We've been joyfully keeping, breeding and milking backyard dairy goats as part of our market gardening ecosystem for a decade now, with 8 generations of live births and incredibly cute babies already come and gone through our barn. But never before did the arrival of new goat kids affect us quite the way this year's crop did. It was the certainly the orphan triplets, BeeBee, Gandari and Radaya that melted our hearts and changed how we will view goat kids forever.
"Baby" was my beloved, first goat, the one I got largely in order to prepare for "Y2K" in 1999. She was a classic, spotted Nubian (rich milk, floppy ears) and equal parts smart, tough.. and neurotic. Having never been locked up in her previous home, Baby screamed her head off for a month straight when I first brought her home. We tried everything to make her happier: different hay, green leaves and brush, grass, tethering in the field. Then, four nights short of the new millenium, Baby unexpectedly dropped two caprine companions and was henceforth consumed by a life of motherhood, voracious foraging and valuable compost production. She turned out to be an excellent and reliable mom and a steady, if not champion, milker, providing our household high quality goat milk and cheese for nearly a decade, a steady lineup of progeny -- and organic fertilizer, to boot. Last year, finally slowed by crippling arthritis, she'd had to be separated from the herd, who'd started returning the brutality she'd bestowed upon them for years in her prime. We shook our heads and made a note to euthanize the ol' girl before winter set in. But the task of killing Baby got put off several times, and finally, abandoned.
By late winter, gnarly, skeletal great grandma Baby was growing scarily bigger and needed all her strength just to hoist herself up and hobble around several times a day. It's lore in wild and domestic herds that when an animal can no longer get up from lying down, it's pretty much curtains. But she never once complained or even seemed to worry about her growing predicament. As ever, Baby was just... well, single mindedly ravenous! Even before we realized she was pregnant I'd been slipping her extra morsels, handfuls of grain and assorted bits of compost or veggie waste. After her years of loyal service to the farm, this was one small favor I could still give her.
On the question of whether and when to put an animal down (mercy killing)... I always felt that if an animal still enjoyed their food at least, then you could surmise, perhaps, their life was still worth something. By late January it fully dawned on us why our crippled old goat friend was following me around so chronically hungry. I felt guilty for not having euthanized her... and then for allowing her to get bred. ... and then for not recognizing her condition sooner. But here we were, nonetheless.
One by one, in the mild beginning of March, our other does began birthing. Drupadi, dropped Abimanu and Sita; Flossy birthed Lakshmee... and Cowey gave us the beautiful twins, Saraswati and Panchali. All were nursing and doing well in their stalls. Then at long last Baby went in into labor. She tried, valiantly pushing, on and off for several days without making any progress or traction, and eventually growing more and more exhausted. We massaged her, rolled her over, kept her full of fluids, electrolytes and leafy greens and listened to her moaning 24/7 from the house on a baby monitor. Deep into her third night of labor, coached now by my online goat experts, I attempted to induce birth with a strong tonic and and even prepared to reach inside her to pull them out if necessary. It wouldn't have been the first time I pulled a kid from Baby. Our best milker, "Flossy" was born that way in 2003 after getting stuck part way out. However, as I gazed at my crippled old friend now, I saw the plain, glaring truth -- that even if she had the strength, her skeleton had changed and twisted so far around that a huge goat kid probably couldn't any longer pass through her pelvis. She just wasn't going to birth the three huge kids she was carrying. Alone in the night I looked at the situation over and over, for several hours. Then I steeled myself ...and slew my beloved Baby.
Once she was dead, I quickly cut her open and slid out the three most beautiful kids I'd ever seen, one brown, one beige and one white. Cowey, only two days freshened herself, obliged me by licking off the three newborns, but with two of her own already suckling, she was not about to adopt three more.
The arrival in our kitchen of Baby's babies brought a cheerfulness to the whole farm that lingered for weeks. All baby goats are extraordinarily cute with their leggy acrobatics and their little bleating voices. But when these poignant entirely dependent, prodigal kids of our recently deceased matriarch, took up residence, bottle nursing round the clock... even this hard hearted farmer had to smile. And these were no regular baby goats, but rather the culmination of a 10 year breeding experiment, largely accidental, but brilliant, nonetheless. For a decade we had rolled the genetic dice with dairy breeds: Nubian, Alpine and Saanan. Now, in dying, Baby had taken her powerful, milky legacy, dating back to the Nubians of Scotland, and given to us her best work yet. I stood in awe of how beautiful they were.
It wasn't just that they were cute. It wasn't just that they hold the genetic likelihood of being excellent milkers. They were beyond cute. They were perfect.
My wife thinks I'm a hero for saving the triplets. I think I was perhaps negligent for allowing Baby to remain alive (and get bred) through fall and winter. But perhaps the morality and lessons here aren't quite so clear. Perhaps this is just a reminder how certain events and experiences in life defy simple analysis. Sure we "should have" put down the old, crippled goat a while back. Or at least seen to it that the buck couldn't breed her in the fall. But these choices weren't necessarily linear. We did what we could when we could, with what we knew. We worked with the evolving reality on the ground in the barn. Although we kept scratching our heads and asking why Baby was still alive through this harsh, snowy winter, had we euthanized her, we'd never have had these three magical kids in our lives. Now, in retrospect, it's clear why she was alive all winter.
Now, thankfully, the orphan kids are back outside and successfully resocializing to the rest of the herd. This was an incredibly positive outcome to a sketchy situation. And we're learning a lot more about goats, goat care, breeding and about the hard choices of life.
This whole chapter of bottle raising three orphan goats is moving quickly into memory, maybe not to be repeated soon here. The seasons and the farm move relentlessly forward. Baby goats grow fast into rampaging bongo-heads. But these three prodigal kids, Baby's last, will stay with us for a long time. They are fated now to be more docile and more bonded to us than most of their herdmates. This is thus the other huge blessing in the story of the orphan goats as it is for domestic goats through the ages... as now BeeBee and Gandari hold great potential as milkers, and Radaya will be our 2008 sire.
The keeping and milking of ruminant animals is, after all, an ancient collaborative trust, 'tween man and beast, a symbiotic dance bridging nature and nurture, biology and permaculture. Both beast and man must be up for the task. The husband must be regular and strong and bonded to the land, the animal must be bonded to the farmer, hence easy to milk and handle. That is their destiny as domesticated goats as it is ours to tend, love and milk them.
Laughing Dog Farm
Posted: to General News on Fri, Jan 16, 2009
Updated: Wed, Mar 18, 2015