By River Stillwood
Shortly after buying the house, I bought a herd of goats. A couple of years after moving to the homestead, I’d sworn off goat ownership. By then, I’d spent two years chasing ten dairy goats out of my garden, feed shed, chicken coop, horse pasture, cabin, outhouse and off the top of my Jeep. I used six-foot high two-by-four welded wire fencing and hot wire and padlocks to keep them in their enclosure. But they got out. No matter how stout the fence, how secure the closure, the determined goats got out.
And then they pillaged. And ransacked. If I had planted it, they ate it. If I had paid for it, they tried to destroy it. Still, I did all I could to contain the goats, to build a working relationship with them. I had tried bargaining, I tried shouting, I tried cajoling them. I tried bribing them with sweet feed. Still they refused to stay in their enclosure. Still they escaped. Finally at wit’s end, I traded them for three hair sheep and discovered a peace I’d not known since bringing the goats to my land.
Time, like water, dulls even the sharpest points. As the years went by, the wrath that spiked in my bosom at the mere sight of a goat mellowed, softened, turned into a mix of light-hearted humor and sweet nostalgia. Sure, the goats wreaked havoc, I thought, but they were just being goats. Goats in the woods with poor fencing. It wasn’t their fault, I thought. It was mine.
Then, when was exploring the twenty acre woods behind the stone house and found my passage blocked by thick briars and brambles, I immediately forgot about my experience with goats and immediately decided to buy enough head to turn my little forest into an idyllic park-like setting, complete with cleared pathways and lollypop trees.
To my good fortune (or so I thought at the time), I found an entire herd for sale. Twenty-five goats in all. Meat goats this time. Boers and Boer crosses. Most were kids and young adults. About half intact billies. Four were older, seasoned nannies. One was so old and decrepit she could barely walk or chew her food. I bought them all.
Although I knew the old one would die shortly after bringing her to the farm, I couldn’t bear to leave her without her herdmates, to die alone. So, along she came. She died four days after being moved here, surrounded by her goat family.
There was another nanny who was younger, but puny. She died, too, the day after the old goat gave up the ghost. By the end of the week, many of the other goats started to look weak. When two little billies developed bottle jaw, it was clear that all of the goats were wormy. Very wormy. Wormy enough to be fatally infested.
I spent three evenings corralling them between two horse panels and drenching them, one by one, with Ivomec (Cydectin, another potent wormer, isn’t safe for pregnant does. The woman who sold them to me had mentioned that the billies had gotten in with the does and that all the does were likely pregnant). I also gave them B12 shots and the next day a healthy dose of antibiotics.
After that, the goats perked up. They became more active, ate more hay and sweet feed and goat mineral. They played and slept and ate and did all the things goats do.
Bless their gentle hearts, they didn’t even try to escape the enclosure I kept them in until I got the pasture fully fenced.
I thought that I’d gotten whatever it was that ailed them. That all would be well from then on. How wrong I was.
Kidding season arrived. I was excited! Nine of the does were pregnant, five obviously with twins, two perhaps with triplets. “There are going to be a lot of kids populating the farm,” I thought joyously. I could hardly wait.
One day at the end of January, I went to Bert and Dean’s. (Bert and Dean, if you don’t already know, are Bert and Dean Scherer. One doesn’t often use surnames when referring to family and Bert and Dean have – by mutual adoption – become family. So, I’ve fallen into the habit of referring to them by their first names only. Please forgive any confusion). Whatever we did that day was wonderful as all days spent with them are. However, when I returned and checked on the animals, I found that one of the nannies had given birth and neither of her kids had lived to see their first sunset.
I was heartbroken, as was the mother. These were her first kids. I’m not sure how much she understood the pregnancy process or the finality of her children’s deaths. Several times while caring for the bodies, then feeding all of the animals, she called for them. In the haunting silence of an unanswered prayer, she received no answer.
That night I called Bert, told her about the kids. “That happens sometimes,” she said. “Especially to new mothers.”
A frosty, windy morning a few days later, I went to the barn and began the usual feeding routine. When I brought sweet feed into the goats, I found another dead newborn lying in the straw. A doeling. I burst into tears. Her body was still warm. I’d missed her birth by minutes. “If onlys” ran through my mind as I carried the little one out of the goat enclosure. Just as I reached the gate, I heard the tender cry of a newborn. Spinning around, I glanced at the spot from which the sound had come. Tucked warmly next to the hay feeder was a second newborn kid, this one very much alive and fluffy and curious. His mother was resting beside him. He and she were well.
I called Bert again, told her about the twins separated at birth by life and death. “That sometimes happens, too,” she said. “Especially when it’s cold.”
A few days after that, two more kids were born. They survived the birth, but were weak and unable to stand or nurse. I held them up to their very patient mother. The little doeling grew stronger. The billy did not. I brought him into the house and cared for him for the next twenty-four hours. At dawn, he seemed stronger. I left him to check on his sister. She had died in the night. When I returned after caring for her body and feeding the animals, he, too, had passed.
“There’s something wrong,” I told Bert.
“Maybe,” she said, but again, the kids were delivered by a first time mother. “Or maybe her milk just didn’t come in.”
It hadn’t. Not in abundance any way. I knew for certain because I’d milked her so I could bottle feed colostrum to the billy. Her milk was very thick and sparing.
All went well for the next few days. No new births. All the mothers-to-be healthy and strong. The three surviving kids growing and gaining energy.
Then Bert and Dean and I went to Springfield for medical checkup and a fun dinner out. It was another terrific day. We got home late in the afternoon, exhausted and happy. A smile lingered on my face as I headed for the barn. A smile that was quickly wiped away. There, in the goat enclosure were newborn triplets, all dead.
I fell to my knees in front of them and cried.
When I called Bert, she said, “I saw them as we were pulling out of your place.”
“Two of them were still in their birthing sacs,” I said.
“I know, she said. “There’s something wrong with your goats. You need to call the vet in the morning.”
Bert was right and I did. After telling the vet everything I’ve just told you, she said that it’s likely the goats have chlamydophilosis, an incurable disease that causes stillbirths and weak kids. Or, they could have leptospirosis, another incurable disease (at least in goats. Cattle suffering from it fair better). Unfortunately, the only tests that can be done to see if it is chlamydophilosis or “lepto” require a fresh placenta or fetus and are only accurate 25-percent of the time. Likely, I’ll never know the cause, or when the goats became infected.
I asked the vet what I could do to help the five remaining pregnant does and their unborn kids. “Give them the subcutaneous injections of Terramycin,” she said. “That’s really all you can do.”
So, that’s what I’m doing. Giving them (and the rest of the adults in the herd) Terramycin shots, plus plenty of healthy food, clean water, free access to goat minerals, and all the care I can. The rest is out of my hands.
Fortunately, there is still hope. Four does, three likely sets of twins and a single yet to come… There is still a lot of hope!