We’ve got goat troubles … and it’s the chickens’ fault. Maybe it’s a bit unfair to blame the chickens but if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here trying to figure out what to do with an ornery, head-butting pygmy goat named Oscar. So in my angst-ridden state I’m holding them responsible. Okay, partially responsible.
It all started back last October when we finally got around to cleaning years of previous owners’ junk out of the barn. We had a great set-up – a few goat pens, a large horse stall and two areas to keep poultry – but no livestock.
So like many new country folk, we decided to get us some chickens. Because it was fall already, it was too late to place a chick order so I went online to look for some laying hens.
Not long afterwards, I found a lady willing to sell us 10 mature barred rocks, Rhode Island reds and black rock hens.
We brought them home and within days we were collecting tasty, rich and gorgeous eggs from our girls.
(Editor Hank Will and fellow blogger Paul Gardener have both recently written about raising your own chickens here and here. If you’re still thinking about it, I suggest you get off the fence and contact your local hatchery!)
About a week later, the lady who sold us the chickens emailed me to ask I’d be interested in buying a six-month-old male pygmy goat. Although Billy was still intact (as in, a fully capable male goat) she said he was very friendly and not at all aggressive.
I admit it – I’ve always loved goats, especially the little ones. Yes, my only exposure to them before moving to the farm was in petting zoos (there’s my disclaimer, right there), but I’ve always loved their personality. But that’s not a good enough reason to buy one, I reasoned, as we are not ourselves a petting zoo. So I decided to do some research.
I discovered that although pygmy goats are only 16 to 23 inches tall at the withers and does weigh approximately 55 pounds, pygmies can produce as much as four pounds of milk a day (equal to half a gallon) or 600 to 700 pounds a year, quite enough for a homesteading family of four.
Since one of the reasons we moved to the farm was to become more self-reliant, raising goats seemed like a good way to ensure a steady supply of goat milk and cheese. While purebred dairy goats such as Nubians and Saanens produce a much greater quantity of milk (averaging 1600 pounds annually), they are larger, require more space and more feed. Plus, registered proven producers (milkers) would be significantly more expensive.
Because we had absolutely no experience raising goats, we decided to try the economy version first.
But the question remained, should we buy Billy? I know there’s a lot more to selecting an animal for breeding than upbringing – pedigree and conformation are key but again, we’re just getting started here. The sticking point was, did we really want a buck?
While intact male goats start out as lovely little creatures, they quickly mature into bucks with somewhat objectionable habits, smell being the least of them. I mean, once you learn that a buck likes to spray his own beard and forelegs with urine, you may think twice about owning one. I know I did.
Finally, we decided to go ahead with it. We’d buy Billy now and get a doe in the spring and we’d go through one breeding cycle and see how things went.
We weren’t able to get Billy right away so in the meantime, I found another pygmy goat for sale: this one a three-year-old wether, or a castrated male.
I thought that it would be a good idea to get a wether as a companion for Billy. Goats are herd creatures and don’t do great on their own and once Billy matured, he’d be off limits to our future girls.
So on a cold, sunny day in November, my daughter and I brought home Oscar.
I liked Oscar immediately. He was inquisitive and friendly and took to following me around the barnyard like a puppy. While it was endearing at the time, that was probably a sign of things to come. I hadn’t bought livestock – I’d brought home a pet and a pet isn’t what I bargained for.
A few days after arriving at the farm, we tried introducing Oscar to the donkeys (they came after the chickens.)
Already we’d heard the coyotes circling the farm and we wanted to have predator protection in place before adding anyone else to the barnyard. Let’s just say it didn’t go well.
Cinder, the older and more sensible of the two, didn’t much mind Oscar. Lee, the younger and more insecure donkey, laid into Oscar like a fury, sending him cart-wheeling across the barnyard. It was unexpected and truly dreadful. We put the donkeys in the back paddock and tended to Oscar’s bruised ego.
Worried about what we were getting into, we were relieved when the chicken lady decided to keep Billy. That was fine with us because breeding was farthest from our mind at that moment.
But then a few weeks later, along came Lucy and Sam.
We purchased Lucy, another three-year-old pygmy goat, and her two-month-old baby that we named Sam, from a less than scrupulous owner. The idea was that Oscar would now have a companion (he was starting to show signs of stress and anxiety that we assumed was because he was an only goat), and we could keep Sam intact and have our own buck.
While we hoped the addition of Lucy and Sam would reduce Oscar’s growing agitation, it seemed only to heighten it. Although we kept them in adjoining pens for the first few weeks (we’d now moved everyone into the barn, out of the harsh winter weather) he became even more aggressive, not less.
Then the aggression turned on us. All my sources say that wethers were supposed to be docile and friendly but whenever we went into Oscar’s pen to collect his water bowl, he’d growl, head-butt and even once tried to down me. It left me with a nasty bruise and a growing worry that something was wrong. But what should we do about it?
The vet told us to take him to the sales barn. My dad offered to eat him. I even tried to sell him privately. But none of these options seemed to assuage my guilt that we’d failed. If only we’d done something more or differently, if only we weren’t so inexperienced, he wouldn’t have turned on us. (Looking back, he did seem pretty high-strung and codependent for a goat, right from the very beginning.)
So here I am today, learning my first lesson in animal husbandry – what to do with an animal you no longer want. I’m finding it a hard decision to make (now’s probably a good time to disclose that I’m a vegetarian – I’m something of an oddity around here), but it’s the first of many if we decide to continue raising goats or any animal.
If 50 percent of goats born are male, our options are: castrate every one of them and open a petting zoo (not an option), sell them privately (which may be harder to do with animals that are neither registered nor proven), butcher them or sell them to a sale barn (where someone else in turn will probably butcher them.)
It’s not like I didn’t know we’d have to dispose of excess animals even before we got into this goat business. I’m all about paying your own way around here and if you’re not contributing then you’re taking away from making this farm sustainable. I’ve even said it myself that once our chickens are done laying, they’re headed for the soup pot.
It’s just there’s this disconnect: the self-reliant side of me that knows full well that livestock are not pets (repeat after me: livestock are not pets) and that I can’t keep every single one of them; and the other side of me that has a soft-spot for four-legged creatures.
Maybe it’s time to get out of goats, but the barn would sure be empty without them. We’d miss out on our own milk and cheese too. Seems like a pretty high price to pay for my squeamishness.
So if anyone has any perspective or advice to share with this greenhorn, I’d love to hear it. Should I stick to growing vegetables or does culling animals, even the cute furry ones, get easier?
Read more about our early adventures in homesteading at Rowangarth Farm.