Little goats, big results

Bovids do wonders at a Northern California farm

Nigerian dwarf goats are less than 2-feet tall and exceedingly friendly. Their milk tastes good, too.

Nigerian dwarf goats are less than 2-feet tall and exceedingly friendly. Their milk tastes good, too.

Photo By PHOTO by kat kerlin

I used to think that goats, while cute, were intimidating, head-butting, unruly little animals. All that changed with a trip to Northern California’s Castle Rock Farm.

Sarah Hawkins and Andy Pestana of Castle Rock breed Nigerian dwarf goats. They are—not surprisingly—small, less than 2-feet tall. They come in all manner of colors common of livestock: brown, black, white, speckled and spotted. Most impressive to me, they were just so friendly.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I could let my 2-year-old daughter, Lily, pet them.

“Oh, sure,” encouraged Hawkins.

Within a minute, Lily was surrounded with about five or six yearlings who gently nudged her as she stroked their coats, giggling. Being goats, they did nip the zippers on our jackets and tug on my hair, but all very gently.

“Tickle your jacket!” said Lily.

“They’re like babies,” said Hawkins. “Everything goes in their mouths.”

Nigerian dwarf goats have a reputation for friendliness—though the bottle-feeding they get twice a day also helps warm them up to human handlers. Hawkins said the bottle-feeding is not because the kids’ mothers don’t want to feed them, but to reduce risk of disease in the kids and mastitis in the mothers.

Hawkins and Pestana have been doing quite a bit of bottle-feeding lately. They’re right in the middle of kidding season. As of Mid-February, 25 kids have been born, and the season isn’t expected to stop until May.

Castle Rock Farm has been breeding goats for about 8-and-a-half years on this 5-acre property. While the Nigerian dwarf goats’ personality goes a long way, it has other favorable attributes.

Hawkins was originally drawn to Nigerian dwarf goats because their small size made them easy to handle and transport. The average doe weighs about 75 pounds.

“I don’t need help to wrestle these guys,” she said. “I always win a contest of will with them.”

And while, like most living things, you could eat them if you really wanted to, they’re most appreciated as dairy goats. Their butter fat is higher (4.5 percent to 9 percent) than most dairy goats (3 percent). Hawkins said their sweet milk is particularly good for goat cheese, as well as goat-milk ice cream, and goat yogurt, and of course, milk.

“This stuff, if you did a blind taste test, you’d think you were drinking half-and-half,” said Hawkins.

Their size, and the large amount of milk they produce relative to their size—up to a half-gallon per day—make them a nice option for urban farmers, too.

“They’re a great size for a backyard,” said Hawkins. “They don’t bark, and you can use their poop for fertilizer.”

Hawkins started a side business making goat-milk-based skincare products. Soaps, scrubs and lotions in a variety of scents are available as part of English Hills Soap Company, which she sells at the Davis Farmers Market.

And while goats take center stage at Castle Rock, the farm also plays host to a flock of chickens, a llama, a border collie named Stella and an Armenian Gampr dog named Minnie.

There are also boxes of bees in a bee garden, which is planted with California native plants propagated in the couple’s greenhouse.

“This is what we should look like, right here,” said Pestana, referring to the region and motioning toward the bee garden planted with poppies, manzanita, sage, yarrow, sage, coffeeberry and other plants.

Hawkins and Pestana are trying to re-vegetate much of their property with native plants, particularly along a seasonal stream bed that flows along the perimeter. These plants do more than prevent erosion; they’ve also noticed a significant increase in beneficial insects since planting them. It’s a nice sign as they continue the slow work of improving their soil, which is recovering from years of herbicide use by previous owners.

We say our goodbyes and return home. I walk into our backyard, grass growing too high for its own good, and consider, at least for a moment, trading in the lawn mower for something far cuter.