April 14, 2021

Goats galore are the ultimate stress reliever for lab manager Kris Ellis

She loves her job at VUMC, but it can be stressful. She gets home from work, heads to the barn, and the stress melts away.

Kris Ellis poses for a photo with one of her baby goats at Kriscross Dairy Farm, Thursday, April 1, 2021 in Thompson Station, Tennessee. Ellis is the manager of the Molecular Cell Biology Resource Core at Vanderbilt University Medical Center by day, but away from work, she's surrounded by around 50 goats at Kriscross Dairy Farm, her goat farm.

Kris Ellis holds one of this season’s newest arrivals, a kid named Evie. Lamancha dairy goats are recognizable by their tiny pinnae or external parts of the ear. Photo by Erin O. Smith

Tucked along a grassy, sun-dappled stretch of Thompson’s Station Road in rural Williamson County, Kriscross Dairy Farm is an idyllic retreat from modernity’s rush, resonating with the bleats of baby goats, a rooster’s proud cock-a-doodle-doo, the cluck-clucks of hens, and the cries of guinea fowl as they dash excitedly around the perimeter.

It’s a dream come true for VUMC employee Kris Ellis, manager of the Molecular & Cell Biology Resource (MCBR) Core. For more than 35 years, she and her family have nurtured a herd of pedigreed goats here, along with an assortment of other farm animals.

When her husband Don Ellis proposed to her, she told him she wouldn’t say “I do” unless he agreed to live on a farm.

Ellis has worked at VUMC for 28 years. In her job, she multitasks nonstop to provide researchers throughout the Medical Center quick, cost-effective access to the vital reagents and instruments needed to carry out investigations. In 1993, before a stockroom-type core system was established, Ellis documented $27,000 in sales; a record of almost $5 million in sales was set in 2007. The MCBR Core has also played a crucial role during the pandemic as the core’s real-time PCR (polymerase chain reaction) instruments were reserved to run COVID-19 tests throughout the night during peak demand.

Tess, a Lamancha/Boer cross, peers through a fence at Kriscross Dairy Farm. Photo by Erin O. Smith

While she loves her job, the goat farm is Ellis’ escape from the Medical Center’s demands.

“It takes me 45 minutes to an hour to get to Nashville with traffic,” she explained. “But I get up in the morning, and the very first thing I do is come down to the barn to these guys. I spend two hours with them, and I just soak in the peace and the quiet and the beauty and the fun. I honestly think if it wasn’t for these guys, some days I’d forget how to laugh.

“They’re funny, and they adore me. And they’re beautiful. I need beauty in my life. I get that every morning with them. And then I go to work, and I’m prepared. I can handle anything. When I get off work and come home, the first thing I do is change clothes and come back down here to take care of them. All of the soreness, stiffness and frustration that has built up from my day and the drive home just melts away.”

Kriscross Dairy now has 37 adult females (does), seven adult males (bucks) and as of this month, 47 energetic kids.

The farm became a reality when her husband Don Ellis proposed to her. She told him she wouldn’t say “I do” unless he agreed to live on a farm. They found 13 acres with two barns and a home that was built around a two-room cabin dating from the mid-to late 1800s. The home didn’t have central heat/air, and they knew it’d require a lot of work, but the green pastures sloping down to Murfrees Fork Creek had Ellis hooked.

In 1984 she got her farm, and he got a wife. They’ve since raised three children and countless kids (baby goats) there.

Mom Phancy and her kid shadow, Dan, walk a fence line at Kriscross Dairy Farm. Photo by Erin O. Smith

Kriscross Dairy now has 37 adult females (does), seven adult males (bucks) and as of this month, 47 energetic kids. The goats are pedigreed through the American Dairy Goat Association (ADGA), and they’ve had several prize winners on the local and national show circuit.

Beyond bragging rights and pretty ribbons, this is invaluable when it comes to breeding bucks and does and selling kids. Also, because it’s not legal in Tennessee to sell raw, unpasteurized milk, individuals can buy “herd shares” at Kriscross Dairy, making the buyer a part owner of the herd. Then, they have the right to obtain the goats’ milk, and Ellis has several area families that do just that each year.

As anyone with farm experience knows, it’s an around-the-clock enterprise. Hours are filled with feeding and watering, milking does twice daily, mucking out stalls, grooming coats and trimming hooves to prepare for shows or to meet a buyer, arranging and overseeing breeding, and even serving as veterinarian and midwife. Does can give birth to twins, triplets or even quadruplets, so kidding season means little sleep at Kriscross Dairy.

Thankfully, Ellis has reliable help. As does sense birth is drawing near, they move into the barn’s safety, and the Ellis’s two massive, Great Pyrenees dogs – Blakely and Blair –instinctively lie down in the doorway to guard against predators.

Ellis reaches down to give Blakely a pat, then fishes in a pocket for a treat, an animal cracker purchased in bulk as the goats favor the crunchy treats as well. She chuckles, not for the first time, at the irony of feeding animal crackers to her animals.

“This is my security detail,” she laughed. “We have a great relationship. I’m in charge of procurement and labor, and they’re in charge of security. As long as I keep procuring the dog food and the cookies, they’re happy with me.”

Goats are wonderful snugglers, as demonstrated by a hug shared by Riley, a five-week-old Lamancha, and owner Kris Ellis. Photo by Erin O. Smith