Monday, March 26, 2012

Loki Joe

When we first got our goats, it was with the intention of raising and showing them as a project in our local 4-H club.  It was mainly my older daughter who was interested in goats and 4-H, but I thought it would be good if both girls participated in the activity.  My youngest, Molly, was 9 at the time, and a bit on the stubborn side, so in order to encourage her to become involved, I suggested that she invite her friend, Holly, to join 4-H with us. 

Now, Holly lives in town and had no farm animals, but I assured her parents that this was not a necessity for being involved with 4-H.  Many people don’t know this, but 4-H isn’t just for farm kids.  There are numerous projects from cake decorating to sewing to shooting sports that even urban kids can participate in.  So, I suggested that Holly and Molly do a project together called, “Decorate your Duds” which would combine their love of clothing with their sense of creativity.  Molly would also do a dairy goat project with her new little Nigerian Dwarf, Springer, and of course, Holly often tagged along.

Well, much to Holly’s parents chagrin (I imagine), Holly soon discovered the joys of goat ownership and began pressuring them to buy her a goat.  I thought this would be a lot of fun and offered to help them find a suitable animal and to board it at our farm.   Not wanting the expense or responsibility of getting a doe (female goat), she decided to start with a wether (castrated male) like Molly had the year before.  It was early fall when we started looking, but it turned out to be harder than I expected.  By that late in the season, most of the kids from the previous spring had been sold and we found it challenging to track down a young, Nigerian Dwarf wether, which was what she had settled on.

After several false starts, we found a cute 4 month old wether not far away who sounded perfect.  His name was Homeless Joe and he was a sweet little tan and black Nigerian.   The only problem was that he had just been diagnosed with and was being treated for pink-eye, a common but very contagious ailment in goats.  He was on medication and was quarantined for 3-4 weeks, so we’d have to wait to bring him home until he was finished with the antibiotics he was taking.  His current owner also told us that though he had been disbudded (de-horned) he had some small scurs.  Scurs result when a small amount of the horn cell remains after disbudding, causing a little bit of horn to grow – usually not a problem.

Holly waited patiently, although it was probably hard for her as Molly, in the meantime, got her first doeling, a cute little Nigerian Dwarf she named Lily.  But eventually all that waiting and patience paid off, and it was time to make the hour drive to go pick up the little fella who Holly had decided to rename Loki Joe (Loki being the name of the Norse God of Mischief – very fitting for a young goat!).

When we arrived at the farm where Loki had been living, we found him being kept in a dog kennel all alone and away from the other goats because of his pink-eye.  Poor little guy.  We were happy that he was about to become a member of our growing herd back home.  But when we got to visit with him up close, I realized that the “little scur” they had mentioned was actually a small horn.  I hated to break the news to Holly and her mom after all that waiting, but I was pretty sure that we’d have to have it surgically removed in order for Holly to be able to show him as planned.  I couldn’t imagine coming all this way after all this waiting just to have to tell Holly that this goat wasn’t the one for her.  So, we loaded him up in my minivan and brought him back to the farm, hoping that the little horn would be easy enough to deal with.

The first week or so was hard on Loki.  He was somewhat stressed and didn’t seem to be feeling great, and he didn’t really understand what it meant to be part of a herd having lived so much of his young life in isolation.  But after an injection of vitamins A & E and lots of TLC from Holly and Molly, he perked up and started acting like the young little mischievous goat he was.  Soon he was running with the herd and acting strong and healthy enough to be ready for his dehorning surgery.

On a chilly day in December, I took him over to my vet’s house where he and his wife performed the operation on the top of a dryer in their laundry room.  It wasn’t very fancy, but they got the job done with minimal fuss and expense.  Poor little Loki was sent home with a full head wrap which he had to wear for the next 2-3 weeks.  Because it was so cold out, we let him convalesce in our heated mudroom with our friendly wether, Snickers, as his nursemaid.

I am happy to report that two years later Loki is thriving as a full-fledged member of our herd.  He is happy, healthy and best of all, horn- and scur-free!  And he has become a wonderful little show goat, helping Holly to win first place in her showmanship class at the Boulder County Fair last summer.  Not bad for a little goat that got off to such a hard start.  Way to go Holly and Loki!

Life Lesson:  Patience, perseverance and a positive attitude are the keys to success

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What's the Hurry?

When we first met our mare, Belle, she was 19 years old and my daughter, Megan was 7.  We were just getting Megan started with horses and after a few successful riding lessons had decided to try to lease a horse as a next step.  Belle was a black Quarter Horse mare with a mellow, easy going temperament and a nice smooth gait, who was in semi-retirement due to an old injury.  Apparently she’d been kicked in the gaskin a few years earlier (that’s an area toward the top of the rear leg) and though the injury itself had healed, it had left tight scar tissue in that part of her leg that restricted her range of motion, causing her to move with a bit of a gimp.  The injury had ended her career as a show horse and she had been sold for $1 to a family in Boulder as a kid's pleasure horse.  Their young daughters only rode occasionally, so the family had decided to lease her out as a way to pay for her keep.

We leased Belle for about a year and eventually she was given to us by the family when they no longer had the time or interest to care for her.  Since then, Belle has gone on to have a meaningful second career as a kid’s lesson and camp horse at our family farm.  While Megan has lost much of her interest in horses (for the time being, at least) Belle has taught many other new riders how to overcome some initial fears as they begin learning how to ride.  From the littlest 6 year old to several of my adult students, Belle has been the perfect beginner’s horse, in part because of her slow, smooth gaits but also because her favorite speed of all is a stand still. 

Whenever a new student is a little uneasy or apprehensive about climbing up on the back of one of the horses (a fear I think is rooted in some pretty good common sense), the first thing I do is teach them how to make the horse stop.  Knowing that they can control the speed and movement of their large mount is the quickest way to instill confidence and with Belle, it couldn’t be easier.   She is voice trained (as all my horses are) to some basic commands such as walk, trot, canter and Belle’s personal favorite, whoa.  Once students learn that a simple, firmly spoken “whoa” is all it takes to stop her in her tracks, they immediately relax.

In the wild horse world, where horses have to fend for themselves and be prepared to flee at the first sign of danger, the older horses eventually figure out that they should move as little as possible when no danger is present to conserve energy.  You never know when a mountain lion or other threat might show up and you want to have enough energy in reserve to be able to run for all you’re worth if needed.   While Belle certainly doesn’t have to worry too much about predators in her current living arrangement, she has definitely perfected the art of conserving energy.   She never takes more steps than necessary, stays out of the fray when the younger horses are goofing off, and takes a nap every afternoon out in the back pasture.

I actually think I could learn a lot from old Belle.  I myself, tend to rush from activity to activity, eat too fast, do too much, and don’t take nearly enough naps.  I’m always running from one thing to the next and seem to have forgotten all about the word "whoa".
Belle turns 28 this month, and Megan will be 16.  It’s hard for me to believe that my little girl who was learning to ride what seems like just a few years ago, is now learning to drive.  And Belle has been a part of her world for more than half her life. 

Each spring, I wonder if this will be the year that Belle retires for good.  But when I leave her in the paddock and bring the other horses out to work in the arena, she just stands at the fence watching alertly with an expression that seems to say, “hey, what about me?”  So each year, I bring her back into the arena for light work and she continues to be a camp and lesson favorite.  Maybe conserving all that energy is the real secret to longevity.

Life Lesson:  Take it easy if you want to go the distance

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Breeding Does

Last weekend, our 4-H club hosted an ultrasound clinic for our goats.  Fifteen presumed pregnant does and their owners showed up at my co-leader’s farm on Saturday morning to determine whether or not they were indeed “with kid”.  Each doe took her turn jumping up on the milk stand where the veterinarian placed a sensor on her belly while we all huddled around a small monitor looking for signs of life.   It was not only educational for the club members but entertaining as well.  And pretty successful, with 13 of the 15 does getting confirmation that they had been successfully bred.

Our family brought 3 of our does – Skittles, Starburst and Lily - and luckily all three turned out to be pregnant.  We would have brought Milky Way, too, but she had just gotten home from the breeder the day before so would not be far enough along for anything to show up on the ultrasound.  My favorite part of the vet’s explanation was when she said of Lily, Molly’s first-time-pregnant Nigerian Dwarf doe, that she could for sure see at least one baby, but that Molly should prepare for four!  In other words, she can tell she’s pregnant but there’s no guarantee how many are in there.   We were especially relieved to get this news for Lily after last year’s disappointment when she spent a month at a breeder’s farm only to come home “not bred”.  Molly’s huge smile at the news that we’d had success this year was evidence of her relief that finally this spring, she’d get to tend to kids.

We were also happy to know that Megan’s doe, Starburst, was pregnant although by the looks of her, there was little doubt.  She is already bulging at the sides and the vet confirmed that at least two very active kids are nestled inside.  So, around April 15th, if all goes well, we’ll get to meet them!

Now you might be wondering a little about the breeding process for goats so let me enlighten you.  Goats go into heat approximately every three weeks during the breeding season, which varies a bit from breed to breed.  For the big goats like our Nubians, the breeding season usually starts toward the end of summer and ends around January or February.  The smaller breeds like our Nigerian Dwarfs supposedly cycle all year round, making it possible to breed them twice within one year.  Some goats are easy to tell when they’re in heat (like our Skittles who bleats at the top of her lungs for 2 straight days during her time) and some are a little trickier (like our relatively quiet Lily).  When they are ready to be bred, they are said to be in “standing heat” which means they’ll stand still for the buck to breed them.  Any other time they will just run from the buck, or if they’re particularly bold or a little bigger than the boy, they may head butt him and generally avoid anything that resembles cooperation.

We don’t have any bucks of our own, so each year we scout out local breeders that we like the looks of and drive our girls to their farms.  This year, however, Megan chose a breeder for her Nubians that lives in Wyoming and instead of driving to her, she brought her buck to us.  Two of them, in fact.  We decided to take two so they could keep each other company and we planned to breed one to Skittles and the other to Starburst.  The bucks arrived a week or so before Thanksgiving and the arrangement was for us to care and feed for them for a month or two while they “serviced” our does.

We determined which buck we thought possessed the desired traits we were looking for with each doe, and had it all figured out.  We’d breed Starburst to Count Jewelio – the longer bodied of the two, and Skittles to Hobokon – the bigger boned boy.  Now I don’t know how many of you have ever tried to choose your daughter’s friends, or harder yet, boyfriends, but we had about as much say in who our “girls” would date as you might have in such attempts with your girls.   When Starburst appeared to be in heat, we put her in with our chosen mate and of course, the two of them wanted nothing to do with each other.  She ran from him and rather than pursuing her, Count Jewelio came over to us for attention and then just went back to eating.   We gave it a few minutes with no improvement in their attraction to one another and then we switched bucks.  And bingo, love was in the air!  Starburst and Hoboken were a match made in heaven.  So much for our careful selection and planning.  Oh well, the main goal was a pregnant doe, and in that we appear to have succeeded.

Life Lesson:  You can’t force love

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Christmas Gifts

Now that another holiday season has come and gone and we are in the middle of the longest part of winter, where the days are too cold and short for me to do much with the farm animals other than taking care of their basic needs, I find I have a little more time for reflection and reminiscing.   All the holiday decorations are put away, the last of the candy from our stockings has been eaten and we’re all on a diet!  We had a good Christmas with lots of yummy food and quality family time, and of course, plenty of gift giving.   As my girls grow up it’s fun to notice how their gift  requests have changed from the earlier, little girl stage.  Megan, for example, at 15 didn’t have much of a wish list this year other than new music to play on her saxophone, i-tune gift cards and money to put toward her savings for a car.  Molly, on the other hand, at 12 still likes a few “toys” although her requests have a slightly higher price tag than when she was little, usually being a very specific model of Breyer horse (which she collects) or money to buy clothes (since I long ago gave up trying to figure out what she would like). 

So, considering the gifts we all gave and received this year made me think back to earlier years, long before the kids and horses and goats were part of the equation.  When my husband and I were dating each other in our twenties, he loved to spoil me with nice gifts like jewelry, flowers, and spa gift certificates.  He was very romantic and thoughtful and seemed to enjoy picking out and giving me these gifts as much as I enjoyed receiving them.  It’s no wonder I married him, wouldn’t you say?

As the years went on, and I accumulated a fair number of pretty necklaces, earrings and pedicures, he started asking for suggestions from me as to what I might want for Christmas or for my birthday, so as not to duplicate something I already had or give me something that wasn’t my taste.  I remember for our 10th wedding anniversary, I very specifically requested a small gold anniversary band with 10 tiny diamonds, showing him examples of what I had in mind in jewelry store windows at the local mall.  Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what was inside the small jewelry box I opened while we were out to dinner celebrating that year.

Fast forward to current day after twenty two years of marriage.  Funny how time and circumstances change what you really value in life.  I know it’s normal for the “romantic” factor in gift giving to wane after a couple has been together for a long time, and quite honestly, my current lifestyle as a farm girl, 4-H leader, cheesemaker and mom just doesn’t seem to make jewelry and fancy clothes very high on my wish list.  In fact, in recent years I’ve specifically requested that Brian not give me jewelry as a gift since I rarely wear the majority of what I already have (except that pretty little anniversary ring).  No, these days I’m much more likely to ask for cheese or soap molds, new gloves, or a set of cooking pots and pans.  One year I actually asked for, and received, a new kitchen sink!

But this year I think I really outdid myself with my request.  It might not sound romantic to you, but it’s what I really wanted and I love the fact that my husband listens so well to my truest wishes and doesn’t get caught up in the commercial hype of what a woman should really want.   Yes, I was pretty delighted this Christmas morning to find a bright red ribbon adorning my beautiful, shiny new purple manure fork leaning up against the decorated tree!

Life Lesson:   Feeling truly known is the greatest gift of all.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year, New Book!

Happy New Year from the kids and critters at Briar Gate Farm!

If you're wondering why I haven't been writing any new entries for awhile, it's because I have been busy, among other things, compiling the stories from this past year of blogging and putting them into a professionally bound book!

Life Lessons from the Barnyard
By Kate Johnson

105 pages of humorous and heartfelt stories about the lessons I learn from raising critters and kids here at Briar Gate Farm.

You can order it for $10 from or if you're nearby, 
I have copies here at the farm.

I plan to start writing more stories very soon so stay tuned! 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Silence is Golden

One of the things we look forward to on the farm every spring is getting our new batch of spring chicks.  Since hens only lay well for a few years, we find that getting a handful of new chicks each year ensures us of having an ongoing supply of farm-fresh eggs.  Plus, those fluffy little peeps are just too cute to pass up when they arrive at the local farm stores at the end of winter! 

Two years ago, my oldest daughter, Megan, decided to enter a few birds at the county fair along with her goats just to see what it would be like.  Turned out to be a good compliment to the goat showing as the poultry barn is attached to the goat barn, making it easy to care for both species during fair week, and the chicken show is the day before the goat show, so there’s no time conflict there.  We also learned that the poultry-showing kids can make a fair amount of money selling their birds to the public on the last day of the fair.  So, this past year, we once again looked forward to selecting our spring babies with the plan to get more than we needed to keep our flock going so that we could sell a few at the fair.

My younger daughter, Molly, and her friend, Holly, decided they’d like to get in on the “chick action”, too.  Holly lives in town but boards a goat at our farm, and she asked if I’d be willing to board a few chickens, too.  I figured a few more chicks would hardly be noticed, but I did tell her that no roosters could stay.  They get too aggressive and noisy and tend to beat up on the girls, so that was my deal.  Unfortunately, when it comes to getting baby chicks, there is no guarantee that you’ll get all girls!  Holly agreed to this condition and said that her uncle was also getting spring chicks and had agreed to take any roosters she might end up with. 

In the past, we’ve always been able to go over to our local ranch supply and feed stores during “chick days” and have plenty of spring babies to choose from between late February and early April.  But this year was a little different.  You see, the backyard hen craze has swept through our town making it legal for in-town residents to keep up to four hens in backyard coops for egg production.  This trend is growing all over the country, which is a great thing in my opinion, but the problem is, the hatcheries don’t seem to be able to keep up with demand.  We “special ordered” chicks for Megan early in the season and they came in just fine.  But Molly and Holly wanted to hand select their birds and each time they went to the store to look, they were either sold out or the order that was supposed to come in hadn’t arrived.  Finally, after several tries and adjustments to their breed preferences, they finally had their babies.  Molly got one each of three different standard breeds, and Holly selected two little black Silkies, a bantam breed (bantam chickens are about half the size of a standard chicken). 

Holly started off with her chicks in a small cage in her mother’s apartment where she was able to care for and bond with them before they outgrew that set-up.  When they got too big for the small cage, she moved them over to our farm where we took care of them during the week, and she came on weekends to do her share of goat and chicken chores.  Now the thing with bantams is that they are too small to identify their gender when they are first hatched, so you can only buy bantams that are “straight run”, which means you don’t know if you’re getting boys of girls. As the chicks began to grown, Holly noticed that one was quite a bit bigger than the other, and she guessed it was probably a cockerel (that’s official poultry jargon for “young rooster”).  She was just hoping she’d get at least one hen and when it came time to put leg bands on them as identification for the fair, she selected a pink band for the one she was hoping was a girl.

Not too surprisingly, around mid-July we began to hear the first attempts at a cock-a-doodle-doo out of one of her birds, although it wasn’t from the bigger one – it was coming from the one wearing a pink band!  So, we quickly changed leg bands, being convinced that surely the other one would end up being a girl.  But as luck would have it, about 3 days before the fair, I heard the now pink-banded bird begin the all-too-familiar beginner’s crow.  Darn, two for two.

When it came to the poultry sale day, Holly did her best to market her young lads and tried to convince anyone she came in contact with that they really needed a little Silkie bantam rooster!  But at the end of the fair, all the hens were sold and we came back to the farm with two little black, fluffy-headed cockerels.

Now, remember that plan for the uncle to take the roosters?  Well, turns out he ended up with 6 of his own from his young flock of 12, so he took back his offer.  We thought one of our 4-H families might take one, but they decided not to.  I found two other potential takers but they, too, eventually backed out.  As the weeks passed by, the little roosters got louder and louder and the sound of that cock-a-doodle-doo started wearing on my nerves.  Normally, I love that sound, but now every time I heard it, it reminded me that those two boys who were supposed to be long gone, were still here!

Finally, out of desperation, I posted an ad on Craig’s List – FREE, cute and friendly bantam-sized Silkie roosters!  MUST go this weekend!

You can imagine my joy and relief when the e-mail came in saying, “if you’ve still got ‘em, I’ll take ‘em”.  BINGO!  I felt like I’d hit the jackpot.  When the couple and their three kids showed up to get the boys, I met them at the driveway with the roosters ready to go.  I didn’t want to waste any time transferring them to the cage they had brought just in case they might change their mind at the last minute.  The exchange took approximately 2 minutes, and they were on their way.

Later that afternoon, as my husband and I sat on our deck sipping a glass of wine while looking out at our beautiful foothills view, I noticed with great pleasure how still and quiet it was, quiet being the operative word.  It was sheer bliss.

As for next year?  Well, let’s just say I’ve told Holly she can get chicks again, but this time they have to be Golden Sex-linked pullets.  If they’re yellow, they’re girls!

Life Lesson:  Be careful what you agree to

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Goat Road Trips

This summer, my teenage daughter and I took three of her Nubian goats to several out of town goat shows.  We went to Torrington, WY, Douglass, WY and Pueblo, CO, in addition to several local shows.   For the first big drive, we took our truck and trailer but after spending $120 to fill my diesel pick-up truck with gas, I got to thinking maybe those 3 goats could all fit in my more economical minivan!  It certainly would be a quieter and more comfortable ride for us, be easier to navigate in parking lots and at drive-through restaurants, and the goats could enjoy the comfort of air conditioning while listening to music.  Sure enough, by taking all the back seats out and packing carefully, we were able to fit three large dog crates, a milking stand, a bale of hay, a bag of pine shavings, buckets, hay bags, grooming equipment and our suitcases.  We even had room for two folding chairs and a cooler!

Now I wasn’t originally planning on going to all these “away” shows this year, but I figured that with my daughter being so passionate about showing her goats and the fact that she actually wanted to spend time with me at the very peer-influenced age of 15, I'd better make time for these getaways with her while I still could.  It’s hard for me to fathom, but I really only have her home for 3 more summers before she’s off to college.

The great thing about these road trips is that they’re sort of boring.  What I mean by that is there is plenty of time to chat.  Any of you who have teenage kids know that opportunities to really connect with them seem to get more and more fleeting as they grow up.  Friends, homework, sports, cell phones, computers... these all compete with parents for attention during the high school years.  But sitting next to each other on a long, boring stretch of I-85 through Wyoming with no other distractions allows for some pretty good conversation time.  We talked about college and career choices, God and religion, goat breeding, driving laws, healthy eating, and lots of fun fantasy conversations about future houses and farm set-ups.  It was great.

The goat showing was pretty fun and successful, too.  When we started out with goats three years ago, we bought a small little Nubian doe named Skittles.  She was spotted, cute and compact.  Well, turns out “compact” is not highly desired in the dairy goat show world where terms like body capacity, height, strength and stature are frequently used to describe the winning does.  Once Megan began to get serious about showing beyond 4-H, I offered to buy her a show-quality doe, but she insisted that the only truly admirable and respectable way to get a better show goat was to breed your way there.  So, she selected a local breeder whose goats had the traits she was looking for and began to improve her line.  Imagine her thrill when Skittles’ third doeling took Reserve Champion Junior Doe at the Colorado State Fair this year.  Talk about a mother’s pride – mine and Megan’s (and maybe Skittles’, too!).

The only real downside to our summer goat road trips was the smell that was left in my mini van as a reminder of our journey.  In spite of laying tarps down under the crates that housed the girls, the distinct smell of goat still permeates our family car.  The vanilla scented car air freshener helps but now it just smells like we’ve been baking cupcakes in the barn.  A suburban friend of mine was recently lamenting the fact that her minivan was such a mess, with candy wrappers, Happy Meal toys and miscellaneous drink cups everywhere.  “Oh yeah?,” I said, “I bet you don’t have goat poop in your van!"   Do you think Toyota would want to make a commercial about that?

Life Lesson:  Look for unconventional opportunities to connect with those you love