Our first real farming season together was about to begin. It was March 2011, and I was now full time on the farm! It felt surreal to not quickly breeze through the morning chores and head out the door to drive to a job. I was now working from home, at our farm, finally living my dream. It was overwhelming in some ways; all the things to do, all the time of the day and days of the week to do it in. There would be no more rush jobs, we could savor and soak it all up, and orchestrate our days to get so much more done than ever before.
Babies of both flora and fauna were essential to getting our plans in action. Thousands of seeds were started in our livingroom, and we ordered 20 day old turkey poults from a local hatchery who would deliver them directly to our feedstore. The poults arrived and we set them up in a brooder in our bathroom. The little fluffballs were adorable and they filled the house with their cheerful sing-song calls. We planned to keep them inside for about 4 weeks and then move them to a larger sheltered pen once the weather warmed up. They would be raised on organic grain and pasture through the spring and summer, and marketed as “Summer Turkeys.” We figured we loved eating Thanksgiving so much, why not raise turkeys for earlier harvesting and encourage customers to buy our delicious turkey in the summer, for grilling turkey kebabs, making turkey sausage, and roasted turkey sandwiches.
Before dawn the next morning, I got up to check on the new turkeys and found 3 had died. There is nothing like losing babies right away to start the old “worry wheel.” What were we doing, hoping to raise animals safely, how would we make it, we’re going to have to get jobs again. Saddened and disheartened, I tried to bolster myself with a cup of coffee on the porch as the sun came up, before going out to collect duck eggs. I listened to the sounds of spring beginning, the breeze blowing tree branches against the porch, the various migratory song birds singing as they stopped by on their routes, the blue jays and the crows calling back and forth, and then I heard a very distinctive sound that tugged at my heart strings- I heard the cry of a baby goat.
I leapt out of my rocker, collected the essentials -iodine, a shot glass and a towel, pulled on my muck boots and ran to the goat shed. As I opened the latch and heaved the gate over the snow that was in the way, I saw that the goats were all standing outside the shed, looking inward. As I entered to see what they were looking at, Metallika called to me with her special greeting, saying “Look what I did!” My LaMancha doe had 3 little wet baby goats at her feet! They were simply gorgeous, with their momma’s tiny ears, and colored in variations of their father’s distinctive Boer markings- reddish heads and white bodies. As I toweled them off and dunked their navels in the iodine, Momma watched patiently as I discovered she had kidded 2 girls and a boy. I could not believe she had three babies all at once, she had not looked that hugely pregnant! This was her 4th year having kids, and she’d always had twins until now.
The triplets were soon toddling around on their tiny hooves in the hay, and nuzzling momma’s udder for their first slurps of colostrum. Anytime one of the other goats approached, Metallika made a funny growl moan sound at them, warning them to back off and step away from her babies. She was protective and such a very good mother. I went into the house to get a bucket of hot molasses-laced water to fill her up with the heat that had left her body when her kids were born. She guzzled it down greedily, and now that she had space in her belly again, she began voraciously eating hay to get her rumen back to 100% function. She had a lot of milk to make, to feed her 3 vigorous kids.
The next goat I thought was due to have her kids was Desti, but she was hanging onto her babies for a while, fooling me along. Desti had been given to me by a woman who had been widowed with 4 children, and was losing her place in the country. When she approached me, how could I say no? Her goat named “Destiny” was scrawny, but very sweet, a lanky Nubian with horns and an odd shape. The following 2 years of kidding, Desti would look enormously pregnant for weeks, and I’d be on the edge of my seat, waiting, waiting for the babies to come. She was kind of like the boy who called wolf, and once I stopped paying attention, the next day Desti would have her kids.
Trixie, the very pretty and feisty 1 year old daughter of Metallika, was showing no definitive signs that she was pregnant. She had been the target of much aggression by Cedar over the winter, even bearing a scar above her udder from one of his horns. After Cedar was “dealt with,” MayMay took his place as the premier bully of the goat herd. She had big horns with which she could reign in terror over the more passive and junior goats. I knew this would happen, I just didn’t know to what extent it might affect things.
One beautiful afternoon, as I was going to check on the triplets and see if Desti was getting closer to kidding, I saw May take aim at Trixie, who’s head was deep in the hay manger. As I yelled NOOOOO, May nailed Trixie right in her side, right where her babies would be, if she was pregnant. Afterwards, Trixie seemed ok, just knocked down a rank on the goat ladder yet again. Later that day I came out to the goat shed and found her licking off tiny, tiny, way-too-tiny twins. I had never seen goats this small, they were like porcelain figurines, beautiful, perfectly formed and barely alive. I lifted them into my jacket and ran them into the house, cursing that I had witnessed who caused this premature labor- May, what a horrible, terrible goat!
Inside, the light tan colored doeling stopped breathing and I attempted to do CPR, hardly understanding how these tiny premies had even hung on to life at all, certainly their lungs couldn’t have been fully developed at their kitten-like size. Their eyes weren’t even open yet. The doeling did not revive after CPR, but the little boy tried to hang on. As Andrew held a blow dryer on the buckling to try to warm him up, I warmed some colostrum and used a tube feeding syringe to quickly get the warm nourishment to his belly. It seemed to help, but shortly thereafter, he died as well. What a horrible tragedy. Things were not going well in the goat department.
That traumatic day, we lost more turkey babies too, a total of 8 out of the original 20. While baby turkeys are known to be extra fragile, this number of casualties was much higher than normal. We had a perfect brooder set up, and it wasn’t our first time raising turkeys, so we called the hatchery. It turned out they had sent the turkeys through the mail, and had not delivered them directly to the feedstore as they’d said they would. All baby birds are extremely sensitive to cold air, but since we’d been assured the turkeys would not go through the post office, we’d felt safe getting them that early in the cold spring. It was angering that the hatchery had put these little precious lives at such risk, and to be honest, at $5 a piece, losing 8 was a financially painful loss for our farm business, not only for their pricetag, but for the loss of potential sales. The hatchery said they’d replace the turkeys who had perished in a couple weeks, and that would set back our time schedule for harvesting our summer turkeys.
Catalpa, a mild mannered and beautiful Nubian, was one of the first goats to be born at my old place. She’d had a beautiful baby the spring previous, and now her udder was filling, so I was pretty sure she had kids growing inside. One morning I found her backside looking as though she may have given birth, but there were no new baby goats anywhere in the shed. I looked around in the paddock, in case she’d had them out there and become confused. No baby goats anywhere, but upon closer examination in the shed, I found something bloody in the hay. With the pitchfork, I lifted it up and saw what looked to be an embryonic baby goat. Looking more closely in the hay, I saw another one. So, it seemed that she had aborted her kids. I can only guess that May did the same thing to Catalpa that she had done with Trixie- just this time I hadn’t witnessed it. Trixie and Catalpa’s udders had filled after delivering, so I began milking them every 12 hours, feeling odd doing it, but not wanting to let their milk go to waste. This was why we had pregnant goats in the first place- to milk them. Catalpa was used to the routine of milking and recovered fully. Trixie was more traumatized, and we developed a strong bond as she adopted me as her “baby goat” while I milked her, since she didn’t know what it was like to nurse her own babies.
Desti started acting lethargic, which is never a good sign in late pregnancy. I moved her over to a separate side of the shed to keep her safe from May, the baby killer. I gave Desti extra kelp and grain, and hot molasses water everyday to help keep her nutrient levels up. Ketosis can occur when the calcium levels drop in the mother’s bloodstream, as the babies forming draw everything they need from their mother, and this can be deadly if the momma doesn’t have enough to keep herself going, first and foremost. The extra TLC worked, and she finally had her kids, a pair of gorgeous twins with patchwork colors.
May grew enormous and had twin girls a week later, but as cute and healthy as her 2 daughters were, I resented their mother for the cruelty she had shown Trixie and most likely Catalpa as well. In a battle of survival of the fittest, May had won. The natural world was showing itself to not be idyllic whatsoever. Every day on the farm was proving to be full of trials, trouble, tribulations, as well as full of beauty and promise. We had to bury goat kids and baby turkeys, but we also had vivacious and strong survivors as well. Already we were learning that nothing on the farm would be happening as we’d planned on paper.