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Urban Goat Co-Operative

goat-coop
Tessa enjoying a brush after being milked. Photos by Emma Belyea

Hibi Farm is nestled on a sprawling suburban block in a quiet court in Melbourne’s not-quite-inner north. You could be forgiven for forgetting you were in the middle of postwar-built suburbia and instead had been transported back in time to the Swiss Alps, Heidi-style.

Chickens peck around the goat pen, which sits at the back of the yard, beyond the extensive fruit and vegetable gardens. Michi Pusswald, a householder at Hibi Farm, scrapes out the straw bedding. His wife Angelica nuzzles Tessie, a bearded Toggenburg milking goat, leading her up onto the milking stand. Michi and Angelica are on the ‘goater’ shift this morning, and that means an early start.

Hibi Farm sits at the centre of the Hood; a loose collective of local households living the good life. Central to the operation of Hibi Farm is the goat co-operative. Milking the goats is a daily ritual undertaken by one of the 15-odd official ‘goaters’ rostered on. This milk is shared between their households and then further afield as currency in bartering arrangements with friends and neighbours.

How It All Started

The goat co-operative is well established. Angelica, her sister Maria and their families moved into the area around eight years ago. Inspiration struck when Maria’s husband Edwin saw a Burke’s Backyard article on backyard goats. It took them about a year of careful research and planning before they got their first goats.

‘We would buy bags of manure for the garden and it was the idea that we were constantly buying stuff in, that made us think; wouldn’t it be nice to have animals to produce that for the garden,’ recalls Angelica. Thoughts of other benefits of keeping goats only came later when research around milking was done. When the goats arrived, with their unique personalities and loving natures, the co-operative members were sold on the benefits of keeping them as pets and companion animals.

‘Instead of having a dog, you can just have a goat,’ says Edwin. ‘Although I’m not sure that I’d want the goat sleeping on our bed.’

Milk

The goats provide seasonal milk for the co-operative members and cover most of their needs. Things can get a little lean in winter, so some families in the co-operative choose to supplement with shop bought milk, but much of the time the goaters are dealing with more milk than they can handle.

‘It’s a lot of work and a lot of milk, so we started including one extra household, and then added another and another,’ says Maria. One of their first goats, a Saanen (the largest of the milking breeds), produced so much that the co-operative couldn’t cope with the amount of high energy feed and milking she required. ‘We actually don’t want the most productive dairy goats because they’re tricky for us to manage. We want one with an easy personality, one who is robust and friendly to children.’

Goat Mentor

‘We have a goat mentor,’ Maria explains. This is the breeder who sold them the goats, and his ongoing support and advice to the co-operative is vital. ‘We’d definitely recommend getting a mentor if you’re wanting to keep dairy goats,’ Edwin says. ‘It’s not really the sort of thing you can just learn in books.’ Their mentor has generously shared advice on everything from milking to common goat ailments, as well as his passion for keeping the animals. ‘He’s really just so happy about what we’re doing; that a new generation of people are interested in keeping goats,’ says Angelica.

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Clockwise from above: Angelica milking Tessa with a chicken looking on; Feed instructions and goating roster; Fresh milk for coffee; Angelica finishing up for the day with a pot of fresh milk to take home. Photos by Emma Belyea

goat-coop

Inputs

‘It’s a huge logistical mission to get all the feed and supplements,’ says Edwin, and his fellow Hibi farmers agree. ‘Their food is based on grain, which at the moment is barley and rolled oats, and some chaff, and that’s what they get for breakfast and dinner at milking times. During the rest of the day they have access to oaten hay and lucerne hay.’

Mineral supplements of copper, sulphur and dolomite are important for milk production and are added to the mix, along with apple cider vinegar, seaweed meal and olive oil. The goat menu changes seasonally and Angelica, with a background in agricultural science, is well-versed in the importance of ruminant nutrition. ‘We’re constantly managing the food we get in throughout the year. Sometimes the lucerne’s really stalky, other times it’s lush and leafy, so we need to adjust the amounts and balance their diet so they don’t get belly aches or runny poo.’ The goats also receive branches and prunings from members of the co-operative and neighbours.

The co-operative are well aware of the inputs of their goats. Angelica says that they tried making chaff early on and sourcing organic feed, but found this almost impossible. ‘We’re under no illusion that this is any more sustainable than trucking in good organic dairy products for our households, but it does have added benefits,’ she says. These include valuing the dairy in their diet far more than they ever did, the children growing up with a connection to where their milk comes from and the companionship of these beautiful creatures.

Time

Time is a major input into the keeping of goats. While the daily milking shift can happen quickly (each goat can be milked in under 10 minutes), there can be other obligations. On the morning we visit, Rosie is recovering from mastitis, and Angelica must massage and coax the milk out of her blocked milk ducts – all while avoiding a kicked milk bucket from an understandably agitated Rosie! A goat with mastitis requires two milkings a day. Cleaning out the pen and filtering and pasteurising the milk are other daily tasks, while managing the finances, rostering, distribution and communication of the co-operative take time too. Members are assigned roles to help share the workload. The goats also enjoy regular walks; a PR exercise in the local neighbourhood for the cause of goats. ‘We’re really careful about it – we take a little broom so we can sweep up after the goats,’ says Maria.

Cycles

The desire for goats at Hibi Farm was initially for manure purposes. Cycling the goats’ outputs into useful compost for the garden is a big part of the system they have set up. Compost bays adjoin the goat shed so that goat bedding and manure can be easily transferred, while chickens move freely through both spaces. ‘I don’t think we could have the goats without the chickens,’ says Angelica. Chooks peck edible seeds out of the goat manure, as well as fly maggots which breed quickly. ‘We had a fly problem early on, and we worked out that the chickens could help us control that.’ Chickens also clean up the goat pen floor after milking, scratching through the fallen feed for any protein-rich morsels.

Rules And Regulations

‘It took us about a year to get organised to apply for a goat permit,’ Angelica says, though regulations vary from council to council. While it was straightforward, Maria and Angelica worked hard to ensure it came through. ‘We were scared about not getting it, so we put a huge amount of work into drawing up plans and showing that we’d thought about things like hygiene, smells and storing all the food,’ says Angelica.

The local council are on-side now. Angelica says that the ranger comes yearly for an inspection but ‘really it’s just because she likes to come and see the goats!’ There aren’t strict regulations for keeping goats in the space, but the goaters did plenty of research before designing the pen. ‘They’re not pasture animals that need a certain amount of grass,’ says Maria. The goats’ compact pen easily fits within the confines of the Hibi Farm backyard. With all of their food brought to them, as well as constant visits and nuzzles from children and goaters, Rosie and Tessie are two very happy goats.

Aspiring Goat Co-Operative Tips:

  • Get a goat mentor
  • Keep your co-operative as small as you can, the
  • more people involved the greater the logistical challenge
  • Be realistic about the responsibility of owning a goat/goats
  • Don’t go for the best milkers; good personality and robustness are equally important
  • Be ready to become a crazy goat person, as these animals are as infatuating as cats and dogs

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