Early morning is my favorite time of day. Right now as I type this blog it is around seven a.m., and I am just now sitting down next to the wood cookstove in the kitchen, to a first cup of coffee. It may be the only coffee of the day. We would normally have two, but since last Tuesday, it has mostly been that one cup. Which is fine; we just get so caught up in the day that we forget our promise to get another installment.
Last Tuesday. Oh boy… I usually do barn chores at around a quarter to six, then check on the chickens and the goats periodically throughout the day. So, I returned at eight-thirty and our dam, that was scheduled to birth the following day on Wednesday, had made herself a little nest in the barn on some extra bedding. She did not seem to be in labor that I could see. I sat next to her, then she rose and I was able to inspect her a little closer. I did not see or feel any sign that a birth was imminent. But then, this was my first goat birthing, and I had and still have much to learn. Anyway, we had an errand in town to tend to, I think it was to vote at the town hall.
We came back around ten-thirty, and I went straight to the barn to check on Emma. Well, it was a good thing. As I approached the barn, the other goat, Elsie, who is also due to birth, though on May first, met me and was talking to me more than usual. I knew something was up. As I entered the barn, I saw that Emma had just given birth maybe seconds before, to what would be the first of two kids. The umbilical cord was already severed, so we helped her by toweling off the quivering and wet little fellow, and of course I needed to warm him and help the mother with the next baby and the after-birth. I also needed to run back to the house to alert Danielle so she could be there to help.
Poor Danielle! She had a knee and back injury – arthritis, we were told – that pretty much placed her on the DL. But low and behold, she tugged on her coat and grabbed a couple of ski poles for stabilization, and hobbled off to the barn. Good thing, too, because she was magnificent helping Emma. I was relegated to warming that first kid while Danielle helped Emma deliver the second. “Look, she’s crouching!” I said. Danielle then bent over, bad back and all, and caught the next baby, a small doe. It looked like she’d just caught a slimy sac of who-knows-what, looking something like a huge oyster. But inside was the cutest little doeling goat that Danielle’s granddaughter had pre-named ‘Olivia’. (The buck was pre-named ‘Monte’.)
It all started about three years ago when Danielle decided she wanted to give cheese-making a try. We had acquired a certain fondness for artisan cheese, particularly, raw goat milk cheese. Plus, we’d been using goat milk butter whenever we could find it. For starters Danielle purchased her milk from a neighbor, and that seemed to work well. But I had always loved animals. I had experience with draft horses, mules, and large dogs. Goats should be easy, right? Ha ha ha. Boy was I wrong! Actually they are really nice animals, and very personable. It may have been I who suggested “Why don’t we get some milk goats, and have our own milk? They’d fit right in to our homestead plans, wouldn’t they?” Danielle looked at me funny. She bristled and I asked, “Are you having second thoughts?” But she is a good sport. At almost the same time we came across a book called The Year Of The Goat, by Margaret Hathaway, which was so interesting and made it all seem do-able. It pretty much cemented our fondness for the animal. So we launched into our research and thought that goats were something we could handle, and that they would actually be enjoyable. We decided to get two full-size dairy goats, French Alpines, but ours were four months and five months of age when we adopted them. I named them Emma and Elsie with the understanding that Danielle will have say so over the next two goats’ names. We also decided that we would own no more than four goats after all was said and done, which always elicits snickers from our goat-owning friends. But we are disciplined, right? I will write more about goats in a future blog post, but this is a brief synopsis of how we got started, and why.
Anyway, the two babies of Emma’s, little Olivia and Monte, came to us blessedly via a rather uneventful birth. Although Emma had cleaned her babies off well, and we helped out, she didn’t seem that interested in nursing. All along we had wanted to bottle-raise the goats for our own reasons. Although many of you might comment that you let the dam raise them herself, this was our decision. There are several controversial topics when it comes to raising goats, such as do you leave the horns on or disbud them? We wanted goats with the horns intact and that is how we will raise the young ones. Bottle raise or dam raise? We decided to bottle raise. Breed their first year, or wait a second year? We waited the second year. Although we wanted to leave the young ones with the dam for a day or two for the colostrum, she seemed to be rejecting them. Even though we learned from reading online that perhaps this was just the way goats can be with their young, we wanted to be safe. We fixed a refrigerator box with pine shavings in the kitchen near the wood stove. This meant that I would have to milk the mother, starting right away: They needed colostrum. I had never milked a goat, and figured this can’t be too hard, can it? Well, I can tell you that it isn’t that easy, either. I’ve been learning on the job, so to speak. We had researched well in advance on YouTube, and done lots of reading. But there is nothing like on the job experience. The milking that first week was difficult and depressing. Emma did a lot of struggling and kicking at first. Turns out this is common, so I was comforted by the fact that I was not alone. I dug in and was determined, but I feared making this an unpleasant experience and thus alienating her. I decided to exercise extreme patience, allowing her to calm down when she needed to, talking softly and stroking her. You can’t do this with a big herd. This had proved to be the solution for now and for this animal, and the milking is now going well; we are both starting to enjoy it. It also helped to have our good friend Maria, an experienced dairy goat farmer, come over and give some pointers. After that first week things began to click. I was getting a fairly decent stream of milk from both teats, and taking to the kitchen a respectable quantity. We learned through our reading that there is a lactation curve. The milk amounts start low but at the end of two months the amount reaches its peak, then slowly goes down until at the end of a total of ten months where we will dry the animals off. We will want them to have a couple months rest before beginning the process all over again. This will give cheesemaker Danielle rest as well.
At some point in a few weeks we hope to be able to take a little milk for our coffee. Actually, little Monte already has a new home, so we will be able to use milk maybe a little sooner than perhaps we otherwise would. I actually suggested to Danielle that perhaps she might want to make some butter for feta. But the curmudgeon with the bad back and ski poles said, “Not just yet,” in no uncertain terms.
So that’s about it. In a month Elsie will be giving birth and I will be writing about that event as well, maybe explaining how different it went. Each birth, we learned, is a unique event. Emma, who just gave birth, was a bottle raised goat and so she has been very cuddly all along, and to this day while I milk her she and I continue to enjoy a very close relationship. Elsie, the next goat, was dam raised, and is not quite as cuddly. She tends to drift away when you go to touch her. But she is still a very sweet goat so I expect no problem. And by then I will have a month’s experience under my belt.
I have always enjoyed barn chores. I look forward to getting out of bed, heading down to the barn to milk the goat, soon to be goats-plural. There is a large window next to the milking stand. Emma and I have gotten to the point where we both settle into the quiet routine of squeezing the milk into the pail while we both look out the window at the rising sun.
Ah, coffee time.