Thursday, February 5, 2009

Goat troubles, as posted to GRIT.com

My second posting to GRIT.com went up today and it's about troubles here on the farm. Goat troubles, that is.

It seems that I've got to figure out what to do with our first goat Oscar, now that he's become something of a nasty fellow -- and I'm finding it a harder decision than I expected.

What's worse, I've realized that this is just the first of many decisions that I'm going to have to make if we're going to breed animals (such as goats for milk and cheese) here on the farm.

While I wanted to share this story with the GRIT community, I also wanted to share it with you as I know there are some experienced goat people out there (you listening, Mama Pea?) and some homesteaders that I respect (yes you, Chicken Mama) who have or are raising animals and making decisions about culling and/or consuming them.

To be honest, I've felt quite uneasy about writing on this topic at all. It's probably that critic inside my head that says "didn't you think about this before you started getting goats?"

Well, yes I did... in theory but I'm finding the practice much more challenging.

I guess it stems from a fear of coming off sounding weak or foolish. But, this is my life and this is where I am in my thoughts right now. I started this blog to document our homesteading journey, bumps and all.

So, without further ado, I've included the text below (I omitted the photos as I've already posted most of them here before.) Or check it out here at GRIT.com.

And if you're new to this blog, you can read some more of the back story here, here and here.

As seen on "Homesteading Tales from Rowangarth Farm"

We’ve got goat troubles … and it’s the chickens’ fault. Maybe it’s a bit unfair to blame the chickens but if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here trying to figure out what to do with an ornery, head-butting pygmy goat named Oscar. So in my angst-ridden state I’m holding them responsible. Okay, partially responsible.

It all started back last October when we finally got around to cleaning years of previous owners’ junk out of the barn. We had a great set-up – a few goat pens, a large horse stall and two areas to keep poultry – but no livestock.

So like many new country folk, we decided to get us some chickens. Because it was fall already, it was too late to place a chick order so I went online to look for some laying hens.

Not long afterwards, I found a lady willing to sell us 10 mature barred rocks, Rhode Island reds and black rock hens.

We brought them home and within days we were collecting tasty, rich and gorgeous eggs from our girls.

About a week later, the lady who sold us the chickens emailed me to ask I’d be interested in buying a six-month-old male pygmy goat. Although Billy was still intact (as in, a fully capable male goat) she said he was very friendly and not at all aggressive.

I admit it – I’ve always loved goats, especially the little ones. Yes, my only exposure to them before moving to the farm was in petting zoos (there’s my disclaimer, right there), but I’ve always loved their personality. But that’s not a good enough reason to buy one, I reasoned, as we are not ourselves a petting zoo. So I decided to do some research.

I discovered that although pygmy goats are only 16 to 23 inches tall at the withers and does weigh approximately 55 pounds, pygmies can produce as much as four pounds of milk a day (equal to half a gallon) or 600 to 700 pounds a year, quite enough for a homesteading family of four.

Since one of the reasons we moved to the farm was to become more self-reliant, raising goats seemed like a good way to ensure a steady supply of goat milk and cheese. While purebred dairy goats such as Nubians and Saanens produce a much greater quantity of milk (averaging 1600 pounds annually), they are larger, require more space and more feed. Plus, registered proven producers (milkers) would be significantly more expensive.

Because we had absolutely no experience raising goats, we decided to try the economy version first.

But the question remained, should we buy Billy? I know there’s a lot more to selecting an animal for breeding than upbringing – pedigree and conformation are key but again, we’re just getting started here. The sticking point was, did we really want a buck?

While intact male goats start out as lovely little creatures, they quickly mature into bucks with somewhat objectionable habits, smell being the least of them. I mean, once you learn that a buck likes to spray his own beard and forelegs with urine, you may think twice about owning one. I know I did.

Finally, we decided to go ahead with it. We’d buy Billy now and get a doe in the spring and we’d go through one breeding cycle and see how things went.

We weren’t able to get Billy right away so in the meantime, I found another pygmy goat for sale: this one a three-year-old wether, or a castrated male.

I thought that it would be a good idea to get a wether as a companion for Billy. Goats are herd creatures and don’t do great on their own and once Billy matured, he’d be off limits to our future girls.

So on a cold, sunny day in November, my daughter and I brought home Oscar.

I liked Oscar immediately. He was inquisitive and friendly and took to following me around the barnyard like a puppy. While it was endearing at the time, that was probably a sign of things to come. I hadn’t bought livestock – I’d brought home a pet and a pet isn’t what I bargained for.

A few days after arriving at the farm, we tried introducing Oscar to the donkeys (they came after the chickens.)

Already we’d heard the coyotes circling the farm and we wanted to have predator protection in place before adding anyone else to the barnyard. Let’s just say it didn’t go well.

Cinder, the older and more sensible of the two, didn’t much mind Oscar. Lee, the younger and more insecure donkey, laid into Oscar like a fury, sending him cart-wheeling across the barnyard. It was unexpected and truly dreadful. We put the donkeys in the back paddock and tended to Oscar’s bruised ego.

Worried about what we were getting into, we were relieved when the chicken lady decided to keep Billy. That was fine with us because breeding was farthest from our mind at that moment.

But then a few weeks later, along came Lucy and Sam.

We purchased Lucy, another three-year-old pygmy goat, and her two-month-old baby that we named Sam, from a less than scrupulous owner. The idea was that Oscar would now have a companion (he was starting to show signs of stress and anxiety that we assumed was because he was an only goat), and we could keep Sam intact and have our own buck.

While we hoped the addition of Lucy and Sam would reduce Oscar’s growing agitation, it seemed only to heighten it. Although we kept them in adjoining pens for the first few weeks (we’d now moved everyone into the barn, out of the harsh winter weather) he became even more aggressive, not less.

Then the aggression turned on us. All my sources say that wethers were supposed to be docile and friendly but whenever we went into Oscar’s pen to collect his water bowl, he’d growl, head-butt and even once tried to down me. It left me with a nasty bruise and a growing worry that something was wrong. But what should we do about it?

The vet told us to take him to the sales barn. My dad offered to eat him. I even tried to sell him privately. But none of these options seemed to assuage my guilt that we’d failed. If only we’d done something more or differently, if only we weren’t so inexperienced, he wouldn’t have turned on us. (Looking back, he did seem pretty high-strung and codependent for a goat, right from the very beginning.)

So here I am today, learning my first lesson in animal husbandry – what to do with an animal you no longer want. I’m finding it a hard decision to make (now’s probably a good time to disclose that I’m a vegetarian – I’m something of an oddity around here), but it’s the first of many if we decide to continue raising goats or any animal.

If 50 percent of goats born are male, our options are: castrate every one of them and open a petting zoo (not an option), sell them privately (which may be harder to do with animals that are neither registered nor proven), butcher them or sell them to a sale barn (where someone else in turn will probably butcher them.)

It’s not like I didn’t know we’d have to dispose of excess animals even before we got into this goat business. I’m all about paying your own way around here and if you’re not contributing then you’re taking away from making this farm sustainable. I’ve even said it myself that once our chickens are done laying, they’re headed for the soup pot.

It’s just there’s this disconnect: the self-reliant side of me that knows full well that livestock are not pets (repeat after me: livestock are not pets) and that I can’t keep every single one of them; and the other side of me that has a soft-spot for four-legged creatures.

Maybe it’s time to get out of goats, but the barn would sure be empty without them. We’d miss out on our own milk and cheese too. Seems like a pretty high price to pay for my squeamishness.

So if anyone has any perspective or advice to share with this greenhorn, I’d love to hear it. Should I stick to growing vegetables or does culling animals, even the cute furry ones, get easier?

9 comments:

farmgirlwannabe said...

Hi Fiona

You might want to check out the following Jackie Clay's blog - http://www.backwoodshome.com/blogs/JackieClay/category/winter/ - she writes alot about goats and the blogs have been categorized

hope it helps

Farmgirlwannabe

Fiona said...

Thanks, Farmgirl! You're right -- she's great... loads and loads of information (one day, I hope to be that knowledgeable!) Sounds like a lady with spunk too... I like that :) With her horses, donkeys and goats I'm sure I'll learn a thing or two... I've (finally!)added her blog to my blog list and I've started following it too. cheers!

Heidi said...

I really enjoy your blog, we seem to be experiencing some of the same issues and it is reassuring to know it isn't just me! We started a small flock of Shetland sheep last spring and I couldn't bring myself to make THE decision for any of them last year, but this year we will have to or risk being overrun! I am now repeating you mantra - "livestock are not pets" and hoping it might sink in!

Fiona said...

Thanks for the reasssurance that I'm not alone either! I know so much will get easier with time and experience but in the meantime... well, it's tricky.
Speaking of sheep, I was looking at your blog the other day (it's lovely, BTW!) and oogling your sheep. Are you raising them for fibre? How are you liking it? I'd love to raise sheep at some point, for fibre, but as I've said a few times I've got my hands full right now :)

Dale said...

You started the blog saying the chickens were to blame--do you mean because the women you bought them from lead to you a quicker source for getting goats than you first anticipated or because they took up room that you would have used to give the goats more space?

Mama Pea said...

Fiona - Get rid of Oscar. To my mind, it's foolishness to have an aggressive, unreliable animal on your farm, especially with small children around. It's not Oscar's fault for being the way he is. Nor is it in any way yours. If he could be rehabilitated, your kindness, care and willingness to provide a wonderful home for him would have done the trick by now. Obviously, something (you'll never know what) happened to him before he came to live with you. Was your dad serious about butchering him? If so, that would be my choice. That way you know it will be done as humanely as possible and Oscar won't go to another home that won't be kind to him.

When we had goats, we butchered them (the buck kids) for our own food, sold to others who used them for food, and sold them (the doe kids) for future milkers. We were very fortunate to have a connection with a large goat dairy in Wisconsin. They were usually willing to buy both adult and kid goats from us. We also traded kids with them to bring new lines into our herd.

I believe that animals don't spend one second thinking about when they will die. They are creatures programmed for living in the moment. Although I can hardly stand to think of any animal suffering, I do feel killing animals for food is a necessity that must be done but as humanely as possible. If you and/or your husband aren't able to come to terms with this, you may want to reconsider having animals. But also remember that as long as you have an animal on your farm, it will have the best life it possibly could.

By all means, keep working toward having a couple/few goats for the milk and milk products! Goat milk is more easily digestible and better for us than cow milk. And being smaller animals, they are so much easier to handle, feed, and clean up after.

Yes, culling animals DOES get easier (you'll just have to trust me on this) as you go along. I hope this hasn't sounded callous or cruel. It's simply all a part of the whole.

Barbara Muncie said...

Hi Fiona, I know how hard it is at first and it's so easy to do things (or not do things) out of guilt but alas... guilt is never a good reason to do anything on a farm. It'll only hold you back from the joys that you could have with the "right" goats, animals, birds.... You're cutting your possibilities way short by not taking charge of the future of the awesome farm you have now and the one in your head that could be. I learned a long time ago that letting go is only really hard at first except for the occaisional one that really captures your heart. It really does get easier and even the best farmers have to learn where to weed out the unproductive or hard to get along with animals. It's not a matter of failure or success. Every animal has it's own personality and it's idiosyncrasies. Some are just naturally flawed and even the most dyed in the wool farmer can do nothing with them. It's just part of nature. So don't feel guilty over something that you can't control. Instead feel good about the smart decisions you make to better everyone else's lives on the farm be they people or animals. If they are not making you or the other animals happy then it's an injustice to you all. You'll learn to choose and to cull with grace in time. It'll get easier. You'll start choosing your attachments a little better. Just hang in there. It'll get there. Good luck with the critters and all your endeavors!
Barbara Muncie
www.aselfsufficientorganiclife.com

Heidi said...

Thanks for the compliments. We are raising our sheep for fibre, food and for grass cutting! We are really enjoying it, and looking forward to the spring and our first 'crop' of fibre and lambs. Shetlands are a good, hardy breed and being relatively small are pretty easy to handle. We went sheep rather than goats because we had been told that your fencing needs to be practically water-proof for goats! If you are ever in the area you are more than welcome to come and meet our sheep.

Fiona said...

Thanks, Heidi -- I'd love to meet your sheep (you too, of course!) I'm sure I'll be heading your way sometime during the summer (if not sooner) so I'll see if we can connect :)

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