Who needs sleep when you’ve got baby goats to distract you from your slumberless stupor?
(Warning – This post has a sad story. But it also contains some hopefulness and Epicurean advice on goat keeping.)
Normally, I don’t lose sleep over goats. In fact, during Covid-19, they’ve provided much needed distraction and entertainment given our limited outside human contact. Also, early on in the pandemic when milk and fresh vegetables were scarce, knowing we had a steady supply of goats’ milk and their manure to compost for the garden was a huge comfort.
My present goat-related sleeplessness, though, stems from having a not-so Epicurean goat kidding season. Last year I let a new buckling run with our dairy herd. When I’ve done this in the past — between the young buck getting his libido up to speed and the does coming into heat at varying times — the births ended up naturally staggered over about a 2.5 month period. That makes my job as midwife to goats an easy, joyful time.
This round though, Tiberius got my does pregnant in a 3 week period. The closely spaced births have also come during our coldest weeks of the year — mostly between midnight and 4:00 am. I’ve also had to bottle feed several babies this time.
In the future, I’ll go back to targeted breeding and not leave the planning up to nature entirely.
Despite my sleep deprivation, I was managing alright until the sudden, unexpected death of my sweetest doe. Giselle was a Nigerian Dwarf goat just shy of 5 years old. This was only her second freshening because I milked her for 2.5 years after her first freshening.
Giselle had a bit of a weight problem that started after her first kidding and I had trouble keeping her trim. In the few weeks leading up to labor this time, Giselle looked like a flying saucer. She spent a lot of time laying around, heavy breathing, and gaining weight at a rate that didn’t align with her food consumption. I told Matt I was sure she must have quads or quintuplets in there. But she’d become so large that I was already planning a strict diet and lots more exercise once she recovered from delivery.
When the big day came, she did have quintuplets. Two babies were perfect. Sadly, two were stillborn and a third was less than half the normal weight. I tried my best to save the little guy who we called “Runty Rupert”. Unfortunately, about a week later he succumbed to congenital defects I couldn’t overcome even with veterinary assistance.
After delivering all those babies, Giselle was still enormous. She’d passed the placenta and showed absolutely no signs of pain or discomfort when I pressed hard all over her abdomen area. Her spine area was overly fatty too, so I thought she really was just that overweight.
Giselle was out on pasture the day after labor and seemed very energetic. She mothered her two healthy babies like a pro and was as sweet as ever. Two days later, Matt volunteered to take care of the goats so I could sleep in. He found Giselle dead in the barn. There was no evidence of a struggle or a hard death. She was just peacefully gone.
In retrospect, all those signs painted a clear picture of congestive heart failure — probably from an underlying heart problem exacerbated by quintuplets. That rapid weight gain near the end was fluid build up increasing pressure on her chest and lungs — causing the fatigue and heavy breathing. The seemingly amazing recovery from a hard pregnancy and labor was her rally before death – a phenomena common to humans and animals alike.
Giselle is the first dairy goat I’ve lost in my herd. Her sweet nature and youth make her loss more difficult. For several days after her death, I was honestly questioning if I had it in to be a goat keeper any more. I was having a crises of conscience over the fact that I am subjecting these sweet creatures to pregnancy and labor to drink their milk.
Yet, after a few more of my does kidded successfully and I finally got a little rest, the good memories started flooding in. I thought of Giselle being born here on our homestead, her growing into a fine dairy goat, and how much she loved to be on milk stand.
My milking routine with the goats involves bringing them into the milk room one by one. I coax them on the stand with a bucket alfalfa and goat feed pellets. I quickly milk them. Then, I spend a several minutes massaging their hard to reach places such as along their spine, the middle of their neck, and giving them a whole body rub as part of my daily health check.
The goats become so relaxed in the process that I also have to coax them back off the stand to bring in the next milker. Giselle was always first in line for her turn (even when she only got hay in her bucket). She absolutely loved being a milker.
Giselle also went through a big transformation after her first kidding. Before she was a mother, she was often bullied by the other goats. After she kidded, she became fierce. My other does learned to respect her and she advanced to the spot just below our goat queen in the herd hierarchy. I was so proud of Giselle for overcoming her underdog role.
As I let those happy memories of Giselle in, my crises of conscience began to dissipate.
Exploitation and Epicurean Calculations
Milking goats is absolutely an extractive and exploitative process – just like removing oil from the earth to put in our cars, chopping down a tree to make furniture or firewood, taking fish from the ocean, and removing diverse ecosystems of plants and wildlife to grow vegetable crops and grains instead. This is what we humans do. We exploit nature to extract what we need and enjoy the benefits of that practice. And we are really good at it.
For Matt and I, the point of doing things like keeping our own dairy goats and growing a garden is to be directly involved in that extractive process, to comprehend fully the costs involved, and decide knowingly whether we can reconcile the true nature of the exploitation with the benefits we receive by doing it.
We also try to find ways to make our practices more reciprocal and circular so there’s less environmental damage and more care-full, thoughtful action built into our choices. We take, but we also give. We extract, but we also restore.
This is the heart of Epicurean homesteading. It’s about facing the true extractive/exploitative nature of meeting our human needs and wants and deciding if the pleasure an activity or product brings is truly worth the pain or harm involved in the process.
After Giselle’s death, I found myself re-asking a fundamental Epicurean question:
Is the milk I love to drink, cook with, and use for cheese — and manure we get for the garden — truly enjoyable when weighed against the risks of pregnancy and labor and cost of caring for my goats, plus the pain that comes from losses like what happened to Giselle?
I’ve been weighing that out for the past few weeks and the answer is a resounding yes.
I’m heartbroken about Giselle precisely because she and I bonded through our milking relationship. For five years, I loved her, nurtured her, appreciated the incredible gift of her milk, and now I grieve for her loss so deeply because of her generosity and the happiness she brought me.
It’s not just the milk that I get from my relationship with my dairy goats. We are family. They are also an integral part of our permaculture/intensive gardening practices that we have used to regenerate a previously eroded land into an abundant garden paradise.
Frankly, I can’t imagine going back to a life without significant portions of my day spent with the goats. I also know our homestead –7 years in the making — would not be nearly as abundant today without goats at the heart of our soil regeneration operation.
Other Hard Parts of Goat Keeping
Losing a prized dairy goat to a complicated pregnancy and health defect isn’t the only hard part of goat keeping. There are other difficult tasks involved in keeping dairy goats on a homestead.
The day when you have to separate the baby goats from their mama and send them off to new homes is always awful for you, the babies, and your goat. I try to focus on the new relationship being formed — the family taking home those goats who will soon love them as I do. I also spend extra time with my does after separation to help them through their strongest feelings of loss.
Almost no one wants bucks. Castrating baby boys to make them into wethered pets is an easy, but disturbing process. Though, honestly, relative to labor, that part is not so stressful to me. Still, you must decide the best most practical method for your farm and there is always a risk of infection or complications with any procedure you choose to do. Thankfully, with good basic practices, infections from any of the most common castration methods are rare.
You also need to make decisions about disbudding kids, breeding polled goats, or trying to sell horned kids. It’s much easier to sell goats without horns and you can usually sell them for more money than horned kids. Disbudding, though, involves burning the horn buds back to the skull when kids are just two weeks of age. And, at least in my herd, when I breed two polled goats together, the kids simply don’t seem as hardy as a dairy goat should be. So, I end up selling the kids as pets only.
Epicurean Goat Keeping
For anyone considering starting a dairy goat herd, I really encourage you to make those kind of Epicurean calculations I described earlier before moving forward. Also, make sure you are comfortable with all aspects of being responsible for a goat herd. Don’t just think of the good stuff like being surrounded by baby goats in the barn or fresh, wholesome goats’ milk daily. Think ahead to potential losses and complications and how you’ll manage those.
There are plenty of people out there who will arrive at the same resounding: Yes! The pleasure, beauty, and benefits of keeping goats is worth the pain of the work, hardships, and losses involved. But there are also lots of people who simply find goat keeping too stressful to enjoy.
Also, think carefully about how you plan to keep and interact with your goats. There’s no perfect right answer for how to do it. Everyone has to figure out their own best set-up and methods for things like milking, barn cleaning, breeding, kidding practices, health management, storing and using supplemental feed, pasture management, etc. Climate, available land, breeds of goats, uses, budget, and all sorts of other factors will play a role in the decisions you make.
Yet for me one of the most important aspects of goat keeping is allowing time to bond, care for, and enjoy being with the goats. For example, I plan about 45 minutes for milking goats each morning and again each night — even though it only takes 15 minutes. That way I can enjoy the process and not feel like a machine while doing it.
Our goat barn is also right next to our outdoor dining area which makes it easy for friends and family to visit and interact with the goats while we’re making pizza in our cob oven. That also encourages me to keep the barn cleaner, to keep down aromas, especially in warm weather when we do most of our eating outside. I make more compost with frequent changing of their litter and my goats stay healthier for having cleaner quarters.
The goat pasture also runs along my large vegetable garden. So, when I am in the garden, the goats are always on the hill next to me. I have to keep a fence between us so they don’t eat my plants. But we can see and communicate with each other as I garden. I can also throw them treats over the fence like carrot tops, lettuce, cabbage leaves, etc.
Giselle is gone and I miss her daily. But right now we have 12 baby goats in the barn, keeping me distracted from my sadness. Two of those babies are Giselle’s.
Her healthy boy was serendipitously adopted by another mother. Normally goats are exclusive about only feeding their own kids. So, to see him taken in voluntarily by another mother felt like a wonderful gift.
Giselle’s daughter, who we named Molly, was adopted by Matt. He’s fallen in love with her and demanded that we keep her as a pet (not to breed given Giselle’s health issues). We’ll see if he still feels that way when she’s 3 months old and terribly spoiled!
If you are considering having goats, and nothing in this post has deterred you, I’ve also written a lot more about raising goats over the years. For example, Mother Earth News just sent a newsletter link out to the G is for Goats entry I wrote in my ABCs of Homesteading Series a few years ago. Also, these two posts offer good beginner information.
You can also check out my other works page and do a CTRL+F search for “goats” or “cheese” for a long list of other related articles.
Additionally, I recently chatted with expert goat keeper Deborah Niemann, author of the must have book Raising Goats Naturally, on extended lactation. One of the other big ways I make keeping goats more Epicurean is by milking goats for 2-3 years and only breeding them only as often as necessary to keep them in milk. That cuts down on the number of kids I have to place with new families, the stress of pregnancy and labor on my goats, and keeps me in milk year round.
To learn more, listen to Deborah and I talk about this practice in detail on her podcast.
Also, check out Deborah’s website. I know a lot about goats, but Deborah is eons ahead of me in terms of experience and total goat count. She’s assisted with over 600 births! She’s also an excellent researcher. So, I use her website as a first resource for any new things that come up in my herd.
If you want to read about my history with cheese making, Jeri Case over at A Better Whey Blog wrote a very lovely and gracious profile about me and homestead cheese. She got me to confess all sorts of secrets with her keen questioning and kindness!
Goat keeping is not right for everyone or every homestead. In part, that’s why I chose to share this sad story of painful loss as my first Simplestead goat post. Because I love goats, I want anyone considering starting a dairy herd to know that there’s a lot more to it than cute babies and delicious milk. However, I also believe that for some of us — the pastoral and rustic life shared with goats is our way forward to simple, Epicurean homesteading.
If goats are for you, then I wish you the joys that come from that deep connection and strength to face the hard parts.
If goats aren’t for you…then might I suggest ducks?