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story

Sophie Worthington

Job Title
Goat Herd Manager
Company
Stepladder Creamery
Location
Cambria, CA
Salary
$40,000 - $60,000
Education
California Polytechnic State University Bachelor of Arts, Animal Sciences (Biology minor), 2014

This breed, La Mancha, is super affectionate.

The Profession

My title is herd manager. My job is to manage the overall herd health and its productivity. We keep La Mancha goats, who are a pretty well-rounded dairy breed. They have high production and high butterfat, which is ideal for cheese-making. My job is to keep them happy and healthy and as productive as they can be.

The Hardest Parts

Understandably, it’s any loss that we end up having. Kidding season is a hard time of year weather wise. With lots of animals, sometimes things happen. It’s rare, but it happens. Some goats get sick, kiddings don’t go well, that sort of thing. Losing an animal is very difficult. It’s not fun making those decisions of when is time for one to pass on. That is my least favorite.

We actually have a buck that we recently had to put down. He had a urinary blockage. We had a vet come out and drain his bladder and take his urine to sample it. It came back with nothing: no infection, no stones. We ended up having to put him down because within reasonable measures we couldn’t figure out what was going on and he was extremely uncomfortable. The next step would have been a massive surgery, opening up his entire abdomen. It’s expensive, but it’s also a question of, how is he gonna recover, are we gonna have a place to keep him clean enough after that giant surgery to let him heal? Lots of things to consider. It’s never an easy decision.

The Best Parts

It’s really getting to spend time with these animals in this beautiful setting. This breed, La Mancha, is super affectionate. Working with them from birth and getting to know all of their personalities. Getting to hang out with them every day. One of my favorite things to do is to take the whole herd on a walk through the hills. They all stay together and browse on all the good stuff they find along the way. It’s pretty special. They all have names. To me, they’re as many pets as they are production animals, and that really makes them a pleasure to work with.

I also have the best co-workers. It’s a small team and it really feels like a family. It’s all a team effort, which is a great feeling.

story
How I Got Here

My first dairy love was cows. I had some opportunities to show and raise dairy cows as a kid. Growing up in the Bay Area [of California], that was actually pretty rare. My hometown, you’d call it urban. El Cerrito, Berkeley, Albany were all towns that I spent time in growing up.

I first got started in livestock thanks to the Tilden Little Farm, which was part of the regional park. I was in middle school when I started there. A friend of mine was volunteering there already, so I started volunteering there once a week and just loved it. I was very lucky to have that regional park nearby. There were a few other places where I would get my animal fix, especially summer camp.

When I was super young, I thought maybe I’d want to be a vet. But fairly early on I knew I didn’t want to do that kind of thing. I saw the vet offices in town and that wasn’t exactly the environment that I wanted to work in.

I am an outdoor cat. I wanted to be outside. I enjoyed working with large animals. I didn’t really know what my dream job would be. Even through college, I was struggling to find what that was. But somehow, I found it!

In college, I went to Cal Poly for animal science. I started out studying Dairy, funny enough. But I wanted a bit of a broader education, so I switched to Animal Science. After college, I worked at another small goat and sheep dairy in Santa Margarita, which is about an hour away from where I am now. I worked there for about a year and learned a lot. It was a lot of the same sort of thing that I do now, kinda at a lower level, more of an assistant position. Lots of kidding and lambing experience and bottle feeding, that sort of thing.

After that, I almost worked for a friend of mine who was starting a small cow dairy farm, but that didn’t end up working out. I ended up working in restaurants for a while and kind of floundering, trying to find my way back to animals.

But through the friend who was starting her own little dairy, I met Jack and Michelle, the owners here at Stepladder Creamery. It was probably about a year later that they ended up calling me and wondering if I was interested in the herd management position.

No one in my family works with livestock. My mom works for Kaiser Permanente [a hospital system] and my dad is the owner of an environmental testing company. My brother is a civil engineer. We’re kind of all over the place. They probably thought I was a little crazy to study livestock, but they were super supportive. My parents always loved animals as well and I grew up with stories of my mom’s childhood pony and my dad worked as a shepherd in England as a teenager. It was always clear that I was never gonna make a killing doing it, but as long as I was happy, they were too.

workplace
A Typical Day

Right now, we’re going into our rainy season. And goats hate rain. So I do a lot of trying to keep them dry, making sure there’s ample space inside for each goat--we are actually in the process of building a new barn for them--and lots of bedding down. And then there’s a lot of little tasks, maintenance tasks, like trimming their hooves, keeping them up-to-date on their vaccinations, catching up on paperwork, that sort of thing.

This is the slower time of the year—we’ve dried everyone off, we’ve stopped milking everyone, so the goats are essentially on vacation for about four months. They’ve just been bred, so everyone should be preggers out there. They just get to hang out and be goats.

The spring—starting in the last few days of February, all of March, and the beginning of April—will be our kidding season. That’s when all of the kids—baby goats—are born. It’s a much more intense time. We have about sixty does—lady goats—who will deliver in that month-and-a-half. So there are lots of overnights for us, namely me and Michelle, one of the owners. We try to be there and present for every single birth, just to make sure that everything goes smoothly.

My main role with kidding is managing the whole production and keeping everyone healthy. This includes everything from labor detection and assistance to record-keeping and milking. All of our goats are registered so we can’t mix up any kids! We know all the due dates. We know when everyone’s bred. Generally, they’ll land around 150 days. So then we’re just paying attention to those girls who are getting close, looking for a variety of signs that they’re starting to go into labor. They’re pawing the ground. Their rump will soften, there are ligaments that are softening to make way for the babies. You can feel that.

Once that starts happening we’ll bring them inside the barn. They’ll get a little quiet pen to themselves where they can carry out their labor. We may have to help occasionally. They do tend to have more than one kid—two is most common—but they can have anywhere from one to four healthy babies generally. So they can get a little tangled up inside. Sometimes we need to go in and just rearrange in a way that they can come out healthily.

It is the most beautiful thing. And I never get tired of it. I think my favorite thing is to watch the first time moms figure it all out, you can see the wheels turning as they are working out what just happened (nobody gives them “the talk”) and with most of them it just clicks, instinct kicks in and they become wonderful mothers.

Once they give birth we start milking them. That kind of opens the door to a whole new set of ways we need to keep them healthy and productive. We have to pay attention to all of the machinery that we are milking them with. That includes monitoring the vacuum pump and keeping all of that equipment super, super clean. Making sure our whole milking procedure is geared toward their health and the cleanliness of the milk.

Goats in general are just the most wonderful hilarious creatures. They are intensely curious. They’re always trying to figure out their environment and what you’re doing. They’re very interested in people, always wanting to rub up against ya and get all the scratches. They’re kind of like dogs in a lot of ways. Very people-oriented and just want to be around you. Chew on your hair, climb up on whatever you bring into the pen, “help” you with whatever needs doing!

The Workplace

It’s a very special place. Big Sur is very close. We’re in the foothills of the San Lucia mountains, in this beautiful valley. Everything’s still kind of brown and golden at the moment, but it’ll be green anytime soon with the rain.

One big perk of working here: lots of cheese. We also have avocados on the ranch and tons of fruit. That’s been a really fun way to experience the seasons, just what fruit is available at the time. Another luxury of this job is living on the property, it's convenient, beautiful, and full of food.

I’m the only full-time goat person on the farm. We have seasonal staff who help during the kidding season. We have our tour guide, too, who helps a lot with goat care and feeding. The total on the ranch is about 13 people. It’s a pretty small team. Most of them are creamery employees, our cheese-maker, production manager, packaging staff.

We also have a small calf-cow operation, so we have some Angus-Hereford mixes—beef cattle. We also do heritage breed pork. The reason we got pigs, to begin with, was so they could drink the whey, which is a by-product of cheese-making. They also eat the windfall avocados, any avocados that we can’t sell.

The community nearby is fairly small. We know most of our neighbors, which is pretty cool. There’s a winery across town and another avocado-ranch. We don’t interact with them on a day-to-day basis, but the winery just took two of the goats that we will not be milking next year, as winery pets! They’ll get to hang out with the people coming to taste wine.

Advice for someone thinking about going into the field

If you’re like me and grew up in an urban environment, it can be difficult. I didn’t even know that FFA and 4H [agriculture and livestock interest groups for students] were a thing when I was in high school. Figure out what your resources are and try to explore them as much as possible. They may be a little limited in the city, but the doors you find may open larger ones. Which is what I’ve found. It’s what most of us find.

Also, find an internship. The internships that Stepladder Creamery is hiring, for now, don’t require experience. You just have to be a hard worker and want to be here and love animals. You don’t have to have all this educational background to get your foot in the door and get some experience. Get interested, use that fire, and show up.

I got quite a few opportunities in college to explore different animal opportunities. Doing the internships through the college was really helpful. I even did an internship at a zoo—just to explore all the different options—which was a lot of fun! And I learned a lot. I’ve found it to be the best way to learn what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do: do it for a bit.

Obviously, you need to build a resume, and studying Animal Science was part of mine. But for example, if you took an internship at our creamery and worked hard and succeeded, we would have a job for you in the future. It’s about getting your foot in the door and putting a face to the name. This job is really hands-on and you’re always learning. It helps to have that educational background, but if you’re comfortable researching on your own and just are always learning and interested, I don’t think that it would be required. It’s more about the experience and attitude.

A lot of people get stuck on that qualification issue, but I would just talk to the people. At the end of the day, especially with a small team like ours, it’s more about the personalities and cohesiveness as a team, rather than experience. Look for those entry-level internships and jobs. And just go for it.

  • Categories:
  • Agriculture
  • Shepherd