Updated: August 19, 2013 at 12:40 pm
Divide - Juan Vega ushered a herd of five goats from the barn into a pasture when one of the females butted him from behind.
Instead of swatting the goat, Vega smiled and scratched her ears as Mercy Me rubbed her head against his hip.
"She wants the love," he said. "She always does that."
The goat is one of eight females and two males that make up The Stone Creek Farmstead in Divide, where Vega works for owners Bob and Dianna McMillan. Stone Creek is one of only 25 licensed artisan, farmstead or specialty cheese producers in Colorado. Along with Hi Plains Dairy in Calhan, it's also one of only two state-registered goat dairy farms in the Pikes Peak region, which means they must follow certain sanitary and production practices.
Demand for goat cheeses has grown in recent years among restaurateurs, people who are lactose-intolerant and those who make a point of buying locally or regionally produced foods. In 2002, there were 22 dairy goat farms in Colorado, according to state records. Last year, there were 125.
Cheese production is the fastest-growing market for goat's milk in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Still, the nation imports more than 50 percent of its dairy goat cheese products, primarily from France.
The McMillans didn't start their dairy with the intent of cutting foreign exports or becoming shepherds, much less cheesemakers, when they moved to Divide.
The two are natives of Hallock, Minn., population 910. She was a dental hygienist, then stay-at-home mom; he was an executive with an insurance company. They moved to Colorado Springs in 1998, bought the 250-acre farm in 2003 and moved into their home in 2008.
That's when they realized they needed an effective weed control program. Rather than spray toxins, they bought four male goats. The animals proved so affectionate, the McMillans expanded the herd by adding two females that year. Once they began milking the goats, the outcome was inevitable.
Winning recognition for cheese
The McMillans quickly got serious. They spent about $200,000 building a barn, buying a pasteurizer, milker and other equipment to expand the dairy they started months before in a small outbuilding on the property.
Bob then spent four days at the Vermont Institute of Artesian Cheese in March 2011 and officially opened their farmstead in September of that year. Two months later, he toured the Loire Valley in France, talking to cheesemakers, tasting cheeses and studying how dairies were built and run. Dianna took classes in hard cheesemaking in Ashfield, Mass.
They made about $75,000 from the sale of goats, soaps and 2,300 pounds of cheese last year - the farmstead's first full year of production.
"We did not intend to make it on this level," Bob McMillan said. "It started as a harmless retirement thing that got out of control."
Just as exciting is the award given to one of Stone Creek's eight cheeses. The farmstead received third place for its Creek Bloomy Bleu cheese in this year's American Cheese Society's competition in the category of blue veined goat's milk cheeses. (First place went to another Colorado boutique cheesemaker, Avalanche Cheese Co. in Paonia.) The competition, held in Madison, Wis., had 1,794 entries from 257 companies. With this year's award, Stone Creek - the state's smallest licensed dairy - became one of only four Colorado goat milk cheesemakers to win recognition in the annual competition since 2010, according to the American Cheese Society website.
Music soothes the goats
Milking starts at 8 a.m. on the farm, which was once the Alpine Lakes Resort in Divide. The goats are herded two by two into the milking room, where stainless steel machines draw milk from the udders.
As a licensed dairy, the McMillans are not allowed to hand-milk the goats, a way to ward off infection in the animals and impurities in the milk. Each goat gives about 7 gallons of milk a week, depending on the size, age and season. The milk produces about 45 pounds of cheeses each week, Bob McMillan said.
The goats have birthed 13 babies, or kids, this year. The McMillans sell the males. A goat with good genetics whose mother was a good milker will bring $300 to $500, McMillan said. The sales also help with revenues.
As soon as the goats are milked, the liquid is chilled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and taken to the former campground's main house, now the Cheese Make Room, where anyone who enters must don hair nets and slip blue cloth surgical booties over their shoes. Entrants then step into a 2-inch deep pool of sanitized water that sterilizes shoe bottoms.
The goats often try to follow the McMillans' pickup from the barn to the Cheese Make Room, but they are shooed away. Kody, however, gets to follow. The 6-year-old female German shepherd is a dedicated friend and protectorate, and the goats adore the dog, said Dianna McMillan, who administers vaccinations, draws blood and handles other husbandry duties. But the cloven-hoofed animals are not defenseless.
"They chased a bear out of the barn one night," she said, holding a picture that showed a 4-foot hole in the barn's main door made by the bear's departure.
The goats roam the farm during the day, eating weeds, tree bark and whatever else they can ingest. At night, they are kept in the barn and serenaded by Gothic chants. The music soothes the goats, Bob McMillan said, which helps them produce better quality milk.
"They also like Bob Dylan," he said, "but they hate ABBA."
Satisfaction of a job well done
From 2007 to 2011, the number of milk goats in Colorado hovered near 8,000, according to the National Agriculture Statistic Service in the Colorado field office. In 2012, the population increased to 12,200, mainly for three reasons, said Sandra Hoihjelle, goat superintendent for El Paso County.
Families with lactose-intolerant children began buying goat instead of cow milk because it is easier to digest, Hoihjelle said.
Another factor was the introduction of miniature, or dwarf, breeds that can be kept in backyards.
An increase in ethnic populations familiar with milk goats, also fueled the boom, she said.
It isn't just Coloradans who are getting into goat's milk. Lindsey Aparicio, aka the Goat Cheese Lady, teaches cheesemaking classes on her 1.5 acre farm near Garden of the Gods. She said people from North Carolina, Florida and other states have attended her classes, as well as several Colorado cooks.
"Four of those were from the Blue Star on South Tejon," she said, "as well as others from Boulder and Denver."
Inside the milking room, the milking machine mimics the sound of a hospital ventilator, as it draws milk from the goats about every 2 seconds. Preparing the milk for cheesemaking takes about a day, depending on the type of cheese. In the end, it is a day well spent, Dianna McMillan said.
"I love making cheese and soap because of the fun of making a good product the old-fashioned way," she said. "It is a satisfaction of doing something and doing it well."