By Susie Sims
||Goat dairy farmer Leslie Spell sets up one of goats for milking. She uses a custom-built system that allows her to milk from the side.
Dairy farmer Leslie Spell begins her mornings like most dairy farmers do. After breakfast she takes a short walk to her milk barn.
The difference between her dairy and the hundreds of others in the state is that she milks goats instead of cows.
Spell lives on her 20-acre Limestone County farm with her husband, Paul, and their son, Isaac.
She came into the trade a little differently than most. Rather than inheriting a dairy or expanding an existing farm to include dairy cows, Spell bought the operation and moved it from Tennessee.
“When we moved here about two years ago, we were looking for something agriculture based to do,” recalled Spell. “We had a few small animals when we lived in Florida, but nothing like this.”
|Six-year-old Isaac helps out by rinsing out the milk tank.
The Spell family located a 20-acre plot near Elkmont and thought the place was perfect for them.
They met the previous owner of the goat herd at the Lincoln County Fair in Tennessee. When the Spells learned that Kenneth Meeks was interested in selling his dairy operation, they jumped at the chance.
“We had no experience with a farm this size, but we wanted to give it a try,” said Spell. “It’s been great.”
Spell said the state health department was really helpful in getting her application processed for the dairy. “Right now, there are only three goat dairies in Alabama,” said Spell. “But there are three more that have applied.”
Once the certification was in order Spell said she had to have help with the financing, noting the Redstone Federal Credit Union was eager to help. The dairy has been in operation since early spring.
The Spells rely on the Limestone County Co-op for their animal health needs and much of their equipment and fencing.
What Do You Do With Goat Milk?
||Margaret Posey (left) of the Fromage Belle Chevre cheese factory and Leslie Spell measure the milk before loading it on the truck.
You may be wondering what a farmer would do with the milk from 100 goats. Spell sells the milk to a cheese factory located less than three miles from her farm.
“Mr. Meeks had been selling the milk to Fromage Belle Chevre,” said Spell. “The owner was thrilled when we bought the dairy because now it takes only minutes to pick a load.”
Spell said the factory collects milk three times each week. She has to have at least 1000 pounds for them to pick up a load.
“By law I can keep the milk for 96 hours, here, in my tank,” said Spell. “The factory then has six days before it has to be pasteurized.”
Spell said she has sold more than 130,000 pounds of milk this year.
Spell noted that cheese is the number one product made from goat milk. She has tried her hand at making other things like yogurt and ice cream for her family.
A Long Day’s Work
Just because she milks goats instead of cows doesn’t mean her work day is any shorter. Before he leaves for his job in radio advertising, husband Paul helps by carrying the feed buckets into the milk barn. Once the milking begins, Spell stays in the barn for close to four hours. She pulls another four-hour-tour in the evening.
Her barn is set up so that eight goats are in the milking stalls at a time. She has the capability to milk four goats simultaneously. While one side is milking she is unloading and loading the other side.
“I call this the Meeks milking system,” said Spell, referring to the simple system of ropes and pulleys that open and close the gates to the stalls. “Mr. Meeks had a system like this and he helped us with this one.”
Spell noted that she preferred her system to others she had seen because hers mandates that the goats are milked from the side. Her system is designed so that one person can work it effectively.
Spell also noted that Paul was basically in charge of the physical side of the animals’ health regimen. “He has to help with the worming and such and with trimming their feet,” Spell said. “I have no experience with animals and can’t physically handle them.”
Milk production is starting to slow down as many of her Saanen breed of goats are being bred.
“We will stop milking some time in November and not pick up again until February,” said Spell. “But we have plenty to do in the mean time.”
Spell said that she has to paint all of the wood in the milk barn. The wood was allowed to cure for a while after being constructed last winter. During the down time the Spells will tackle the job of culling some of the herd.
To her knowledge, all of her goats are less than five years old, which is the cut-off for high-production milking.
Since she had no farming background to go on, Spell has had quite the learning curve.
“I’ve learned a lot about the animals—what they like and don’t like,” she said. “I had to pick up on that quickly.”
Spell also mentioned that she had to learn how to deal with neighbors since much of the adjoining property is broken into lots. She said it helps that the Saanen breed of goats is quiet by nature.
Fortunately, one the neighboring lots is owned by Paul’s son, Aaron, and his wife, Maria. Spell said that Aaron and Maria help out by keeping some of the younger goats at their house.
Her number-one goat wrangler is son, Isaac, 6. “He helps round up the goats and helps with the clean up after milking,” said Spell.
Isaac has his own desk in the milk barn where he does his school work while Mom tends to the goats.
“I decided to home school Isaac because I wanted him to experience life on the farm,” said Spell. “If he went to public school, he could only be a part of the farm on the weekends. He’s part of the reason we decided to do this.”
Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleyville.