2020 has been a challenging year for a lot of folks. Following along on Instagram, when lambs and kids started arriving, I noticed a number farms sharing posts about complications with births. I mostly dismissed the notion I’d be included in the mix of unfortunate situations, mainly because I’d had a 10-year stretch of good luck. Honestly, that’s a lot of what farming is about: luck.
Despite all our plans, planning, preparing, organizing, hoping and sometimes praying, Mother Nature is in charge. We only have to look at 2020 to get that concept. When things go awry, as they often do, mostly when we’re trying to fool her, we face challenges. Staying humble in that knowledge for me is key.
As it turns out, Mother Nature had her eye on me this year, presenting me with the biggest challenge I’ve faced since establishing Bittersweet Heritage Farm. My head milker, as it turns out, is, I am happy to say, a survivor of a horrendous kidding this year, resulting in a C-section. It was a touch-and-go battle with a post-op uterine infection — total collapse at one point — but now, after almost 12 weeks of care, she’s looking great.
Unfortunately, her kidding days are over, right in what should have been her prime, so she’ll happily assume her position as chief hay burner. And also unfortunately, her last baby girl was lost. But, we’re milking (it’s a partnership) and as a testament to this breed, after all she’s been through, she’s producing 8 pounds per day — that’s a gallon to all you non-dairy folks.
Trust Your Instincts
What lessons have I learned through this ordeal (and yes, it has been an ordeal)? The biggest one has been: Trust in your instincts. You know your animals better than anyone, including the veterinarian you call in on an emergency. I had been up every night at midnight for days around Shellie’s due date. I have an audible barn monitor in my bedroom. None of that mattered when at 5:00 am, I went to the barn to find she had been in labor for hours, without a peep of warning.
After checking for position, I determined the kid was presented forward but labor had stalled, and I wasn’t finding a head. She had stopped pushing. It was later determined, she had pushed the kid’s head down under her pelvic bone and it was a big kid.
Trust Your Farm Mentor
Just as a note, my farming mentor, a lifelong farmer says he’s had 15-pounders born successfully. It’s all about position. And timing. Perhaps, if I had gone out at 2 or 3 or 4am, the head could have been manually positioned on top of the legs to deliver. Brian (my mentor) says she probably pushed her down under from the start.
The point in the end was — and he suggested on a phone call after an hour of the vet attempting — a C-section would be less harmful than continuing efforts to reposition the head as was being tried, putting additional stress on both mother and kid.
Normally, a C-section can be performed fairly quickly, and the goat remains healthy and intact, with the ability to subsequently kid successfully. A note to say: In situations like this, the first phone call you should make is to your trusted farming mentor, particularly one with a lifetime of experience with animals. Then call a vet.
Work with Your Farm Vet
I wish I could say that after the vet arrived, all was well but, and I won’t go into detail, suffice to say, the ordeal had only begun. As with your farming mentor, likewise with your veterinarian in relation to trust and experience. As I said, this was the first time I’ve had to have a vet on the farm for an emergency. Unlike my small animal vet with 40 years of vetting under her belt, that was not the case with Shellie.
I wish I could say it all went smoothly. I wish I could say I felt Shellie didn’t suffer. I wish I could say the procedure wasn’t traumatic. Sadly, I can’t. What I can say is, and I repeat, I followed my instincts and after 10 days of post-operative complications resulting from the surgery and medications that weren’t working. After discharging the vet, I took over Shellie’s care, including ultimately changing her medication on the advice of another practice. It saved her life.
Secure Access to Milk Testing
I’d like to say up front, thank you to the Maine State Department of Agriculture. This is when being a Maine State Certified Dairy, and having access to testing labs and support, is like gold.
Weekly, my inspector has picked up milk samples and the labs in Augusta have checked them for residue as a result of all the medications Shellie was given. Normally, monthly checks are done but being able to test more frequently helps determine when it’s safe to include her milk in the daily collection.
At this point, I’ve dumped almost 600 gallons. Needless to say, as the recipient of a Maine Farms for the Future Grant in 2020, my plans to launch a new business venture have been put on hold due to the greatly reduced overall milk supply. It’s been both an emotional and financial punch in the gut.
Build a Farming Community to Lean On
I’d also like to say thank you to my farming mentor, who for the past 11 years has never led me astray. To say I am grateful for all the care and guidance I’ve received over the years from the Robinson family would only be the tip of the hay bale in what their friendship, support and just plain help has meant to me.
Likewise, to my best friend, also another long-term farmer and farming family, Georgie Arbour, who was by my side through this ordeal. She assisted in delivering Shellie’s baby when it was too big for the vet to handle, made every attempt at resuscitating her, and stood by my side even after the vet was long gone. This is what farming looks like: community and friends.
Remembering Pixie Day
Shellie comes from an old line of goats based in Maine. Pixie Day, at Sleighbell is known (in goat circles) worldwide, for her dedication to breeding and raising champion Saanens. Saanens are the big girls — we like to call them living marshmallows — known for their gentle disposition and massive milking capacity.
Pixie started goat farming in Tenants Harbor, here on the St. George peninsula before moving to Sleigh Bell Farm in Washington, where she bred and raised grand champion goats. She sold goat cheese at several farmers markets in the area. She donated goats to Russia through Heifer International. She traveled to Russia several times and helped Russian families learn to milk the goats and make cheeses. While in Russia, she befriended a little girl and helped her get adopted into the U.S.
When I started my farm, Shellie’s Mom, Dollie, joined the herd. All of my goats are descended from Sleighbell but, Pixie and I personally loaded Dollie into the back of my Volvo to head to her new home at Bittersweet. Pixie was 85 at the time. For me, continuing this legacy is about more than just running a farm or milk production.
Consider the Scale of Your Goat Farm
I realize that in a larger dairy operation, the lengths I’ve gone to saving this goat’s life is generally not possible. The cost involved, the time involved, simply doesn’t make sense when determining the value of one animal.
Or does it? Another call I made during this process was to my other farming mentor, my cousin in Vermont, a goat herder and dairyman for 40 years with a herd of 600. We laughed (it helped) as he related stories to me about some of his complicated kiddings and unfortunate vetting procedures, requiring unexpected expense in both money and time. As it turns out, those decisions, when made from the heart, can never be wrong no matter the cost.
Happily, Shellie has not only returned to the milk line, she’s returned to her own uncooperative self when it comes to being milked. We have quite a history, she and I. For 6 years, we’ve battled. She simply doesn’t care for being milked. At one point, I almost sold her.
I’m glad I changed my mind because now, we are so bonded through this experience. It’s the only thing she’s not cooperative about, otherwise, she’s a total goofball, easygoing and quietly, the herd Queen. Her Mother, Dollie, was the same, and I think of her, and Pixie Day from Sleighbell Farm every time we are at the milking war.
Pixie’s heart and soul lives on through these girls as does the spirit of goat herding in Maine. I am so lucky to be a part of it.
Dyan Redickis an artisan cheesemaker, writer, and fiber artist is coastal Maine where she operates Bittersweet Heritage Farm, a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farmstand full of wool from a Romney cross ?ock, goat’s milk soap, lavender, woolens, and whatever else strikes her fancy. Follow Dyan on Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWSposts here.
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