Monday, January 3, 2011

It's Not My Goat

As a farmer, one of the most mortifying things that can happen is to unexpectedly encounter mortality (dead livestock) with visitors to the farm, especially city folk or vegans. Anyone who has ever raised livestock for any length of time can tell tales of inopportune attrition—a mutilated hen whose leg became wedged in the roost and was pecked to death by her flockmates discovered by the local kindergarten’s field trip or the ewe who drags a dead lamb behind her still in the shredded placenta hanging from her bloody hindquarters as she trots up to the fence for a treat from the neighbors’ grandchildren.

Old and infirmed animals take it upon themselves to keel over when a neighbor or friend is keeping an eye on things on those rare occasions when I actually leave the farm for more than 24 hours. “Hello, Sandy? Uh, I hate to tell you this but there’s a big brown goat I think is dying.” The call from my farm sitter came as I was in the midst of selling freshly cut local Christmas trees in the heart of Washington, D.C. I worried that asking my friend to go get the .22 and put the old boy out of his misery might have been too much. Looking back, I can only imagine what my District customers thought as I juggled their transactions with my conversation arranging for a neighbor handy with guns to go over and humanely dispatch the aged buck.

“Can you go over to my place and kill a goat? He’s down hard in the shelter behind the barn.”

“All Fraser Firs are $75.”

“No, just leave him where you shoot him. I’ll take care of it when I get back.”

“Yes, I have twine you can use to tie the tree on top of your car. These boys will help.”

“Really? If you could field dress him and just leave him hang on the butcher pole, that would be awesome.”

"That big Douglas Fir is going to look awesome in your house and make it smell like Christmas.”

As a single woman, I can also attest that the embarrassment of a dead body increases exponentially in the presence the opposite sex. “I’m sorry, but I need to take care of the 200 pound calf who put his head under the electric high tensile fence straddling the water tank, drown and is now fouling the rest of the herd’s drinking water before we can go to the movies,” was not the high point of my re-entry into the dating scene.

Nor was having a weekend guest from the city finding the intact male stray pot-belly pig I picked up along the road humping a doe in the quarantine pen who was infected with meningeal deer worm (a debilitating, but non-contagious malady) I had been nursing back to health. “What is that pig doing to that goat?” I knew by the incredulous tone in his voice that the little horny bastard was grinding the poor gal into the ground. Despite moving her into an isolated pen, she was dead when we went out to do chores the next morning and the urbanite graciously helped me drag her body over to the compost pile.

Unlike finding an animal in distress which requires immediate attention, finding something dead affords one the luxury of putting your head down, mumbling a lame excuse and then quickly ushering the witness elsewhere.

Last year I began removing the invasive shrubs and vines down by the creek using the goats at the suggestion of a good friend who specializes in land use. “Why aren’t you using your land? You could be feeding goats and enhancing the view of your wetlands.” He made a good point so embarked on the challenge and spent the winter clearing paths for the electric netting through the dense brush. Spring brought on a thicket of honeysuckle, locust, poison ivy and briers.

Throughout the summer and into the fall, the goats did their jobs voraciously. What they didn’t eat, they tramped down or pushed over. By the end of November, the browse paddocks were no longer viable for the herd nor did I want my goats in the wooded areas during deer season. However, the electric netting remained as it was low on my list of priorities.

Any farmer who has ever used electric netting will tell you that there is always at least one stupid critter who fails to respect the stinging zap of electricity and will proceed to get ensnared in the twisted strands of plastic and wire. Sometimes it’s our fault…we forget to clip the netting to the charger or let the pastures and weeds grow up enough to short out the netting. Regardless, animals just know the minute the juice is off.

Understanding this, I’m on four to six hour patrol cycle anytime anything with four legs is exposed to electric netting. And under no circumstances do I ever leave the farm when browsing with temporary paddocks. That’s a 100% guarantee for some furry moron to get tangled, loose or both since a struggling animal usually takes down a section of netting. When the rest of the herd investigates the ruckus, they gleefully take the opportunity to prove that the browse is better on the other side of the fence.

During a holiday visit from my friend who originally suggested using the goats to clean up the brush, we took a walk down to the cleared area so I could show him how effectively they did their job. There it was, a dead goat snarled by the horns in the electric netting.

I hadn’t been down in that area for weeks. With the bitter cold temperatures of the previous month, decomposition was nonexistent. Still, I was left wondering how on earth I could have possibly committed such an egregious oversight. I was embarrassed and heartbroken because from the bare circle of hoof prints in the mud it was obvious the animal had struggled for some time before succumbing to the elements.

Not wanting to untangle the horns from the wicked bird nest of netting around the dead animal's horns and drag the carcass up to the compost pile in front of my friend, I defaulted into muttering an excuse, leaving it to be dealt with later.

Mortality in the warmer months of year sucks. It’s a gut-churning experience complete with the stench of decomposition and a bazillion maggots (which the Great Pyrenees will inevitable roll in). Nothing like grabbing the limb of a bloated body only to have it tear off in your hand when you give it a heave. Winter makes dead animals much more tolerable—no stink, no bugs and they remain intact during transit to the compost pile.

As the temperature started rising, I knew I had to deal with the dead goat or risk having an even bigger mess. So on New Year’s Day, I trekked down over the hill through the pines to remove the carcass and take down the remaining electric netting fence lines so no more animals--domestic or wild--would fall victim to a similar fate. Call it a working holiday.

Dealing with death is depressing, especially when it comes at the hand of your own stupidity and ignorance. But if you’re going to farm with livestock, it’s going to happen one way or another on a regular basis. Filled with sadness, I knelt in the thin layer of mud that had melted in the afternoon sun and began the gruesome task of freeing the lifeless body while trying not to further damage the fencing. I chided myself for not bringing a bow saw to cut off the horns so I could just slip off the netting.

“Wait a minute,” I thought upon closer inspection of the goat. Sure, it had a white body with a brown head as many of my Boer-cross meat goats have, but this one had a USDA Scrapie tag in its ear. I don’t tag unless it’s absolutely necessary and male goats are rarely tagged. Next, there was a double-strand of orange baling twine knotted around its neck in a makeshift collar—something I would never leave on a goat in heavy brush. Plus, I only put collars on polled animals and this one had a fairly large set of horns.

“It’s not my goat,” I said out loud as if to justify myself to some imaginary witness. One of the true joys of rural living is you can act like an ass and scream at the top of your lungs without people thinking you should be medicated or committed.

“It’s not my goat!” I shouted over and over while jumping up and down in great relief. I felt redeemed.

Then it hit me. A few weeks earlier a neighbor down the road pulled in my driveway and asked me to keep an eye out for a loose goat that wasn’t mine. By virtue of having a herd of goats, anytime there is a goat at large within a mile radius of the farm, my neighbors and passers-by automatically assumes it’s one of mine. I’ve had strange goats show up in my herd from time to time from nearby escapees, but none I didn’t recognized had recently joined the ranks.

I had written her telephone number on the blackboard in the barn just in case I did come across the errant caprine.

“Hey, it’s Sandy from up the road. I found your goat. Yes, I’m sorry he was dead. No, you don’t have to come get him, I took care of it. Happy New Year to you, too.”


  1. I couldn't imagine that you would not know one of your own was unaccounted for!

  2. Nice writing Sandy, but you already knew that! Glad you are blogging again!