"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Worst Job on the Farm (Disbudding)

Meet the littlest baby goat. Flopsy gave birth just a week or so after Polly, who lost both babies
Sad Day (Breeding Gone Awry)) because we didn't know she had got pregnant so early and also because she can apparently hide twins in her belly and still look like a caprine supermodel. After that sad day, of course I kept a sharp eye on the other goats, and so we had plenty of time to lock up Flopsy in the warm, dry mama barn when she began to show signs of impending labor.

Surprisingly, she only gave birth to one baby, this fine spotted buckling you see above. Flopsy has thrown triplets more often than anything else, although her first baby was a single buckling as well, the inimitable Storm Cloud. It seems that whenever a goat throws a single, it is always a big buckling.  Iris once  had a single buckling, Clove, who was so big and vigorous he was trying to stand up before he was all the way out.

It may be that this little guy is our only baby goat this year. If Iris is pregnant it will be quite a while yet - she is thin and shows no udder development at all. At nine years old, her fertility may be declining, which is fine by me. Iris has given us many beautiful babies over the years and produced an awful lot of milk. She has earned her retirement. I don't mind if we don't get more babies - the market for goats has been poor for years now, and we often end up eating them instead of selling them. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it wouldn't bother me to take a year off from butchering.

I'm going to try to sell this little fellow as an intact buck. He has a fair chance, I think, because of his lovely spots. If I knew for certain he were destined to be a meat animal, I wouldn't bother with disbudding him, but there is absolutely zero chance anyone will buy a buck with horns. Nor should they; a full grown horned buck would a dangerous animal during rut season. So, today we disbudded him.

Disbudding baby goats is a terrifying procedure carried out with a red-hot iron (or actually, copper, as seen on the model above). I used to pay the veterinarian to do it under anesthesia, but that became prohibitively expensive as the price I could get for baby goats declined. Also, the vet killed one of my babies by accident ( This One Really Hurts (Bad Year for Baby Goats)) and I figured if anybody is going to kill one of my babies, it might as well be me.

Homero built me a kid-containment box out of an old bookshelf and I bought a disbudding iron off the internet. Last year I borrowed a friend's iron just to see if I could handle the procedure, and it turns out I can. It's horrible, but I can do it. Last year I disbudded three babies and they all turned out fine - no brain damage - and as far as I know they never grew any scurs, either. This year's baby buckling is now disbudded and back with his mama, seemingly none the worse for the experience. I'll watch him carefully and check him early in the morning for any signs of brain injury, but I think I have successfully added disbudding to my list of farm tasks that I can competently do, unpleasant as it is.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Seed Catalogue Season (Plant Porn)

My daughter Rowan started a garden a few years ago; a big garden, with the idea that she would have a booth at the local farmer's market. She got a business license and called it "The Enchanted Broccoli Forest." Yes, I know that name is already taken. I told her that - I have the cookbook - but she didn't care. And it doesn't matter, because her business has never actually advanced as far as selling anything. Pretty much all the success has been on the supply side, so far, not so much on the demand side.

One of the consequences of having an actual gardening business, even if it has yet to make a penny, is that you get dozens of seed catalogues in the mail. January is prime seed catalogue season; so far I think we have received somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen or twenty. Rowan and I both love seed catalogues - really, what gardener does not? Such a wealth of possibility, so much fun imagining the ultimate garden that this year - this year! - will be a reality. I'm sure some people get the same satisfaction leafing through Architectural Digest imagining their dream home, or Vogue, imagining their impossible wardrobe. I could care less about clothes or decor - give me plant porn.

While we were in Mexico, Rowan used my garden space and greenhouse, and when we came back she moved her garden to a friend's house. This year, we've decided to both use the garden space and greenhouse here at the house. Lord knows, I don't make full use of it. I'm sure there's enough room for both of us. We have a 10 x 12 greenhouse with shelves and a fenced garden area of about 800 square feet, or enough room for ten or twelve long beds. Last year I used four of the beds. Maybe together we can put the whole space to use.

Rowan and I have differing ideals, as well as differing abilities, when it comes to gardening. I have the time and the money; she has the muscle and the energy. She wants to grow a wide variety of interesting and beautiful, unusual edibles, such as purple pole beans and cheddar-cheese cauliflower. She looks for weird and rare varieties of garden staples, such as the beautiful Peacock Broccoli or the wonderfully named Frizzy Headed Drunken Woman Lettuce. Her main priorities in choosing a plant are beauty, oddness, and "wow factor." I have different ideas.

Seattle recently launched a very cool and innovative vision - the Food Forest . If you haven't heard of it, the idea is to grow a whole bunch of trees and shrubs, bushes and other hardy perennials that can provide food for local gatherers and foragers free of cost. I think this idea may have been a natural one in an area that so amply provides the wonderful hardy (if invasive) perennial the Himalayan Blackberry. Most Seattleites are accustomed to harvesting berries from roadsides and parking lots every August, and some of them (like me when I lived there) are not averse to seeking out neglected apple or plum trees and helping ourselves. I love the idea of the Food Forest and I hope it flourishes.

On my own five acres, I'd like to eventually have something similar. I want to create a habitat for as many edible perennials as I possibly can. Mainly because once established, a perennial garden is WAY less work than an annual garden. So far, I have a pretty good orchard, two healthy rhubarb plants, a nice little strawberry patch, and a thriving if small raspberry patch. And of course there are the wild perennials - blackberries, mushrooms, dandelion, nettle, dock, thistle, and clover. All harvestable edibles which we take advantage of to one degree or another. Here are a few perennials I'm still missing which I'd like to establish:

- an asparagus bed. In one of those catalogues above there is a special deal - 15 asparagus crowns for only $7.00. I have not planted asparagus yet because I don't want to wait three years to start harvesting it - but by that logic I never will. So this is the year. I will give over one of the garden beds to asparagus permanently.

- grapes. I've tried grapes here twice before and they have died each time, but that's because a certain male person who shall remain unnamed repeatedly mowed the vines down with the weedeater. I'm going to try one more time - I'll use a locally adapted variant of the Concord called the Lyn-Blue. It's an eating and juice grape, but I don't much care about the eating quality because my main interest is in the leaves.

- hazelnuts. I have one thriving and beautiful hazelnut bush which flowers abundantly every year but which never produces any nuts. Obviously it needs a pollinator, but that is hard to come by as I don't know what variety my bush is. I'll have to buy two or three separate varieties of hazel and plant them all; that will assure that one of them at least will fertilize my well-grown bush. I hope.

- plums. Similar issue with a lovely Greengage Plum I planted years ago and which flowers every year but which has never set a single plum. I need top look up what the pollinator is and plant one.

I also have a yen for a few non-edibles this year. Looking through the catalogues, there are some great deals on trees - trees which do not produce food but which are still beautiful. We have a severe lack of trees on the property and personally I think it is the civic duty of everyone who has room to plant a few trees for posterity. I'm gong to try a couple of big old fashioned weeping willows and a couple of paper-white birches. And, of course, this year's Christmas Tree.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Sad Day (Breeding Gone Awry)

A likely looking buckling: Storm Cloud
To keep a buck or not to keep a buck is one of the major questions I struggle with. There are advantages and disadvantages to keeping your own buck  (see, for example,The King Must Die (Goat Breeding and Divine Kingship)) but the main advantage is not having to frantically search for a buck to rent every year, which can be a major hassle ( New To Farm Life: Unwelcome Drama in the Goat Breeding ...).  Accordingly, I have usually kept a buck around.

The next question is whether or not to let your buck run with the herd. Most goat folks will say not to do this, and after the story I am about to tell you, I have to agree. I have changed my mind. I always let my bucks run with the herd, truthfully because my fences have not been up to the task of keeping them separate. A buck who wants to get at does in heat is a very difficult animal to contain. Some people say a buck will harass the does until they are thin and sick; or that he will keep breeding a pregnant doe until she aborts. I haven't noticed that to be the case with my bucks. What any buck WILL do, however, is breed a doe at the earliest possible chance.

Nubians are generally seasonal breeders, meaning that they will not go into heat until the days begin to get shorter and the nights to get cooler, usually in early September around these parts. But if a doe goes in to heat early for some reason, no buck is going to stand around metaphorically twiddling his thumbs. He's going to blubber and pee on himself and strike ridiculous poses and breed that doe the second she'll stand still for it. And apparently, Polly went into heat in July this past summer.

The reason that you don't want your does pregnant in July - if you live in a place with wet, cold winters - is that you don't want baby goats born in January. They have a distressing tendency to die. Especially if the weather has been very wet and chilly. And most especially if you weren't expecting them, and therefore were not able to pen the mama goat up in the dry barn, and instead she gave birth in the middle of the night in the cold wet pasture. Then what will happen, 9 times out of 10, is that when you go outside to do the chores, you will find a couple of dead kids and a mama goat with a drum-tight udder.

Which is what happened here last friday. Homero found them. Twins; a buck and a doe, beautifully spotted and perfect, but cold, flat, and dead. I'm certain the poor little things were born live and just never stood up to nurse. If I had been there, they would almost certainly both be alive. I felt just awful - this is my fault for being lazy and slack about fencing, and not keeping good notes about when my does were bred, and not keeping close tabs on the mama goats regarding signs of pregnancy. Although to be fair to myself, it is often very difficult to tell when these large bodied Nubians are pregnant until the udders fill up a day before kidding.

It also so happened that when Homero came inside to tell me about the babies, I was just finishing up packing for a long-weekend vacation we were taking to Victoria. For the first time in years, we were all going together, all five of us. I had arranged for friends to take the dogs and we were simply going to leave the large animals with extra hay and water. There would be nobody at home at all to care for Polly.

Polly was fine - the birth didn't seem to be hard on her at all - but she would lose her milk if no-one milked her. Of course we didn't want her to lose her milk for OUR sake - that would make this breeding season a dead loss - but I was also worried about just leaving her to dry up on her own, without supervision. The vet said, when I called, that most times they will dry up just fine on their own, but they should always be watched for signs of mastitis. We were supposed to leave to go catch the boat in just a few hours, and the tickets were non-refundable (of course).

Desperate, I put the word out on the Facebook Farmer's group. I said I know it was an insane request, but I had to try - could anybody take my goat for a few days and keep her in milk for me? To my surprise and relief, no fewer than three other goat owners offered within minutes. My neighbor M., who was already caring for my elderly dog, was one of them. So we bundled the goat, the stanchion, and a bag of alfalfa pellets into the van and brought them all over, gave her a crash-course in milking, and thanked her profusely. Then we went to Victoria and had a perfectly lovely time.

I bitch a lot about technology but it really is wonderful to be part of this Facebook group of local farmers and neighbors. Ten years ago I would have been shit out of luck, and would have stayed home milking my goat while my husband and kids went to the Royal B.C. museum and the bug zoo without me. Being part of this community is a privilege and a responsibility - surely it is my turn next to help in any goat-related emergencies.