Saturday, April 23, 2011

Candy Goats

Our Nubian doe, Skittles, did so well with her very first kidding two years ago that I just assumed the second kidding would be even easier.  After all, her first labor only lasted about 5 hours and she seemed to push her two mini-Nubian babies out almost effortlessly.  I figured the second time around would be a breeze.  But this time we had bred her to a full-sized Nubian and she was big as a house in the weeks leading up to her due date.  I couldn’t imagine how she could get any fatter and she seemed to have trouble just walking from her paddock to the nearby pasture during those last few weeks.  Then there were all the false starts in the days before the birth.  I thought for sure she was in labor at least 3 or 4 times, but each time she’d show signs of labor for an hour or so, and then everything would stop.  I lost a lot of sleep checking on her in the night, sitting with her while she apparently labored, and then going back to bed two hours later when nothing was happening.  I even bought a new baby monitor (the one I used when my own babies were small had long ago been sold at a garage sale), so that I could listen from the comfort and warmth of my own bed. 

Two days after her official due date of May 27th, with the girls out of school for the summer and both having friends sleeping over, it looked like she might finally be ready.  I checked on her as the girls were getting ready for bed and she was once again doing the labor dance:  paw at the ground, lay down, circle around, get up, change sides, and do it all again.  I was sure this was it so with the girls in their pajamas and the camera at the ready, we settled in on blankets covering hay bales and watched and waited.  It was fun and exciting for the first hour or so, but eventually everyone got too sleepy and decided to go to bed, with the promise from me that I’d come get them when the babies were arriving.  Again, I checked in on her during the night, but nothing.

I went to bed and had vivid dreams about Skittles and her labor.  At one point I clearly dreamed that when I checked on her in the morning, a baby was just coming out and I had to run up to the house to get the girls.  As often happens in dreams, my legs felt like they were mired in quick sand and I couldn’t get up to the house to alert the others.  When I finally managed to tell them and got back to the barn, the babies were already there.  To say I had a restless night of sleep that night would be an understatement, but of course, Skittles wasn’t having it much easier.

Around 5:00 am the next morning, when I got up to go feed the horses,  I glanced in Skittles’ stall assuming I’d see her there snoozing (it was all very quiet).  Much to my surprise, she was crouching low and I could see the amniotic sac beginning to emerge – just like in my dream!  Fortunately my legs seemed to be working just fine, as were my lungs, and I ran to the house and hollered for everyone to come quick.  Back to the barn in a flash, I got there just in time to see the first little kid slither out onto the straw-lined floor of the birthing stall.  It was a tiny little black doeling, with long powdered-doughnut ears – adorable!  Everyone was there by now marveling at the little cutie, and I figured the next one would be here any minute.  But again, she proved me wrong and we waited and waited for another 45 minutes with no progress.  I started to get concerned and decided to call my goat advisor, Melanie.  When she answered the phone I said, “Skittles had her first kid but it’s been almost an hour and she hasn’t...oh never mind, here it comes!”  And with a big push, out came a big, beautiful brown baby boy.  He seemed half again as big as the first one, and I thought no wonder she was so fat and uncomfortable.  We waited again for what seemed like forever, and Skittles still seemed restless and uncomfortable.  About an hour later, just as Melanie arrived, she started straining again and Melanie went in to help her out.  A baby emerged in the breech position.  It was still and lifeless and a check for its heartbeat and breathing revealed it was stillborn.  I feared that the girls would be upset and that Skittles might be, too, so I quickly removed the little brown doeling from the stall and placed in a towel in the tack room.

Luckily everyone was so thrilled with the two healthy little kids that the sadness of the stillborn was drowned out by the joy and excitement of the new arrivals.  Megan named the kids Starburst and Hershey in the candy-name tradition and we spent the rest of the morning cooing and cuddling them, taking pictures, and admiring their silky long ears.  Eventually the girls’ friends went home and it was just the three of us as my husband, Brian, was out of town.  Believe it or not, he was actually on a trip with his mother and brothers to bury the ashes of his father who had died the previous fall.  And back here at the farm, we were preparing for a burial of our own.

I dug a hole deep enough to ensure that the coyotes and raccoons wouldn’t dig up the body, and then went to fetch the little doeling that I had earlier placed in a small cardboard box.  I asked the girls if they would like to see her body before we buried her, and much to my surprise they said they would.  We tenderly unwrapped the towel and carefully viewed the perfectly formed little body, marveling at how sweet and peaceful she looked.  We decided we should name her and I suggested Baby Ruth, since she would always stay a baby.

We each gathered a bouquet of flowers from the yard, and after placing the box in the deep hole and covering it with dirt, we set the flowers on the grave, held hands and sang Amazing Grace as a light misting rain began to fall.  It was such a tender moment and one filled more with gratitude than sorrow. 

Later that evening, after Megan milked Skittles, she came to me and asked if I thought it was o.k. if she poured a little of the milk on Baby Ruth’s grave so she could have some of her mother’s first milk.  I was touched with the gesture, and together in the darkness, we accomplished the task with silent reverence.  It felt good and right and brought closure to a day that was one I was sure my children would hold in their hearts forever.

Life Lesson:  Life is fragile – Live each day with gratitude

P.S.  Skittles had her third set of kids just 2 days ago – a perfect strapping boy and an adorable spotted girl.  And it went flawlessly and effortlessly.  Welcome Twix and Almond Joy!

Saturday, April 16, 2011


When you live on rural property, it’s not uncommon to get calls from people looking for a home for an animal they can no longer keep.  I’ve been asked to make a home for horses, goats, chickens, roosters, dogs, cats and even a sheep.  The most common is the “gift horse”, which usually means a geriatric horse that can be used for limited, if any riding but that the owner wants to be sure is well loved and cared for.  Our old Belle was one of these, and though she is older and can only be used for light riding, she does still earn her keep here at the ripe old age of 27 teaching riding lessons and working at summer camps.  But older horses, like older people, can have a number of health concerns and the vet bills can really add up, as I’ve found with my older gelding, Chummie, who is on multiple forms of medication and treatments for some advancing arthritis issues.  So, I am cautious when offered a “free” animal – especially if it’s a horse – and my usual reply is, “There’s no room at the Inn.”

Occasionally, though, a freebie will come along that doesn’t fit the usual mold, and such was the case with Ringo.  When Ringo came into our lives, he was only 7 years old, basically sound and with no big behavioral issues.  Yet he was being offered to us at no cost.  The reason for this was that he was owned by a friend’s young daughter who had started riding a year or two before and had fallen in love with Ringo, who at the time was her lesson horse.  But as her skill level progressed and her interests shifted to more serious jumping and showing, he was not quite meeting her needs.  You see, he has an unusual scar on his face and moves like a Mac truck, which makes him not exactly show material.  Apparently as a three year old, he was kicked in the face by another horse in his pasture, and the resulting scar left a hole beneath is right eye big enough to fit a super ball in.  And for reasons unknown, his hips are frequently locked (despite countless chiropractic treatments) which makes him move in a less than graceful manner most of the time. 

But Ringo has something huge going for him and that is his personality.  He is about the sweetest gelding I’ve ever met, both to people, horses and other animals in general.  And he is calm (aka lazy) and fairly agreeable when only asked to do limited work, which is what our farm is all about.  Besides, he’s also kind of cute.  When my friend, Jen, offered him to me a few years ago as a free horse, with two saddles, a bridle, several horse blankets and a bag of feed, along with the open-ended agreement that she would take him back if he ever wasn’t working out for us, I figured I should give it a try.  So, on a chilly winter day in February, I picked him up from his nearby boarding stable and brought him to the farm for a trial run.

It took less than two days for him to completely assimilate into my small herd, with absolutely no posturing, bullying or fireworks of any kind.  We kept him in the arena adjacent to the paddock where the other horses lived for the first day so they could see him but not interact.  On the second day I turned them all out together and they acted like they’d known each other all their lives.  I spent a month or two working with Ringo on ground work and under saddle, along with a trainer friend, to make sure he’d be safe and appropriate for my young riders.  Although he doesn’t know much and can be sort of stubborn, for the kind of riding we do here, he has gotten along just fine.

I’d like to say that he’s a good fit here in spite of his unusual looks with that big old scar and his clunky way of moving, but the honest truth is that he’s a good fit, in part, because of those things.  Beyond just learning to ride, I really try to teach kids other life skills such as appreciation, empathy, confidence, acceptance and patience and I find that Ringo’s appearance and movement opens the door for some great, meaningful conversation around these topics.  Sometimes kids are a little shocked by the scar, but they quickly learn to look past what’s on the outside and appreciate what’s on the inside.  They’re also impressed by the fact that Ringo is so friendly and willing to have his face petted and scratched in spite of the trauma he endured with the long process of recovery that his injury required.  And his laziness and somewhat awkward movement has made better riders out of more than a few kids in my program – he’s certainly no push-button horse!

I’m also happy to say that Ringo’s former owner is thrilled that he has a good, loving home where he still gets lots of interaction with people and other animals, plenty of pasture time, and a pretty easy job description.  She and her daughter come to visit him on occasion, but their visits have gotten less and less frequent in part because they have peace of mind knowing that this gift horse situation was a win-win.

Life Lesson:  Turn your Weaknesses into Strengths

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Everybody Poops

It probably goes without saying that living on a farm with numerous animals means there is a lot of manure to contend with.  A few interesting statistics might make you appreciate just how much scooping we actually do around here.  For instance, did you know that horses poop an average of 31 pounds a day?  I have 4 ½ horses (if you count the pony as a half), so that’s almost 140 pounds of manure a day just from them.  Factoring in the 5 hours a day they spend on pasture, where they can poop all they want and I don’t have to pick it up, that brings the total down to just over 110 pounds a day.  Or 770 pounds a week.  That’s a lot of crap!

Then there are the goats and llama but they’re a little easier.  For one thing, the llama creates a pile for his waste making it pretty easy to clean up, and the goats have compact little poop pellets that don’t accumulate too quickly.  Or maybe it just seems that way to me because my daughters and the 4-H’ers who have goats here do all the goat and llama clean up so it’s not a big concern for me.

Chickens also poop a surprising amount as I became well aware of when I used to let my hens free range around the farm.  I’d find chicken poo on my deck, in the driveway, on the sidewalks, in the grass...  I’d like to say I keep the girls confined in a fenced chicken run now for their own protection from coyotes (which is true) but deep down in, I’m sure the mess factor has a little something to do with their relative lack of freedom these days. 

Now it might sound like I’m complaining about all the clean-up required around here, and there are times when it gets pretty old (like when the temperature is below zero for a week straight).  But for the most part, I don’t really mind the task.  In fact, sometimes I find it almost meditative.  If you’ve never scooped horse manure before, you may think it’s a really stinky, smelly job.  And believe me, fresh horse manure does stink.  But once it dries and hardens it really has very little odor.  And there’s something about the rhythmic, repetitive action of scooping that is mesmerizing and relaxing to me.  That is, if there is no whining in the background.

It used to be that we tried to make stall and paddock cleaning a weekly family chore.  We figured if the girls had their own horses, they should be doing their share of the work.  That went pretty well the first spring and summer when the whole farm concept was fresh and new, although they were pretty little then (6 and 9 years old) so to tell you the truth, they weren’t all that much help.  But eventually the novelty wore off and the complaining began.  We’d try to make it fun by having weekly themes to scoop by (crazy hat day, loud country music day, etc.) and when that didn’t seem to be working anymore, we tried a more militant approach, tying the chore to privileges that could be taken away if there was non-compliance.  But after several years of the weekly struggle, last fall my husband and I decided to try something new.  We just did it ourselves.  Now I know that may sound like a cop out, but by this time, the girls were much more focused on the goats than the horses, and doing almost all of the chores related to them including most of the milking, grooming, feeding and clean-up.  So we figured they were still contributing to the farm chores even if they weren’t helping with the horse clean up. 

I must say that once I got over my frustration at their lack of help, I found that I actually enjoyed the process so much more now that I could do a little here and a little there whenever it fit into my schedule.  Most of the time that’s when everyone is at school and work and it’s just me and the animals here.  I often let the goats into the paddock with me as I’m cleaning for the sheer comic value they bring to the task.  Their silly antics and funny games keep me well entertained.  And I’ve been known to take a break from emptying manure buckets to pick up a barn kitty for a good cuddle or grab my camera to photograph the horses in the pasture with the beautiful foothills in the background.  I find these quiet moments of detachment from the rest of the outside world to be grounding and renewing for me.  I’ve also had more than a few creative inspirations come to me as I’m scooping poop.  Must be a combination of the fresh air, a little exercise and the methodical nature of it all that frees my mind up for new thoughts and ideas.

So while others do yoga, meditate, read scripture or pray, I scoop poop.  Grab a pitch fork and give it a try!

Life Lesson:  Find your source of inspiration and renewal, no matter how unusual it might be.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


In the world of dairy goats, girls rule and boys drool.  What I mean by that is, girl goats (does) are the main workers providing babies and milk and so are the most desirable gender, while the boys have relatively limited usefulness.  Of course, a few bucks are needed to help make the babies, but only a few.  They don’t make great pets (they’re pretty stinky, have a one-track mind and can be fairly aggressive).  Wethers (castrated males) can make good pets and companions, but most people who raise dairy goats end up selling the boy babies for meat. 

Now I don’t have a problem with this per se.  After all, I’m a meat eater myself.  But I have to tell ya, once you’ve bottle fed a few baby goats and see what darling personalities they have (more like puppies than livestock), it’s pretty hard to imagine them on the dinner table – at least for me it is.  So, each year that we’ve had kids so far, we’ve managed to figure out something else for the boys to do besides being sent to market.  And that’s especially true of our first boy, Snickers.

Snickers was born on May 5, 2009 to our Nubian doe, Skittles.  He was the first baby ever born at Briar Gate Farm, which automatically made him special.  But he really IS special beyond the fact that he was the first born.  When Snick was 1 day old, it was apparent that he was a cuddler.  His sister, Milky Way was much more rambunctious and rowdy while Snickers was content to sleep and snuggle and get showered with kisses all day long.  This personality continued as he grew up and before long it became clear that he was just a big, loveable dope.  He has been somewhat accident-prone at times, getting his head stuck in buckets, his legs caught in hay bags, and once he almost strangled himself when he got his collar stuck on a hay rack.  But his best feature is that he doesn’t seem to have an aggressive bone in his body – especially toward other goats.

We noticed this fact as our small herd began to expand.  Each time we brought a new goat to the farm and introduced it to the herd, the others would butt heads and ram the newcomer in its sides with such animosity that we’d have to separate them for a while until the posturing and bullying settled down.  But Snickers never seemed to display this tendency and didn’t act all tough like the others, so he soon became known as the “welcome goat”, keeping the new arrivals company and helping them assimilate into the larger herd.  Once we had a young wether that needed minor surgery and had to spend a few nights in our mud room infirmary while he was recovering.  Not surprisingly, Snickers was chosen to be his nursemaid while he convalesced. 

We’ve also found other ways to keep Snickers “employed”.  He has learned to pull a cart and gives rides to kids when they come to visit the farm.  My daughters delivered Christmas cookies to our neighbors with Snickers pulling the cart wearing reindeer antlers on this head (he wasn’t too fond of this detail but complied fairly well).  He has been in parades and utility classes and has carried a pack with our lunch in it on mountain hikes.  He has even been leased by a local 4-H member who wanted to show a goat at the fair but couldn’t have one of his own.

I imagine if we keep raising dairy goats and get more serious about the milk production end of things we may eventually have to consider the idea of selling a few boys for meat.  But for now, Snickers continues to show us that boy goats are useful for a whole lot more than they’re sometimes given credit for.

Life Lesson:  Embrace Your Unique Talents - Don't be Pigeonholed!