The cheesemaker's year
During my ten years as a teacher, I got very accustomed to the pattern of the school year: the back-to-school dread of late summer, the long and increasingly dark autumn term followed by Christmas carol concerts. Then in the new year come mock exams, coursework, revision classes, and before you know it, the real exams and then end of the summer term with lots of trips out and leavers’ events.
As a cheesemaker with our own herd of goats, our year is rather different to that, but I have found over our six years of doing it that it also has its own distinct rhythm.
You know it’s spring when you no longer start morning milking and finish evening milking in the dark. The mud finally starts to dry up and the new spring grass begins to grow. We start putting goats out in the fields and enjoy seeing them nibble on fresh forage. All this is very welcome.
However, the big event of spring is April kidding. This is a very intense time: it’s exciting to welcome new life and meet new members of the herd, and great to get the burst of new milk that follows kidding. However, it is also a time full of uncertainty and very hard work. You never know when the next goat will kid, and whether it will go smoothly or be one of those one-in-ten births that require a helping hand.
Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when the last goat finally kids, usually about 6 weeks after the first to kid.
Summer is a quiet time at the farm. The goats are at the peak of their milk production and demand for cheese is usually really strong through the early part of the summer, though it can be quiet through late July and August, as the British public take their holidays.
In summer, thoughts turn to planning ahead: believe it or not, Christmas order projections start coming in from our customers in late summer, so we too start crunching the numbers and work on our production schedule for the run up to Christmas.
Though it may only be a matter of weeks since the last kids have been born, we are also already thinking ahead to next year’s kidding: a goat is pregnant for five months, so the billies are introduced to the first group of girls (who will kid in January) in the middle of August. There is a lot of planning involved, working out which goats need to be mated with which billies and when, making good matches and keeping closely related animals apart. The billies need to be checked over for health and condition before they can start their work too.
Early autumn is often really beautiful and tranquil, and the goats enjoy mellow days out in the fields and a late flush of autumn grass. However, by October, the Christmas cheese rush is in full swing and relaxation is no more. It is hard to convey how much demand for cheese goes up in the run up to Christmas, and though we try our best, we often can’t quite make enough to fulfil orders. We aim to build up our stock levels throughout October and early November, so that we have more cheese available for the peak weeks at the end of November and start of December. All hands to the cheese pump!
By the week before Christmas, orders start to tail off again and thoughts turn to ordering our own Christmas cheese board and working out the staff rota for the Christmas period. Cheese making and farming are both activities that go on 365 days of the year. We milk and make on Christmas Day just like any other day, though we try to keep the cheese batch sizes small, and by late December many milkers will be drying off now they are pregnant, which speeds up milking.
January and February are dark, cold and often very muddy at the farm. January is a very quiet month for cheese sales. So it is a good time to take stock of plans for the year ahead, reconnect with our customers, and enjoy a quieter pace of life for a few weeks after the madness of Christmas.
Not for long though, as we have a small group of goats to kid in January, so before you know it there is a patter of tiny hooves and plenty of late nights.