October 27, 2011
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico: As far as Nancy Coonridge knows, she is one of only commercial goat cheese dairies in the USA where browse is the primary feed.
And while free range has many conflicting definitions in artisanal food production, for Nancy it literally means “no fences.”
“I have no fences and no neighbors for miles and miles,” she said.
This isolation allows her 70 goats access to far more than her deeded 300 acres.
“I’ve never had a complaint.
“New Mexico is a free range state. You have to fence animals out here rather than in.”
Coon Ridge Organic Goat Cheese Dairy is located in the dry, rim rock country of western New Mexico at 8000 feet in elevation.
Her advertising slogan claims her cheese is “From the Wilds of New Mexico” and I doubt anyone would ever dispute this claim.
Her mail box is two hours away by jeep road.
She uses solar energy for her own electricity and drinks rain water captured from her roof. “I want to live as simply and naturally as possible,” she said.
For a direct marketed operation, she is a long way from the upscale urban consumers who buy her cheese but her decision to move here was very carefully calculated. “The Southwest has the ideal feed resource for goats - browse. And the dryness cuts down on worm load and other problems.”
Nancy grew up in the San Francisco Urban Area, where as a teenager she suddenly realized she needed a goat.
This grew into a small backyard goat dairy and an interest in raw milk cheeses.
“I am a mostly self-taught cheese maker. I started out just making cheese for myself.
“I would do a little more of what worked and a little less of what didn’t until I got it right.”
This self-teaching was helped along by occasional sessions with Mediterranean-trained cheese makers who had moved to California.
In the 1970s she got involved with several dairy goat cheese co-ops that subsequently failed.
“We were too far ahead of the curve,” she said.
In 1977, she started free ranging her goats in the brush-covered California foothills.
“I never liked the idea of pushing an animal to produce. Confinement dairies are too geared to maximum production and not enough to animal health.”
In the early 1980s, she got a job as a long-distance, cross-country truck driver. “I started to look at the world from a goat’s eye view.
“I would drive down the highway and ask myself, ‘I wonder how goats would do there?’”
In 1982, she decided her goats would really like brush-covered, western New Mexico and bought 40 extremely remote acres.
Since then she has expanded this to 300 acres and today milks 70 does.
French Alpine is her predominant breed but she also has some LaManchas and Nubians.
The goats are milked in stanchions early in the morning and are then turned out to free range the rest of the day.
The goats wear radio collars and are accompanied by Italian Maremma guardian dogs.
“Goats are homebodies and have a real homing instinct that brings them home at dusk. During breeding season they naturally want to roam so we have to track them and bring them home the most at that time.”
Unlike sheep and cattle, goats refuse to be driven but will sometimes readily follow someone they know and trust.
“Occasionally, I’ll have a goat who will climb a rock pinnacle and can’t get down and I’ll have to go and get her.”
The goats spend the night in a barn and barnyard next to her house.
Unlike sheep, dairy goats can have a very long lactation.
Nancy said a well bred dairy goat can milk for two years or more without freshening, but she turns all of hers dry for the winter.
“I only milk during the green season, which is from March until November.”
She said the goats will only eat grass in the early spring. The rest of the time they choose a browse diet exclusively.
By giving a large area of browse the goats can select a very high quality forage in excess of the 18% protein threshold that goats require.
“Most dairy goat producers never give browse a chance. They just don’t appreciate what a high quality feed it is and how healthy it is to let their animals get exercise.”
The only other browse-based goat dairy she knows of is in northwestern Arkansas.
She said by not pushing the goats with grain, the milk is very high in fat and protein, which is ideal for a cheese dairy.
Grain feeding is very detrimental to goats as it robs them of their heat source in digestion and easily upsets the ruminant function.
“Also, I’ve never trimmed a hoof and I don’t need antibiotics or drugs of any kind.”
In semi-arid areas like hers, browse has another advantage in that it is much less susceptible to drought than grass.
Goats also love nettles, thistles, dandelions, chickweed, leafy spurge, greasewood and poison ivy. They love bitter flavored plants that other ruminants purposely avoid.
Under free range conditions, they avoid poisonous plants.
Because of their natural tendency to eat small amounts of a wide variety of plants they need a larger range than sheep.
Also, with their large rumens goats eat two to three times more forage in a day than a sheep.
The goat’s ability to stand on its hind legs and to negotiate high and narrow ridges greatly expands its browsing range, and they use their front legs and muzzle to ride branches down to browsing range.
“This rim rock region is great goat country but very poor cow country,” she said.
The male kids are sold in the spring for meat but the female replacements are left with their mothers all summer rather than weaned early.
“This is the only way a young goat can survive in our predator-rich environment. The mother will take care of her kid even better than the guardian dogs.”
Goats make good use of rough terrain to escape their predators.
The goats are fed organic alfalfa hay in the barn during the winter to supplement their browse, especially when heavy snow keeps them home. They go out and stay in bad weather until the snow has melted down through their winter coats and then they come back to their barns to dry out.
She said getting organic certification is easy for rangeland graziers and in New Mexico the certification inspection cost is subsidized by the state. She was certified in 1998.
“Being Certified Organic offers a little challenge in finding organic herbs and spices for my cheese but I look at it as a game. It actually makes it fun.”
She currently advertises 10 different cheese offerings roughly split between Mediterranean and Southwestern types.
She sells about 10% of her cheese production through her website, and the remainder is split pretty evenly between health food stores and farmers’ markets in New Mexico and Arizona.
The cheese is sold in 7.5 ounce glass jars covered with organic sunflower oil and organic virgin olive oil.
She said this oil covering excludes the air from the cheese and is the classic Mediterranean way of preserving cheese without refrigeration.
This oil has a further advantage in that it increases flavor since she puts garlic and different herbs with it.
The cheese is sold for $25 for a single jar, $50 for three, $80 for six, which includes packaging and freight. It sells for less when in stores or farmers’ markets.
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