Saturday, April 5, 2014
Iris, above, is the first goat I bought when I moved here. I was hurting for goats; I couldn't wait. Goats, as far as I was concerned, were the whole point of pulling up stakes and moving from the city to the countryside. It was late summer when we moved in, and late fall by the time I had bought a barn (Home Depot's largest model), put in fencing, and was ready to buy an animal. Not wanting to deal with breeding the first year, I looked for a pregnant goat.
Craigslist, as usual, was my vehicle. I put up an ad saying I wanted to buy a pregnant dairy goat - breed unimportant - and was soon answered by a local woman with a bred Nubian doe. She wanted an inordinate amount of money - $300! - but I was taken with goat fever and I simply decided to lie to my husband about how much I was spending. He has no idea what a good goat is worth, I rationalized. As it turns out, that woman actually runs a well-respected farm and her goats win prizes all over the tri-state area, but I had no way of knowing that at the time. Nor did the pedigree matter to me - she offered me Iris' papers for an extra $50 but I said no thanks, not thinking it would ever be important to prove her ancestry. I'm a homesteader, I said, not a goat breeder.
That was rather a dumb decision, I have since come to understand. For $50, I could have a herd of registered animals now, and each and every one of them would be regarded as quality breeding stock, allowed to be shown at agricultural fairs, and valued at some 25-50% higher than unregistered animals. Instead, I have a herd of beautiful, healthy animals, from good milking stock, and bred for hardiness, but only suitable for the smaller market of people who don't care about registries. It means I sell a lot of quality animals for meat instead of for show.
Nonetheless, Iris has earned her price many times over. That first year, she threw us twins, and one of them, Flopsy, I have to this day. Flopsy, in turn, has given us many kids over the years, including our prize buck. If I were to add up the value of all that Iris has provided in livestock, meat, and milk over the years - something I could theoretically do but not at this time of night - it would be a lot of money. Totally aside from her monetary worth, Iris is a great goat - smart, personable, and attractive.
She is getting on in years, however. A year and a half old when we bought her, she is now about eight. Goats live to something like thirteen, and they can theoretically keep producing until they keel over of old age. Iris is healthy, and she had a year off from kidding last year when we were in Mexico. When we brought in the buck, Paxton, last fall, he went for Iris first of all the does. He bred her within thirty seconds of entering the pasture, so it's clear she is still a fertile animal.
This spring, however, the other two does kidded first. Oh well, I thought, Iris must not have caught pregnant on the first go-round - I'll expect babies in a few weeks. I started to watch her. For a while, I was confused. I had been certain she was pregnant - like the other does, she got thick in the middle and developed a biscuity tail (that means that the skin of her tail got puffy and soft - a sign of early pregnancy). But after the other does kidded, Iris didn't seem to be developing at all - in fact, she was getting thinner. Her udder stayed stubbornly small and floppy. I couldn't figure it out at all and began to doubt she was even pregnant.
Finally, about a week ago, her udder began to fill out, which is unmistakable proof of advanced pregnancy. Usually, when the udder fills, you have only a few days until birth. But Iris' udder got bigger and bigger. Her belly got bigger and bigger. She was so poofy and huge she could barely walk. Her tail ligaments disappeared and her distal spine lifted up. Deep hollows appeared below her hipbones as the babies dropped lower and lower. I started to lock her in the mama barn at night, but every morning when I went out early to check, there was Iris, staring at me - no kids.
I had advertised her kids for sale on Craigslist, and a woman had already answered me with an offer to buy any doelings. She wrote me every day - are they here yet? No, I said, but I'm pretty sure today's the day. Night before last, I locked her in the barn as usual at evening feed, but I forgot to tip the milking stand on its side. I do that so that she won't be able to get up on the stand, stand on her hind legs, and reach the sack of grain stored on the tippy-top shelf, nine feet above the floor. So of course, that's what she did. When I went out first thing in the morning, expecting to see baby goats, instead I saw a lot of liquid excrement all over the place.
In case you don't know, when a goat overeats grain, she gets what's known as overeating disease (Enterotoxemia (Overeating Disease) of Sheep and Goats), or toxic rumen. To you and me, what that means is explosive diarrhea and massive amounts of gas. It's not a joke- goats can easily die of overeating disease - but Iris didn't get enough grain to be in serious trouble. Just enough to cause a lot of disgusting green liquid poo. Just what one wants when birth is imminent. I kept Iris locked inside the barn and bought a new bale of clean straw. I mucked out the poo-covered straw. I moaned and bitched and wailed and cursed the stupid goat. I wanted to beat her, but instead I brought out a pan of warm soapy water and a dozen rags and cleaned her rear end. Let nobody say I don't care about my goats.
All day I hung about, waiting. I brought a book out to the barn and sat down in the clean straw and read and waited. Iris was in serious distress, but I couldn't tell if it was labor or just intestinal distress from the diarrhea. Her udder continued to fill, and by four or five in the afternoon it was tight as a drum. That is an indication that the goat ought to kid within a few hours. I was waiting for the string of goo - which is, just as you probably guessed, a long string of mucus depending from the vagina. Once the string of goo appears, you want to see kids on the ground within an hour. No goo was forthcoming, but Iris was acting like a goat in active labor.
A goat in active labor will scratch at the ground, making a nest. She will often lay down and get up again, stretch, and yawn. Usually, she will stay standing until the final stages of labor, when she may lay down to push. She grunts and curls her lips in a very distinctive way. Normally, goats kid quickly, and the entire process ought not to take more than an hour or two from start to finish. I called the vet at 6 pm, because Iris had been getting up and laying down, stretching and rolling for about four hours. I was pretty certain that the kids were malpositioned.
The vet said it was time for me to go in and see what I could feel. Was the cervix open or shut? What was the presenting part? I put on some of my husband's thin black nitrile gloves, soaped up, and lay down on the wet straw behind Iris and inserted my hand.
I'm no expert. Over the years, I've had to pull kids several times, but until yesterday I'd never gone in before the water has broken. I would not have, but the vet said it was time. When it comes to birth - caprine or human - I am a big believer in standing back and letting nature take its course. I think we most often cause nothing but trouble when we interfere with a process honed by millions of years of evolution. In this case, I felt that her cervix was wide open and that I could feel the bag of waters easily, but that there was nothing firm inside it. I could feel no fetal part at all - not hooves, which would have been normal, nor a muzzle, nor even some blank wall of side or hip. Just an empty, squishy bag. Clearly, there was no kid in any position to be born.
I called the vet back and said "I think I better just leave her alone for a while. There's nothing I can do, those kids have to come around on their own."
Now, if any mothers are reading this, they may remember - as I do - that when somebody puts their hand inside you when you are already in labor, it provokes some serious contractions. My pelvic exam made poor Iris go into some hard core labor. Maybe that's what did it - I don't know. But in any case, Iris must have been busy while I was inside the house for a couple of hours. When I went back out at about 8 pm with a flashlight, there were two newborn babies on the ground. They had obviously been born mere minutes before. They hadn't yet stood up. I ran back to the house, yelling for Homero and the girls, and brought back clean towels and iodine.
The kids were both a little bit worse for wear, due to the long hard labor. The little girl, brown and white spotted just like her mama, had inhaled amniotic fluid and was snuffling and snorting. I didn't have a syringe to aspirate the fluid - not that I really knew how in any case. I briefly considered placing my mouth over her nose and aspirating old-school, but decided she'd probably live without any heroic measures. It seemed so, because she was the first one up, and managed to nurse without any help from me. Her brother, black with brown points and a white cap and ears, was the worse off between the two of them. He was shaky and weak and it took him a good half hour to stand up. A healthy baby ought to stand up within five minutes. I held him up and let him have at the teat; I knew that with a belly full of milk he'd be just fine for the night.
I don't like to see babies born late at night - the normal time seems to be early in the morning. I always wonder how they will figure out nursing without being able to see, but I realize that is a primate's prejudice. The little kids can smell and feel their way to the teat even in perfect darkness.
This morning, the babies were doing just fine. They had become all fluffy, as kids do when they are healthy, and both were standing and nursing without assistance. I think we are going to keep the little girl. I need a new doe - in another post I will detail my thinking on the health of the whole herd, but for the moment I'll just say I'm delighted to have a good looking spotted doling. The lady who wanted to buy a doling will just have to wait until next year.