It’s midnight in the goat shed. The winter sky is black and cold, but diamond stars pierce the ebony blanket of night. My lantern dims but sheds enough light to reflect off the goats’ eyes as I approach. I make a mental note to recharge the battery before the next check. The herd queen, Fanny, is so used to my frequent visits that she doesn’t even awaken this time. Her two-day-old doeling is close by. The doeling doesn’t know me yet, so she does watch me. I reach down to touch her, and she is warm in the hay wallow beside her mother. Her twin was born the tiniest thing I have ever seen and much too weak to suckle. Nature took her back. Her loss will ensure more warm mother’s milk for this little one.
Bella and Cleo have also kidded. Cleo is the best of mothers. She never even leaves her kids to eat or drink the first day. Instead, she stands attentively over them, waiting for me to bring the hay and water to her. Her kids are always hale and full of life. As good a mother as she is, Bella, Cleo’s own daughter from two years ago, has proven herself to be a horrendous mother. Last year, she kidded and all was well for about a month. Then she refused to have anything to do with her kids and butted them away when they tried to nurse. She walked off, leaving them to fend for themselves as if she’d never had them. I found a family with a child in 4-H who took on the twins, and they thrived under her care and hand-feeding.
This year Bella had triplets. She has abandoned them even faster than she did last year’s twins. I found them where she’d left them, plopped out and scattered from one end of the goat shed to the other—Bella was nowhere in sight.
Yesterday I gathered them up and locked Bella in the kidding pen with them. They nursed while she munched the hay and green brush that I hand-cut for her. She drank water sweetened with molasses to boost her strength. At first, she allowed the triplets to nurse but soon became testy, continually butting and walking away from them, even within the kidding pen. I decided that being away from the herd might be too much stress for her, so reunited her with them. She immediately stalked out and began picking fights with the other does in the herd, re-establishing her pecking order. Once she’d gone a few rounds with the does immediately above and below her in the ranks, she settled into the middle of the herd and then pretty much abandoned her triplets. (Note to self: cull this bitch.)
One of the triplets has disappeared, and I suspect an owl. At night, I keep the herd within strong, 4×4-wire goat-fencing with an outer hot wire. Nothing but an aerial assault makes sense. Tonight, I find a second triplet cold and almost lifeless. She is outside the pen, no doubt having lost her way as she stumbled around looking for her errant mother. I put her inside my coat, next to my warm body, and take her to the house. I revive her in a sink of warm water, dry her by the woodstove until she is revived enough to suckle, and then feed her with an eyedropper. In the morning, I will slip her back in with mom and her remaining sibling, hoping Bella will come to her senses. (Bella never does come to her senses, and Little One is destined to become a bottle baby.)
Before returning to the house with Little One, I had also checked on Orie, who is due any time. Like Cleo, she has proven herself to be a good and reliable mother. I am grateful and have no reason to doubt her this year.
Myotonic (fainting) goats can usually deliver and care for their kids without any help from me, but I like to be close by, watching, just in case. Goats need to lick their babies clean themselves so that mothers and kids bond. The smells and tastes of the kid imprint it on its mother as she clears away the caul from its nose and dries its body with her tongue. Within an hour, if I leave them be, the kids are dried off, standing on their own four feet, nursing, and getting that much-needed colostrum. All I usually need to do is to make sure they have a deep bed of clean hay or straw to keep them all warm and dry.
Of late I’ve been reading that you should not even cut the cord but let it break away naturally. I am relieved to hear that this is okay, because, in all my years of goat herding, I have never cut a cord, never had to. Most of the time, the doe even eats the placenta. So usually I sit back and watch the miracle unfold.
But as trouble seems to come in packs, I did have to help Fanny’s larger twin into the world this year. After her first, ill-fated twin squirted right out, so tiny it didn’t matter which end presented first, the second and larger twin tried to come out face first with her forelegs still inside the womb. The front legs are supposed to be extended out in front of the face as if the little kid were diving out into the world. This one was trying, but she was stuck. With clean hands lubricated with a homemade concoction of olive oil, beeswax, comfrey, and tea tree oil, I pushed her nose back into the womb and felt for the legs. I found one but couldn’t get hold of the other. But that was enough. With one leg out in front of the nose, the doe was able to push out the second, larger twin.
Kidding time teaches me more each year and leaves me marveling about life, how insistent and robust it can be but also how very fragile. I see how unique each animal within a herd is and how complex the dynamics among members of the herd. One kid is already copying the behaviors of its mother at a day old–nibbling at hay, leaves, and blades of grass as its mother does, making believe that it can eat such things before gamboling back to the teat. The other kid never really stands on its own and is gone within a few hours?
I wonder at the goats’ behavior and what it all means, and I also wonder at mine. I coddle weak kids. Against my better judgment, I bring them in and put them in a laundry basket by the wood stove. I employ “heroic measures” to try to feed them frequent little dribbles or to tube feed them when they’re too weak to nurse. All this, and next week I will load up a batch of yearling wethers and take them to market. Last year I worried over and checked these wethers just as often in their first hours of life. When they were just weeks old, I went out searching for them when they became separated from their mothers, who stood bellowing to them. Most times the kids had fallen asleep in a heap as the herd browsed nearby and had continued to doze as the herd moved on, even sleeping through their mothers’ urgent calling after them.
I like to quote writer and contrary farmer Gene Logsdon regarding his farm animals. In Gene Everlasting, he says, “We raise our farm animals with loving care, grow quite fond of them, put our lives at risk to save theirs if necessary, and then we kill and eat them.”
A good life and a quick kill are kinder than the way animals treat one another. The natural world is a violent place. If you’ve ever had two bucks in rut or more than one rooster at any time, you know the maiming and mayhem that can occur. Even the hens and does have their pecking order, and heaven help any challenger of the status quo. In the wild when an animal eats another animal, it is rarely a quick and painless death. Life feeds on life. All of us must eat, must consume in order to live, and thus we affect the rest of life by our mere existence. The sanest thing we can do is to keep our own numbers in check so that we do not outpace our resources and other species.
But, I am a heretic among goatherds. I have tried to educate myself in the conventional ways of goat herding, and when I’m in a pinch, I research the web, contact other goat owners, and even call the vet as a last resort. But mostly I listen to and watch the goats and they tell me what they need, which most of the time is for me to leave them the hell alone. They have been in the business of being goats for millennia without human help or interference. When they first started walking this earth, no one was around to worm them or to feed them corn, and yet here they are, even becoming feral in parts of the world like Jamaica and Australia.
I haven’t figured out why they insist on kidding in wintertime when the frailer kids are subject to hypothermia in their first few hours. Is it because all of the parasites and harmful microorganisms are frozen? Is it because the frail ones are not meant to live, produce, and pass on their inferior genes? All but Fanny’s tiny one and—I’m learning—anything that comes out of Bella, have done very well on frosty ground. Every year I am tempted to make them wait to breed so that the worst of winter will be over before the kids arrive. Every year the does beat me down with their relentless loud bleating for the buck when they are in season, or the buck outwits me and destroys a fence to get to them. Maybe they know best.
The frozen ground crunches underfoot as I return to the goat shed with my bundle. Although it is 6 am, there is no sign of the sun even beginning to lighten the eastern sky. The Big Dipper has disappeared beneath the northern horizon as it is wont to do this time of year in the Southern states. It is moonless and the Milky Way spills across the sky–so many stars! “See this, Little One?” I tell my bundle. “If you can make it, you get to see this big beautiful sky every single day and night of your life. No roof to block your view, Little One.”
Bella is lying with the one little triplet that she has not yet neglected to death. He will not let her neglect him. He is robust and relentless, dogging her every turn, catching a sip from a teat when he can. I slip Little One in beside her and next to brother, hoping no one will notice. This is how I introduce new chickens to the henhouse, slip them in during the cover of night and hope no one will notice the interloper when they rouse themselves at daylight. The day will warm to the 50s and tonight will be warm as well. Being accepted back into the fold is Little One’s best chance at a healthy life as a goat. It is up to her, her mother, and the ways of nature. Will it work? I have no idea. The only thing I know for sure is that goats know more about being goats than I do.