Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Farm Journal: My Pet Goats

With Chantelle out on the pasture
A "Blast from the Past" -- August 2009

A sneak peek into an upcoming book about my experiences on the farm

This summer I’ve had the opportunity to plant, cultivate and harvest two 30x40-yard gardens on a small, sustainable farm owned by Ron Klein, Kalamazoo’s version of Joel Salatin.  What I didn’t plan on was falling in love with the goats there and gaining some insight into a spirituality of food.

I first arrived on the farm when the baby goats were only a few weeks old.  They hung out in two corrals—the “kid-bucks” in one and the “doelings” in the other.  As I approached the fence, their natural curiosity and herd instinct drew them all toward me.  I was flattered that they nudged me to pet them and feel their soft fur.  I felt an instant connection with them.

Touching the goats wasn't my only pleasure.  Since the garden is near the corral,  the tedium of pulling weeds was delightfully complemented by the goats’ occasional bleats.  Then, one day the doe-goats returned from pasture in single file down a small hill into the corral as the bell around their necks clanged.  It was an absolutely magical sight and sound experience!

Eventually I asked Ron to let me watch him milk the goats.  It was a very methodical process starting with the order of the goats.  Shadow is always first, then Suki, HomeGirl or Chantelle, Ginger, Lilly, Elle and Suzu. 

Ron taught me how to prep each doe for milking by following a strict procedure designed to ensure the utmost sanitation of the milk and care and cooperation of the doe.  For example, the doe is led to the milking stand where she jumps up on a platform and has her head locked in over a feeder that provides her with a quart of specially mixed grain to munch on during the milking.  Then her flanks are rubbed and her teats and udder are wiped with a washcloth soaked in warm water and special soap containing peppermint oil.  Her teats and udder are further cleaned with a disposable  disinfectant paper wipe and she's ready for milking. 

“Hold the teat with your thumb and first finger to trap the milk and create a balloon,” Ron instructed. “You close off the opening back into the udder.  Then use your middle and ring fingers to press out the milk.”

After I prepped Suki and HomeGirl, Ron invited me to milk HomeGirl, a very easy-going and cooperative brown LaMancha.

It seemed simple enough watching Ron milk each doe, but I just couldn’t get a hold of the doe’s teat.  He reached over and started the flow.  Then he had me try again and finally, my left hand got a little stream of milk going!

I milked HomeGirl for a while but gave her back to Ron because it took me  so long, she was getting antsy and he had other work to do.  After he emptied her, he had me spray her teat opening with “Fight Bac” disinfectant, unlock her head from the milking stand, give her a gentle rub, and lead her through the sliding door and into the barn. 

This sliding door is sometimes tricky because if pushed too far outward, it will fall off.  Usually a couple other anxious does try to barge into the milk room as the newly-milked goat is trying to get out.  Ron taught me how to push on the goats' noses to back them off.

So many things to think about for such a seemingly simple procedure and I goofed on just about every step.  I felt stupid and humbled.  

A few days later Ron let me milk the goats again.  He started me on Elle this time because her teats are longer and easier to hold.  This time my right hand got out some milk but not my left.  I then tried to milk Chantelle with the same result. 

Ron said I needed to strengthen my forearms.  Squeezing an athletic grip ball would help.  So I bought one and practiced the milking motions in the air.  I was determined to learn how to milk the goats, however, Ron reminded me that learning could only happen with practice and that would take time.  I needed to be patient and keep trying.

Meanwhile, my affinity for the goats grew.  For example, one day when we cleaned out the barn, neither was I grossed out by the smell nor did I mind scraping out the caked-on goat droppings and straw from the floor.  I had to muster all my strength to pitch up the waste with a pitch-fork and lift it in a pile for the tractor to haul away for compost.
This was hard work and it definitely shook off any notions about the glamour of farming.  My back ached, my bad knee hurt and at times I could feel fresh goat waste squishing in my leaky boots.  However, I was very conscious that we did this all for the purpose of providing the goats with a clean and healthy home.  (Of course, I didn’t want Ron or my farm buddies to think I was a woose if I quit.)

On my third try to milk the goats I decided to concentrate on using both my hands.  I prepared Shadow for Ron to milk and he got a bucket out of her in no time.  I then squirted the “Fight Bac” up her teats and led her back into the barn.  As Ron ushered in Suki for milking, he noticed the bees from one of the hives were showing signs of swarming.
“That’s not good,” he said. “If they swarm now, they won’t last through the winter, without supplemental feed and care.  You take care of the goats while I take care of the bees.”

I gulped but went to work. 

This time my left hand got the milk flowing but not my right hand.  I decided to do one teat at a time with my left hand but realized that would take forever.  Then a miracle happened:  I got both hands going by squeezing both teats at the same time—and a stronger flow of milk.  Soon afterward, I successfully milked my first goat through to completion!  I led Suki back into the barn and poured her milk from the bucket into a large stainless steel container in the next room.  Then I prepared for HomeGirl.

As I milked the does, my farm buddies looked in on me, congratulated me on my progress and reported what was happening with the bees, which included Ron having to climb a 20-foot ladder! He was going to be busy for a while so I decided I had to finish the rest of the goats.  I was so intense, however, that I gritted my teeth until they hurt, so I milked the goats with my mouth open.  That must have looked pretty weird.

HomeGirl was very patient with me and eventually I felt her udder go flaccid.  Not only had I emptied her milk, but I suddenly comprehended how this part of the doe’s anatomy worked!

But more happened.  As I milked her, I naturally pressed my shoulder and ear against her side.  Ron said this is a good way to control a goat but I found it just a pleasant thing to do.  The rhythmic sounds of her rumen provided an interesting backdrop to her munching the grain and licking the feeder.  She was just being a doe-goat, but I felt a special solidarity with her by recognizing that each goat is a sentient being with a personality, feelings, needs and daily dispositions.  I had first learned this through my cat, my first pet, a couple years ago and now I was experiencing it with a goat.

I led HomeGirl back to the barn and then began working with Chantelle, my fourth goat, when Ron returned.

“I wouldn’t have left you alone if I didn’t think you could do it,” he said.  “You are gentle with the goats and they like you and allow you to work with them.” 

I really felt good about this.  Actually, Ron had been giving me the 4-H treatment:  teach the student by building her confidence and letting her learn by doing.  My world in academe is abstract and theoretical.  Milking goats is absolutely practical and a totally connected process.  The goat is relieved of her load.  The milk provides Ron and his wife, Soo, with liquid to drink and cheese to make for their personal use.  Milking demands close attention to certain details and responsibilities to the goats, to the safety and cleanliness of the products and to Ron who owns the goats.

And all this leads to another important issue.  This fall Ron will process the kid-bucks for meat.  He isn’t ecstatic about this even though they will fill his freezer.  In fact, he feels very badly about it because he took such care helping them during the birthing process, which sometimes involved intervention in birthing and resuscitation to get them breathing.  Consequently, he feels a keen responsibility to give them a good life on pasture and in the sun.

“Basically,” said Ron “we take very good care of them and they take care of and provide for us.  This is good stewardship.”

My experiences on Ron's farm have given me a different understanding of food where animals (and plants) sacrifice their lives in order for us humans to go on with ours.  The Native Americans recognized this dynamic and consequently prayed for the buffalo before they killed it and then thanked the Creator for its sustenance.  This is so contrary to the way Americans raise meat today where the animals live in crowded feedlots and factory farms called CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), are given numbers not names, injected with antibiotics, shipped on scary, fast-moving trucks and sold for profit. 

I am also developing a new relationship with food on the farm through the time I spend and the muscle I expend to milk a goat or grow a potato.   This all requires care, patience, responsibility—and a little luck from Nature.  That’s why grace is said before meals, a practice whose purpose had become so routine for me and so disconnected from growing and raising food that it didn't make any sense because, of course, food just comes from the grocery store.   

Through Ron's goats I have become aware of the spiritual dimension of food.  I only hope that more people have the opportunity to gain such important insights because food is basic to everyone's needs and essential to the quality of life.

1 comment:

  1. informative AND inspiring, olga! thank-you for sharing your experiences!