Mystery Bay Farm – Farm Walk – June 15, 2015

Sustainable Farmstead Goat Dairy

Mystery Bay Farm, Nordland, WA (Marrowstone Island)
June 15, 2015

It was a micro-farm walk at this micro-dairy on Marrowstone Island, as five attendees gathered to learn about farmstead goat dairying from farmers Rachael Van Laanen and Scott Brinton. The farm walk began in Mystery Bay’s barn, where Rachael spoke about maintaining a goat herd and the general milking process. Currently, the farm has twenty-one Alpine dairy goats that are milked to make cheese and yogurt.

Rachael explained that they don’t dehorn their goats because they’ve never had an issue keeping the horns, and they also don’t show their goats (where dehorning is required). The basic cycle for their goats starts with fall breeding (they keep two bucks) to provide spring births. They dry their does off by Thanksgiving to give them a two month break from milking. The does will give birth in February/March, when they will begin milking again. This past spring, Rachael said they had 39 babies, which they try to find new homes for as quickly as possible. She only allows the babies to milk with their moms up to seven days after they are born, and then will switch to formula – which is cheap compared to the milk that can be used to make Mystery Bay’s wonderful cheeses and yogurt. Rachael tries to “pre-sell” her baby goats as much as possible to nearby farms that either raise them as milkers or meat goats. She keeps around fives does every year as replacement milkers and to refine the herd as necessary. Her suggestion for anyone looking to purchase goats, is to be really picky when it comes to disease-testing records to ensure a healthy start.

Rachael and Scott feed their goats all grass hay – most of which they produce in their own pastures. They have found that goats are true browsers and need a high percentage of roughage. As browsers, Rachael has noticed that the goats don’t like to eat hay that has fallen out of their mangers. At milking time, the does receive a 100% organic grain mix (16% protein) plus regular supplements as needed. Mystery Bay milks twice a day – 6am and 6pm – using an automated bucket milker. Rachael advised that an automated milking system becomes most cost effective once a milking herd exceeds 7-10 goats.

Mystery Bay’s milking parlor is attached to the wash room, where the raw milk gets passed to be filtered and cooled in a water bath. Rachael explained that it is important to cool the milk as quickly as possible to prevent the milk from “breaking down”, which results in off flavors (such as a “goat-y” taste). First and foremost she believes that healthy goats will provide rich, tasty milk but that it is as important to properly handle that milk to ensure a delicious end product. Rachael mused that operating a dairy is 90% cleaning, as everything that the milk touches needs to be washed and sanitized properly for both the safety of the product and the integrity of the milk.

Next to the wash room is the cheese making room. Though attendees could not go into this room (or the wash room) Mystery Bay had a large viewing window for everyone to view its set-up. In this room, Rachael pasteurizes her milk in a pasteurizer she sourced from Micro Dairy Designs. Unlike other commercial pasteurizers which are often too large for small dairies, this pasteurizer allows Rachael to pasteurize anywhere from 3-20 gallons. This affords her the ability to process small batches of milk to test out a new cheese or recipe without having to pasteurize a large quantity of milk.

Rachael makes chevre and yogurt every two days, nearly year-round. She will make a fresh ricotta in the spring as she has found the richness of spring milk lends itself well to this soft cheese. With making fresh cheese (not aged), Rachael noted the importance of high quality milk, which provides all the nuanced flavors in the cheese. Depending on the season, she will notice a dramatic change in the flavor and texture of the cheese in reaction to what the goats are able browse in their pastures.

At the time of the farm walk, Rachael was draining the whey from some chevre (which takes 24 hours). She trades this whey with a local farmer who uses it as animal feed. Initially, Rachael didn’t intend to make yogurt but after an employee experimented with a recipe and they discovered how delicious it was, she began making test batches to take to markets. Rachael shared that it wasn’t that big of an investment to begin yogurt making as they already had most of the equipment necessary for its production. The yogurt is incubated for 8-9 hours in glass jars.

Scott then took the attendees through Mystery Bay’s pastures, which he manages through a rotational grazing system. A trained ecologist, Scott manages the pastures as close as possible to how they would naturally be managed in a wild system. Mystery Bay has five of their own acres and they lease another 20 contiguous acres. Scott’s long-term goals for the pastures include introducing more silvopasture and coppicing tree systems into the pastures – for both the goats to forage and for additional farm resources. Using semi-permanent fencing, Scott has developed a system of 32 paddocks, which the goats rotate through four times during the growing season (the goats are otherwise kept in the barn yard October thru March).

Mystery Bay harvests their own grass hay. Scott explained that grass holds the most protein during the “boot stage” of its development, which is right before it grows out its flowering parts. Additionally, the protein quality of a grass decreases as long as the weather is nice, so haymaking often needs to occur at a moment’s notice from nature. Since goats need variety, Scott tries to introduce other food sources and encourages the growth of wild roses and blackberry. He plays around with tree grafts and has found success in grafting pear on top of hawthorn – the pears get to go to the farmer, and the goats get to browse the hawthorn. Scott shared that he believes in replicating success, and doing so has allowed him to improve his pastures in a sustainable manner.

The attendees were also able to see the vegetable garden where Mystery Bay grows produce for themselves and all the herbs used to flavor their chevre. From pasture to parlor to the final product, Mystery Bay Farm provided an excellent example of how to operate a sustainable dairy operation.

Click here to view the farm walk booklet for Mystery Bay farm.

Summary by Angela Anegon

This Farm Walk is supported in part by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2012-49400-19575. For more resources and programs for beginning farmers and ranchers please visit