking line, though they are still kept alongside their kids for the first month. After that, the kids are adjusted, independent and thinking more about the fresh paddock they are about to enter, than their mums. They soon form friendship groups and they return to the shelter and security of their pens and their mum near by at night. From four days of age, we provide our kids with a bucket of dirt (clean topsoil) which they love to ingest. It stimulates the rumen bacteria to kick in and the kid to become a real ruminant. After this, we begin to introduce solid food; a small amount of concentrate, in addition to cows milk, as well as the green pick. Our kids will drink up to two litres of milk a day, fed two to three times a day, depending on their stage of growth. After three months they are transitioned from the milk to pasture with a balanced feed mix.

Spring is .. Ruby, our new Border Collie pup. In France we saw farms where Border Collies live and work amongst the goats. They bring the herd to and from the dairy, protect against predators and generally keep order. We want to see if we can train Ruby to work with our goats. At 10 weeks old, the signs are promising, if not amusing, as she tries to coordinate her rapidly growing body. She’s already responding to Carla’s commands to ‘come’, ‘sit’ and ‘drop’; she’s becoming more sure of herself around the goats and she’s revelling in exploring the smells, action and excitement of life on a dairy farm. Leaving the shed at the end of a long shift and being greeted exuberantly by a very happy pup is a gift. We’re enjoying her boundless energy.

We’re rejuvenating our pastures.

Spring is … soil response. In paddocks where we’ve aerated and added compost, lime and dolomite, the increasing daylight and warmth has boosted soil microbial activity and thus given pastures a real boost.  Aeration has been the biggest benefit for our granitic soils; we’ve seen a difference between paddocks that haven’t been given the treatment. Add the soil amendments and it’s been a real surprise, especially given the low winter rainfall. We’ve spread 200 cubic metres (200 tonnes) of farm compost, along with 26 tonnes of lime and 12 tonnes of dolomite. Soil improvement, plus mowing, has decimated the usual capeweed infestation on this Sutton Grange country. But it’s all in the timing.

Spring is … green feed. We’re using grazing regimes to manage the fresh growth, whilst continually improving our pastures. Why use machines when you can use a well placed fence and goats? We’ve divided our farm into smaller paddocks to better control grazing and manage internal parasites (worms). Once our farm was four large paddocks. Now we have 21 and still some more dividing to do. The big hay paddock has become five smaller paddocks (four of three acres and one eight acres) and the goats spend about 8 days in each. Goats will prefer some plants above others, but the short, concentrated grazing means nothing is ‘hammered’ too much and can regrow because the plant’s meristem (growing point) is not damaged. Perennial grasses and other herbs and clover can outcompete capeweed, given a chance. And fresh paddocks mean happy goats.

We have ‘new milk’ and new order in the dairy herd.

Spring is … maiden milk. The new mums come onto the milking line for their first time. But they are ready. For the first six to eight weeks after kidding we give them their own space and place to graze before they join the main herd. We have run them as a little herd, kept them on familiar ground and close to the sheds, so they feel confident and have strong connections before they join the others. We make sure the maiden milkers come on the line first-up, feed them a bit more concentrate whilst on it, for about six months. We give them individual attention and focus. As a result, there’s no bullying in the dairy or paddock, everyone knows their place. The entire herd get used to the routine and the herd leaders (us) reinforce it and advocate for the new milkers. This gradual introduction and the setting up of rituals and systems means minimal stress on the herd. Our milk production lifts enormously because every doe is producing. Milk flow continues to increase as the herd moves through new paddocks with fresh pick. It’s spring flush.

We’re seeing the bush coming back, tree plantings growing and new habitat.

Spring is … native regeneration and restoration. Australian native plants are the best adapted to growing on our farm. We are turning to them, rather than introduced species, for our fodder and to increase biodiversity across the farm. The long dry periods have proven them. As well as encouraging the native grasses, we have fenced off the corners of our paddocks, previously underutilised areas, using weldmesh and planted with acacias (eg. black wattle, golden wattle) hakeas and bursaria, for fodder and habitat. A mouldboard plough, press roller and potti pukti treeplanter – link to you tube video – are our main tools and we also use treeguards to stop ‘roo and rabbit grazing. The ploughing means no chemical weed control is needed. When pruned the trees and shrubs will give more green feed, high in minerals and tannins, for the goats come summer. We are also protecting our big, old, sentinel box and redgum trees with the same weldmesh protection. These very large treeguards (!) allow goats access to shade, but protect the trees from ringbarking by goats teeth and will allow some regeneration of seed. We’re aiming at protecting around 20 large trees each year. Our farm would have once been an open grassy woodland – EVC Goldfields 175_61, so our focus is on protecting the big old trees and planting understory species (shrubs, ground covers, grasses) rather than planting any more trees.

We’re renewing our ideas.

Spring is … new approaches and learning.  Ann-Marie was 16 years old when she first had a goat to care for and we’ve both worked with goats for some 20 years now. But still we are constantly learning. The more you learn, the more you appreciate the subtleties, reconsider your ideas, and the deeper you go, and learn. Over the autumn and winter we’ve had the time, and need, to reassess how we deal with animal management in our herd. We’ve developed a four step process that’s all about observation. In any certified organic system observation is the key because you don’t have the luxury of any conventional ‘quick fix’. Our mantra is “know your herd”. Know your individual animals and their unique traits. Respond quickly as soon as they behave or appear outside of those traits. Acknowledge that treatments take time and are more labour intensive (persist). Finally, review your actions; what would you do again and what would you do differently?

So, after winter, comes Spring. Rejuvenation, renewal and a pup called Ruby.

AM check Carla Red Ruby puppy Maggie Terrier

France, the Font of Holy Goat Cheese

french cheeses on displayFrance. Ten days. Sixty Cheeses. And that was just the Affinage Course. We’ve just had three weeks in France where we took part in a specialist cheese course at Mons – Fromager Affineur the Academie Opus Caseus course – to learn more about French cheese and the ripening and maturation of cheeses. Our small group included an English cheesemaker, American cheesemonger and our American interpreter and French teacher. We also acknowledge all the wonderful cave dwellers who care for the cheese and prepare them for sale.

Apart from the formal cheese tasting (six cheeses each day) and learning about the intricacies and alchemy of maturing different cheese types through the coursework, our trip was a goat cheese immersion. We visited some of our past French interns at Holy Goat and saw how they had developed their own farm businesses. We also visited Ivan Larcher who has come to Holy Goat previously, to advise on our cheesemaking. The trip was so very inspiring and affirming for us. We’ve come home with a two page manifesto of ideas and tasks, from the small to the large-scale. Travel broadens the mind, but travel with a purpose surely focuses and renews it. We already have a couple of larger projects on the go, to improve our efficiencies in the dairy and the cheeseroom, as well as a host of small improvements including specific brushes for affinage, new cheese hoops, changing our maintenance schedule and learning French!

But back to those 60 cheeses. Each day we would have a formal tasting of six cheeses, maybe of the same family, or from the same animal, or a mix. It was a thorough process; first to determine parameters for the cheese – visual, smell, texture – and only then to taste the cheese. We had to try to identify the animal (sheep, goat, cow) what cheese type (goat, fresh, soft ripened washed rind, soft ripened bloomy rind, pressed uncooked, pressed cooked, blue, processed) and where it was from. The French have strict codes on their cheeses – the AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegee) or ‘protected designation of origin’ is a certification granted to certain products to guarantee its characteristics and origins. The AOP defines the region of a cheese and where and how it has been made over centuries, which gives it status that is embedded in French culture; the design, style and origin is a mark of standing and importance. This AOP can be both a blessing and a curse. Here in Australia we have far more flexibility to experiment with our cheeses and cultures. But the French legacy of history, from centuries of cheesemaking, is enormous. In fact it was the Islamic Saracens who first brought goats into France and by about  800AD goats had reached the Loire Valley. Puts our own industry into perspective!

Goat herds have always been an important part of French dairying and so have the small, french goats grazingspecialist cheesemakers, with around 7000 specialist farmhouse cheesemakers like us (for a population of 70 million). Compare that with less than 50 in Australia. Milk is not seen as a product or commodity in France. The French rarely drink milk, but do eat massive amounts of cheese, yoghurt, butter. Australia produces milk. The types of cheese produced in France also reflect the population, topography and climate. In the river valleys where populations are focused, fresh cheeses rule. In the high alpine country, the dense, high protein, high nutrient hard cheeses reign. The French eat at least 24kg of cheese per head each year. Australians eat 12kg.

As much attention is paid to the ripening, care and retail of cheese as the production, hence the course run at Mons. Agricultural education is paramount. Specialist Dairy Technician training is available through five schools across France. Training is industry focused. Graduates have extensive and impressive knowledge of all things cheese, from animal husbandry and milk production right through to the final product. This explains why we have found our French interns so valuable – they have both the applied and practical training before they even graduate. When our interns arrive at Holy Goat, they are ready to work.

More Impressions from France:

  • There are real openings and opportunities for the young and enthusiastic to get a start in dairy farming. For instance, it is feasible to have a small herd of 12 cows producing 200 litres of milk per day, a little factory to produce yoghurt and butter on farm, and to make a living.
  • Goats are vital contributors to agriculture. Goat cheese has a category of its own, ahead of cow, sheep. It is lauded.
  • The willingness of dairy farmers to share information, resources and advice. We experienced a real exchange of ideas, especially from the day to day operations and systems of local farms. Farmers share a real pride in what they do and their industry.
  • Organic methods and inputs are widely used, with many options to improve and support growers, especially with nutrition and animal health. Animal health observation cards, “Obsalim” a fantastic example. We were thrilled to find out that they are available specifically for goats, and also in English!
  • Because goats are such a large part of the French dairying, there is a huge amount of resources and research to support the industry.

And what’s next? Well back to our two page list, for a start. And to enjoy the inspiration from seeing our goats, and cheese, anew.

Thank you to our generous sponsor who enabled us to travel and study. Also the amazing team at Holy Goat for sailing the goat ship and cheese room whilst we were away.

Here are a few pics from the trip … click on the images to see the larger version.

Healthy Soils, Healthy Goats

We had a visit from Peter Norwood the other week. Peter is a farm consultant from Maffra and a specialist in animal nutrition. Peter had been visiting central Victoria speaking to Landcare members and farmers about soil health and links with plant and animal/human health. 

_DSC0106Peter advocates the Albrecht approach to soil health, which is to “feed the soil and let the soil feed the plants” – a famous William Albrecht quote.  When the soil contains the correct chemistry, the plant will be able to acquire all its necessary nutrients in the proper amounts. This means that instead of focussing on the simplistic notion of NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium) as the key minerals for soil fertility, as conventional agriculture tends to, that farmers focus instead on balancing the soil and ensuring a diverse array of minerals and micronutrients are available for plant uptake.

The chemistry of the soil has a direct impact on animal productivity and health – soil imbalances will show up in animal health issues and ultimately farm profitability. We have worked hard over the years to build up our soil health using composts, rock phosphate, oversowing pastures, and rotationally grazing our paddocks, working towards achieving what Albrecht would define as the ideal soil.

The Albrecht view – and carried on by Neal Kinsey – is that an ideal soil is composed of 45% minerals, 5% humus* and 50% pore space. The pore space is crucial to hold moisture, air and provide a beneficial environment for soil organisms.

DSCF9023Soil chemistry (particle size and charge – linked to Cation Exchange Capacity*) affects soil physics (the structure, strength and water holding capacity) which in turn affects soil biology (microbes, bacteria, fungi and other organisms).

It helps to have an understanding of the Periodic Table and the size and charge of atoms, but when soil chemistry and physics are right, the environment for the biology will also be right.  That is why so much emphasis is placed on achieving the exact level, or ratio, for each nutrient based on the specific requirements of each different soil.

The ideal soil mineral makeup is 60% Calcium, 12% Magnesium, 500 ppm Phosphorus, 4.5% Potassium, 1.5-3% Sodium and 10-20ppm Zinc. Rather than measuring excess or deficiency as an specific amount, Albrecht considers the ratios between cations. The ratios between Ca:Mg, N/K and Zn/P are as important as their individual levels – if not in balance, growth will be affected.

Holy Goat Cheese and Sutton Grange Organic FarmCalcium and Magnesium are actually two of the most critical minerals, not Nitrogen. As well, trace minerals, such as Manganese, Copper, Boron, Zinc, Iodine, and Chlorine, etc. are vitally important because the metabolic cycles in plant and animal production rely on them for healthy function. This is another reason that organic farmers tend to focus heavily on soil health, since supplementation and intervention are restricted in biological agriculture.

We are becoming more interested in exploring the metabolic cycles in plants and animals as we pursue health and productivity on the farm – more on this in future blogs. But it all starts with the soil.


Other Links:  Albrecht Soil Method;  Soil Balancing;   The Albrecht Papers

 * Humusa dark, organic material that forms in soil when plant and animal matter decay. Whilst organic matter refers to the organic fraction of the soil that is composed of both living organisms and once-living residues in various stages of decomposition. Humus is only a small portion of the organic matter. It is the end product of organic matter decomposition and is relatively stable.

** Cation Exchange Capacity is defined as the degree to which a soil can adsorb and exchange cations. 

Cation – a positively charged ion (NH4+, K+, Ca2+, Fe2+, etc…) 

Anion – a negatively charged ion (NO3-, PO42-, SO42-, etc…) 

Soil particles and humus have negative charges on their surfaces. Mineral cations can bind to the negative surface charges, or the inorganic and organic soil particles. Once adsorbed these minerals are not easily lost when the soil is leached by water and they also provide a nutrient reserve available to plant roots. These minerals can then be replaced or exchanged by other cations (i.e. cation exchange) 



Life Force and Cheese

Traditionally made cheese is a living, fermented, food; full of living microbes that are dynamically interacting and evolving. It has a life force.  

Holy Goat Cheese and Sutton Grange Organic FarmThe milk comes from amazing dairy animals – goats, sheep, cows, buffalo and others. They have a life force.

Our goats (and other dairy animals) produce all the ingredients we need to make cheese:

  • milk: with a beautiful variety of lactic acid bacteria which naturally ferments the sugars in milk (lactose) to preserve it and make it more digestible;
  • rennet: an enzyme in the stomachs of young animals which coagulates the protein (casein) in the mother’s milk so the young can digest it.

With these two ingredients – lactic acid and rennet – we ferment the lactose in milk and coagulate the protein. This produces curds which we drain and ripen to make cheese.

Dairy goats are more than milk machines. Our goats live in herds and have strong connections and friendships to each other and the people who milk and care for them. They live in landscapes, with sun and rain, pastures, hills, valleys, streams, seasons and people. These landscapes provide their food, sense of place, shelter, contentment, purpose, joy. These landscapes are a complex interacting life force.

Holy Goat Cheese and Sutton Grange Organic FarmThe milk our dairy herd produces reflects the wild diversity of microorganisms from their living landscape. The trees, the shrubs, the flowers, the water, the grass, the soil all contribute minerals, enzymes, esters, bacteria, fungi. Our goats convert feed (grass, leaves, weeds, bark, seeds, grain) and water into milk. Clean healthy milk is biologically alive, complete with protein, sugars, fats, minerals, lactic acid bacteria, yeasts and moulds.

Cheese is an amazing food; nutrient dense and an excellent source of protein, calcium, phosphorus and fat. It is a living food.

Cheese tastes like nothing else – rich, subtle, aromatic -it has sublime textures and even looks amazing. It carries the stories of the animals, the pasture, the landscape and the people who produce it.

Holy Goat Cheese and Sutton Grange Organic FarmCheese making is an art, a craft, a science, and also hard, rewarding work. As cheese makers we are part of an ancient craft that has been evolving for thousands of years. The role of the cheese maker is to befriend, honour and respect the life force of the cheese and humbly work to nurture the cheese to achieve it’s potential; to create the perfect cheese.

Throughout all of its life stages, from living fodder, to healthy dairy animals, to liquid milk, to cheese, microorganisms are active, evolving, interacting. Creating a life force.

#This is an excerpt from a presentation Carla made at the Australian Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association (ASCA) Cheese Fair, held during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.



Why Organic?

Organic husbandry is based on the harmonious relationship between land, water, plants and animals. Respect for the physiological and behavioural needs of animals and the feeding of good quality, organically grown feed.*

Sound like our farm?

That quote is from an early version of the NASAA (National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia Ltd) Organic Standards and is fundamental to why we chose to farm organically and to seek certification as organic producers.

When we first made the decision to go organic, we thought that we’d be able to find the information and resources we’d need. We had worked on conventional farming properties, so already knew about the issues associated with this type of agriculture.

web version.holy goat logoA certified organic farm means no synthetic fertilisers (urea, superphosphate, MAP, DAP, etc) no pesticides or herbicides, no antibiotics or synthetic additives, no hormones, no GMOs.  But organics is so much more than a reductionist approach of not using, or doing, something. It’s about developing a wholistic farming system, built upon interconnected, natural, ecological processes.  Organic production takes a systems approach to the farm, from the soils through to the people. It means happy healthy animals, biologically active soils and a biodiverse farm.

Wander around any of the Victorian Farmers Market accredited markets and you’ll see the familiar farmers’ market ‘tick’ that signifies the grower who sells it has grown it.  Many stalls also display a copy of their organic certification, perhaps through NASAA, ACO, DEMETER, or another certifying body.

But there’s another side to the story – farmers making claim to produce being ‘organically grown’, ‘spray free’ or ‘biological’. It may well be all those things, but without the independent accreditation or legitimacy to back that up, you can’t be sure. It is confusing for the consumer. The organic industry and ACCC have acted on a couple of cases (eggs, water) where growers were intentionally misusing the term ‘organic’ (see the links below), but at a local level it’s usually lack of knowledge or awareness of the organic standards and the perception of added expense. Our fees are currently 1% of our gross income to NASAA annually.

Holy Goat Cheese and Sutton Grange Organic FarmThe best way to be assured that the produce is legit is to buy from growers who can demonstrate their organic credentials through certification (unless you can visit the farm and see how it’s produced first hand) so look for the certification number, the label, or the certificate. These growers are supporting and developing the organic industry. Of course many of our customers aren’t fussed about our organic credentials; they just love the taste of the cheese!

An audit inspection of Holy Goat is carried out by our certifier NASAA annually – our latest was in September 2013. We provide our records (production, sales, etc.) for the past year. Our soils, pastures, vegetation, goats, buildings and sheds are all looked over. We have to be able to trace a batch of cheese back to the milking date and the herd and what they were fed on that day and where that feed was sourced. All bought-in products – hay, feed, minerals, etc. – must also be certified organic and we must have that proof (everything but our NSW barley comes from within an hour’s drive of the farm). Machinery coming onto the farm must be cleaned.  A farm diary and an organic  management plan are kept. NASAA have a volume of Standards – NASAA Organic Standard – that must be maintained and these are regularly reviewed and updated as the industry itself develops.

Holy Goat Cheese and Sutton Grange Organic FarmUsually it takes three to four years to gain full certification. Our farm had been lightly managed, no history of superphosphate use and no soil residues, so we had a ‘precertification’ year and then only one ‘in-conversion’ year before we were fully certified in 2003. Ten years down the track and we have learnt so much from being certified organic. When issues or problems arise you have to look outside the box, because you can’t just treat an animal with antibiotics, or apply a fertiliser to the soil, or buy in feed from wherever you can get it during droughts. You have to know your farm really well. Knowing, through acute observation, is the key – and the benefit – to being a successful certified organic farmer.

All that record keeping isn’t just for NASAA. It’s useful to us – we can see exactly when a goat was mated, or what the weather conditions were on a certain day and what the feed mix was, which minerals were being selected, and how our milk production changed in relation to all those things. Over time, we can see patterns and make links.

Holy Goat Cheese and Sutton Grange Organic FarmThe other attraction for us was the better welfare for animals under organic management. The focus is on allowing the animal to fully express it’s ‘animalness’, so we can let our goats be ‘goats’, expressing their own quirkiness and inherent nature, and not be ‘production units’.

Some farmers may say ‘I love my animals too much to be organic certified’, because they believe that they will not be able to treat and respond adequately to sick animals. We don’t believe that is the case. It hasn’t been our experience. If an organic animal is very sick and needs antibiotics, you cannot withhold treatment – it just means you cannot use the milk from that animal for 6 months. That can be a strain on a dairy enterprise. Some farmers will move treated animals into a ‘hospital ward’, or send them to a conventional herd, or cull. We will keep the animal apart and handmilk away from the dairy. Even if you do have animal health issues, antibiotics may not be the answer, often an underlying issue, perhaps nutrition or stress, is causing the symptoms which medication can only treat, not cure. We use a range of herbal tinctures, vitamins, homeopathics and minerals to assist with treatment of our herd.

The US based vet Dr Hubert Karreman has been a great resource for us in managing our herd organically. He stresses that the best dairy management tool is observation. We have a checklist of signs and symptoms to guide problem solving, as well as the other tools – checking temperature, CMT test for mastitis, breathing, rumination. We encourage our staff to get to know each and every goat – faces and udders especially – to become part of the herd.

(Here’s a test … can you match the goat with her face and udder?! See the link to find out who’s is whose)

A small herd, say less than 100 animals, lends itself to organics, because you get to know the individual animals and their behaviours. Knowing when a goat is acting abnormally, (eg she is hanging behind at the milking line up when normally she’s up first, or she’s not standing with her group of mates, or her coat is fluffy) means you can identify a problem very early on. Even then, the goat has probably been ill for a few days. Early ID is critical because organic treatments take longer (a week, rather than a day or two) to have an effect and are more time consuming to administer and monitor than conventional ones.

Being certified organic has meant we’ve had to find our own solutions to problems, rather than just relying on conventional wisdom or science. It has made us better farmers. And usually the organic solution has been superior to any conventional one. Enterotoxemia (Clostridium) is an example – even in conventional herds it is difficult to treat and farmers usually consider vaccination. We worked with a vet to understand the clostridium bacteria and how it works (it actually exists in the gut naturally) and eventually found charcoal to be an effective treatment.

Holy Goat Cheese and Sutton Grange Organic FarmLikewise, we now understand our soils and their influence on animal nutrition much more clearly. In this granite country, the uptake of some minerals is limited, including magnesium.  The Calcium-Phosphorus pathway is the only one really talked about in dairying, but we have found Magnesium is every bit as important (in mobilising vitamin D) in the goat metabolism. We supplemented with a Magnesium salt lick and this year no goat has shown symptoms of any metabolic disorder. Organics has helped us to understand the biochemical and metabolic systems on our farm in a way no conventional textbook or course could.

We didn’t achieve organic certification to maximise profits, although organic products do generally command a higher price than conventional in the marketplace. For us, it was the organic philosophy and approach; it fits our farm. We enjoy the creativity and the constant learning and application it demands. The sense of camaraderie amongst other certified organic farmers who supply our feed and hay. And the fact we make a quality, ethical and nutritious product.

Why wouldn’t you be organic certified?


*NASAA organic standards 2006

More links:

Organic Federation of Australia

Heat and Goats

Heat and GoatsKeeping our herd of 100 milking goats cool, calm and collected – not to mention our two-legged milkers – is our focus as we head into this week’s heatwave. Central Victorian summers are always harsh, but consecutive days of 40 degrees plus can take their toll on a dairy farm.

Goats don’t sweat. They pant and flare their nostrils to try to keep their body temperature down. We minimise herd stress and help keep them cool by providing lots of water, salt and minerals, shade and ventilation, and keep up a supply of highly nutritious feed.

Goats must constantly eat to maintain body condition, health and milk production. When it’s very hot they may not even leave their lounging sheds to paddock graze, so we compensate by providing them with hay and fresh green feed, improving the nutrition of their ration and milking earlier (we try to have the milking cups on by 5.30am) so they can have an hour or more to feed before the real heat kicks in.

On a 40 degree day our goats will still produce milk, but the volume will be less and the protein and fat levels will change. The resulting curd can be fragile, altering the final product. It’s the balance between fat and protein that’s important in cheesemaking. The preferred fat to protein ratio is 1.35. During summer it can be as high as 1.7 This is why providing high protein, green feed is very important over summer.

Holy Goat Cheese and Sutton Grange Organic FarmWe don’t standardise our milk, so the taste of the cheese will always reflect seasonal conditions on the farm. And the farm itself. We are constantly learning about the effect of season and nutrition, and evolving our farming practices, and cheesemaking, alongside.

As our dam levels drop, the cumbungi growing around their edges become an important source of green feed. By now there is little green feed about, unless summer thunderstorms stimulate native grass growth – wallaby, kangaroo, spear – or our mown firebreaks. The cumbungi provides about a month’s green feed. We also cut back our lucerne trees (a week’s green feed) and branches from our acacia feed/shelter belt plantings – wirilda and black wattle. The wattles grow back lushly through autumn and spring. We do have to watch out for nesting birds in the vegetation at this time of year though.

The feed mix changes over summer. We increase the green feed (protein) component by upping the amount of lucerne and reducing the oaten chaff.  Wheat bran, linseed meal, apple cider vinegar are added to the mix. With the scarcity of green feed we will also supplement with cod liver oil and vitamins A and E.

Heat and GoatsAt this time of year goats have very high salt and mineral needs. Goats do have higher mineral needs than sheep or cattle anyway. Perhaps because by nature they are browsers of (non irrigated) perennial plants, which bring a diverse array of nutrients from deep within the soil profile, rather than the shallow rooted annuals. So we supplement their ration with very small amounts of sulphur, dolomite (calcium and magnesium), magnesium, copper, boron, zinc and seaweed (kelp). We also provide self serve mineral ‘buffets’ where the goats can pick and choose which mineral salt they need – perhaps zinc, magnesium, copper, cobalt, boron, calcium, or just salt alone. Another large salt lick block contains a mix of micronutrients. It’s always interesting to see which minerals they prefer at certain times of the season and at different times in growth and lactation. Right now, the goats are ingesting lots of sea salt as well as boron and copper.

Heat and GoatsDuring the heat at milking time we provide a dilute solution of harvested seaweed (Marrawah kelp from Tasmania, soaked overnight and added to 40 litres of water). It’s very popular! The seaweed provides an important mix of micronutrients and minerals, including iodine, and acts as a bit of a pep-up or tonic for heat stressed animals, as well as rehydrating them. If very badly heat stressed, we will give a goat electrolytes.

Breeding also helps. Saanen goats can get sunburnt, but because our Sannen x British Alpine crosses have tanned udders, noses and ears, they’re much less prone to cancers and sunburn.

Goats drink huge amounts of water during summer, more than 20 litres on a hot day. In the lounging shed we provide fresh rainwater, collected from the dairy and shed roofs into tanks. In the paddocks, dam water is pumped up to a header tank and then gravity fed to troughs around the farm. Monitoring water supplies is a vital job over summer as a few goats can very quickly empty a 200 litre trough.

Heat and GoatsGoats will hunt out shade. Plenty of large paddock trees, shedding and a range of shady sites is important. Our sheds are large, airy, vented and well positioned so they do get cross breezes. We also use vents and fans in the dairy. We let the herd move around the farm freely. They particularly love to hang about under the shearers quarters. This can be disconcerting for the residents above – the goats have been known to pull out power cords whilst having a scratch, stopping the water supply mid-shower and cutting electricity!

Black goats are more affected by the heat, so when they come in for milking we will drape them with cold wet towels. On really hot days we will turn the sprinklers on in the dairy before the goats come in, to cool it down ahead of milking. But we also try to be frugal with our water in case of fires.

Grass seeds (goats have three eyelids so removing seeds from eyes can be a delicate operation) and snakes are our other summer concerns, as well as the ever present awareness of bushfire. We have a well prepared fire-plan, a sprinkler system surrounds the dairy and cheeseroom, and we keep our goats close to the dairy on high fire danger days.

Will you survive the summer ahead as well as our goats?



Happy Christmas and New Year from Holy Goat

Well 2013 has been another year of growth and change for Holy Goat, a year where the seasons were (mostly) kind, the goats thrived and our cheeses continued to find new appreciation around the nation.

We look forward to a brief spell, some time to reflect and celebrate the festive season, before embarking on another farming year.

We’d like to wish our fantastic staff, supporters, distributors, customers – and of course the goats – a wonderful Christmas and New Year. May it be joyous and feature plenty of goats cheese!

 DSC_0238  DSC_0241

NB. If you haven’t stocked up on your festive fromage, we will be selling cheese at the special twilight Melbourne Farmers Markets leading up to Christmas. Check the market link here for more info.

Cheesemaking - Nectre, hard cheeseskyla  Holy Goat Cheese and Sutton Grange Organic Farm