What Are You Prepared to DO?

That’s one of my favorite lines, delivered by the Sean Connery character in a pivotal scene from The Untouchables. It’s a question that every aspiring farmer ought to ask him or herself, especially before taking the responsibility for livestock — and one that I didn’t really ask myself until much later, only when I had to.

To paraphrase: “You said you wanted to get goats. Do you really want to get them? You see what I’m saying? What are you prepared to do? […] You must be prepared to go all the way.”

This morning, I had to make a gut-wrenching decision that no person with a heart wants to make: whether a struggling goat kid can really be brought to a position where he can thrive…or only, at best, be consigned to a lifetime of miserable survival at the margins. And if the judgment is the latter…well, what are you prepared to DO then?

As you may have gathered from the text and photo in yesterday’s post, one of the twin goat kids Queen Anne’s Lace gave birth to was very iffy. He was certainly in better shape than some kids we’ve had born, and we did get him put on a teat to suckle (some kids won’t even do that), but he still had one very big problem: he could barely stand, and couldn’t take two steps without his front legs buckling and falling to his knees. When we put him on a teat to nurse, he sprawled his rear legs behind him. One of us had to hold Mother Goat, while the other one held the goat kid on his feet.

We made sure he got a good meal last night. We owed him that, if he was to have any shot at gaining strength. But this morning, it became more clear that it wasn’t an issue of strength. There was something seriously wrong with his front legs, and milk wasn’t going to cure that. He hadn’t gotten up all night, even though we left the lights on and the other five kids in the pen were romping around with each other; at 7am, he was still exactly where we’d left him at 10pm.

Homeschooled Farm Girl helped me put him back on a teat, but he still couldn’t keep himself erect. We stood him up, and he kept toppling forward. Critically, even his mother seemed to know there was something seriously wrong with him: she would stand still for his twin brother to nurse, but grew increasingly agitated and tried to run away every time we reconnected the lame one to a teat. She’s a big powerful goat, and holding her still long enough for him to nurse (and, remember, someone still had to hold the kid because he couldn’t stand) was becoming nearly impossible.

We even rearranged our schedule this morning, coming home after church instead of straight to my father-in-law’s house, to give the kid another shot at nursing. Same story, same rejection, and same big problem with his legs.

Now we had a decision to make. Spend the next several months picking him up and bottle feeding him in the hopes that his legs eventually change, or put him down now. If he’d been healthy, and simply a bummer kid (rejected by the mother), the decision would be easy. We wouldn’t have been happy, but we would’ve bottle fed him.

But we’ve tried to bottle feed bummers with serious health issues before, and they’ve never ended up healthy. One of them was never able to drink water from a bucket. We literally had to bottle feed him water several times a day until he was old enough to butcher at 7 or 8 months. Another was so scrawny and sickly, even as an adult, he was constantly beaten up by the others and didn’t even have enough meat to justify butchering him. (I eventually simply put him down and we threw the body away.)

The children and Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I had a quick conference. Our consensus was that we should give thanks for the five healthy goat kids born this last week, and not prolong the misery of a kid with legs so bad he can’t even stand.

But actually pulling the trigger on a cute, innocent, defenseless newborn is quite different from coming to a decision in theory. Especially when the goat kid begins crying as he’s taken out of the kidding pen and into the snowy yard. This is where you have to ask yourself, as a farmer or aspiring farmer, “What are you prepared to DO?”

I love my farm. And I love my animals. And this morning that meant putting a .380 hollow point round into a goat kid’s head. I wasn’t prepared to do that kind of thing when we first got livestock, and I managed to avoid thinking about it until I had no choice. And it’s something that on occasion in the past I may have allowed myself to dodge or delay because the little critter was just so sweet and cute, even though I knew in my head that the most humane thing would be to put the animal down immediately.

It doesn’t get any easier the more times you do it. It just gets a little less hard. But if I wasn’t prepared to DO it, I think I’d have to get out of the livestock business altogether.

He went very quickly. And we are truly grateful for the five healthy kids and all the milk their mothers will be providing for our family this year.

Goat Kids Galore

We were out for much of the day, and on our return discovered…

two more goat kids!

This time it was Queen Anne’s Lace, our oldest doe, doing the honors. Both are males. We got them moved from the mucky main goat area (pictured above) and into the kidding pen, which is now getting pretty crowded — three does and six kids. We also put down an additional bale of fresh straw, just for good measure.

Homeschooled Farm Girl did everything she could to get the weaker of the two kids (the one laying down in the photo above) to nurse, but he’s having trouble even standing up. We’re not really sure he’s going to make it, but we’ll do what we can. His twin brother, by contrast, is up and walking around great. And yesterday’s triplets are all doing well. Stay tuned!

Triple Goat Treat!

Today marked a first: in all our years of raising goats, we finally had a set of triplets born to us! We’ve had several sets of triplets from our Icelandic sheep, but our goats have never done anything more than twin.

I discovered the birth while out in the barn this afternoon taking care of chores. One little kid was wandering around the goat area, and my first thought was that Hollyhock’s recent arrival had escaped from the kidding pen and couldn’t rejoin her mother. But a closer look showed this kid was a newborn, wet from the birth and with some umbilical cord still dangling. Then I spotted the two other kids, swarming the mother goat. Homeschooled Farm Girl helped inspect all the mature does, and we confirmed only one had recently delivered.

What’s amusing how crazy the genetics are getting: one of the three is quite dark, one is white, and the other is in-between. HFG tells me we have two males and one female.

Wilbur decided to do a close inspection of his new little charge. Until Mother Goat butted him away.

We moved Mom and her triplets to the kidding pen, with Hollyhock and her kid. I administered shots of Bovi Sera to all, and to the mother. And now the four kids are having a grand time getting to know each other.

Hardy Little Kid

We had bitterly cold weather last night; the thermometer read -5F this morning when I got up, which is close to the coldest I recall from this winter. Yesterday was +5, I believe.

Yet, despite the intense cold, the goat kid born two days ago continues to thrive. It helps that the lower portion of the barn has remained closed day and night, and I’ve been leaving the lights on 24 hours per day. The inside temperature was 26F when I went out this morning; it felt quite warm after walking across the driveway at -5F, but 26 degrees is still objectively very cold. Especially for a two day old baby animal.

The hardiness of these animals is remarkable. The kid had hunkered down in a cozy portion of the pen, next to Mom, and was just fine when she stood up to greet me.

Light in the Blizzard

After getting taunted by 50+ degree weather toward the end of last week, winter came howling back in yesterday with a vengance. We got several inches of snow dumped on us, and I spent a good chunk of this morning shoveling out the driveway yet again. Now the winds are picking up, and I’ve decided I’m officially Sick of February.

Then, when I went to the barn to take care of evening chores, I heard an instantly-recognizable high pitched cry coming from the goat area. I looked, and discovered that Hollyhock had given birth to a beautiful (if sort of dirty) little female kid.

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I moved Holyhock and the kid to the kidding pen, ensured they had fresh water and plenty of hay, and some fresh straw. We also made sure the teats were clear, and that the kid got latched on. After losing a kid last year because the mother goat’s teats were clogged (and we didn’t discover it until the kid was too weak to be saved), this is something we’re definitely checking now after every kidding and lambing.

I also gave mother and kid injections of Bovi Sera, which will help boost their immunity and help recover more quickly from the birth. Especially given the nasty weather that is forcing its way through every crack in the drafty old barn’s walls, we want to make sure the two of them get every advantage possible.

Here’s looking forward to a healthy kid, and lots of goat milk soon! We’ve sure missed it.

Awesome Birds

We have had geese almost from the beginning of our great farming adventure, and even named our place in Illinois “Rolling Goose Farm.” These awesome birds have been on my mind recently, and I wanted to say a word or two about them — especially for those who might be thinking ahead to the coming growing season. Assuming this crazy deep freeze we’ve been in literally all year ever thaws.

Every small farm ought to have some chickens. They’re the easiest birds to raise, and provide both eggs and meat. And you can put them in a tractor pen to till/fertilize garden beds before planting and after harvest.

After chickens, though, I’d recommend geese. They’re on my mind because we cooked one up the weekend before last, for some dinner guests, and I’m still thinking about how good it was. I’d gone out and butchered a young gander on Saturday, and then we roasted it fresh on Sunday. It weighed about ten pounds, dressed out, and even (barely) fit into the largest cast iron dutch oven. It was the perfect size to provide an all-you-can-eat meal for two average sized families (four adults and six kids), with enough left over to make a big pot of soup for a couple of dinners during the week. When you serve a goose up like this, it’s almost guaranteed to make a memorable impression for a guest — for the simple reason that most Americans have never experienced it. And certainly not a fresh, young, domestic goose (as opposed to an old Canada goose that’s flown back and forth to South America five times and is as tough as shoe leather).

Geese may sound exotic to Americans, as they originally did to us, but they’re very simple to prepare. I smear a light layer of olive oil all over it, then sprinkle the whole bird with salt, pepper, garlic, and basil. In then goes into a roasting pan or dutch oven, and I toss in a chopped onion. Put a little water in the bottom of the pan, and it’s ready to go in the oven (covered) at 350F. If it’s a large roasting pan, I’ll wait about an hour and then add diced potatoes all around the bird, stirring in the wonderful rich “goose grease” that’s melted so far. If the goose is in a smaller roasting pan or dutch oven, I begin the potatoes in our Crock Pot much earlier, with some olive oil and basic seasonings. Once a nice amount of fat has melted off the goose, I pour it into the Crock Pot and mix thoroughly with the potatoes. (I baste the goose with the remaining grease.)

Unless you’ve experienced it, it’s difficult to describe just how delicious this melted goose fat is. It can even be saved and used as a bread spread, or in any number of other ways. When I’m putting the soup on at the end of the night, I make sure I scrape every drop out of the roasting pan and into the soup pot with a spatula. The richness it adds to the soup will kick your eyes wide open the first time you try it.

And the birds are neither difficult nor expensive to raise. Yes, goslings cost quite a bit to buy. Ten bucks each from our local feed store, but they can be had for less if you shop around. Cackle Hatchery, for example, offers sixteen White Embden goslings for $117, which works out to $7.35 before shipping. It’s the same price for Gray Toulouse goslings, which is the other meat breed we recommend.

That appears to be quite a bit more than a broad breasted turkey poult, which yields much more meat than a goose. But once the birds are out of the brooder, the advantage tips the other direction. The turkey has been bred to require lots of high protein supplemental feed. The goose, by contrast, will do quite well on nothing but grass (we do let them have some supplemental grain, especially after the grass dies, to fatten them up a little). And while the turkeys are stupid and need plenty of supervision, geese are highly self-reliant. The gaggle can even fight off predators up to the size of foxes and small dogs. Geese can be left out in a pasture for long periods of time, and will be happy as long as they have grass, shade, and water. Our mature geese adopt the young goslings within minutes of release from the brooder, and quickly incorporate them into the flock. They’re also very cold hardy; we’ve never had one freeze to death, even when the temp in their outbuilding has plunged below zero.

They’re best butchered and eaten in their first year; we’ve heard they can get tough with age, so we haven’t even tried eating the mature geese. I imagine they’d still make very good stock and soup, but they’re so fun to watch and so easy to keep (and just eat grass for so much of the year), we’ve preferred to just let them live.

The one big hassle with geese is plucking them. There’s a reason geese are so cold hardy: they have a ton of small, downy, impenetrable feathers all up and down their front. Even when we had an excellent mechanical plucker, the geese took longer than any other bird to get all the feathers off of. And getting the very last feathers off, for a perfectly clean-looking carcass, is extremely difficult no matter what equipment you’re using. Plunging the dead goose into a big pot of scalding water makes the job easier, but it’s still much harder than plucking a chicken or turkey. Waterfowl have oily feathers designed to repel water (“like water off a duck’s back”), so it takes some work to get the scalding water all the way down to the skin. I find it helps to dry pluck some feathers, to open up the chest and belly a little, before plunging the bird into the water.

Which brings us to marketing your geese. Our family doesn’t care if there are a few small downy feathers on the bird; they disappear once it’s in the oven, anyhow. If you’re planning to sell the geese, however, make sure your customers understand this and feel the same way. Most will be quite understanding — they will be overjoyed just finding someone with fresh, natural, farm-raised goose for sale. But you don’t want confusion or questions about why the bird isn’t perfect-looking. And you really don’t want to have to go over the bird with a pair of tweezers, extracting every last tiny little feather you can find.

How much can you get for a goose? We’ve charged $5/pound, dressed weight, or $50 for the typical bird (they can grow larger if you feed them more grain, but you have to pay for that grain), and customers don’t blink. In most states, you’ll have to sell directly from your farm to the consumer. No restaurants, supermarkets, or shipping across state lines. Otherwise, you’ll need to have the birds butchered at a USDA facility, and there are very few of those that will touch waterfowl. Which is why geese are so hard to find at the supermarket or even in restaurants. And why word of mouth that you have geese for sale will spread among those who really appreciate these delicious birds, and are willing to pay for a special holiday dinner centerpiece. Most of our calls have come from Europeans, among whom goose is a much more common holiday tradition. A simple posting on sites like Eat Wild or Local Harvest will get you plenty of calls. And, using the costs above, selling just three geese more than pays for 16 goslings. There are feed costs, of course, but the other 13 goslings are essentially yours for free.

We’re no longer actively marketing our geese; we’ve been too busy, and for the time being are satisfied keeping them for ourselves and serving them to dinner guests. But whether you’re looking for a nice product to pay some of your farm bills, or just a delicious centerpiece neither you nor your guests will forget, geese are an excellent bird to try.

Child-Friendly?

I got an interesting note from a good friend this morning. They’ve recently moved to the country, themselves, and like us have been eating in a more “crunchy” manner. Their children don’t have the allergy problems that ours do, but they’ve noticed that their kids have been much healthier on a more natural diet. What they apparently hadn’t realized is just how unusual (even radical) people like us can appear in the eyes of other parents.

He writes:

On a separate topic, we’re watching a friend’s child for the next few days. The mother asked if we could feed her more child-friendly food. We weren’t quite sure what she meant, as we had watched the daughter before and fed her what our kids ate. So we asked the mom, and she said nevermind; she would just send some food along. So, when the daughter was dropped off at our house, we saw what her mom brought. She packed 2 1-gallon bags of Fruit Loops and 2 boxes of macaroni and cheese. Oh, now we understand.

While we probably don’t eat as healthily as your family does, we were somewhat pleased that we probably do eat reasonably healthy foods, or at least avoid the truly over-processed foods most of the time. At the same time, we also felt a little disturbed that our friends lived on fruit loops. Probably ranks up there with Twinkies on the processed food spectrum.

I can only really add one thing to this: sometimes it’s heartening to get a good reminder that, even though our approach to nutrition may not be perfect, we sure have come a long way and are at least getting the big “child-friendly” picture a lot more right than we did before.