Experimental Goats

Episode 62
For the Love of Goats

If a herd has more than one breed of goat, odds are good that they also have some experimental goats, which are crosses of other purebred standard-sized goats. Bucks are determined creatures, and unplanned breedings happen in most herds.

However, there is a huge difference between accidental crosses and crosses that are planned to create the best goats to meet your goals. For Erika McKenzie, head cheesemaker and dairy herd manager at Pennyroyal Farm, that means creating crosses of her three different breeds to create the goats with the best milk for making cheese.

In this episode, Erika talks about her breeding strategies and why she loves being unencumbered by specific breed standards, as well as the dairy’s business model and their cheese subscription program. She also discusses her early days with the goat herd at UC-Davis and how her goats wound up on ADGA’s Top Ten list the year after starting to milk test.

Learn more about Erika McKenzie:

Want to see a comparison of all of the goat breeds side by side in a spreadsheet, from milk production averages to appearance?

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Transcript – Experimental Goats

Introduction 0:03
For the love of goats! We are talking about everything goat. Whether you’re a goat owner, a breeder, or just a fan of these wonderful creatures, we’ve got you covered. And now, here is Deborah Niemann.

Deborah Niemann 0:18
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s show. So far, I think this may be my most exciting episode when it comes to talking about breeds, because we’re not actually talking about a breed today. But this is a registered goat, and that is we are talking about experimental goats. And I wanted to make sure that I found someone to talk about this who didn’t just have a couple experimental goats—because experimental goats could be like, you know, your Alpine buck jumped the fence and got into your LaMancha pasture and accidentally bred her. And so, that’s not a purebred anymore. So now, it’s an experimental goat. But it was an accident, and who we are talking to today is somebody who actually embraces the whole idea of the experimental goat. And so this is going to be really fun. Today’s guest is Erika McKenzie-Chapter, and she is from Pennyroyal Farm, and Chevre Noir Dairy. Welcome to the show today, Erika!

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 1:15
Thank you for having me.

Deborah Niemann 1:16
I love the idea of not being encumbered by your goat looking a certain way or whatever. Bottom line for us: Like, we’ve always been super interested in milk. And one of the things that I loved about the Nigerians is that I knew I would never have to cull a really great goat because it was the wrong color or something like that—which, it just irritated me. I thought, “Gosh, that must be so hard for people who have a breed standard that has appearance as a deciding factor on whether or not an animal is going to be disqualified or anything like that.” So, first of all, for people who are sitting there scratching their head going, “I don’t understand, what’s an experimental goat?” Can you just talk a little bit about what that is, and how we’re not talking about, like, going down to the sale barn and just picking up some crossbred goat?

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 2:04
Yeah, so experimental in terms of ADGA—the American Dairy Goat Association—is they have to be dairy. So, you can’t have a Kiko cross with a LaMancha, or, you know, something with Boer goat in the pedigree. These are completely dairy animals, and they have to be a cross of the recognized dairy goat breeds. The exception being, you can’t cross a Nigerian Dwarf with any of the standard sizes. So, all the experimentals are a cross of two or more standard-sized breeds. And in terms of experimental, yes, you could have a 50/50, where the father was an Alpine, the mother’s a LaMancha. But you could take that 50/50 half-LaMancha half-Alpine and breed her to a Nubian, or to LaMancha, and end up with multiple breeds in the pedigree—or, you know, a small percentage of LaMancha and a high percentage Alpine. So, it’s any combination where 100% of the pedigree is known, registered animals, but of crosses of breeds. So, these are dairy animals. It’s just taking a wider gene pool and working with it for breeding.

Deborah Niemann 3:12
One of the reasons I’m so excited about talking about this—because I’m doing a series on goat breeds to help people pick a breed if they don’t have one already. And I think a lot of people are like, “Ooh, but I love the floppy ears on the Nubian, and the little bitty ears on LaMancha, but I like this…” And so they think that they need to get three or four different breeds, which would mean, if you want to keep them purebred, you have to have bucks for each of those different breeds. And then it gets really… It gets complicated. It gets expensive. And so, an experimental goat opens it up for people. Like, if they’re not really married to the idea of a specific look in a goat, if they’re just really interested in the dairy, this really opens it up to them to not have to worry about appearance.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 3:58
Yeah, and that is really where I embrace the experimental. So, I have a commercial dairy, and we make cheese. And so, as much as I love my purebreds… I certainly think there’s a place for the purebreds you want. I think it’s good to preserve these genetics and, you know, who knows, if something comes up in the future, to have these disparate families of genes that you can go back to. But as a commercial dairy, there’s value to different breeds. You know, your Alpines and your Saanens are really high milk producers, but your Nubians are higher in butterfat and protein. And so, as a cheesemaker, I’m really looking for total fat and protein at the end of the day. And, a 4,000-pound milking Saanen or Alpine at, you know, 2.8% protein, it’s gonna make about 100 pounds of protein over the course of the lactation. But your Nubian, who’s down at, you know, 2,500 pounds for the lactation and up at 3.5% protein or higher, it’s going to be doing 90 pounds. They’re pretty close. So, there’s value to both those breeds in cheesemaking. And what I’m looking for is taking those two breeds and getting kind of a hybrid vigor, if you will, of crossing those high milk production animals with the high component animals.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 5:16
And it does come down to, as well, bucks. I could just have a dairy herd that is made up of purebred Alpines and purebred Nubians, but then I’d have to keep more bucks for each breed, and I’d have much faster that I was dealing with the concerns of how over-bred or inbred was I getting, and changing out bucks more frequently. So, by sort of embracing crossbreeding and experimentals, if I invest several hundred dollars in an Alpine buck, I have the freedom to breed him not only to my Alpine does, but to my Lamancha does, to my Nubian does. And then their offspring, if I breed them to a LaMancha, you know, I can go back to Alpine in a much shorter period of time. So I’m able, I think, to more effectively utilize the investment in my bucks that I’m getting, because I tend to keep bucks for basically their lifetime once I’ve brought them in. If I’ve identified that they come from genetics that are going to improve in my herd, I want to use them as much as I can. So yeah, the crossbreeding program really lets me sort of get the most out of those boys.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 6:22
And, I like the variability. I came up at UC Davis as a student at the goat dairy there, and that, because of the the makeup of the herd, in the earlier years there was a lot of crossbred animals. And so, when we started a show team there, Jan Carlson, who was the facility manager at the time, was kind of like, “Well, kids, you know, this is a new herd. It hasn’t been, you know, heavily selected for show animals. So, let’s start with the grades and the experimentals, and just kind of get yourselves comfortable with that.” So it’s sort of what I started with as a, you know, my experience with goats and showing, and so I just kind of kept going with that and really see the value of them as a commercial dairy making cheese. And so, that’s why I’ve stayed with them for so long.

Deborah Niemann 7:03
Okay. In our chat, before we started recording, I was shocked when you said that you have only been on milk test since 2017. Because, I found you on the Top 10 list.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 7:30

Deborah Niemann 7:16
And people do not find themselves on the Top 10 list. And you were… That was the 2019 Top 10 list. Like, people do not normally start milk testing and then wind up with Top 10 goats within a couple years. How did that happen with you?

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 7:34
Well, I definitely… So, I started my herd in 2005. And I purchased animals initially from Redwood Hill Farm, and also from UC Davis. So, I was getting animals from farms that were on test to begin with. And so, having worked at UC Davis at the goat dairy as a student, I’d been trained on, “Here’s milk testing. Here’s why we do it. Here’s what the information tells you.” And I knew where that herd was, and I sort of said, “Okay, that’s where I want to at least start my own herd at, in terms of baseline milk production.” So, I started my initial herd with—they were crossbreds. They were fall crossbred kids from from Redwood Hill Farm. But I started my herd from herds that had already been on milk testing for a very long time, and had been selecting for milk production.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 8:24
So my initial herd, my starter herd, came from good genetics, and I was able to sort of evaluate milk production kind of… You know, you look at a doe, and if she’s got a larger udder, you can kind of correlate that to higher milk production. So, when I was making selection choices, I was using the visual that I could. But a couple years in, it became clear, I’m like, “Well, if I really want to take this—if I want to verify what I’m doing, and then take this further—then you have to be on milk test.” And so using that data, the last several years, I will look at who are my highest producers in the herd at the end of the year, and those are the ones that I’m keeping replacement daughters out of. I’m not keeping daughters out of everybody; I am really selecting for offspring out of the highest protein producers in the herd. And that’s how I’m able to make an advancement in terms of milk production and quality of milk production each year. And yeah, so far we’ve had multiple animals in the Top 10 every year for all the years we’ve been on test so far. Initially, just in my recorded grades and experimentals, but I’ve started to have some of the LaManchas as well. And a Nubian in there, too, I think. So, I’m starting to get them selected as well. But having started with grades, that’s definitely where the strength of my herd is, is in my experimentals.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 8:28
And when you say that you’re selecting for protein, are you looking at the percentage, or as a cheesemaker, are you looking at the pounds of protein that they produce in a year?

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 9:54
I’m looking at total pounds of protein. Because percentage, on it’s own, is good information. But in terms of what that goat is contributing to the cheese vat—you know, in terms of total cheese yield—then I want to look at total pounds of protein, or at the very least have my percentage and total pounds of milk, because that’ll give you total pounds of protein. Because, if you’ve got a goat who’s only milking 200 days out of the year, and yes, she might be 4.5% butterfat, and you know, 3.9 protein, but she’s only milked for 200 days. So, I really am looking at that total production for the year to evaluate what her potential is for contributing kind of to future generations.

Deborah Niemann 10:36
Yeah. Years ago, when my daughters were still here and we were on milk test, there was a doe that was a terrible producer. And I really wanted to sell her, and we would have sold her, except that my daughters were like, “But Mom, look at the milk test. She produces more pounds of butterfat than anybody.”

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 10:56
Yeah, I’ve got some surprise goats, where every year when I… So, within DHIR, the program that I use—the lab that I use—they let you kind of create your own reports. And so, I’ve kind of created this report that I call my “replacement doe decision maker report.” And so, it pulls all of the ERPAs for protein and fat—so your expected reproducing abilities—and then it lists your total protein and total milk production. And there have been some surprise ones in there, where I’m like, “I would not have thought just looking at her, and I know her milk production…” You know, I just wouldn’t have thought that she was a goat that I should be keeping offspring out of. But the numbers are there. And so yeah, sometimes, like, you just have to see the number to know. You know, it’s data. It’s hard. So I like those numbers to sort of be like, “Oh, wait, I wouldn’t have thought of her. And yet, I really should be including this animal in my gene pool.”

Deborah Niemann 11:51
Yeah, exactly. That’s one of the great things about milk test. I think a lot of people just look at it as a way to get bragging rights, you know, to have a goat get a milk star or something. And I know that’s why my daughters wanted to do it. But once we started getting the reports, I loved all of the data that you get, because I mean, the lab can tell you things that you just can’t see by weighing the milk and looking at the goat and things like that. And especially for cheesemaking, they give you really important data.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 12:22
Yeah, yeah. You know, and I think dairy farming is a spectrum. You have people who are, you know, a family of four, and they have a pig, and they have a goat, and they’re milking, you know, just for the family and making cheese just for the family. And so, for them, you know, maybe a 1,000-pound milker is all you need or want. And then you have the cheesemakers, the commercial cheesemakers, who want that fat and protein. And then, you have the commercial dairies that are looking for fluid milk, and they aren’t as concerned about fat and protein, and they want those 4,000- and 5,000-pound milking Saanens and Alpines. So I think, yeah, the data is great, because it really lets you move in the direction you need to go for what you’re doing. And yeah, as a cheesemaker, for me it’s that protein is the bottom line in terms of what justifies their expense in the herd. Certainly I do, once in a while, keep a pretty doe who maybe isn’t the best milker, because she has other qualities. You know, she’s got great feet and legs. She’s really strong doe. She’s got great longevity. So, I can’t solely focus on milk production. I do have to kind of big-picture look at the doe’s structure as well. So, I do try and not completely limit my focus to just what is the number on the report. But it’s definitely, I’d say 90% of my decision-making happens based on the data I get back from milk production.

Deborah Niemann 13:44
Can you tell us a little bit more about your dairy, and the type of cheese that you make, and how much cheese that you make?

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 13:49
Yeah, so we’re milking… At peak, we’ll milk 108 goats. We also have sheep, and I milk 30 dairy sheep as well. And we’re a seasonal dairy, so we start kidding and lambing typically in February, and then the sheep we’ll milk through until September, generally. The goats I’ll milk until December. And then, we are making, on the farm, five, six varieties of cheeses. So, I do a raw-milk blue vein cheese called Winter’s Blue, I do a raw-milk tomme that we sell at a variety of ages called Boont Corners. I do two surface-mold-ripened types, one similar to a Camembert called Velvet Sister. Another one… I actually apprenticed in France for a year as a cheesemaker, and that Bollie’s Mollies is really an homage to the cheese I learned there. And then sort of our chévre-style called Laychee. So, those are kind of our primary cheeses.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 14:43
And we are also a winery. So my partner… I met my business partner in college. We were both in grad school at UC Davis, and she was there for viticulture and enology. She’s a winemaker, comes from a winemaking family. I come from a dairy farming family, and we met, kinda became friends, bonded over animals. So at one point post-graduation, she and I were communicating, she’s like, “Hey, I have this crazy idea to start a goat dairy and and creamery in conjunction with a new winery, because it just makes sense to have those elements together.” So I moved. At that point I was milking, I think, 35 or 36 goats, and had a herd of about 80, and working as a cheesemaker for someone else. And so, I relocated my herd up here to Mendocino County. And we began work building the barn, building the… You know, it was just kind of an open parcel. So, building the barn and dairy and creamery from scratch.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 15:40
So, we have both wine and cheese here at the farm, and it’s kind of worked out really nicely to marry the two, so that you have the sheep and the goats and making those five styles of cheese. Our peak production, I’ll be… This year, our peak was in April at about 140 gallons of milk a day. And right now, everybody’s pregnant, I’m getting about 56 gallons of milk per day. So, there’s quite a bit of variability in our production from from start of season to end of season. And hopefully… I’m going to have a couple milk-throughs this year, but hopefully by December 22 or so we’ll have stopped milking the bulk of the herd, and everyone kind of gets to take a winter break. It’s nice to embrace the seasonality and say, you know, “We don’t have people coming by the farm to buy cheese this time of year.” So January is our break everything down, clean everything up, get ready for the next season month.

Deborah Niemann 16:36
It sounds like such an amazing business concept, and I wish I lived closer; I’d probably be there every weekend. Are any of your cheeses aged, so that, like, you can sell them in stores or anything like that through the year?

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 16:50
Yeah, yeah. No, we… Our retail is fairly limited to Northern California, the San Francisco Bay area. We do ship direct. We actually have a cheese club. So, we’ve got about 650 cheese club members around the country that we do five shipments of cheese a year to them. But in terms of store sales, predominantly, the San Francisco Bay area is where we are. Certainly with COVID, we’ve seen a little bit of retraction in terms of store sales, restaurant sales, but our cheese club expanded. We were at 550 Club members prior to COVID, and so that expanded, so our direct sales have increased. And then we sell… At the farm we have a tasting room, and we sell directly off the farm as well.

Deborah Niemann 17:37
Wow, that is so interesting. I love your business model. I think you’re the first person I’ve talked to who’s done something like a subscription model. And that’s really smart. I love that idea.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 17:48
It was a good idea pre-COVID. And it was an amazing idea post-COVID. Really having those members, it sort of guaranteed sales over the course of the year. We knew that we had people that were going to be buying cheese at different times of the year, so we were able to sort of stabilize production knowing that, you know, we weren’t going to have a bunch of people buying right when COVID hit and then no sales during the summer. We knew we had those customers. Certainly they like being members; we send out, each shipment, I do photography around the farm of all the animals. And so, each cheese comes with a card that has information about, you know, the specific animal whose photo was on the card, information about the batch of cheese, kind of what’s happening at the farm, what’s happening with the goats at that time. I’ve gone into great detail about breeding season and the smell of bucks and reproduction. And then also cheese—kind of cheese details. So, they get all that with each shipment, too.

Deborah Niemann 18:41
Oh, I love that idea! You’ve just described, like, the perfect marketing plan for direct to consumer for cheese. That’s wonderful. So, back to the goats. Well, this is so cool. I could talk about your business all day. I love it! So, back to the goats a little bit. If somebody is interested and thinks like, “Oh, well okay, I can’t decide what breed I want, so maybe I should be looking for experimental goats.” What can somebody expect to pay for good-quality experimental goats? Is it going to be really similar to what they would be paying for purebreds?

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 19:16
I think it depends on… It’s going to parallel what happens in the purebred. Certainly, they’re going to be a little bit less expensive, but quality is quality. And so, if you are trying to buy an animal where you know the milk production records of relatives; if you’re trying to show, and you want to show, and you want show-quality animals, you know, experimentals are happening across the board. You have top breeders who are multiple-time national champion winners that have experimentals, and you have people who are just getting started with experimentals, and so I think the price is going to vary depending on where you’re going. Certainly, it’s going to be less, and I think, you know, the less that’s known about the animal, the lower the price will be, and generally they’re going to be a little bit cheaper than purebreds if you’re buying kids.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 20:04
I got lucky when I bought my first animals. It was a fall kid crop. They had put in a bunch of bucks with a bunch of kids, and whatever bred was whatever bred; so it wasn’t an intentional, “We have this doe and want to breed her to this buck.” So, a lot of dairies—really good dairies—will do some crossbreeding just to get their fall milk supply. That’s where I think you can kind of get really good animals for lower price point, versus if it’s, you know, spring kidding season and someone has their national champion experimental. That kid is gonna still cost you, you know, maybe not as much as the LaMancha or Nubian national champion kid, but they’re still going to cost you more. So, I think at the higher end I’ve sold experimental goats for like, $500, but then a lot of them… You know, when I’m selling kids at kidding season for other commercial dairies, they’re going for $75. So, it really depends on the genetics.

Deborah Niemann 20:55
Okay. I’ve noticed that quite a few dairies seem to like crossing LaManchas and Nubians. I was wondering—because there’s a local dairy here that does that. I interviewed somebody a few weeks ago who does that; she has, like, mostly Nubians, but she brought in some LaManchas. Is there any particular cross that you think just gives you exactly what you’re looking for?

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 21:19
I really like a half-LaMancha, one-quarter Nubian, one-quarter Alpine. I think that combo, you get the production of the Alpine Swiss breed, you get the fat of the Nubian, and you get… I mean, certainly, I think there’s a reason why LaManchas are very popular. They have great udder confirmation as a general rule; they have great, you know, structural confirmation as a general rule. So, I think they give you just a really solid base goat that crosses really well with a lot of other breeds. And so, I think you see a lot of—certainly, at shows—the people who are showing both experimental and have another breed somewhere, a lot of times they’re LaMancha breeders, because it’s a good, solid breed. And I think it crosses well both ways, both going into Swiss and going into the Nubian.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 22:07
So, the three breeds that I work with on our dairy are Alpines, Nubians, and LaManchas. And so I have purebred Alpines—a few of them. I have purebred Nubians—quite a few. I’ve got a lot of purebred LaManchas. And then I do the crossing. And so, I like that, you know, half-quarter-quarter combo, but I will get to that many routes. So like I said, I don’t want to pigeonhole myself on my bucks. And so, if I’ve got a great Nubian buck, I’ll breed him—usually not to an Alpine. I don’t like that first-generation ear cross. We were talking about earlier, about color and not, you know, not wanting to disqualify an animal based on color; I do have certain ear types I’m not a fan of. So usually I’ll breed the Nubian to a LaMancha, and then that one I’ll breed—or, to an Alpine to try and temper the ear a little bit. But I want to just use the bucks the best that I can. So I will breed my Nubian buck to a LaMancha, I’ll breed him to a Nubian, and then I’ll breed that offspring to the Alpine. But by the same token, I’ll take my LaMancha buck and breed him to my, you know, Alpine does or to my Nubian does. It just sort of whatever is the best cross. I look at the individual animal and like, “Well, here’s what her protein production is, here’s what her milk production is, and I want to,” you know, “improve this in terms of her structure. So, this is going to be the best buck for her, regardless of what the breed is.” It’s really just trying to create the best cheesemaking goat that I can from the individual pairings.

Deborah Niemann 23:35
Yeah, I love that idea. That’s awesome. And everything you’ve said is just such great philosophy in terms of just trying to create your best milkers, regardless of whether you are breeding a specific breed or, you know, if you’re crossing them. So, that’s awesome. Do you have any final thoughts about experimental goats that you want to share with people?

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 23:56
I mean, I think they’re a way to produce a really good dairy goat, which is what we’re trying to do. I think there’s also, you know, potential there for… You know, we do have purebreds, and we do want to try and preserve purebreds, but I know, you know, sometimes purebred populations get too small and inbreeding gets too high. And I think the ability to do an experimental can actually help you preserve breeds, too. The herd I worked with in France raised Poitevin, and that breed almost went extinct at a point. And so they brought in British Alpines, which are phenologically the most similar. And they were able to bring back their breeding population, just with a little bit of influx from an outside breed. So I think, you know, there’s some strength in using the experimental as well, just to be able to preserve genetics that might otherwise disappear. So, I think there’s a lot of value in crossbreeding in terms of, yeah, just kind of creating an ideal goat for whatever your purposes are, but also for making sure we can keep some of these old breeds around, too. I think they’re just really useful animals.

Deborah Niemann 24:56
Awesome. This has been so much fun! I really enjoyed this. I loved hearing about your business, as well as your goats. Thanks so much for joining us today. How can people find you if they want to connect with you?

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 25:07
Well, our website for Pennyroyal Farm is www.PennyroyalFarm.com. And that’ll link you to the cheese. But then on Facebook, we do have Pennyroyal Farm on Facebook as the business. But if you’re more interested in the goat side of things, I actually have two ADGA registered herds, Royal Penny and Chèvre Noir. And so, if you look for Chèvre Noir on Facebook, that will take you directly to information specific to the goats. I post on there, you know, what our milk production, who was the highest goats for milk production on test. We’ve got a test coming up this weekend, so I’ll post again. Kind of show highlights. So, anything specific to the goats, you’ll find on the Chèvre Noir Facebook Page.

Deborah Niemann 25:47
Awesome, I love it. All right! And we will also have links to all those pages in our show notes as well. Thanks again for joining us.

Erika McKenzie-Chapter 25:55
Absolutely! You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

Deborah Niemann 25:58
And that’s it for today’s show. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to hit the “subscribe” button so that you don’t miss any episodes. To see show notes, you can always visit ForTheLoveOfGoats.com, and you can follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/LoveGoatsPodcast. See you again next time. Bye for now!

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