September 15, 2005: Elly Hushour was in the market
for goats' milk. It was 1986, she had just given birth to her first
child and she had read that goats' milk was an excellent source of
nutrients for nursing mothers--superior to cows' milk by far and easier
to digest. A woman who raised show goats lived nearby, and Elly approached
her about making a purchase.
In a classic example of the old adage, the neighbor sent Elly home
with not just a bottle of milk, but a way to milk for herself. “I
just wanted milk and I wound up with a doe and two babies,”
Elly recalls. And milk she did. Today, Patches of Star dairy produces
13,500 gallons of milk a year, which Elly sells direct to consumers
as yogurt, soft cheeses, feta, and in its raw form, literally. As
a licensed manufacturer of raw milk and raw milk products, Elly
is able to supply a fast-growing niche of health-conscious customers
with the pure, unadulterated food they so desire.
Patches of Star didn’t grow from one goat to 62 overnight.
When Elly’s original doe passed away, she thought that was
the end of her “goat phase." But, by that time, Elly
was knee-deep into goat-showing.
“When I went to my first goat show, I came in dead last and
I couldn’t figure out why. I learned later what I needed to
do--what I needed to look for--to place. After a while, I learned
to pick animals with good structure—a strong udder.”
This eye for “body” has proven useful in choosing does
for milking as well. Elly says most conventional goat dairies don’t
pay attention to the body of their herd. If a doe has poor structure
and steps on her udder, she’s simply culled. Coming from a
show background, Elly knew that a clipped, clean, well-structured
animal means longevity. And longevity just makes good business sense.
In 1999 the herd had outgrown
her house. “There were babies in my bathroom,
on the floor, in the tub--they were everywhere.”
So the herd grew from one to 20, despite her husband’s disbelief,
and eventually outlasted that first marriage. In 1999 the herd had
outgrown her house. “There were babies in my bathroom, on
the floor, in the tub--they were everywhere.” She was working
a 14-hour-a-day job at FedEx and milking goats in the mornings and
evenings. And back then, according to Elly, goats and Pennsylvanians
didn’t look at each other very favorably. “Most people
were, like, ‘Goat cheese? Yuck!’”
Raw milk, on the other hand, was a black market hot ticket item.
Elly was continually approached by individuals clamoring for raw
goat milk for health reasons and they were often willing to purchase
it “illegally.” She couldn’t argue with the market.
Besides, it wasn’t that long ago she was on the hunt for goat
In 2001, Patches of Star dairy became licensed to sell raw milk.
They were working on leased property, their new barn was unfinished
and the cheese room was not yet completed to spec, but bacteria
and coliform counts were so low from milking parlor to finished
product in three consecutive tests, the authorities had no reason
not to pass Patches of Star with flying colors.
From milk to cheese
Today, Patches of Star milk is tested three times a month and Elly
participates in the Dairy Herd Improvement Registry (DHIR) program,
which not only ensures the quality of her product but also helps
her make decisions about her herd based on the genetic profiles
of the lines. A trained supervisor comes out to the farm and checks
that each animal has a tag number, then watches each animal through
the milking process and weighs and records her production.
A sample of each doe's milk is sent off to the processing lab,
where it is tested for butterfat levels, bacteria counts, and other
quality indicators. The results are forwarded to the Registry facility,
which then sends Elly a report on each girl’s monthly milk
production, her current potential based on past performance, and
who’s meeting or not meeting expectations. Over time, the
Registry can develop transmitting possibilities and forecast good
Patches of Star lines have been on record for the past eight years,
which amounts to much more genetic information than Elly always
uses, but, she says, the program has saved her time and money in
the long run. “They can tell you if you breed this goat to
that goat you will get a very good or very weak animal according
to the percentages. We did it by hand for a long time, but, at a
point, it just gets too complex.”
“None of my goats are
wild. They all love to be handled and talked to. If
I were standing in the middle of goats that weren’t
handled they’d be running or acting aggressive
rather than nibbling on my shirt.”
In addition to the numbers required by the DHIR program, all the
goats are named according to line, which helps Elly keep each individual’s
genetic character and milking performance in mind. The names also
lend a fondness to the interactions between woman and beast at Patches
of Star. Three does surround Elly as she stands in the stalls. One
leans comfortably into her leg, another nuzzles her hand and the
third decides she prefers cotton tee shirt to alfalfa hay.
“None of my goats are wild. They all love to be handled and
talked to. If I were standing in the middle of goats that weren’t
handled they’d be running or acting aggressive rather than
nibbling on my shirt.”
But these emotional ties have a practical angle. Wild goats are
difficult to herd, to treat, to milk. In a small, hands-on operation,
there’s no room for wild goats. The relationship building
begins a birth. The babies are separated from the mothers immediately
and bottle fed. It makes the kids easier to handle as they grow
older and makes the does more willing to be milked. The mothers
then enter the milking schedule.
The milking parlor holds 14 animals, which can get a little chaotic
at times, especially when the does were first introduced to the
layout at the current location. “They were used to the old
system which was pretty straightforward. In the door, up the ramp,
get milked. Training them to the new system was wild. We happened
to make the path from stalls to parlor more complex. After a few
weeks of chaos, they figured it out and the old girls started showing
the new girls how to do it.”
The milk then needs to be brought down in temperature for bottling.
Patches of Star has a 200-gallon bulk tank, but they don’t
produce nearly enough to fill it. Instead, they fill the tank half-full
with water kept at 34ºF and float a number of 5-gallon stainless
steel containers full of milk in the water. The unusual method allows
them to chill the milk in less than half an hour and leaves the
door open for expanding production.
The milk usually runs 2 to 3-1/2 percent butter fat, which thrills
the health-conscious. “Everyone is into low-fat. When I get
6 percent, the taste is awesome, but people want the low-fat.”
But it’s the 6 percent milk, Elly says, that makes the best
Patches of Star’s current line of cheeses is primarily composed
of soft varieties, which Elly prefers because they offer a better
milk-to-cheese conversion. “It takes a lot of milk for a little
bit of cheese when you do the hard, aged varieties. And people like
to use the soft cheese in everyday eating. You can replace any sour
cream or cream cheese in a recipe with chèvre and it’s
She does give a nod to hard-cheese fans with her feta. Fortunately
for both soft and hard cheese aficionados, the feta doesn’t
always turn out as planned. “I was supposed to be making feta.
The girls had a nice 6 percent butterfat and, in seconds, my feta
turned to something entirely different! More soft and creamy. Rather
than throw my non-feta cheese away, we packaged it as marscapone.
All the customers love it.”
To market, to market
And Elly caters to those customers. She sells at farmers’
markets in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York and by custom order
at health food stores. She's currently in the process of transitioning
her herd to organic, which will lend another level of specialty
to her products.
“The hardest part is
marketing. But when you sell to a cooperative, you
have quotas. Your production might drop in the winter,
but your quota doesn’t. I don’t want
to be an employee of anyone.”
Elly also keeps in touch with her roots. As someone who once searched
for a source of raw goat milk for health reasons, she identifies
with (and sells to) the health conscious market where her raw milk
and colostrum (a pre-milk product high in antibodies) are in demand.
“A human can digest goat milk in 20 minutes, cows' milk takes
1 hour. You can put a new born human infant on goat milk and he/she
will do fine. You can’t do that with cows' milk.”
At first glance it would seem the customers dragged Elly out of
show goating and into milk and cheese. But she claims chasing those
customers is her biggest challenge and selling direct was more a
matter of personal standards.
“The hardest part is marketing. Most dairies in Pennsylvania
sell to DairyLea, the biggest buyer in the Northeast. They don’t
want to deal with the marketing, the people. But when you sell to
a cooperative, you have quotas. Your production might drop in the
winter, but your quota doesn’t. I don’t want to be an
employee of anyone.”
Those personal standards also lead her into the goat meat business.
Sending young bucks to the auction house, although standard practice
for dairies, left Elly wondering if it was necessary for Patches
of Star. “The auction houses don’t really take care
of the babies,” says Elly. “So now I do it myself.”
Patches of Star throws an average of about 60 bucks a year. Some
of those bucks will be butchered and some will be sold as breeding
stock. Elly prefers to butcher around 90 pounds—somewhat smaller
than standard. Despite the decreased yield per animal by butchering
young, Elly has found it yields a higher quality meat.
Most of the Patches of Star meat is sold at farmers’ markets
in New York, where a large immigrant population, more familiar with
goat meat, resides. But in the past year or two high quality combined
with an increase in goat meat consumption in the US overall have
meant more sales to the general public.
As for the goats she sells as breeding stock, well, it’s
back to her show goating beginnings. Elly finally figured out what
to look for in an animal after a few bumps and bruises and established
herself as a woman to watch on the show circuit.
She was placing very well at national shows and that didn’t
go unnoticed by the buyers who often attend the shows to identify
new suppliers. When the buyers found out she was bilingual, they
began opening doors for her she never thought possible. She started
selling breeding stock to Mexico, the Philippines and Cuba. “There
was only one problem. I had 20 animals and they wanted 200.”
So she became an exporter. But trying to export, show, raise four
kids—“It was crazy.”
She started selling breeding
stock to Mexico, the Philippines and Cuba. “There
was only one problem. I had 20 animals and they wanted
200.” So she became an exporter.
Moving from show goating into production made for a better fit
with her burgeoning international trade and Elly has managed to
establish herself, again, as a woman to watch. Starting in 2000,
she began working with an exporter who takes care of most of the
leg work. She currently has interest from Vietnam and Israel in
addition to her existing accounts. Unfortunately, the border closings
over the last few years due to mad cow disease (bovine spongiform
encephalopathy) have drastically reduced international trade in
agricultural animals. When trade is possible, Elly insists the buyers
play by her rules. In early May she was looking forward to a visit
from Cuban buyers. “Cuba officials are coming here in three
weeks to pick out which girls they like. But I choose which set
they can pick from. I only show them the girls I’m willing
to sell to them on that day.”
And the buyers respect Elly’s demands. Her participation
in the Dairy Herd Improvement Registry means all her herd information
is made public, and this has been very good for international business.
“The buyer will pay a premium for the registration. Having
that background information can mean the difference between a $100
goat and a $500 goat.”
Not only does she produce premium-quality goats, but she works
with market demands to fill niches larger farms can’t. “Cuba
is looking for bucks and eight-month-old does. I’m the only
one with girls this time of year.”
Building a better herd
The quality of Patches of Star goats and goat products can only
partly be explained by a good structured animal. How Elly manages
her herd should certainly get the bulk of the credit. Going organic
will mean a few changes to the current herd management plan, but
Elly already incorporates a range of holistic practices that should
allow her an easier transition.
She currently gives a single vaccine and says she will continue
to do so as part of her herd health maintenance protocol. She’ll
just have to follow a stricter quarantine policy. “It’s
easier to prevent infections and prevent disease than to treat.
And, you have happier animals. If one vaccine can save their lives,
then it’s worth it.”
To control internal parasites, she uses garlic and apple cider
vinegar and feeds her herd in trough feeders instead of on the ground.
According to Elly, goats are notoriously picky eaters and won’t
eat any food that falls to the floor. Once her pasture is ready,
she will also be maintaining a strict rotational grazing plan.
Feed is an interesting question for Elly. “Goats are not
cows and they are not sheep,” she says. “People new
to goating often think they can use feed for ruminants interchangeably,
but that’s not the case.” The Patches of Star girls
get a grass/hay mixture in the morning to get their rumens working,
grain feed during the milking process as an incentive, and another
offering of grain (with baking soda, an organic mineral mix and
kelp) about an hour after milking, followed by alfalfa hay. In the
evenings, the girls get bean pulp filler.
For a while, Elly was buying and mixing her own feed. She worked
closely with a veterinarian to develop a combination of grains that
was both nutritionally and agriculturally appropriate, but was unable
to continue that process when they moved to their current location.
She’s gone through a number of commercial feeds that have
just not given her the quality she’s expected. This year,
she’s preparing to create another feed plan as part of transitioning
Elly’s rotation plan is a fairly standard four-paddock, three-week
system on clover, orchard grass and alfalfa. The goats will use
two, half-acre paddocks at a time and be moved to the next two after
three weeks. This fall the girls will have continuous access to
pasture. Since the current property is a work in progress, the paddocks
are still under construction. In the meantime, Elly’s training
her nine chickens to graze in the resting paddocks to reduce parasites
and assist with breaking down the manure.
The field that fronts the property is planted with sunflowers,
a high-protein seed that Elly says is a perfect winter feed (or
anytime treat) for the herd. “Sunflower seeds have good fiber
and fat and the girls just love them.” The sunflowers also
make a great backdrop for customers who visit the farm--although
when the flowers are mowed down in their prime it has left more
than a few of those customers wondering why.
Beyond the farm
Elly’s quick to educate her buyers about the sunflower fields,
though, and more. When the barn was designed on the new property,
Elly made sure viewing windows were a part of the plan from the
very beginning. The cheese room has been oriented to allow for a
view from the “store front,” an open space with self-serve
coolers stacked nose to tail with milk, yogurt and an assortment
of mouthwatering cheeses. The milking parlor is visible through
a span of huge windows in a hallway running down the center of the
In fact, educational tours have already begun at Patches of Star
Dairy, beginning with a Girl Scouts session last year and a class
of local school children this summer. And every tour ends with a
treat. The kids this summer were met with malted goat milk and honey
chèvre on graham crackers.
Elly’s in the process of putting together a curriculum she
can submit to local school board members for a semi-permanent program;
one that involves both in-class education and a trip to the dairy.
“Letting kids grow up not knowing agriculture is terrible.
When they get here, they’re afraid. By the time they leave,
they’ve had a chance to play with the babies and see there’s
nothing to be afraid of. If you educate the children, they can make
wise decisions when they get older.”
Last year, Elly decided to take leap and go full time with Patches
of Star, and she hasn’t looked back. “I enjoy it. It’s
my passion. When that baby is born and you feed it it’s first
bottle, all those 14 hour days are worth it.”
There are six popular dairy goat breeds (Alpine, LaMancha,
Nubian, Oberhasli, Saanen, Toggnburg) and two popular
meat breeds (South African Boer, Kiko) in the US. When
choosing a type of goat for a small operation, it’s
not all just a matter of production. Each breed has
its own personality, its own characteristics and you
have to be able to work with the breed you choose.
“I picked a breed according to what I like and
the Saanens are it. They’re laid back, quiet,
easy-going, and aren’t shaken up by anything.
They’re good milkers and one of the taller breeds.
We call them Gentle Giants.”
“My daughter loved the looks of the LaManchas
so I bought one for her birthday. They’re a little
bossy, but they produce milk with a nice butter fat.
For people who want ice cream, it’s beautiful.
We’ve got three or four in the herd now.”
South African Boer:
“The Boers produce a high quality meat and they
interbreed well. We bring our male Boers in to breed
yearly with the Saanens. The females will be kept for
breeding future meat goats and the males will be sent