Bob Stocker of El Regalo Ranch — just ten miles northwest of Salida — is busy these days, so busy that he won’t be able to attend the Boulder County Farmers’ Market, where he’s been a fixture for the past year, until the first Saturday in May. He and his wife, artist Ellen Kely, raise meat goats, and spring is kidding season.
“We’ve got a couple of girls that are going into labor this evening,” Stocker tells me over the phone. “Occasionally we have to help them. We have a baby barn; we’ve got several dedicated stalls in there, and each stall has heat and an electric water bucket. We try to isolate them in the maternity barn and allow them to bond before we put them back in the general population. In the industry, if you let the animals be alone in the pasture, you have about a 20 percent mortality rate. We average a 2 percent loss most years. We just can’t bear to see those poor little babies get dropped in the snow and the mud.”
For most meat eaters, it’s a surprise to hear the level of affection that small ranchers express for the animals they raise for slaughter — and goats, according to Stocker, are particularly lovable. “They’re very intelligent,” he says. “There’s a psychology to dealing with them. You’ve got to out-think them sometimes. They’re very inquisitive. If you’re building something, they’ll come up and watch you. It’s as if they’re thinking, ‘I see how this is going together. Now I know how to tear it apart.’”
All this means that sending their goats to slaughter is hard for Stocker and Kely. They use a USDA-inspected facility in New Mexico that is very humane — “as humane as you can be when you’re killing something,” Stocker says. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, a leader in promoting and designing humane slaughterhouse practices, has endorsed this processor. “That’s really important to us,” Stocker says. “When we have animals that are ready for processing, for three or four days I’ll park my stock trailer, feed them in there, leave the doors open so they can walk in and eat, take a nap, leave. So when the time comes to load them, it’s not a big rodeo. We try to be as gentle with them as we can. We do love and respect our animals. They’re God’s creatures, too. Even though they’re raised for meat, we try to give them the best life that we can.”
But he’s a serious advocate for that meat, and both he and Kely are passionate cooks. They usually bring samples to the market for customers to try: goat braise, curry, hamburger patties, green chile, roast, even goat satay. There are a couple of recipes on the Regalo Ranch website, and Stocker promises many more in the coming weeks — including Chinese recipes, since this is the Year of the Goat. Lean, high in potassium and with more iron than beef, goat is a staple in many cultures: India, Asia, southern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean, where soup made with chopped goat’s head and various other parts is considered an aphrodisiac so fierce it leaves a man’s loins burning. The animal provides an array of flavors and preparations for the couple to experiment with and share with their customers.
Stocker explains that there are two primary ways of cooking goat. Roasts should be cooked long and slow like a beef chuck or pot roast until the meat is fall-apart tender. Other cuts, such as chops, are excellent on the grill. A rack of goat cooked rapidly in the oven at 400 to 450 degrees “crisps up on the outside, but gives you medium-rare, delectable, tender meat on the inside,” he says.
So why is goat meat — as opposed to goat’s milk and cheese — so rarely seen here in the United States? The answer lies in the nature of the beast. Goats don’t lend themselves well to industrial production, Stocker explains: “You can’t just put a thousand in a feedlot and feed them genetically modified alfalfa, because they don’t thrive. They have to wander, graze, climb, jump, play. They’re like people; they need diversity in diet and in life. They browse on bushes and woody plants like deer, and you can’t replicate that in a feedlot situation.”
In addition, he says, “with hogs, turkeys, cattle, there are whole schools that have the husbandry down to a science. If you have a problem with a cow, they know the answer. With goats, there’s not a lot of factual information out there. It’s been helpful to us to meet people who’ve been dealing with goats for twenty, thirty years and pick their brains.”
Things changed to some extent when Boer goats from South Africa, which are bred for meat and mature faster, were introduced into this country in 1980. Stocker and Kely are now experimenting, crossing Boer goats with Spanish goats and “a few different dairy breeds,” Stocker says. “Some things work out better than others.”
Farming is in Stocker’s blood. His great-grandfather came to this country from Sweden and homesteaded near Loveland, where his grandfather also farmed. Stocker grew up in Lakewood, but he spent boyhood weekends and holidays on the farm and always wanted to get back into agriculture. Still, like most small food producers, he needs additional work to get by, so he runs a small excavating business, too.
After living in the Boulder area for the first six years of their marriage, Kely and Stocker moved to their 35-acre plot near Salida in 2004. “We bought a piece of raw ground and built our little ranch, our house, ourselves,” he says. “Outbuildings and barns and everything.” They grow a few vegetables for their own consumption, but most of their time is spent raising goats on the site as well as on some of their neighbors’ adjoining properties (with their permission). The animals are protected from prowling coyotes, lions and black bears by two Great Pyrenees guard dogs and a black Lab called Jake.
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Last year was the couple’s first at the Boulder County Farmers’ Market. Though they sold at the Longmont market — which was “really good to us,” he says — the year before, they won’t be there this summer, because working two markets at the same time would require hiring employees. But they might try selling in Denver, where they provide meat regularly to a couple of restaurants and irregularly to a few more. “It’s fun doing the markets and being able to make friends, but we’re trying to build some more restaurant business to help us through the winter,” Stocker says.
“We thought we could make some money doing it. You don’t always get paid a lot of money for doing what you want to do. But we’re surviving; every year gets a little bit better, and we keep on learning. Hopefully. Maybe we’ll get to the point that I don’t have to dig holes anymore.”
Meanwhile, there are those goats kidding in the barn. “So far, our mortality rate has been zero and we’re averaging two babies per mama,” Stocker says proudly. “Which is good, because the girls only have three teats.”
Find out more about El Regalo Ranch at elregaloranch.com.