CARLTON, Minn. — Andrea Johnson had 40 acres and a lot of brush.
On the hunt for brush eaters, she tried goat’s milk for the first time. “At that moment, I could care less about brush eaters. I just wanted to start raising little goats and milking them,” she recalled.
Johnson launched her dairy goat farm, Andy’s Acres, about four years ago outside Carlton, about 20 miles southwest of Duluth.
Today, she has about 20 Nigerian dwarf goats — all with short, stubby legs, some with spots and tufts of hair on their heads, some with wide “hips” and long “mustaches.”
Johnson makes cheese, yogurt and pudding that she turns into ice cream. She even makes even soap with their milk. She calls her dairy farm a move that already fit into her lifestyle.
“We farm, we hunt, we fish. We try to be as sustainable as we can. The whole goat thing opens up a whole new opportunity of homesteading. … I can provide my family with homegrown dairy products, especially from animals that I’m taking care of,” she said.
Johnson’s dreadlocks bobbed in a tall ponytail as she walked through her grounds. Her granddaughter, Iris Swanson, 4, stepped up onto a shelf in the barn — she knows her way around.
“We’ve got Shylah, Sassy, Jinxy, Summer, Butterscotch, Trixie and Phoebe and DeeDee and Sparrow, and Pearl and Irene. These are all the girls,” Johnson said pointing to the does.
Butterscotch is Iris’ favorite.
There are large tractor tires and wooden wheels. The goats jump on them — they have a vertical leap of 4-5 feet — and chew cud.
Goats have a tight family unit, and they keep that bond forever. They’re prey animals, so they like to be petted on the chest and ribs. Their pupils are rectangular, so they can see behind them, Johnson said.
They eat hay — alfalfa hay when they’re milking — and grain. They live about 14 years, and they’re not born milkers, so year one with a new doe is all about getting them accustomed to milking.
Johnson breeds them one at a time, and 145 days later, kids typically come in groups of twos or threes.
Goats are stubborn, funny and food-motivated. They’re also sensitive to your energy. They won’t go near you if you’re anxious or worried, so you have to leave that at the door.
“They’re like my little zen animals, my therapy,” she said.
Johnson uses breakaway chains in different colors to help identify the goat families and to help when they need to be maneuvered for hoof-trimming.
There’s grain, feed, and at times, vet bills, but she can’t pinpoint how much it costs to keep one. The biggest expense in the beginning was building a fence, but it was necessary to keep out coyotes, bears, wolves and dogs.
She has invested more into pedigree goats, purebreds and into registering her animals.
“I got a buck I flew in from Maine. I paid $1,000. … Because his milking pedigree is so amazing, I’m hoping that that transfers to the kids.”
Johnson’s income from soap covers hay. She also sells neutered billies and does, and reinvests that money into new sires, milking machine gear or barn improvements.
There’s a camera in the barn and a monitor in Johnson’s house. She uses it to view kidding indoors, and she’ll know when it’s time to hop in to assist. “To me, it’s not a natural part of farming to let them go out and do their own thing. I want to prevent any complications,” she said.
It can be an emotional process, and she has seen complications.
“I’ve had my arm in that far to rearrange babies and pull babies,” she said, motioning up her elbow. “If I hadn’t intervened, they probably would’ve died.”
Johnson didn’t grow up with animals. After graduation, she moved from Minnesota to a farming community in Iowa. There, she worked as a USDA inspector for 10 years.
Moving to 40 acres near Carlton with her husband, she researched a lot before getting her goats. She also gained support from a network of Minnesota goat owners. They share medicine and experience through an informal mentorship. Most of it is paying it forward, and it can be as simple as answering questions about feed or checking in when an animal is sick, said Barb Adams, one of Johnson’s mentors.
Adams has been handling standard Alpine goats near Barnum since 2007. She recalled Johnson having issues milking a goat after kidding. Adams swapped out her PJs for jeans to help, and the issue was simple. The doe’s udder creates a wax plug in the teat to keep out germs. They got that out, and the baby goat was able to nurse.
“Most of us who have stayed in this for more than three or four years just want to keep learning. You never know it all, and she’s always doing research,” Adams said of Johnson.
She learns about and studies what’s best for her animals, and when considering fellow goat handlers, she said: “I go by whether I would sell an animal to someone, and I would sell to her.”
Johnson’s days are milking in the morning, chores such as cleaning pens, then getting her granddaughter Iris, then back to milking and chores.
Of all breeding goats, Nigerian dwarf goats have the highest butterfat production. A small goat at the peak of lactation will produce a half-gallon a day. She milks often to keep production up.
In the milking room, Johnson led one of her does, Deedee, onto a wooden platform.
Deedee’s head went between two wooden planks, and she leaned down to eat grain from a bucket. Johnson wiped her udder with a warm washcloth to prevent infection. She emptied the first squirts into a can; it won’t be used because it could contain bacteria.
Johnson attached Deedee to an electric milking machine. With a steady hum, the milk made its way through long tubes into a large, already sterilized Mason jar.
“You don’t have to worry about dust or air, (it’s a) nice clean way to get the milk," Johnson said.
Deedee yielded about a pound, which Johnson placed in a nearby fridge, already filled with a week’s worth of milk. It doesn’t go sour like pasteurized products, and it eventually turns to cheese, another venture of hers. Johnson has made chevre, mozzarella and farmer’s cheese from her goat’s milk. It takes about a gallon of milk to make 2 pounds of cheese, she said.
Her process is to bring the milk up to 185 degrees. Add your acid, vinegar, lemon or lime juice. Season it the way you’d like, then press it. She vacuum-seals and freezes a lot of her cheese for later use.
Johnson likes the versatility of farmer cheese. She makes it plain, adds strawberries or jalapenos. “The downside is during milking season, the guaranteed 20 pounds you’re going to gain," she said.
It can be hard when they’re sick or there are complications. Kidding season is emotional — waiting for and ensuring the moms bond with their kin. Then the goat tattoos, selecting homes for the ones that will be sold, and saying goodbye is all stressful. But in the end, she gets to raise her own dairy product and expose her grandchildren to the experience of milking and raising animals.
Andy’s Acres is a one-woman show. Her husband built the fence and helps with stacking and transporting hay. But she’s in charge of the milking, chores, cheese- and soap-making. For her, it all boils down to raising her own dairy product, providing homemade goods to her family and exposing her grandchildren to the experience of milking and raising animals.
It’s a physical hobby, uploading hay, cleaning pens and milking. Johnson said she looks forward to the end of the day, sitting with “the ladies” when the chores are done.
“They all come up, and they’re rubbing up on me, and this one’s trying to eat my hair, and this one’s eating my shoe. I do like you guys. You’re a lot of work, but it’s alright.”
More info: facebook.com/AndysAcres/