Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Think back to your last car purchase. As soon as you drove off the lot, weren’t you suddenly aware of all the other cars of the same make and model on the road? You’d never really noticed them before, but now they seemed to be everywhere. I recently had the same experience, though not with cars – with goats! What started out seeming to me like a fun, but eccentric, choice of pet for a city backyard, has turned out to be a growing trend across America. According to the US Department of Agriculture, there are over 3 million goats currently being raised in the USA, and of those, the number of dairy goats rose by 6% from 2009 to 2010. When I started telling friends about my new pets, I learned that many of them had either had goats in the past or knew someone who still did. Craigslist is teeming with goats for sale, and Yahoo! groups for goat fanciers abound online. The Cooking Channel recently ran a program featuring goat dairies that produce gourmet ice creams and cheeses, and even children’s cartoons and TV commercials seem to be including goats more often these days.
But why all the hubbub? Why is a goat such a great addition to an urban or suburban homestead? Besides the fresh milk and homemade cheese, and the relative ease of care, goats can be some of the most affectionate pets you’ll ever own, and provide hours of entertainment as you watch their antics. I know my own life has been changed forever by these adorable animals, as they’ve allowed me to connect with nature more deeply than I ever imagined possible, and all in a smallish backyard near Dallas, Texas.
I’m a city girl. I grew up in a series of rental houses – nice ones, but rentals nonetheless – in big cities: Seattle, San Antonio, Dallas. Our landlords didn’t look kindly on vegetable gardens, and I wasn’t allowed to have a pet, except for one brief but passionate love affair with a bunny, which I cared for with the fierce love that only a 7-year-old can muster for a member of the rodent family. All I knew of farm life was that African violets need to be by a window, and that bunnies will sometimes eat your Barbie’s hair. But then we moved.
My father got a university position teaching abroad, in a small town in Austria. I, ultra-worldly 13-year-old that I was, was horrified by the move…until our plane touched down in Vienna. At that moment I fell in love with the place – the trees, the hills, the farms – the cows! Cows were everywhere – across the street, near the school. Sometimes they even escaped the confines of their fencing and wandered into our backyard. We were still renting, so even here, pets were off-limits, but the woman who owned our house was a gardening genius. Our backyard was like Eden – kiwi vines growing over the pergola by the pond, a huge vegetable plot near the cherry and fig trees, a berry patch close enough to the back door to pop out and pick a few glistening raspberries for your cereal. Everyone in Austria had a garden. Going over to a friend’s house to do homework meant picking some fresh spinach from their yard for dinner. They were so matter-of-factly connected to the land; it was completely integrated, seamlessly woven into the lives of even the city dwellers there. Two of my best friends even had farms, and taught me, with amused patience, how to milk a cow. I longed to be like them, to have that intuitive link with nature that seemed to be their birthright, so I threw myself wholeheartedly into working in our yard. For a few brief years, I was – almost – a country girl.
In college, I made up for lost time in the pet department. My roommates put up with a string of animals sharing our dorm room –a tree frog, a crawfish, another bunny. And it was there at college that I found my husband, who, having grown up on a ranch in Arizona, aided and abetted my attempts to connect with the natural world. One of the first gifts he bought for me when we were first married was an adorable little cocker spaniel puppy. I was in heaven.
While my husband kept me in a steady supply of kittens and puppies, he indulged his own passion for birds. For years, the walls of our tiny one-bedroom apartment were lined with miniature quail living in plastic tubs. Once we bought a house - in a nice, normal, Dallas neighborhood, mind you – we acquired a whole flock of chickens, several fancy pigeons, and a few ducks. I didn’t especially care for them – mammals are more my thing – but I definitely didn’t mind the fresh eggs! While I tried my hand at breeding rabbits (pretty unsuccessfully, too, which is really pitiful, considering they’re rabbits), my DH brought a new obsession with fancy goldfish to the mix. Then came the snails. Tubfuls of them. In our living room. The neighbors thought we were insane. We dreamed of escargot.
One summer, I decided to do some research on homesteading. We already had a little garden and some smaller animals – why not try to take it a step further? The more I read, the more I was convinced that we needed a goat. A dairy goat. Right now.
After looking into each of the different breeds, and taking into consideration the shrinking amount of backyard space available, I decided a Nigerian Dwarf would be our goat of choice. They’d be small enough to live comfortably in our yard, but they’d also give us plenty of milk. In my reading about goats, I’d come across a lot of material about raising goats for meat, too, which appealed to my homesteading desires, but horrified the city girl in me. I didn’t think I was quite ready for that yet.
And so our adventure began. First, to prepare the yard for its new inhabitants. We fenced off a portion of our backyard that was overgrown with saplings. Goats are browsers, as opposed to grazers, like sheep and cows, so they love nothing more than a piece of land to clear. We made sure the fence was absolutely escape-proof, having heard the local folk wisdom that, “if water or smoke can pass through a fence, so can a goat.” Next, we covered the ground with cedar mulch, to keep the area smelling pleasant. As for their shelter, we constructed a simple three-sided lean-to out of scrap lumber. Of course, we live in Texas – those who live in colder climates do need something more substantial. As long as it protects them from rain and cold, and provides them with shade in the summer, however, goats are not picky about their housing.
Next step: finding a breeder. We didn’t have the money to buy a purebred, registered doe yet, so we started out with an adorable little cross between a Nigerian Dwarf and a Boer goat. She was only $50, and had been bottle-fed since birth, so she would be very affectionate towards humans. After a two-hour drive, we arrived at the breeder’s house. She walked us right over to her goat pen, and as soon as little Rosie caught sight of her, she ran to us just as fast as her little fuzzy legs could carry her, tail wagging furiously, just like a puppy’s. One look at that tiny creature jumping up and down in front of the breeder’s legs, her delicate front hooves reaching upwards as if begging to be picked up and cuddled, and I was head over heels. Little Rosie was my new best friend.
Goats are herd animals and don’t like to be alone, so we set out to find Rosie a friend. Luckily, our sweet old beagle took it upon herself to become our official goatsitter until we could pick up our next little kid, Buttercup.
Buttercup was also a bottle-baby. A pure Nigerian Dwarf, she cost $125, being the runt – in fact, the breeder had been calling her “Miracle Baby,” because she had surprised everyone by surviving a very difficult birth that had ended in a C-section for her mama. She was even more affectionate than Rosie, which was no small accomplishment! The two of them got along famously, once Rosie had made sure that Buttercup understood she was the boss.
Feeding these two was an adventure in itself. My husband and I are both full-time teachers, but Rosie and Buttercup still needed to be bottle-fed three times a day. We took it in turns to drive home during lunch breaks and free periods to feed them, and even had to bring them along to school with us on a few occasions, in a little plastic tub. Of course, our students loved that, and several parents later complained good-naturedly to us that their children were now pestering them to buy a pet goat, too. All the trouble was worth it, though, because by the time we weaned them, at about 2 months of age, they were as devoted to us as any dog, and I must say, the feeling was mutual.
Part of the reason that we had been able to afford these two little sweethearts was that they were not top-quality show goats. Their breeders did not keep records of their herds’ milk production, either, so we were gambling that Rosie and Buttercup would eventually grow up to give us a decent amount of milk. There’s a saying very common in the goat community that “goats are like potato chips – you can’t stop at just one or two.” We decided we would add a third doe to the mix, and this time she would be a guaranteed milk producer, purebred and registered with the American Goat Society. We found a breeder selling a registered goat who had just weaned her kids, but was still “in milk,” for just $200, so we pounced on the deal. Bluebonnet, or Bonnie, for short, completed our little herd.
Bonnie had not been bottle-fed as a kid. In fact, she hadn’t had much human contact at all. My heart ached at her wild beauty, but when the time came for me to try and milk her, it was my back – and my arms, and hands, and head – that were aching. No matter what I tried, she refused to stand still long enough for me to get more than just a few teaspoons of milk out of her. Finally, after about two weeks of gentle but firm reprimands to stay still, a little bit of goat wrestling, and a lot of bribery in the form of black oil sunflower seeds, Bonnie settled down. I found that, when fed a ration of grain pellets and alfalfa hay, she could produce about three pints of milk per day – and she was a “first freshener,” or a first-timer when it came to giving birth and producing milk. The next time she was bred, she should produce even more. Not bad for a dwarf goat!
Our little goat family connects me to nature in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Of course, there are the usual tasks to be attended to, such as feeding and watering them, trimming their hooves, and monitoring their health. But I find I am now tied to the land, to our little plot of land, by the clockwork regularity of milking time, twice a day. Bonnie’s warm udder and the rhythmic sloshing of her milk into the pail wake me up more kindly than any coffee could, and help to restore my equilibrium again after a long, busy day. I find I am drawn to the goat pen even more often than that, however, just to enjoy my does’ company. If I sit down in their pen, Rosie and Buttercup clamber all over each other in their excited efforts to snuggle up on my lap first, while Bonnie ambles by occasionally for a short head-scratching. We may not have a real farm, but our goats have given us the chance to experience a more natural life, linked as we are to them through bonds of both affection and nourishment. So is it any wonder that I have goats on the brain? They’ve conquered my heart, and if you give them the chance, they’ll conquer yours, too.