Tuesday, November 11, 2008

From puppies to pygmies

Just over a year ago, we were faced with a big family decision: should we, or should we not, get a dog.

We'd been thinking about it for some time but then one day, on an unexpected drop-in at the pet store with my kids, I saw him: a six-week-old red Australian Shepherd with the most soulful blue eyes I'd ever seen. He was the runt and I thought he was gorgeous. I fell for him instantly (and I'm not usually the kind of person to go all weak in the knees over a puppy. Really, I'm not!)

Now I'd never even considered buying a dog from a pet store -- I'd heard too many horror stories about puppy mills and I knew there were many rescue dogs waiting to be adopted -- but when I asked the store owner where the pups came from, she explained she was brokering them for a breeder and this was the last batch. That was good enough for me. A pet store was no place for an Australian Shepherd, I reasoned, and he became the rescue pup I'd always wanted. And I knew just the perfect place for him.

I didn't walk out with him right then and there. A good heaping of common sense (coupled with a hefty price tag) persuaded me to go home and talk it over with my, often more sensible, other half. We had lots to figure out -- was he the 'right' breed, would he be good with the kids, would we be able to afford it, could we provide him with a good life?

We did our research, made our decision and today, we're not only the owner of the above-mentioned puppy (who has a wonderful life here at the farm, thank you very much... except when he's gallivanting after wild turkeys), but two kittens, 10 chickens and a couple of donkeys. (Seems kinda silly now that we were so stressed out over a dog.)

So what does this walk down memory lane have to do with our farm? Well, we're once again faced with an equally perplexing decision over a prospective four-legged addition to our family.

I'm talking about Billy: a six-month old Pygmy goat.

The lady who sold us the chickens emailed me because she's selling her Pygmy goat and she wondered if I'd be interested. She started out with three Pygmy goats -- two females and a male (Billy) as her intention was to breed them. But then she traded the two girls for a pony (that's just how things work out here in the country), effectively firing Billy from his job as a fully-fledged, unaltered boy goat.

Intact males like Billy have a reputation for being aggressive and stinky, especially during breeding season. But apparently, there are exceptions and so far, Billy is neither of these things.

He loves hanging out with the chicken lady's donkey, pony, geese and ducks. He plays with her children, comes running when you call his name and his favourite snacks are apples and sumac, both of which we have in abundance.

But a goat?

Pygmy goats, being one of two breeds of miniature goats (the other is a Nigerian Dwarf), require less space, less food and have smaller housing needs than their full-sized cousins. We thought that if we found ourselves a girl Pygmy goat (a doe), we could make more Pygmy goats and eventually (we're finally getting to the homesteading part here), our own goats milk and cheese.

Minis produce about 600 pounds (or 300 quarts) of sweet-tasting milk a year, about one-third the amount you'd get from a full-sized dairy goat (but enough for homesteaders like us, just trying to figure out this whole farming thing.) While a Pygmy is stockier than a Dwarf, a true dairy breed, they produce about the same amount of milk, so I'm told.

By starting off with Pygmies, we thought we could get some experience before trying to raise a full-sized, more demanding, possibly registered (and therefore pricier) dairy breed. It's kind of like buying a starter home and then buying your way up in size. OK, I did say kind of.

I admit it: I love the idea of mini goats scampering around the barnyard under the watchful eye of the two donkeys. Their presence might even increase our credibility with the neighbours who, upon asking us why we had donkeys ("For small-flock predator protection," we replied) looked on in amusement at our otherwise empty barnyard.

It's easy to get caught up in dreams about the pitter-patter of little hooves, but additional animals mean more money and more daily farm chores. We're not running a petting zoo here and if we got Billy, we'd be taking our first step towards breeding and all its associated responsibilities.

So once again, we're faced with a decision: will we or won't we. And again, we've got lots to figure out -- are we getting in over our heads, is this just a case of farm fever brought on by cute miniature animals, what if Billy gets smelly and/or aggressive, what do we know about raising goats, let alone breeding them or even milking one?

But this farming life is all about uncertainties, isn't it. There are no absolutes to the weather or growing things or tending animals. Keeping dairy goats has always been part of our homestead plan: the opportunity just presented itself sooner, and perhaps smaller, than we originally expected.

We've done our research and asked intelligent questions. And we've clearly made good decisions before. So, maybe it's time to get my nose out of the books and into the barnyard, whether it's stinky or not.

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