Local rancher hopes to increase local interest in none-too-common livestock option
By Sarah Pridgeon
Blissfully unconcerned that they’re not the most popular livestock choice in this region, a new generation of goats can be found frolicking on the Hewes-Miller ranch just west of Sundance this spring. What began as a fix for too many twin calves has become a project close to Tanja Miller’s heart – and one she would dearly like to share with her neighbors in Crook County.
As well as introducing the county’s first goat show this fall, Miller makes and sells products including milk, cheese and yogurt and is hoping to promote dairy goats as a 4H project.
Owning a goat is second nature for Switzerland-born Miller, who says the terrain often makes them a better choice than cattle – they’re known as the “poor man’s cow”. Growing up, though, she lived in an area of grain and corn production; goats are more common where the land gets tough, she says.
“When I came over here, I always wanted a goat and [my husband ] Monte always didn’t want a goat, but then one year we had so many twins that Monte had to buy milk replacement – and milk replacements are expensive,” she says.
“I bought a couple of goats and it was impressive how well the calves did, so that was kind of my in.”
Miller soon noticed that far-flung goat breeders weren’t keen on traveling to northeast Wyoming to buy her kids because they had no papers – there was no quick and efficient way to check their background. At that point, she began registering her American Alpines and Alpenthal’s Dairy Goats was born.
Miller says she understands why not everyone thinks of goats fondly.
“You have to work on people a little bit with goats, they just don’t have the best reputation,” she muses.
“I think a lot of it is the people who have goats and let them roam free and then they get in trouble with cattle ranchers and they scare your horses – you need fences for a goat, a corral, but they do always come back when they wander.”
Miller, however, loves their independent spirits and playful nature.
“They’re always in trouble – always. It’s just a goat thing,” she laughs. “If you leave a gate open or anything like that, they will find it.”
Curiosity might not be good for cats, but it’s the hallmark of a young goat exploring its world. Clothes, boots, camera straps, hair – anything it can grab with its mouth is fair game for exploration.
“They really don’t hurt anything because they just nibble on it,” Miller says, tugging her ponytail from a nosy pair of lips. “They’re also hardy animals that can endure a lot of environments and thrive in them. And goats will keep you entertained, they come up with things all the time.”
When goats are milked twice a day and handled often, they seem almost to think of themselves as pets, she says. Fluffy tails wagging a greeting, just like a dog at the front door, add to that impression.
“Goats, next to the dog, are the only domestic animals that, when in distress, will come to their owner. A horse will run away and even a cat or a cow will not come close, but goats will come back to you,” Miller says.
“In England, they did studies on the relationship between domestic animals and their humans and figured out that goats and dogs are the only two that will bond so closely. They will make eye contact with you, which most animals won’t do – if they want food, they will look at you.”
Miller’s motivation in promoting goats as a 4H project comes partly from her daughter’s involvement with Alpenthal’s animals. Echo enjoys showing goats and is as keen to care for the animals as her mom.
Echo’s first show of the season will be in Greeley, Colorado at the end of April. She will also be heading to the American Dairy Goat nationals in Columbus, Ohio for the second year.
“This year, because she helped well enough last year, she can bring our own goat – so one of our goats is going to go to nationals,” Miller says.
Which goat will win that trip of a lifetime has yet to be decided – when you spend the whole winter with your animals, Miller smiles, it’s hard to spot the flaws a judge might see. Once the judges in Greeley and then in Torrington take a look, they’ll have a better idea of which goat will impress the national judges.
“With goats, you really have something for the smaller kids that they can handle. They are sturdy enough that even a smaller kid can handle them and they’re not mean,” Miller says of her hopes for 4H.
“That would be one of my goals, for the kids to know more about them”
Specifically, Miller would like to see an increase in the education kids are offered on caring for dairy goats. This is rarely included at the moment, she says, because there are so few in the area, but with twice the dairy goats on show at last year’s county fair, she hopes interest is already growing.
“I think this would be a great ag project to get into – you don’t need much room,” she says. “And for the milking part you have to be very responsible, as you have to milk them twice a day – plus, they’re cuter than a sheep any day, with a lot more personality.”
For the same reason, Miller has assisted in putting together the inaugural Black Hills Dairy Goat Association show at the fairgrounds, scheduled for September 22 and 23.
Miller herself is now one of Crook County’s foremost authorities on goat rearing. With so few people around this area who breed dairy goats, she looked further afield to increase her knowledge and completed an online certification out of Oklahoma for quality dairy goat production.
“I thought, oh, between Christmas and calving I’d have time – but that class kicked my butt,” she laughs. “But I did it, and I have so much information now that if I can’t find it in my two folders, there’s a reference to where I can find it.”
For her own part, Miller is happy to leave the showmanship to her daughter. “I’m more about the production,” she says.
Her goats will be milk appraised this summer – this is different to winning the best dairy category at a showing, she explains, because the milk is compared to a standard, whereas the animals at a showing are compared with one another.
Theoretically, she says, that means the winner in a show could just be the best of a bad bunch – it doesn’t guarantee a good animal producing tasty milk. That’s what you need an appraisal for.
Alpenthal’s milk is already selling well, she says, and the cheese is attracting attention. Some people need more convincing than others, of course, but Miller is having few problems getting her products from the shelves into willing mouths.
For a certain group of people, the taste of goat cheese infused with such ingredients as sundried tomatoes and basil is only the beginning of the appeal.
“A lady in town has a girl who is lactose intolerant and gluten intolerant. We talked about how hard it was that she always had to make two meals and to find something good to eat for the little girl,” she says.
Miller explained that many people who are lactose intolerant can actually drink goats’ milk. The lady was excited and took home some yogurt and mozzarella to try.
“She sent me a picture of the first time that girl ever had cheese on her pizza,” Miller smiles. “I loved that. That’s a whole group of people I have that all of a sudden can drink milk again and they can have cheese.”
For more information about Miller’s goats, call 290-2324, visit alpenthalsdairygoats.net or search “Alpenthal’s Dairy Goats” on Facebook.