How Teaching Goats to Change Their Diet Can Help Create Sustainable Dairy
Dairy farmer Gloria Putnam’s goal is to wean her goats off of hay—a water-intensive crop in drought-stricken California—and get them to graze on the natural landscape.
Gloria Putnam pulls up to our campsite in an ATV with a beautiful picnic basket. There's creamy homemade chevre with sesame crackers, wild-caught salmon with locally foraged Pinyon pine nuts, an herb salad, and quinoa with Aleppo peppers and tomatoes. Dessert is vanilla ice cream with goat dulce de leche—a thick, irresistible caramel sauce made just this week. Usually she'd have goat meat tacos, but there isn't any meat this week.
We are camping on Putnam's property, a 70-acre ranch called Angeles Crest Creamery, just 90 minutes away from Los Angeles. Located on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains, it's a micro-farm with 35 goats, 60 chickens, and a handsome donkey named Hank.
Putnam, who used to live in Los Angeles County, moved to her ranch full-time just this year. She currently has campsites and an Airstream available for visitors; a fresh, homemade, gourmet meal utilizing goat products and locally foraged goods can be ordered for $40. Putnam is currently building a cabin by the lake and hopes to expand her ranch into a full-time tourism business.
But behind this picture-perfect escape is an experiment in sustainability.
"When I see hay, I just see water," she says.
Hay from California is generally grown in the desert or in the Central Valley using groundwater that's pumped in to irrigate the field. It's an extremely water-intensive process, especially given the context of the California drought.
While some farmers provide their dairy goat herds with access to pasture, the majority don't rely on pastures for nourishment. And because dairy goats require much more nutrition than meat goats, Putnam's attempt to get her goats to forage the dry chaparral California landscape is completely experimental.
"Eating is a cultural thing for goats as it is for people," she says. "Babies learn from the parents. They are adapting to this new environment and figuring out what to eat and that will optimize itself over more generations."
Dairy goats are like athletes; they can give birth every year of their adult life and require constant feeding. Hay and supplemental grains are necessary to keep them plump and full of milk. Foraging is much more difficult for them, but it's a practice Putnam hopes will grow throughout the years.
Creating a regenerative system for her and her livestock is at the core of the work she does. Originally, she intended for her ranch to be a dairy as well as a tourism business, but realized that if she wanted to a profitable dairy, she would have to compromise the health and happiness of her goats.
"There are two months when they don't produce milk. Some people will add hormones to get them to produce but I don't want to do that," she says.
Other operations will separate the babies from their moms to yield more milk. Putnam, on the other hand, is adamant about letting the babies feed from their mothers.
"Taking them away from the mother puts them at risk of being sick," she says. "And they cry."
There's also the issue of licenses and meeting regulations. Putnam notes that California regulations are not hospitable for small-scale food producers. "If you want to produce food on a small scale, the capital investment required to get started is very difficult to overcome," she says. "For example, if I wanted to move my milk from the side of the barn to the side of my house, I need a milk hauler license for that."
On top of managing her ranch, Putnam juggles a full-time remote office job on the side. Every day after work, at around 6:30 PM, she'll milk the female goats; during birthing season each year, she's on call nearly every hour. Campers can watch the milking process, and the friendly goats love the company.
"People think raising goats is about milking them. It's not. The main job is to manage a maternity ward and a nursing station," she says.
While managing the ranch is labor-intensive, it's clearly a work of love. Putnam knows every animal by name, as well as their personality quirks—like which side individual goats preferred to be milked from and what their favorite snacks are. Putnam's ultimate vision is to have an operation that is in balance with the land.
"I want to make sure I have a regenerative process and not an exploitative process. And to do that, I'm never going to be profitable as a milk provider or a value-added cheese provider," she says.
While she makes her own dairy and processes the male goats on-site for meat, she only produces enough for her own consumption and the guests at the ranch.
Expanding her tourism business is the main focus these days. Putnam used to teach cheese-making workshops in Los Angeles and is working on creating a space for that at her ranch. She just got a sauna installed that's open for the public and she says she hopes to grow her own food very soon.
"There are a lot of things I do that aren't economic, but for me, they're a more sustainable choice," she says.
The morning that I leave the ranch, Putnam has left the goats out to forage. They nibble on the local vegetation, but seem keen on returning to the barn where piles of fresh hay await them. A couple of the goats look bored and sit in the shade, watching as the rest of the herd eats.
"The problem is keeping them out there," she says. "The hay is so tasty. They'll get better tuned in to the local vegetation as they get more experience, though. But the adult goats that I brought in didn't have any experience with these plants as children."
The entire scene is, perhaps, an apt metaphor for our own eating habits—we strive to eat more sustainably, but it's a change of habit that will take years, perhaps generations, to overcome.