The Reynolds family had been making and selling hay on the family farm, but it was the young goats they brought home after a hay delivery that started them on the path to a more serious agricultural enterprise. The Reynolds children wanted to participate in 4-H, and goats were the ideal project for them.
“Everything went crazy from there,” said Jackie Reynolds, explaining how a few project goats for their home-schooled children led to a major enterprise. The 150-acre Lebanon, CT farm has been in her husband Mark’s family since the 1920s, and the Reynolds had been making hay for horse owners and other area farmers. “It wasn’t really satisfying,” said Jackie. “When we moved here 15 years ago, we were adamant about not having a cow dairy, but we wanted to do something more with the land, and have animals and sell products.”
Since 4-H dairy goat production projects include breeding, kidding and milking, the small goat herd was soon producing a significant amount of milk. Jackie used some of the milk to make goat’s milk soap, but that hardly made a dent in the supply. “We were selling milk to cheesemakers,” said Jackie. “We were also thinking about what else we could do to make the farm more viable. Mark thought we could be making cheese ourselves rather than selling the milk to others.”
Once the family decided to make cheese, Mark’s mother Marie attended cheese making classes, and Mark also worked with an experienced cheese maker. “A lot of it we learned on our own,” said Jackie, explaining the trial-and-error process of learning to make cheese. “Marie makes all the goats’ milk caramel. It’s creamy and rich, and it’s just milk — no sugar is added. It takes about five to six hours to make in a slow reduction. People use it for desserts and on ice cream, or with pretzels or apples. Some people use it in place of honey, and others like it in coffee instead of other sweeteners.”
As the family continued to breed and upgrade the herd, they continued to milk the growing herd by hand. When the Oak Leaf herd reached 30 goats, the Reynolds built a parlor. “We used a lot of the old equipment we found around the farm,” said Jackie. “Last year we put in a pipeline.” The family is currently milking twice a day in the pit-style parlor that accommodates eight goats in a single line.
The milking herd currently includes 120 does; representing the Saanen, Lamancha and Alpine breeds. Jackie says the Saanens produce the most milk, and noted that Mark loves the Lamanchas because they produce a lot of milk, and milk out quickly and easily.
Mark makes cheese, primarily cheddar and chevre, three to four times a week. “He also makes cheddar curds, which are really popular,” said Jackie. “On the days he makes cheddar, at the end of that day, when he puts all of the cheese into the press for the cheddar blocks, he leaves some of it out and chops it into curds.” Mark also makes feta, and in summer, he makes a marinated feta, which Jackie says is a good accompaniment for fresh vegetables.
Milk and cheese are marketed directly from the farm, and through the Lebanon Farmers’ Market. Oak Leaf has also developed a wholesale market and sells to several restaurants to meet local demand for goat’s milk cheeses. Jackie continues to make goat’s milk soap, and also sells ‘woollies’, which are handmade goat’s milk soaps wrapped in felted wool from their own sheep.
The Oak Leaf herd is continually upgraded through the addition of new bucks. “Every year we try to get three new bucks to improve the genetics,” said Jackie. “Last year we bought new Alpine, Sanaan and Lamancha bucks.” Does are hand-bred in fall, and the majority of the does kid in March. Goats are milked until about January, which allows an ample dry period prior to kidding.
The Reynolds are present at kidding as much as possible. Newborn kids are removed from the does and fed pasteurized colostrum to help keep them free of transmissible diseases such as CAE (caprine arthritis encephalitis). “We do a lot of inner management to control diseases,” said Jackie.
Although two of the three Reynolds children are out of 4-H, they continue to help on the farm. Laura, who is 21 and in college, is involved on the farm during spring break and through the summer, and enjoys attending the farmers’ market. Laura started the farm’s Facebook page and helps with cheese making.
Jason, who is 19 and also in college, enjoys field work and is in charge of the hay crew that makes about 10,000 bales/year. The Reynolds employ local students for their hay crew, and try to keep the same crew for several years. Last year, Jason helped with making cheddar cheese, which requires more muscle power.
Samantha is 15, and enjoys working directly with the goats. She helps at kidding, cares for young goats and works on the hay crew. Samantha is still active with her 4-H dairy goat breeding project. Jackie says Samantha enjoys attending the farmers’ market and talking with customers there.
Visit Oak Leaf Dairy’s Facebook page, and online at www.oakleafdairy.com.