I love to read good writing about nature and farming. Two of my favorite authors and farmers are Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry. They both stress the importance of getting to know a place intimately before doing something to it. In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry says, “one who presumes to know the truth does not look for it.”
This is the approach I’ve tried to use in settling into my own little piece of ground. I’ve always enjoyed sitting in a lawn chair next to the beehives and watching the bees come and go to learn their secrets. I did the same thing after bringing the goats home. I sat in a lawn chair in the pasture and just watched them play and browse and behave like goats.
I learned that they liked to play King on the Mountain and that one of them, at only 4 months old, was already the herd queen. She would butt the others off the “mountain” and try to claim the choice browse for herself. I learned that even though the book said they’d drink about a gallon of water a day each, these goats hadn’t read the book. They took dainty, occasional sips – sticking the tips of their muzzles into the water, removing them, and then licking off whatever remained. Maybe it was because the May pasture was so lush and the vegetation full of water? Perhaps this breed of goats (myotonic goats) were more efficient in their water use?
Something I failed to observe and had not yet learned that first spring was the way a goat is very determined about pushing it’s way through any kind of small hole it can find to get to something it wants – even if it means getting hung up. My perimeter pasture fence was a good one – 4-by-4-inch welded wire. But then I did something!
I’d been reading about pasture rotation. With the 3-acre, overgrown pasture and 5 goats, they had more feed than they could browse all summer. I decided to set up an electric cross-fence. Being frugal, I used what I already had – some poultry netting. All seemed well when I headed out to a Thursday night farmers market to sell honey.
Later that night, when I drove up the lane to my house and rounded a bend, I startled 4 goats in the middle of the road. I had to stop to keep from running over the 3 that had stiffened and fallen over as the 4th, the herd queen, ran off without so much as a tic or a twinge or a backward glance at her buddies! As I sat there behind the wheel trying to figure out how they’d gotten out and where the 5th doeling was, the downed goats recovered and took out after the herd queen. I got out of the truck and gave chase!
I’m embarrassed to say how long I chased them before I thought to go get a handful of sweet feed with which to lure them in. I was able to catch the queen and carry her back to the pasture, and the others eventually followed. I discovered that I had left the main gate open, thinking the goats were safely contained in my cross fencing. But I had forgotten to plug the electric fencing in before leaving!
I found the fifth little doeling strangled to death in the fencing. It looked like she’d stuck her head through the netting and then struggled to push on through, wrapping the flimsy fencing around her neck more tightly. The others must have used her body as a bridge to get out. Feeling like the worst kind of goat farmer, I removed all of the electric poultry netting and buried my mistake.
Even though this electrified net fencing is made to use with goats and sheep, I’d had enough experience with it and my chickens to know that I was not very good at keeping it electrified – batteries would run low, the grass would grow up too high, or I would simply forget to attach it to the electricity. Similarly, I sometimes forgot it was attached and suffered the consequences!
It’s been more than 2 years now, and fortunately I haven’t killed anymore goats. My little herd has grown from 4 to 7 with at least 2 and maybe 3 pregnant does – yes I’ve added a buck. I’m still sitting and watching “Goat TV” and learning new things from them all the time. I’ve learned that goats know how to be goats and that I can help them most by working with what is natural for them. I’ve learned that they can choose food that will keep them healthy when they have a natural landscape to choose from. I’ve learned that they know how to give birth and suckle their young without interference from me. I have learned these things and more. I just hope that they can continue to learn how to adjust to my mistakes!