Sunday, June 13, 2010

Stubborn Is As Stubborn Does

When I first moved out to the country, I dreamed of goats. Long-eared does with big brown eyes and  gentle, mellow personalities. Soft and cuddlesome. They would be Nubians, probably, like the two sweet babies pictured to the right.

I would line the mothers up, hand them treats and milk them, then use the milk to make delicious cheese. Perhaps I'd shear them and turn their wool into warm blankets.

Goats would come in time, I imagined. After I put in goat-proof fencing and built a shed and made all the right preparations.

The cosmos, however, had other plans.

My dad called one morning three years ago to tell me there were "a couple of kids" playing on his front deck. He got a kick out of making me think they were human before finally letting me know they were, in fact, capricornian. I grabbed a couple of leashes and headed over. I found a mother and her baby buck, neither of them friendly and both a bit wild. The mother scrambled over the three-foot railing and leaped to the ground another three feet below. Her baby tried to follow but I was able to catch him before he cleared the railing. I carried him to my backyard, which I'd had fenced and cross-fenced when I moved in, and let his sad bleating lure his mother (that's her in the picture directly below) into the yard after him.

I had already taken in a couple of stray dogs and cats, but I'd never even considered that a couple of stray pygmy goats might wander up. I made phone calls to neighbors, checked surrounding streets for signs, distributed flyers, and scoured the newspapers for 'lost' ads. After two weeks went by without anyone claiming them, I decided it was time to build a shelter. Two weeks after that, I had the fast-growing buck neutered. In goatherd-speak he was now a 'wether'. A few days later the owner -- who had apparently missed the flyer about them in her mailbox but heard about them from a neighbor -- called.

The goats had been a wedding anniversary gift to her from her husband. The couple had recently moved out here from the city and they had not adequately prepared for the curiosity, intelligence and Houdini-like prowess of goats. Within the first hour of their arrival, the goats had escaped. During the month following, the couple had redone their fencing and bought more goats. As the owner had not had time to develop a significant attachment to these two goats, she agreed I should just go ahead and keep them.

The baby buck was about 3 months old when he showed up and far from the soft, tiny kidling I'd dreamed of holding in my lap. Neither he nor his mother were interested in being touched much less fussed over, so considerable time and energy was spent simply taming them. Plus, they still had their horns (goats are generally "debudded" by their owners by the time they're a week old) and they were quite adept at using them: on me, on each other, on the wooden structures around them.

Since the buck, aptly named Rowdy by my dad (in the picture to the right), was still nursing, the mother, Lucy, was milkable. Assuming one could actually keep her still enough to milk. Or that Rowdy didn't drink it all first since pygmy goats produce pygmy quantities. Usually the half cup or so I'd get would have so much dirt and goat hair in it after wrestling for it, I'd pour it out for the dogs and cats to drink. I filtered it a couple of times and used it in my coffee, but when Rowdy was ready to be weaned, I let Lucy dry up, especially as I'd already decided a herd of pygmy goats was not part of my overall plan.

One dirty little secret the milk industry -- whether cow or goat -- hides simply by not discussing it is why an animal produces milk in the first place and what happens afterward. Since the hormones needed for milk production and let-down kick in during pregnancy, that means an animal must birth offspring in order to produce milk. This is where the majority of people obliviously stop thinking about what the logical consequences to that are. They prefer to picture happy cows or does grazing in lush fields with tiny babies gamboling about them.

In commercial operations, however, if the baby is a female, the owner will calculate herd size and determine if it's worth the cost to raise it. If so, the baby will be immediately separated from its mother and will be raised on milk replacement since the owner will be selling its mother's milk and won't want to waste any of it on the baby. As for the boys, since it only takes one male to service a herd of females, unless a male is exceptional, they all -- along with any unwanted girls -- become "excess." In the case of cows, some of these babies will wind up as veal calves: force-fed exorbitant amounts of high-calorie food, raised in the dark to keep the meat white, not allowed to move to avoid muscling and spoiling the tender meat, and slaughtered when only a few weeks old. Otherwise, the cost of raising a baby on milk replacement usually exceeds any potential cost on the other end and the babies are simply disposed of.

(This was the cycle I wasn't yet planning for since I wouldn't be "disposing" of any "excess". I have to be sure I have the room, the time, and the resources before I commit to raising goats, cows, horses or whatever else might stray up.)

Eventually Lucy and Rowdy tamed down to the point I could pet them, brush them, walk them around on a lead, etc. But neither of them are "easy" when it comes to trimming their hooves or keeping them still enough to treat injuries. They don't like being told what to do or forced to do something they don't want to. They fight. Every. Single. Time. It's exhausting. Even the simplest things become a chore with them. And no matter how patient I am trying to correct their bad habits -- butting the door to the food shed if I'm not getting their food out quickly enough, butting me if the treats I hand them aren't the ones they want right then -- they refuse to back down. The stubborn stereotype fits them perfectly. They're smart; they KNOW what's being asked of them. But, unlike dogs, the best reward for them is keeping the upper hoof. If it's a choice between a yummy treat and showing dominance, they'll abandon the treat every time.

In fact, the mother goat has to believe her name is really Lucy No or Lucy Don't. I can't remember when I last spoke her name, Lucy, by itself in a kind and loving way.

Don't get me wrong. Although these two goats showed up at a time I wasn't prepared for them and even though they aren't the breed or the personality I dreamed about, I've come to love them fiercely. As exasperating as that independent nature and stubborn streak is, it calls to me. They have spirit. And I'll take spirit over a broken soul any day.

12 comments:

fairyhedgehog said...

I can relate to that. Rufus (our cat) is a very devil but I can't help loving him fiercely all the same.

Robin S. said...

That disposed of thing is cruel as hell. So is the veal bit. How horrible this is!

But I absolutely love your goat pics, and Lcu and Rowdy are darling names!

_*rachel*_ said...

So, I have a goat-related question for you:

One of my current jobs is sorting through all the State Fair 4-H livestock enrollment forms in my state. I look through every animal whose owners plan to take it to state, and make sure the form is filled out correctly. I send them a nasty form letter if it isn't.

For some reason, people who raise goats are much more likely to make mistakes. Admittedly, they're not as simple to fill out as the Swine or Horse/Pony forms. But why so many? Any idea?

Phoenix said...

Oh, Gina, I've read some of those Rufus stories. You've got a handful there with him! But yeah, a lovable handful.

Rob, we can only do so much to rage against the machine, can't we? Grrrr.

Rachel, so sorry, but I'm clueless about why goat people are more prone to mistakes. If it were the goats filling out the forms, I'd say they're making mistakes on purpose just to be contrary ;o)

Anonymous said...

My guess is the goat people are so played out after goating all day they can't see straight. Exhaustion? Bibi

Tom Bridgeland said...

I don't know about baby goats, but calves are definitely not simply 'disposed of'. At least, not immediately.

They are typically fed until market weight then sold for beef. The same thing happens to older dairy cows. They are rather tough, so are usually made into hamburger.

As for veal calves, there isn't much traditional veal in the US any more. These days veal calves are not kept tied up or in pens so tight they can't move. That practice essentially died decades ago in the US.

Anonymous said...

A similar situation went on with PMU's - Pregnant Mare Urine farms. Mares were kept pregnant year after year to collect the urine for birth control pills. That meant a lot of unwanted foals. I'm not sure if they still have these PMU's (been in Asia for 6 years)- birth control pills can be made with synthetic hormones but all you needed was a stalliion - any stallion to keep the mares pregnant. A lot of very poor quality foals were born year in and out. Like horses used up at the track, many would go to the slaughter house and end up as meat. France has a big market for horse meat.
In Asia although horse isn't generally served, everything else is - dog, cat, snake, donkey camel. Gives me the creeps. You can buy bags of cooked bugs. There's a lot to be said for going vegan. Bibi

PS There were a few programs to make geood studs avail for breeding for PMU's to raise the quality of the foals, but I don't if that really worked.

Phoenix said...

Hi Tom. Thanks for your comments.

I do want to point out that only a very small percentage of dairy bull calves are raised as beef cows. Depending on the fluctuating cattle market, the cost to feed a calf to a marketable dress weight can exceed the cost of what the carcass will bring. If it doesn't exceed it, the margin is often so thin that smaller operations can't gamble on disease or rising feed prices to cut their profit altogether. In addition, the dressed weight of a dairy bull will be less than that of a beef bull. There are very few instances where raising dairy bulls makes more sense than raising beef bulls. The majority of dairy bull calves continue to be killed at birth. If you have research that claims otherwise, I would be happy to review it. It's been awhile, but I've taken animal husbandry classes, was a registered veterinary technician, and have a passing interest in all of this.

You'll also note that legislation has only within the past couple of years been passed in some US states to stop the practice of crating and tethering veal calves.

Here's a partial list of recent legislation.

To sum, current laws in many, but not all, states generally demand a stall that allows the calf room to lie down and stand up. That's all the space a stall is required to provide -- it doesn't even have to provide room to turn around. Some states are passing laws now to require turnaround room. Most of the veal calf laws have only recently been passed and they have phase-out dates that are still years in the future in some cases.

For those few operations that use group penning, each calf is allotted about 15 square feet of space. That's a 3x5 area for a calf that starts out weighing about 100 pounds and quickly gains to 4 times that weight.

Typical conditions may have improved in the past couple of decades, but I hardly think increasing stall space by just a literal few inches and increasing light levels to where the calves may "observe" their surroundings is particularly humane. It strikes me the same as padding the oar handles on a slave galleon and giving the slaves an extra ration of beer at night and then pointing to how much conditions on the boat have improved in these enlightened, modern times.

The degree of humaneness is just my opinion, of course. But the legislation only now being enacted and current practices in the U.S. are fact.

Phoenix said...

Oh, Bibi, Premarin mares are yet another sad thing indeed. I had read that a number of PMU farms have closed over the past few years since demand is way down, but that just meant thousands of mares and their foals were slaughtered when demand for the urine declined. I know there are a number of PMU rescue groups out there now trying to place the foals.

I'm having some more of my land fenced off and am building a small "summer" barn in the next few weeks. I may yet wind up with a PMU foal or two myself.

Whirlochre said...

Can't believe I missed out on a post about goats.

Phoenix said...

Whirl, I thought maybe my American goats just didn't have quite the same draw for you as your vastly more entertaining English ones. It's the accent, I think.

Anonymous said...

I am very glad to hear the PMU's have dropped in numbers, but very sad over the throw away horses and foals. Good for you if you're going to adopt. I'm so delighted to hear you were a vet tech. Your animal friends couldn't be in better hands in a better home. They are fortunate.
Here we have many street dogs and cats - several rescue groups scoop them up, neuter and innoculate but they are the lucky few. Heartbreaking to see these animals. Rabes has now claimed 13 people recently and who knows how many animals. Dreadful situation.
Bibi