If I threw this term out to a real farmer, the ones who grow the crops we eat, the meat eaten, the milk milked…I would get a big eye roll, I’m sure. I don’t know the first thing about farming on a large scale.
Throw this term out to my city friends and the eye roll will happen because the idea is just so completely foreign to them. Food comes from the grocery store, don’t you know. And farming, it’s…dirty.
But somewhere in the middle is the true heritage of our country, where once upon a time everyone farmed in some way. They also raised or hunted their own meat to survive, grew and gathered plants, and just plain ate close to the land. They had a intimate relationship with their food.
I grew up with hunting uncles, family that had an old retirement farm, and spent my younger years riding horses on farms. I have always loved the smell of barns, horses, corn fields and fresh cut hay. I’ve spent time on Amish farms during harvest and canning season…Fall in Pennsylvania is still magical to me because of that. There is something just so satisfying about “putting up” your harvest and filling your pantry, freezer and basement with all you have tended.
Becoming a mom, and a mom who followed a natural parenting style, re-ignited the hunter- gatherer in me. The modern expression of this was “hunting” for the best food for my family, and gathering that food and preparing it with love (mixed with a little exhausted resentment, I fully admit). It sparked in me a desire to take a stab at growing a garden. I was pretty half hearted at it, and it wasn’t until my kids were a bit older and we had moved to the desert that I really jumped in full force.
Although gardening is a topic for another post, I just want to say…I kicked ASS! I loved it and I have grown an amazing amount of food in a place you would think you couldn’t grow anything at all. Once I was successful at gardening, I wanted to take full advantage of living on acreage. I wanted more garden space! I wanted my own little mini-farm! I was home full time, and homeschooling…it would just be SO GREAT to do this with the kids! We thought that getting chickens would be a great starter project…
So, we got goats.
Four goats. One of them pregnant, one of them in milk, and one on a bottle. Oh, and a spare.
Did I mention that we brought them home before we really had the facilities for them?
It’s true, that is how we started. Clueless. I had done a good bit of research to know that having fully pedigreed animals was a good idea, so I did that. I didn’t buy cheap, I bought purebred. I also bought goats that were miniature, so I could someday make sure that my kids did all the work. Which, they did. I also went for the bling and got these cute little goats that had BLUE EYES because that is a very important feature in goats. Actually, this is not true. But dumb newbies like us thought so…and someday soon we would need to have likewise- thinking dumb newbies to sell to (because we had bought a pregnant goat, remember?).
Oh, the exhausted hilarity of those first several weeks. Bottle feeding a goat? I had never bottle fed either of my children, so trust me, it was an adventure. Milking a super- short, pissed off goat without a milkstand and without experience? Yeah, getting my hair bitten and pulled, hands and milk container kicked, and watching the pissed off goat run away while dragging my then 7 year old son through mud and goat turds…that was an adventure, too.
But we got it together! We built pens, we built little shelters (did you know goats CANNOT get wet?), we bought a cool milk stand and all kinds off nifty goat equipment. We got it all together just in time for our pregnant goat to have babies. And then, monsoon season unleashed. It never occurred to us that having goat babies in July might be a bad idea. Or, that having a goat due to have babies during a Harry Potter book release might be inconvenient. Of course, it all went down together in this crazy simultaneous way that involved dressing up like Harry Potter characters, driving through an incredible thunderstorm for a midnight book release, driving home in the same, waking up the husband to help save the goat standing up to her pregnant belly in water (while still in character), getting up 3 hours later and taking apart and rebuilding the goat shelter JUST IN TIME for the babies to pop out. It also involved head lice, that had nothing to do with the goats but everything to do with the people at the book release…but that is another story.
The babies being born was truly an amazing experience. Not only was I a *doula*, but I was also a *goula*! Yes, I had to help one of the babies get breathing…and if you had told me just one hour earlier that I would end up swinging a newborn baby goat by it’s back legs to shock it into taking a breath I would have called you an idiot. But I did it! And, the goat survived, even though she was always a bit of a ding-a-ling. We did it! We had two living, adorable goat babies and a goat mama who had just enough birth hormones still cruising through her bloodstream to allow us to sit with her in the new nest of sweet smelling, freshly cut hay, petting her and her SUPER DAMN CUTE babies. It was truly Farming Nirvana.
Nirvana didn’t stay long, because within a week we needed to get the babies horn buds burned off. What, did you think you could have designer goats with horns? Oh no! Lesson in goat owning…no one, and I mean NO ONE who might buy your future baby goats wants them with their horns intact. That is like the “white trash” of the goat world. So, be prepared to learn how to take a red hot (like 700 degree) branding iron and BURNING right through the fur and skin of your baby goat’s horn nubs to keep those horns from growing. Or, be a big wuss like me and pay someone else to do it (totally worth the money, in my opinion).
To add insult to injury, our little baby boy goat also needed to be banded. It sounds harmless, but banding involves the balls (yes, scrotum) of the goat. You see, as much as EVERYONE who owns a goat would like to think that their baby boy buckling is superior breeding material, the truth is, they are not. And having an intact buck as pet is absolutely out of the question because they stink, they will pee on their own face and body, and when they are in rut they will go out of their way to hump you. Believe me, if you haven’t pulled your young child out from under a sex crazed buck, you haven’t lived.
So, the balls either need to be cut off (not for the inexperienced) or they need to be banded, as in, put a rubber band on the base thus cutting off the circulation. This will result in the balls shriveling up and dying, and yes, falling off. You can look forward to your child finding them in the goat pen while they are slaving over the goat chores, and bringing them into the house and leaving them on the kitchen table for you to find while you sit down to breakfast.
If you are like me, a Virgo, you will get a little crazy studying pedigrees and buying into the milk scores and show records of goat families. You will start playing God or a fortune teller by trying to predict the genetic outcome of goat breedings, and trying to sell prospective buyers (all the other goat owners who already have too many goats, ’cause they are buying into the same alternate goat reality) on the potential of milk, show wins, and breed lines. You will perhaps jump in and actually spend money on a breeding BUCK, a full on male goat who simply exists to impregnate your does. When this happens, you will have ALL YOU NEED to teach your young children about sex education, because goats in heat and in rut will absolutely have hard core sex in broad daylight right in front of their innocent eyes. It is totally raw, and you will have to explain why your new young buck fell over after breeding his second female in 5 minutes. You can lie, and say he tripped. But the truth is, he was in such a sex craze with two sexcapades in a row that when he ejaculated the second time he just blacked out for a moment. It’s true! It happens to the best of us (if we are lucky, I suppose).
At some point, I felt like I had crossed over from a completely clueless newbie to someone who knew what they were doing. I took really good care of our animals. I committed to raising them as naturally as possible. I didn’t use chemical wormers (goats get worms) and I didn’t take the baby goats away from their mothers to bottle feed. Instead, we shared the milk. Well, meaning, I made the goat mama share the milk. To be fair, I bought goats that came from family lines that had “the will to milk”. That meant these mamas were more willing to share and actually liked the job of giving milk. And, it’s true! Our sweet gal Gracie was just that goat. She would run to the milk stand and totally cooperate, and even nibble the top of your head in a maternal sort of way to let you know you were welcome to be squeezing the dickens out of her teats. Her daughters were the same way, so we really could sell their offspring as having that will to milk. I had all kinds of opportunities to ponder the parallels of being a lactation educator and breastfeeding advocate as I milked my girls. Just- so- many weird parallels.
At the height of milking season, I swear I had a grip that would crush concrete. Shaking hands with me was an experience.
We learned to make cheese. We learned to make yogurt. We learned how to sell it at the farmer’s market and to our friends. My kids learned the value of selling to the public, being ambassadors of our goats, and taking good care of animals.
We also learned not just the value, but the exhaustion, of hard work. Farmers work 7 days a week. Mother nature does not take a day off and does not go on vacation. Taking off for the weekend was super tough, because someone needed to milk the goats to keep the milk coming (and if they didn’t get milked and didn’t have a baby around to drink the milk then you had the risk of plugged ducks and milk fever…). At the very least, they needed fresh water and food twice a day and the pens cleaned out so they weren’t laying around in their own poop.
There came a day when my daughter planned to go to high school and our little home based existence of schooling and farming and being was coming to the end of what it was. Life was getting complicated and things were changing. Lucky for me, I had learned how the “goat community” likes to buy pure bred pedigreed goats, so my way into goats was my way out. I had bought good stock, took good care of it, and they were easy to sell. My little goat herd of favorites now lives up near Phoenix with a very experienced suburban farmer who raises goats and horses.
Do I miss it? Yes, I do. Enough time has gone by that I wish I had kept it up. It felt good to greet my well cared for animals, to milk them, to play with the babies, to help new goat owners. But, there were some dark sides to that process. It would be so great if every animal born would become a productive milking female, but the reality is that about 50% of the babies will be boys. Very few of these will be wanted or needed for breeding, so they need to be castrated. And then, you have what is basically a pet..a pet most people do not want. Goat people have all kinds of ways that they deal with these “unwanted” male goats (called wethers). Some put them down right at birth by not letting them take a breath. Some let them become milk raised food for their own table/freezer. Some take them to a sale barn where you have no idea how they will be treated or where they will end up. Some raise them and sell them as weed eating pets or even as rodeo practice animals. And, if you are lucky enough to have a lot of does, and sell them as potential milking animals…one has to realize that in order to have a milking animal you need to have babies…and the cycle just begins again and keeps on going. This became an ethical question for me, and was a big reason why I was able to step out of goat herding. I couldn’t kill the newborn babies, and I couldn’t come to terms (yet) with making them meat for my table.
SO, are ready to become an urban goat farmer? And now you know the rest of the story…