Last summer, the boys and I packed up the Subaru, loaded the back with straw and drove over an hour to Kilpatrick Family Farm. Each time I have the opportunity to make this journey, I am inspired by the verdant fields, lush growth and creative animal care the farmers embody. Touring the farm as a CSA member, I first met the healthiest, happiest herd of goats I had ever seen. As they emerged from brush and forest to the call of their owner, I decided I would one day milk my own herd as well. That day, and on many repeated trips, I questioned Hannah Kilpatrick, seeking to learn all I would need to know. When we began to search for our homestead, the goats were an integral part of our plan.
After over a year of mental perpetration (yet still having little real idea of what livestock meant in our lives), it was time to pick up our new kids. At eight weeks old, they were recently weaned and much larger than I had expected! Having seen them a month before, I was amazed at how much they had grown.
Dubbed Gaia and Demeter, in honor of the mothering and life giving they would provide, our twin does were more akin to Pan! We packed threm into the back of the car and attempted to endure the ear-splitting song the serenaded us with on the way home.
We've learned a lot since then. Goats are social, loving animals. They truly enjoy our company! Curious and excited by new things, they create adventures, even when none exist.
From Hannah, I learned the basics of raising goats on pasture. They are foragers, enjoying browse more than grass, which is perfect for our brushy landscape. We purchased electro-netting and a solar fencer and refined our skills by moving the fence once a week. I had no idea what a big job this would be! Scott has given more than his fair share of time to this task, supporting my dream.
Electro-netting grounds out on tall grass or any plant matter that touches the wire. As a result, the area where the fence will stand must be cleared the ground level. Without a tractor, this means using clippers, loppers and a weed wacker to trim down all vegetation around the edges. The boys learned to help, rolling up the fence and setting poles. The poles must be stretched well to tighten the fence sufficiently. We all learned the dangers of a careless job, when the wires became hopelessly entangled.
The girls did an excellent job of clearing each pasture. They chewed down grass and brush, and grew and grew and grew. Soon, our fence was looking awfully small beside them. The autumn days began to grow shorter. The grasses began to turn dry and brown. With school in session, we moved the pasture once a week. Soon, this wasn't enough. They were hungry and bored.
One evening, I looked out of the kitchen window while making dinner. Two sweet goat faces stared back at me, calling “maaaaa, maaaaa”. I shooed them off the back porch table and brought them back to their pasture. So began a daily battle. We tried training them to the fence, moving the pasture more regularly, even supplementing with hay. Nothing worked. It was time to build a fence.
With the cold weather drawing near, we had been growing concerned. They needed a solid enclosure and a safe place for the winter. Now, it was urgent. Scott and I swallowed hard and pulled out our checkbook. After a great deal of research and several budgeting negotiations, we reluctantly released the ideal of beautiful wooden fences and settled for woven wire and t-posts.
We decided to repair an old shed on the property. We knew that previous owners had kept goats and it was evident this had been their shelter. Closed on three sides, with an additional windbreak wall to the west, it seemed it would work. The boys and I got to work, pulling out the trash and scraps that had piled up in the building prior to our purchase. We shoveled trash and old straw from the floor. Scott repaired holes in the walls and ensured the stability of the structure. Laying pallets on the ground, we created a floor. Two pallets on hinges formed a Dutch door.
After scouring the building with bleach, we had a barn! It was reclaimed and beautiful. Deep straw bedding added a layer of comfort for lounging (we tried, just to be sure). Scott installed a feeder, a mineral tray and a hook for a water bucket. The renovations were almost complete.
With a three-day weekend upcoming, we knew it was time to discover the wonders of fencing. Scott pounded t-poles and stretched the woven wire with a ratchet and the truck bumper. I unrolled the fencing along the posts, attempted to bend the crazy staples that hold the fence to the posts and shouted a lot of encouragement. Honestly, I think this homestead runs primarily on his strength and will.
Fencing is hard. By the end of the project, we were so happy for t-posts, despite the compromise.
Our goats have stayed round and happy through the winter. Through trial and error we've learned about good sources for hay. On warm days, they tear around the exercise yard, butting and leaping, making me laugh. I love that I can see them from the house.
With their gentleness and curiosity, they are wonderful companions! They greet me with quiet “maaa”s, nuzzling my hands to see what I've brought. They rejoice in a bucket of steaming water in the morning, drinking deeply, sounding as though they were sucking through a straw. They have learned to follow me, up the path from the barn and into the woods.
Without much forage, they seek what they can. The munch white pine as we pass, and have recently developed a taste for lichen. We have had a very light winter and in the times without snow, they often walk down the trail with mouthfuls of dried leaves.
Peacefull companions, they remain very aware of me and are always very close by. When I move on, they follow without hesitation. These walks have become a treasured part of my day.
This week, as I walk with the goats, my thoughts turn to spring pastures. We will need stronger fences and a better system for managing their forage. They are big enough to graze the underbrush in the woods now, though Scott is concerned about damaging the growth of our future woodlot trees, as they tend to eat saplings. The woods take on a new appearance, now, as I seek functionality in addition to beauty.
Despite the work, each animal brings such gifts to our lives. Next year we will be milking, which will change our lives dramatically, yet I look forward to the new routines and time with the goats. Everyone is looking forward to the treats we will make with the milk!