Ten years ago, we moved to a new house with land. For years I had longed to keep goats again. Childhood memories were of gentle Saanens with gallons of milk and our appallingly behaved Nubians who escaped and ate the garden. Even through rose tinted glasses, I could see no way of fitting these high maintenance animals into our already stretched lives. With a growing menagerie, 5 young children, work and making inroads on 11 neglected acres, no, goats were definitely not a sensible addition. So, a couple of years later Angelica and Daphne arrived, two tiny golden guernsey kids, the breed being recommended for their easy-going nature and lower milk yields. I fell in love with them at first sight.
Of course, I was never going to breed or milk them or anything like that.
The following year, lulled into how easy these little goats were, fantasising about cheese making, I thought ‘Would it really be much more work to let one have kids?’ Of course, we kept Heather and Violet, because two tiny kids wouldn’t make that much difference, would they?
Fast forward 8 years, my herd reached 20. This year I milked several goats twice a day, have discovered the joys of goat shows, a world of friendly goat keepers, embarked on milk recording, spend hours researching breed lines, show results, butterfats and milk yields.
How did this all happen?
Looking after goats and working is challenging at times. Fortunately, I work for myself, most of the time from home. The best advice I was given was to look after my goats in a two-hour window. It gives me flexibility and keeps the goats happy. Generally, I wake early and work on the computer until around 8.30am then feed, milk, turn out the goats and aim to be back in the office for around 9.30am. The goats like this. If I have to leave early and work away from home, I will milk and feed crack of dawn, and a friend helps with turning them out early. They are not keen on early starts and look gone out. But they have a lovely area under a mezzanine in the barn where they can lie down on straw together, munch hay and wander out when they choose to. If it is fine, they venture into the lower paddocks, but a cloud on the horizon sees them all scuttling home. You can tell the weather by watching the goats. Evenings I take my time to milk, feed, clean pens, faff about and just enjoy being with them. If I stay away for work, a friend comes to milk and look after the goats.
Kidding clashes terribly with our landscaping work, building natural pools, which can be anywhere is the UK. Our garden also needs most attention in spring. I’ve got around this by using CIDRS on the goats. Now they kid in February, which is quiet. This means I can keep a week aside for kidding without a staggered period of being stuck at home waiting for goats to kid. It lets me plan meetings and events around mating and kidding and works well. I raise the kids on their mothers and bottle feed them once a day, milking out each milker in the morning to keep their udders nice and symmetrical. This allows me to be away from home with work and means the kids are super tame. The kids can come off their mothers for shows and milk recording. I love raising kids so much. Because they are born early the kids are dressed in little cashmere jumpers and a friend has made an entire wardrobe of fleecy coats to keep them warm.
From one week old the kids are led out on collars and leads, together with their mothers, to small paddocks right outside our kitchen window. They all walk well in the show ring. Any kids that need hand raising just come and live in the kitchen for a few weeks.
I forget passwords for most significant accounts yet can always log straight on to BGS Grass Roots. While I struggle with filing systems for my business, I keep ordered folders and records of my goats with ease, detailing parasites and worm egg counts; medicines and movements; deficiencies and diets; milk yield and feeding plans. The other day my husband overheard me explaining to a new goat keeper who had brought his nanny over for mating, only to find she was no longer in season, how I keep records of the date, length and behavioural observations of my goats’ oestrus cycles. Believe me it comes in handy.
“But you can’t even file your business expenses” he said incredulously.
He has a point. I can’t really explain that.
The quest for improving milk yield and butterfats leads me to dark thoughts on alfalfa. It is hard to find any alfalfa around here. I know a local farmer who grows and bales it for cattle silage. But these big bales are no good for my tiny goats. I have called him several times asking to buy his alfalfa loose, fresh, dry, cut, uncut, un baled, self-harvested. Basically, any form will do. I think he thinks I am a bit crazy. We don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I fantasise about visiting his fields at night with my sickle.
I like to think I’m an honest person but have become adept at squirrelling away some goat related things from my husband. Like vet’s bills. And goats. Recently he rumbled me. Entering 12 goats for the Newark Breed Show this year, which is local for us, realising I couldn’t fit goats and equipment together in the van, he kindly agreed to bring the equipment to the show after work. Seeing him standing looking thoughtfully at my beautiful goats all penned in a row I thought, ‘How nice he is admiring them.’
“I didn’t know you had this many” he muttered. “Oh, I’ve just about brought them all” I replied.
A tiny white-lie. Little did he know how many were still at home.
When I go to goat shows I’ve become obsessed with inspecting everyone else’s hay and fodder. We buy our hay from a local farmer. Best meadow hay for the goats, second-best for the horses. The old farmer tuts and shakes his head with disbelief each time he delivers. He is of the ‘Goats Eat Anything’ school of thought. Last summer, mid show season he ran out of best hay. My goats went on hunger strike, milk yields plummeted. I explained this kindly but firmly to the farmer, stressing how they need a constant supply of the same quality hay for optimal milk production and show results. Explaining how their rumens don’t like change. I may have come across a bit strong, as this year he has put an entire rick aside just for my goats. And the price has gone up.
My daughter is studying to be a vet. Thinking ‘This will be handy’, it turns out she has been put off goats for life. She sends me snippets of helpful but confusing information though. Like when one of the goats recently stopped eating, she told me about displaced abomasums.
“If it’s to the left it’s gonna to cost you a fortune. If it’s to the right you're screwed.”
Fortunately the goat was just being picky.
My profession as a landscape designer comes in handy when designing layouts for goat paddocks, turn out systems for making life easier, pen formations for quick mucking out. I spend hours plotting interlinking walkways, connecting paddock to paddock to goat barn to turnout yard to milking shed. It all works a dream until someone leaves the bottom gate open.
Losing a goat is devastating. Like losing a dog, a member of the family. You question why and what you did wrong. It knocks my confidence. This spring we lost Heather, my first ever kid. She died suddenly after kidding, from a ruptured artery, leaving two orphan kids, Erica and Calluna, who we raised in the house to start off. I wanted to bury Heather so asked our knacker man for her ashes.
“You realise you will probably get some old cow” said my daughter.
Our knacker man assured me I would receive only Heather’s ashes. He even asked me what to write on her box. Then he personally delivered a beautiful oak casket bearing her name and ashes. It was far too beautiful to bury, so I left her on the kitchen table for a while. Mother wondered, rather sarcastically, if she would get a casket half as nice. Then I put Heather on the book case thinking she could prop up the goat care books. One day my daughter found the lady who helps us out, in tears, dusting Heather’s casket, wondering which relative we had lost called Heather. The story finishes when Heather’s two kids were ring bearers for my daughter’s marriage this summer in our garden.
The kids walked down a grassy aisle and into a circle of 100 seated guests, bearing the wedding rings around their necks, attached to mustard, velvet collars. They stole the show and never put a foot wrong, made me weep again, this time with happiness. I will never part with these two. Life goes on.
A local economy has built up around my goats. It includes the hay farmer, the feed merchant, the vet, our staff, Megan who milks them when I go away, and our fencing man. As our garden opens to the public, the goats are a justifiable visitor attraction, so they even have their own column in my accounts. My accountant agrees with this. He did raise his eyebrows once at an entry ‘Purchase of Two Billy Kids’.
“They are a pedigree, rare breed herd. These two outside line billy goats are vital to my breeding program” I explained convincingly.
So far, he has not commented on the fact that the goat column seems to be in permanent deficit. To that I would say you can’t put a price on happiness.
Branching is a basic concept in computer science, I looked it up. But it really should be an Olympic sport. When you keep goats for a few years you run out of branches low down. A long time ago, I used to walk about gently snipping tasty leaves here and there with my secateurs. Then the long-handled loppers wouldn’t reach. This summer I found myself crawling along a horizontal branch of willow, growing sideways high over a ditch. It was hard to hold on, use the saw and keep hold of the cut branches all at the same time. But I think it got us an extra milking point.
Once when I bought a goat kid, the owner and I were discussing branching. She told me how her husband offered her his cherry picker. I thought at the time she was joking. Now I realise she was serious. I’m wondering if I could ask for one of those long-handled chain saw pole cutters for Christmas or I may never catch her up in the show ring.
Over the years I have developed OCD in my goat barn. Individual pens are poo picked daily, mucked out fully once a week. The concrete floor is swept, surfaces are dusted. I get real satisfaction in seeing feed bins stood in neat rows, supplements, medicines, grooming kits, lead ropes, goat coats all in their designated places, neat and tidy. There is even a white board for observations. Strange that I don’t have any OCD feelings whatsoever for housework.
When you don’t own a billy goat, it can be tricky knowing when your nannies are in season. Early on my girls boarded with a friend who kindly took care of that side of things with his gentle billy George. When George couldn’t cover his own daughters, I decided to buy a billy goat. It ended badly. My demure ladies turned into a barn full of hussies overnight. The billy would not stay put. We ended up building an electrified, giraffe proof enclosure around his stable, with two wethers for company. It started off well enough, but by the end of the season I was going in to feed him armed with a pipe and bucket. First, he turned against my husband, then he turned against me, quite badly. Finally, I decided sadly to have him put him down. It was a hard lesson and I vowed from then on only to only keep a good-natured billy goat that I had raised from a kid. Now we have two billies living happily together. One is a kid, who recently downed his bottle then leaped without hesitation onto the waiting nanny, much to my husband’s utter disbelief. He is astonishingly fast; blink and you miss it. The other is a real gentleman who likes to woo his ladies first. We call him Milk Tray Man. I like the boys. They are affectionate and full of character. Unfortunately, I have a poor sense of smell. My family complain I stink. I’ve developed paranoia about going into closed rooms with non-goat people.
Nothing gives me more pleasure than my goats. They are my pride and joy. Like an extended family, always pleased to see me, they comfort me, make me laugh when I’ve had a bad day and I truly believe goats are good for your mental health, because just looking after them every day makes me feel good. Within the herd, each goat is an individual, they know their own name, and I understand how each one is feeling because they really communicate. They have an affinity with people and people are drawn to them. They seem to make people feel happy.
I love seeing the herd outside, grazing together, long golden coats glowing in the sunshine, all shades from honey blond to deep chestnut.
Golden Guernseys are to me the perfect house goat, giving 2-3kg of milk a day, more than enough for most households. They are elegant, fine boned, with exquisite faces, doe-like eyes and gentle, easy going natures. But don’t underestimate their quirkiness. They know their own minds and are not afraid to show it. Experts at passive aggression, they dislike early mornings and parading around the show ring with a full udder at the crack of dawn is not for them. Just watch them next time you are at a show.
Still fantasising about this. The kids seem to get all the milk.
Yes, it is possible to catch goat fever.
If you are reading this then you know who you are. Thank you.