They’re also the most rewarding, heartbreaking portion of my farm experience.
When my wife and I were first looking at a roughly two-acre historic farm amid 80 field acres in unincorporated Washington County, Ore., we were introduced to the farm’s two goats by the owners. The goats, a young Boer goat named Star (which we’d later change to Nanny) and an old horned Cashmere named Billy, had a roughly half-acre pen to themselves and lived in a large former chicken coop that had been converted to a shed.
We were told by the owners that the goats were a contingency of sale: That either we took the goats, or we couldn’t have the farm. We agreed to take them, but neither of us were really sold until we began moving in and feeding them regularly. My wife works a few blocks up from the farm and, each day, would bring a few boxes of our belongings to the house and put a few leaves of alfalfa in the feeder in their shed.
I didn’t get acquainted with them until we’d moved in completely in February 2013, and was frankly a little put off by them: Their rectangular pupils made them appear dead inside, and their pellet droppings seemingly had no regard for anyone in the immediate vicinity. But the goats appeared easy enough to feed and entertain: Just a few leaves of alfalfa each day and topping off their water buckets about every other day or so. It wasn’t until the alfalfa began to run out about a month later that we got into some of the logistics of feeding goats.
Finding more alfalfa meant getting acquainted with our local farm store, Coastal Farm & Ranch in Cornelius, Ore. Knowing nothing about how I was supposed to feed them, I went down and simply asked for their recommendation. The salespeople recommended alfalfa each day, but also noted that we should let them forage in the pasture throughout the summer.
With alfalfa bales here going for about $14 apiece, we picked up five ($60), but used them sparingly during the summer. When it occurred to us that we had no idea what kind of health they were in, we called the vet that the previous owners had recommended, Banks Veterinary Service, and asked them to come have a look. Banks Vet is a rural vet familiar with goats, sheep, horses, and other livestock, and the vet who came out showed me how to play a sort of zone defense against the goats to wrangle them and hold them still for hoof trimming and vaccination. The cost of that visit, about $160, would become at least an annual expense.
The vet informed us that our restricted alfalfa diet had left the goats much more gaunt than they should be, so they recommended a mix of sweet grain feed (Stock and Stable, $13.19 per 50-pound bag) and rice pellets ($11.99 per 40-pound bag). She also recommended that we re-bed their shed with fresh hay before winter, which we did one early November afternoon with five bales of straw ($10.49 apiece).
This kept our goats happy through the season, as did a whole lot of organic leftovers like banana peels, cucumber skins, pepper cores, and lettuce hearts that we’d collect in the refrigerator throughout the week. Our “goat bowls” of organic waste helped us reduce garbage to roughly one bag a week between the two of us, with other organics like egg shells and coffee grounds going to the compost bin.
We had our first bout of bad luck in 2014, when Billy suddenly began laying down in the pasture in late winter and not getting up. With his head curling backward and his legs seemingly unable to support him anymore, we called the vet for advice. They recommended giving him aspirin for the pain and assessing his condition over the next three days. When that condition didn’t improve, we brought him to the vet in our 1984 Ford F-250 that also came with the house, and an older vet there put him under… but not before saying he remembered chasing Billy around the pen 19 years ago when he was new.
Knowing that we’d done everything we could to save a 19-year-old goat was somewhat comforting, as was spreading his ashes around the pen. But the panicked look and bleats from his companion Nanny — which didn’t subside even when we’d given her spent blackberry from a recent batch of wine — made us realize we had to do something. We told our vet to let us know if anyone needed housing for a goat, and they immediately pointed us toward a rescue farm in Buxton, Ore. At the end of a gravel road in the hills sat fields of chickens, geese, pigs, and cattle, but just one little red pen where we were told goats would be. About eight little multi-shaded faces of young Nubian goats greeted us from the shed when we walked in, but only one came out to see what was going on: A male wether who didn’t make weight at the state fair.
For $60, we put Carl (because what else do you name wethers?) in a large dog crate (which he could still fit into at the time), tied the crate down in the back of our truck, and brought him home. As soon as we put him in the pen, Nanny came over and led him to the shed. She’d lead him around the pen for two more days until the two of them got even more company. The receptionist at our vet’s office had just lost a goat and was left with one lonely, standoffish bearded pygmy goat named Bambi. She offered him to us for free, and brought him up to our porch, where he immediately relieved himself.
With the herd settled, we began to reassess our needs. It immediately became apparent that half an acre of tallgrass wouldn’t be enough for the three of them, as they’d eaten it down to near-nothing by July. We upped our alfalfa purchases to about six bales ($72) every three months and substituted more alfalfa for their grain portion in the summer. We also watched as the pygmy goat, now named Shaggy for his goatee, butted heads with Carl and chased each other up and down the boulder pile in the middle of the pen.
With three goats, we began cleaning out the shed more regularly: Mucking out the old straw completely, and laying down five bales (about $52.50) in early spring and late fall. We also replaced fencing ($169.99) along the perimeter after Shaggy pushed through old wire fencing and escaped at least twice as we stood nearby. He did not go back willingly.
Three goats also increased the cost of the annual vet call to closer to $200, but they remained healthy and happy. They followed me and my mower as we circled the pen, they yelled at my wife until she gave them scraps from her nearby garden, and they graciously accepted cuttings from our laurel, apple, and cypress trees, as well as canes of wild blackberry that we’d trim from various portions of the property.
Last year, during a particularly bad stretch of winter weather just around Martin Luther King Day, Shaggy began acting strangely: Curling his head inward and refusing food. We immediately made an emergency call to the vet, who came over and gave him a shot to ward off early signs of a listeria infection. We’d thought we’d gotten it in time. As it turned out, we were wrong. A few days later, we found Shaggy paralyzed in the snow, screaming and writhing. I dragged him into a corner of the shed, put food and water by him and kept tabs on his condition.
It never improved. I called the vet one last time, and the same vet who’d administered the shot to Shaggy a few days earlier came out and noted that his chances of survival were slim. I made the call to have him put down and couldn’t stop thinking just one thought: Poor little goat.
Shaggy had done nothing to deserve that fate. Had we given him some piece of produce with listeria? Had we not kept the pen clean enough? Would one of the other two goats be next? The vet answered all of these questions with a simple “no.” Were any of that true, the other goats would have exhibited symptoms and we’d have a much larger problem on our hands.
I picked up Shaggy and carried him to the vet’s truck. She told me that we’d done all we could by making the emergency call, getting him treatment and getting her back out there quickly. As soon as she wrapped up the sentence, I began to cry. I told her to tell the receptionist, Angela, that we tried our best to give Shaggy a good home and to keep him both healthy and safe.
Angela responded by paying the entire cost of Shaggy’s treatment, but keeping his ashes and spreading them in his original pen. We received a condolence card from her and the rest of the office at Banks Vet about a week later.
Quieter and slower, life went on in the goat pen. We still have both Nanny and Carl, and they have had their work cut out for them the last two years as cold, wet winters and short, hot summers have grown the pasture to their bellies. They still trot out to meet me when I bring grain or alfalfa, they still beg for garden scraps, and they both function as doorbells: Alerting me when the mailman is walking up to the house.
I’m guessing that we spend roughly $500 to $600 on these goats in a good year, and spend a few hours a month feeding them, combing away shedding fur, fixing their fence, and tending to their more than century-old shed. But they pay it all back. They save me hours’ worth of mowing and several cans’ worth of organic waste, but they’re also the spirits of our farm. They live out their lives here, have their favorite places on the property, know just when the sun hits the rockpile or the front of the shed, and know just when to soak it all in.
They appreciate this place as much, if not more, than my wife and I do. If you have space and grass to spare, they give far more than they take.