Monday, February 14, 2011

Farm Journal: Winter Bits and Pieces

Ron and I made three gates for the kid pens today. 

Time is getting close to kidding season and the milk parlor is not quite ready.  One thing we do have in the barn is defined and confined space for the birthing does.  They need this space so the other goats don’t interfere with them, the kids, or us “midwives.” The birthing pen is 8 x 8 and has a heated waterer.  The exterior wall of the dairy parlor forms one wall—making it convenient for utilities and getting the does into the parlor for milking. Ron and Mike are working as hard as they can to get things ready for the kids, does, and  milking. 

Because the milking machines have not yet arrived, we will have 23 lactating goats that need to be milked by hand.  That’s a lot of work for Ron, so I might find myself a little more useful around the farm.

This is an exciting time and like any auntie, (the goats call me Auntie O), I’m looking forward to seeing what the new kids will look like and who they will be. 

We have two new groups of mothers this year:  last year’s kids and the two-year old doelings who have not been bred before.  Of course, our regular does (Ginger, Suki, Koo-Koo, Chantelle, Katie, Elle, Lilly) are looking pretty pregnant, too. 

Ron says that the first time a doe gives birth is a bit scary and bewildering for them.  They don’t know what’s happening.  After the first time, however, they are cool with it.  Katie and Elle are prime examples.  Last year, they just sort of dropped their kids and moved on looking for their next chew of hay. 

On the other hand, some of the does cry with mother's remorse and separation anxiety after their kids are born.  They cry because we take their kids away from them shortly after they are born.  This is sometimes a controversial practice but we do it because the kids have to bond with the farmer and not with the mother.  Otherwise, controlling the goats could be a problem.  The most important reason for this separation is to stop the transmission of diseases such as Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis (CAE), which infects almost all Michigan goat herds.   

Many goats are asymptomatic and are carriers of CAE.  The disease is transmitted horizontally through infected milk or fluids and it manifests itself by enlarged joints and a failure to thrive.  Thus, it weakens young goats to the point that they can die by the age of three. Many goats that are thought to be normal, though a bit thin, are actually not healthy.  Weakening the immune system makes the goats more susceptible to respiratory disease and parasites.   

To stop transmission of CAE, kids are not permitted to drink raw colostrum or milk.  Colostrum is heated to 56 degrees C to kill the virus and to pasteurize the milk.  Ron has been doing this successfully for over five years. 

This year all goats in the herd will be tested for CAE, which requires a blood test.  Samples of the blood are sent to Washington State University.

Ron will also have all goats tested for Johne’s.  Johne's (pronounced "Yoh-nees") disease and paratuberculosis are two names for the same animal disease. Named after a German veterinarian, this fatal gastrointestinal disease was first clearly described in a dairy cow in 1895. 

A bacterium named Mycobacterium avium ss. paratuberculosis (“MAP”) causes Johne’s disease.  The infection happens in the first few months of a goat’s life but the animal may stay healthy for a very long time.  Symptoms of disease may not show up for many months or even years later.  This infection is contagious, which means it can spread from one goat to another, and from one species to another (cows to goats, goats to sheep, etc.)

As of last week, the goat herd at Windshadow Farm closed, which means that no new goats will be added to the herd from the outside unless they pass a detailed veterinary exam, take blood tests and are quarantined for 30 days. Biosecurity is critical to maintaining herd health and in producing high quality milk for making cheese.  Ron is a member of a group of farmers that is dedicated to eradicating CAE and Johne’s.  It is interesting to note that in Switzerland CAE had infected 85 percent of all dairy goat herds, but fell to 1 percent after 15 years of dedicated effort.  In the UK the level fell from above 90 percent to undetectable after a decade of work. 

New skills in the making
Because everything at the new farm needs to be built, I am gradually learning new skills, like carpentry.  As a youngster my father did a lot of wood work so there were hammers, screwdrivers and saws around and I learned how to use them.  But these tools were not powered.  I find it difficult to work with power tools because they have a way of getting away from me.  They seem to require a certain grasp and strength that I need to develop.  Ron promises me there will be plenty more opportunities to learn these skills.

After all my years in school, I find that the practical skills of carpentry, gardening, and animal care are the things I want to focus on now.  One of the reasons is that my senior seminar on sustainable cities is really getting to me.  More and more I’m convinced that in preparing for our more limited fossil fuel future, people need to develop such skills, so I’m inspired to get started.

I’m also taking the Master Gardener course from MSU Extension this winter and am excited about studying more of the science that goes into the gardening that we do at the farm.  My class has completed three of 12 weeks already and we’ll soon get to vegetable gardening, which is my greatest interest.  At the completion of the course, we must do 40 hours of volunteer time and I can apply 20 of those hours to working on the garden at Windshadow Farm.  That should only take two or three days at most since we are starting the garden from scratch, too.  The other 20 hours are still to be determined. 

Meanwhile, my freelance writing for the Kalamazoo Gazette has taken an interesting turn.  My editor, Josh Smith of the Living Section, has asked me to cover local food both in print and video.  (Video is a new skill I’ve picked up since I went to Africa in November.)  You can imagine I nearly fell out of my chair over this request.  Watch for my stories in the Gazette, which will also be posted on this blog.  Meanwhile, I still have some food sovereignty stories to write from the conference I attended in New Orleans last October. 

Susie--our newest water buffalo
Susie, a yearling heifer (a heifer is a young buff that's never been bred), came to the farm on November 30, 2010, from an Amish “petting farm” in Pennsylvania. She was scared a bit and unfortunately transmitted lice to the rest of the herd.  She is now confined to a large calving pen because the other buffs have not as yet accepted her. 

It’s a herd instinct to check out a newcomer.  This helps protect against disease or perhaps “unsavory characters” that don’t fit in. It is interesting that in the wild these animals have a hierarchy of dominance within the structure of the herd.  You can recognize the most dominant animals by the way they place themselves in the center of the herd and they are usually the bigger girls.  Less dominant and smaller members of the herd are forced to occupy the perimeter--perhaps they serve as "lion bait" for predators. 

Unfortunately, Susie has been picked on by the other buffs and has yet to be incorporated as a full-fledged member.  In fact, the other buffs have “beat up” on her and kept her away from the food bins.  It’s really troubling because Susie is so sweet. But water buffalo and several breeds of domestic cattle are ruled by a hierarchy of dominance that is enforced by anything from a gentle push to some pretty dramatic shoving.   

Ron is planning to put up another building to separate the animals by age and size.  The goats will be in three cohorts (yearlings, dry does and lactating does), the buffs will be separated as young heifers and mature cows.  Leoben, our bull, will also have his own paddock this summer.  The farm is not always the pastoral, serene place it is portrayed in children’s storybooks! 

After Susie first arrived, Ron put her in the goat pen to protect her because she needed some place to go.  The goats are used to the buffs, and they accepted her without complaint.  Lucy, as usual, climbed on Susie and induced several of the youngest goats (now a year old) to do the same.  This is still not a good thing for them to do especially since some of them are pregnant.  As we get closer to kidding season, Ron determined that Susie would be a potential danger to the goats not because buffs are mean, but because they’re just big animals and accidents can happen.  So Ron moved Susie back to the buffs' pen and hopes she will be accepted.

Susie has been a very sad buffalo since she arrived at Windshadow.  She gets along with the goats but really wants to be among her own kind.  Invariably, her eyes are wet from crying or she has dried tears.  She gets some relief when we stroke her chin.  I feel so sorry for her.  It never ceases to amaze me how animal beings have feelings just like humans do!

After Susie returned to the buff pen, the shunning behavior continued so Ron put her in a barn stall of her own for protection from the nasty buffs that just had to agitate her.  However, Susie’s instinct to be a part of the herd is just too strong and she jumped the fence.  Unfortunately, she injured her lower right leg.

I told Kathy Buckham about this and she related a few stories about one of her cows that regularly jumped the fence at the Buckham Farms (they raise cattle and lamb).  The fairy tale about “the cow jumping over the moon” has a little more truth to it than you’d expect!

Suzu -- RIP
Even though we are getting anxiously anticipating the new goat births, death on the farm is still a very definite reality that we must contend with.

Suzu turned 12 years old on February 4.  That's 90 years old in human years.  On February 14 Ron and Suzanne found Suzu on her side in the goats' loafing area.  They moved her to a comfortable place since she had great difficulty standing.  The vet diagnosed her with "pregnancy toxemia," a very serious condition that is particularly bad for elderly does.  Suzu had been unintentionally bred by one of the bucks and the kids growing inside of her were sapping nutrients from her body faster than they could be replaced.  

Ron and Suzanne isolated Suzu and made a sling to help her stand.  The vet had said that if she did not stand at least 20 minutes a day she would loose control of her legs.  But Suzu was too weak to stand.  Suzanne then propped up Suzu and fed her a mixed ration to try to give her more strength.

Suzu stayed in one of the new pens that will soon house the new kids.  Occasionally, the other goats would jump up on the gate and look in on her.  Today I tried to feed her some grain that she loves, but she had become too weak to take it after a couple bites.  I dissolved a few sugar cubes in water and held it to her mouth.  She took a few sips but couldn’t even raise her head without my assistance.  On Sunday, February 20, she went to sleep forever.  

Suzu was an outstanding doe, with a fantastic pedigree.  She won many first place ribbons as a younger doe.  Ron purchased her in 2008 after she had been retired from the show ring and milk line.  His plan was to breed her one more time in the hope that she'd produce a doe and she gave us Zoë in 2008, a marvelous girl who will undoubtedly be queen of the herd someday! 

Our two oldest girls, Shadow and Suzu, are now dead.  We believe they both had kids in them, which makes it doubly sad to lose them.  Death is hard to take at any age.  What this means, however, is that the animals we care for matter and that’s why it’s painful when something happens to them.  Both Suzu and Shadow gave us some wonderful doelings.

Ron promises to give me some photos of Suzu and Shadow when they were in their prime and both prize goats.  I’ll post them as soon as I get them.


  1. This from Shawna at

    Thanks for that post Olga! I loved reading about the anticipated kidding season. The farm sounds like a beautiful community, and I've wondered how the move of the farm has been.

    I think you are right, the separation of lactating babies and mamas is controversial. But I think both sides of the issue have valid concerns and issues and each choice has its own benefits and consequences. The decision to separate mama and baby is one that has many factors. I have raised goats for 8 years and now raise Jersey cows and do not separate. - think that every animal has the inherent right to nurse its young. I think the nursing relationship is a beautiful, magical thing. I will say it is an easier decision for me to make as I am not in business with my milk but drink for personal use.

    I remember waking up very early in the darkness as a little girl and walking in my pj's out to the maternity barn on our dairy farm to crouch in a corner to watch the cows give birth in the stillness of night. Pure magic! These were the lucky ones I thought because they had the chance to lick their calves clean and the calves nursed until morning when they were discovered and promptly carted of to the calf barn. Some mothers were indifferent and some moaned and bellowed from the separation. I was a very sensitive girl and it made an impression. The calves always cried. The "nursery" was loud.

    I think there is misinformation out there about separation. If anyone is thinking that they want to keep mom and baby together, feel free to email me anytime and I can give you some great tips for success. Regarding goats not bonding to people it just isn't true. You will need to spend more time handling them when they are little. When they are bigger, you would be surprised at how a handful of grain every so often will work as far as being good friends. They WILL be more independent which I don't think is a bad thing! I only had to bottle raise one baby in my goat years and she was needy and vocal, and I much prefer a goat who knows she is a goat. That's what she is after all and that is fine by me. We never had an unfriendly goat.

    Regarding CAE, its a real issue and a good reason if you want your goats to nurse on mom to start out with a CAE free herd. Many reputable breeders have had. CAE free herds for years, like Marge Perrin in Galesburg. There is always a chance of CAE, the world is not a risk free place, but getting tested does and kids from a long time breeder is highly suggested.

    As to the logistics of natural nursing, when the babes (calves or kids) are at a week or later in age, you have pens right next to each other so mom and babe can still smell, communicate, etc but just not nurse at night time. Then in the morning, you milk first and then they run together all day.

    So anyway, really enjoyed your post and wanted to respectfully share my point of view. I don't think any of us is "wrong" or "right" but rather each farm is an artful expression of the vision of the farmer. My vision just includes the sacred nursing relationship, and it has been very soul filling for me. When I first started out I did not have any support for this framework, so I wanted to share my experience in the area so people know it can be successful. Sometimes you have to follow your heart in these matters, as you do any other decision on the farm and homestead.

  2. I have discussed these things with Shawna before. One thing to keep in mind is that there are very few goat herds in Michigan that have been tested for CAE--and a blood test is the only way to know if your herd is CAE free. This means that many people will look at their goats and assume-since they are asymptomatic that the herd is CAE free. Most recently a dear friend who has had goats for years AND assumed they were CAE free had them tested. 4 our of seven tested positive for the disease.

    Marge Perrin-mentioned by Shawana is extremely careful with her animals. They are pen raised and hay fed with special formulation minerals. In general it is difficult to find CAE negative animals--just as difficult to get all goat owners to join together to eradicate the disease. The situation I mentioned in the UK and Switzerland was accomplished by government mandate

    Shawana is correct about bonding regarding spending a lot of time handling the animals-when you have a few that's easy, when you have 15-50 it is difficult. And independence is not a good thing when you have to get 30 goats through a milking line. I do understand her position-but just looking at the scale of what we are trying to accomplish a huge amount of time is spent handling animals--the more bonded the better.

    At my first farm in 1972 I had many milking does raised as Shawana describes-it was a nightmare for me and for them.

  3. Very nicely done comments from everyone here.

    I would like to add, in addition to the reasons given by Ron, that kid survival is improved by human intervention. I am on a goat list serve, and this is kidding season for most of us.

    There are numerous posts this week about frostbite. The does lick the kids and in very cold weather the water/saliva freezes, causing frostbite particularly on the ears. Bringing the kids inside, away from the big goats and the bad weather, allows us to keep them warm and dry until they are able to maintain their temperature and adequate circulation on their own. It also assures that every kid gets plenty of colostrum and milk, whether his mother is a heavy milker with a single kid or a new mother with little colostrum and hungry twins. On our farm, many of our goats have triplets and sometimes quadruplets so sharing the milk is very helpful. Monday night my husband found a newborn in the kidding pen essentially abandoned by her first time mother that was in labor with the next baby. The kid was a little early, small and very weak. Bill did not think she would survive, and it was tenuous for a day or so. The doeling finally learned to walk yesterday (Friday) and is improving every day.

    There is no way she would have survived on her own. Nature is beautiful but stern. The only kid that can survive without people is one that can stand to nurse, compete effectively, and has a nurturing mother making plenty of milk. Goats were one of the earliest domesticated animals and have a symbiotic relationship with people. In much of the world, people live in the same building as their goats. I know there are many compromises various farms such as Shawna's use to maintain a good balance between nature and human intervention. On our farm it works to raise the kids apart from the does for all the reasons given.

  4. Regarding frostbite, wouldn't a common sense solution be to not breed for Feb babies? Why not bump breeding back a month for the more moderate temps of March? Am I missing something??

    Is anyone concerned that by not allowing goats or cows to mother that this most basic knowledge and mothering instinct will be bred out of them? is that possible (on an evolutionary level)?

  5. Shawna,
    I agree that some breed awfully early. I have no enthusiasm for frozen hands and teats, in addition to the baby issues. One reason for early kidding is showing - so the kids will be a bit larger at summer show time. We don't show goats, but find some other advantages to at least late February kidding. Winter kidding allows the kids to get a head start on the bugs, which allows for less (ideally no) drug use to battle the parasites. Many breeders agree that kids that are too late in this respect are just not as vigorous. Another factor is timing of the milk supply. We feed our kids real goat milk from our herd. The kids are mostly weaned by the time the farm market season comes along, so there is more milk available for cheese when the customers want it. Also, kids are available for Easter meat sales. Nobody likes to talk about it, but not many dairy bucks are needed so the male kids either become meat or probably more often are euthanized at birth. We are very fortunate to be able to sell some bucks for breeding and have enough colostrum and milk available to be able to keep all of our kids at least for a couple of months.
    I agree that the mothering instinct is not selected for if we don't allow it. On the other hand, allowing nature to take her course would mean allowing kids with suboptimal mothers to die. Frankly the kids, particularly doe kids, are pretty valuable in our situation. With so many generations of close human involvement with dairy goats, poor mothering instinct is common. The positive side of poor mothering instinct is that most of them do not seem to notice that the kids are gone. The kids for sure don't seem to care. They bond with people and the other kids around them. Are they demanding and spoiled rotten? Probably, but one reason people buy our goats is that they are very tame and easily handled. I know you can properly train a dam raised kid, but with busy human schedules I don't think most people really get around to it.
    Your observation is correct that the size and goals of the herd determines the management practices to a great degree. A couple of family milkers is wonderful to supply the family with dairy products and allow many options that a larger operation cannot have. If the family herd has CAE they can be replaced at manageable cost, and the family does not need to be overly concerned with the ability to sell kids. A small commercial herd like ours still has the ability to give individual attention to each goat, rotate pastures, etc. but has to be financially viable. A large confinement operation has its own limitations, environmental concerns, etc.

  6. Anne,
    Thank you for the thoughtful response and added information. I think it really sheds some light as to the complexity of the issue. Best of luck with your kidding season!