I wrote this post earlier this week, and it took me this long to get the guts to publish it. Maybe I’m making that backbone, after all.
One surprisingly warm day last week, I took some hay up to the house, set it near the back porch, and brought the goats up. One by one, I took them, sat on the back porch stoop, and trimmed their hooves. I’ve never trimmed the goats’ hooves by myself before. I’ve always had a helper. Someone to hold while I trimmed. I could have waited until Morgan came home from school so she could help, but I was proving something to myself. It was as if I needed one more proof that I was making the right decision about the direction of my farm. In a way, it was a silly test. If I could do it that day, surely I could have always done it. And yet I haven’t. So I made myself do it–all by myself. And then I said goodbye to some of the goats–people were, in fact, already on their way to get them. I told you it was a silly test. The decision had been made. It was really more of a validation.
I started farming six years ago with an incubator full of chicken eggs from my cousin’s neighbor. I didn’t know the difference between hay and straw. I dreamed of an Old McDonald’s-style barnyard full of animals, and I made that dream come true. Sometimes I was criticized for adding this or that new form of livestock, but I loved them and took care of them in my hopeful, hapless way. And learned. I added new animals on whims, or simply because someone offered me a free one. (I always say no to free animals now. No, no, and did I mention no?) It was fun! And made for great stories, cute photographs, and many an adventure. I don’t regret a second, and I have loved every single animal I’ve ever had on my farm. But animals cost money (even if they’re free) in feed, hay, medications, and time. And unless you’re independently wealthy, eventually there comes a turning point where you have to decide what you’re doing, and why.
In a way, Dumplin was that turning point. I wanted to keep her. And, for once, I thought long and hard. She’s a cow, and as such, a very large animal. She is half Limousin, and would make an awesome start to a little beef herd. For somebody. NOT ME. And I sold her to my neighbor, who is going to do just that with her. It was, perhaps, the first realistic decision I’ve ever made about my farm. Or at least the first decision made with a thorough self-examination of my capabilities rather than my fantasies. I’m a single woman managing a farm, and I’m still learning. I need to limit large animals to what I can handle on my own. Though, in a subsequent turn of events, I’ve been talking to my neighbor about some things we can do together with the cows, putting a gate between our fields and running the cows through the pastures, his and mine. He needs space to store hay, and I’ve offered him space in my barn. I’m also providing the gate, since I have a spare one, and since he’s never had a cow before, teaching him what I’ve learned about managing them. In return for sharing my pastures, experience, and barn space, I’ll have someone to help me haul hay, get the bull, and so on. I can handle Glory Bee on my own, but a mutual endeavor that benefits everyone is even better. And finally I don’t need a favor–I can provide my share of the equation.
Glory Bee is the most valuable animal on my farm. She provides milk–for my personal use as well as for workshops–and she gives me a calf every year whose sale not only pays for her hay, but pays for the hay for other animals on the farm. I’m committed to my milk cow, and always have been. That core dedication to my cow made it clear to me, along with a reflection on my abilities, that I need to keep Glory Bee, but sell her calf every year. I’m not prepared at this time to handle a herd of large animals. Selling her calf every year not only provides that money for hay, but it allows me to focus on caring for Glory Bee as my one and only cow and queen who is the cornerstone of this farm.
I’ve dabbled in donkeys. Donkeys are surely the most whimsical of my whim animals. I have no time or inclination to train them to pull a cart or carry packs. (I’m sure they’re very handy for that, but I just have no desire in that direction.) Their only other purpose would be to breed, providing a baby donkey to sell every year and a half. (Donkeys are pregnant for 11 months, so it’s a long gestation, then a wait to re-breed and sell the weaned baby.) This works best if you want to be a donkey farm. There are certainly successful farmers with donkeys. But I don’t want to be a donkey farm. And to be honest, as much as I love Poky, she’s not a super nice donkey. But we did love the pieces out of Jack, and I would have never separated them. When Jack died last fall, the question of Poky tumbled in with other questions I struggled with along with Dumplin. Either I could take Poky somewhere to be bred as needed, or I could bring home a new jack. Jack was never able to “do the deed” with Poky, due to his crooked problem. (We’ve been over that!) Morgan lobbied for a baby donkey! So cute! I reminded Morgan that in 11 months, she wasn’t going to be here! And I struggled for months pondering Poky’s future.
One day not too long ago, I had Poky in the barnyard temporarily, and she kicked a baby goat in the head. Poky has been with the goats many times, and at one point was kept with them full-time. Over time, I’ve noticed a growing impatience or irritation that she has with the goats, and I’ve let her be around them less and less. Still, I was shocked at that event. I’ve written about learning to handle a gun and shoot, and about hunting and self-protection, but hunting and self-protection aren’t the only reasons I wanted to become comfortable with a gun. On a farm with a lot of animals, there’s almost sure to come a day when you have to put one down. In the past, this has always meant finding A MAN to do the dirty job. The baby goat was hurt beyond repair, and suffering. I don’t like it when animals are suffering and have to wait for me to find A MAN. And that didn’t happen this time. I went to the house, got a gun, went back to the barn, and did the worst of all dirty jobs by myself.
And then I sold Poky to a good home where they have other donkeys and no goats. Poky will finally be a mother–and she is now at a farm where she can be the focus rather than a sideline. I’ve tried, very hard, to consider the best interests of my animals as part of each decision, as well as the interests of my farm. Poky belongs somewhere, but not here.
Last year, I brought on some new sheep. I bought a ram and two new ewes. I contemplated naming them–and never did. I think from the beginning I questioned that decision. I was already changing as a farmer, and didn’t quite realize it. I was still making “I can do it all!” decisions, but there was something deeper down that stopped me from naming them. And I knew very soon that it was just too much for me. A flock of sheep AND a herd of goats is a lot for one person, alone, who also has a cow and a career. I love sheep, always have, but as the year went by, and as I came to that Dumplin decision, I realized the sheep were also a decision waiting in the wings.
Which brings me back to goats. Anyone who has read this website over the years knows how much I love goats. While the cornerstone of this farm in so many ways is in my milk cow, the heart is in my love of goats. Goats are smart, playful, and incredibly adorable. I love goats. I knew it was time to make a decision between sheep and goats, and when put to myself that way, there was no competition in my heart. It was goats. And yet–
There is a way to successfully do a herd of Nigerian Dwarf goats. (See here. Shelley does it right.) Nigerian Dwarf goats are mini-milkers, and the best way to make money raising Nigerians is to focus on the milk production in your lines. I’m not focused on milking goats, and haven’t really been focused on it since I milked Clover way back when in 2008. I have a milk cow, and I’m dedicated to my milk cow. I don’t have the time or energy to focus on milk production to raise marketable Nigerians that will earn their keep. I’ve also raised Fainters, which is a meat breed, but not marketable as a meat breed. If people want a goat to butcher, they don’t say, hey, I want to buy a fainting goat and butcher it. Fainters are a little smaller than standard-size meat goats. There’s not that much meat on them. They’re not good milkers–they aren’t milk goats. What they are…. They’re semi-exotic novelty goats. They’re wonderful. I’ve loved my Fainters. They are, however, largely a “hobby farm” goat. With Fainters, I’m completely cut out of the meat market and the 4-H market.
Nutmeg. I don’t even want to talk about Nutmeg. But I will, briefly. Because it hurts to write about her, just like Clover. Man, goats will break your heart. I had her stalled, sure she was going to have babies soon. It was a sub-zero night several weeks ago. I checked on her before I went to bed. It didn’t look like she was going to do anything. She was gone in the morning. She hadn’t been the same since she had triplets last year. She was small, even for a Nigerian. Rotund! But small–short. I probably shouldn’t have let her breed again. Something went wrong, and I didn’t get babies, either, FYI. And the loss kicked me in the pants to make the decision I’d been turning over in my head since the fall.
And so I cried some more, made the decision between sheep and goats, made the decision about what goats, and I sold the sheep except for Annabelle and Crazy–who I’ll keep forever for no good reason other than love. And then I sold the Fainters. AND I CRIED. I sold them to a very good home where they have other Fainters and keep them as pets. (I did explain to them in detail about Sprite’s lack of mothering ability, just in case they ever decide to breed her.) I didn’t cry about Poky or the sheep. But I cried over the Fainters, especially Sprite and Fanta. And I also knew I was making the right decision. I wasn’t willing to breed them anymore–the babies have been hard to sell, and neither of them has been a good mother. Most farmers would have “culled” them a long time ago. I have to limit the “pets” I keep, because they eat hay. They’ve gone to a home where they will BE pets.
Before they left, I sat everybody down with me on that back porch stoop and trimmed their hooves all alone, proving something to myself because part of the decision to sell the goats I had was a decision to buy more. Because I love goats.
In about six weeks, I’ll have five Boer doelings and a Boer buckling. Along with Annabelle and Crazy, I kept Maia and the wethers–Dr. Pepper and Goat Burger. That’s right. Goat Burger finally found a job. I’ll have to keep the Boer buck separated from Maia, so I’ll need at least one wether with him. I won’t let Maia breed to a Boer. AND YOU KNOW MAIA ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE. I also still have my horses, by the way. Along with the dogs, cats, chickens, and one mean old goose. But the focus now is divided only in two–the goats and Glory Bee. Instead of in a multiplicity of directions. It wasn’t sustainable to be that scattered, and some of you probably could see that coming. These decisions were hard, and I struggled to make the best ones both for my farm and for the animals.
Boer goats are marketable here, and that is what I need in order to continue as a farm. If you don’t know what Boer goats look like, you can see some photos here. They’re the floppy-eared goats. Very cute. A new adventure in my neverending love of goats–and this time, a marketable one that can help to support this farm, along with Glory Bee. These were decisions not made on whims or fantasies, but with long consideration and the experience of these past six years–and a knowledge of what I can handle and where my heart lies not to mention a little bit of business sense for once.
This is a farm growing up. It doesn’t come without tears.
And then there’s the laughter. I could have called this post The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but I prefer to think there’s still a lot of beautiful, and streamlining the farm will allow me to focus more on that beauty.
Goat Burger, Dr. Pepper, and Maia.
This is still what’s going on at my back door. Because some things never change.
P.S. I’ve dreaded writing this post. But I don’t live my life to write about it. I write about the life I live. I know many of you love my animals as much as I do. I hope you understand.