by Priscilla Ireys of WV
photo by Joe Razes
It’s April. Kidding season is in full swing. One of my pregnant does, Lu, is runty; she’ll be a cull in November. When I see Lu in the bottom of the front pasture giving birth, I periodically check on her. By early afternoon, I walk down, hoping to see two strong doelings. As I get closer, the scene is sadder than I expected. Two unimpressive bucklings. One kid is up, but the other is struggling. He can’t stand. His legs won’t hold him.
I watch with pity as the little guy whose legs aren’t working drags himself through the grass, trying to get to his mom. She’s taken up with his brother, who’s now nursing. It’s hard to watch, but she’s doing the right thing. She’s tending to the strongest one, the one who has the best chance of survival.
“That’s the way it’s got to be,” I say to myself. I have a goat herd of about 50 Spanish and 10 Savanna does on my high meadow farm in West Virginia. I believe in good, sound animal husbandry and a hands-off approach. I take care of my animals. But they have their job on the farm and I have mine. I turn away. No one is there to get the gun, and I have feed to pick up. But I look back at the struggling little kid, still dragging itself along the ground toward a mother who doesn’t want him. I know what chore I’ll have when I come home.
“He’ll be dead by then,” I say to myself. “Stick to your guns about what you will and what you won’t do.” I never bottle-feed kids. By this time, I’m talking out loud to myself, bolstering my resolve, I guess. I walk out of the field, climb in the truck, and leave for town.
After getting back and unloading the feed, I grab an empty sack for the body of the dead kid. Making my way through the field, I see something in the middle, dragging itself in the direction of the barn. As I get closer, I’m stunned. It’s the little kid, not dead, using his front legs and all the strength he can muster to get to the barn. I look down at him. You shouldn’t be alive. What do I do now?
I pick him up and he falls against my chest like a wet mop head. The afternoon wind is blowing and the shadows lengthening – it’ll be cold soon. I stick the kid in my jacket and zip it up for warmth. I walk the pasture and then head for the barn, looking for his mom. Sure enough, the sorry doe is there. At least she’s taking care of the other kid. While he isn’t the strongest buckling, he’s decent size. I figure he’ll be good for meat if he stays healthy. As I watch the mother of these two mediocre kids, I make a mental note: this doe is definitely on the cull list.
The frail kid has a strong heartbeat – and he’s sucking on my sweater. Good sign. I wrap him in a towel and nestle him in the hay. Then I tie his mother to the stall wall and milk her. The whole time a voice in my head says, ‘you never bottle-feed babies.’ If the doe can’t feed her kid, the kid dies and the doe is a cull. But here I am making a bottle of colostrum for this kid. If he doesn’t get this in him, he will die. Despite my “hands off” rule of farming, it just seems wrong in this case – especially after all his work to get to this point. When I have enough milk, I hold him close in my lap. With some struggle, he gets the hang of the bottle, downs it, and finally perks up a bit. His head stops bobbing and he looks right at me, his eyes trying to find my face. He’s tired and frail, but his belly is full.
I put him down. He sinks into the hay and makes himself comfortable, moving the hay with his nose as he sits supported by his front legs. After working hard, he finally lies flat and is quickly asleep. He’s safe and with his family.
Then the dreaded question sets in. Should I be doing this? I wouldn’t be standing here if someone had been here to use the gun. But it didn’t play out that way today. He is here. So, okay, I went against my own farming rules. “Where is the ice water in the veins, gal?” I ask myself. “Have I slipped up this time?” But I have respect for this guy, for his strong instinct to cling to life. He worked most of the day, dragging himself over that pasture. My instinct is to give him some help. He’s far from dead and he did the really hard work. He stayed alive.
My eyes widen as I look at the most unlikely scene. Lu has accepted the lame kid. She licks him, noses him, treats him as she would a healthy kid. She lies with both the kids and keeps them warm.
The next morning, I thaw a bottle of goat milk saved from another doe and rush to the barn, hoping the little guy is still alive. Not only is he alive but he’s sitting up – kind of. I pick him up. He feels like a long-legged, wobbly, newborn kid with a stronger neck than yesterday. He looks up at me and I blow gently into his mouth. “You’ll remember me now, little guy,” I say and hold him close.
Later, he learns to take a bottle in my lap, and I learn to be patient feeding him. It nags at me still, the question. What am I doing? “I’m not breaking all my rules,” I whisper to myself. “Just some of them.”
The bottle feeding goes on for a couple of months, and even though it’s more work, it’s also enjoyable.
Then one day, I go to the barn for his morning feeding, and he meets me at the gate. For a while now, he’s been taking the bottle standing up, as if nursing from his mom. No more lap stuff for Tiny. Often, I’d watch him gulp down the bottle of milk and then make his way to nurse a little more from Lu. That boy learned how to play the system. But this morning, when he comes to the gate, he makes it clear – he’s having nothing to do with a bottle. He’s showing me that he’s a big kid.
The guardian dogs understand he’s a special case, and they grow protective of him. One day, a large buckling decides it’s beat-up-on-Tiny day. Coming around the barn, I hear Tiny bellowing. Something is wrong. One of the guardian dogs, Bella, gallops past me. She knows something is wrong, too. We turn the corner and there’s poor Tiny, up against the fence, getting walloped by four big bucklings. Bella runs right into the fray. By this time, Tiny is on the ground but still trying to fight back. Bella scatters the big bucklings and starts licking Tiny. He’s trying to stand up, still slinging his head around to fight his enemies – and still bellowing. I scoop our little guy up in my arms. No broken limbs, just some bad gashes on his side. I place him gently in a stall with fresh hay, clean his gashes, and give him some pain meds. Then I find the small doeling he’s been friendly with and put her in the stall too. Tiny turns his head and bleats a defiant cry, as if to say to his tormentors, “I might be down, but I’m still here.”
Tiny is always going to need some help and different management than the other bucklings. I’ll have to do extra things to accommodate his limitations. Tiny’s legs don’t send him straight; he aims for a stall’s gate and misses on the left. I help him stay on track and, eventually, he gets to his destination. He’ll never be very strong either. He can’t take rough play. Like at feeding time. Tiny can’t stand up for himself during that chaotic daily occurrence when everyone jostles for food in the catch pen. So, I teach him to walk around the corner of the barn where he can eat out of his own little bowl. Or like when the herd rotates pastures. Tiny can’t keep up, so I load him in the back of our farm truck with the equipment needed for the next pasture. He bellows out his comments to his friends below. It makes him feel very important and a part of something that’s always exciting. Pasture rotation day!
“What happened to my hands-off approach?” I ask out loud.
Tiny gets to be the size of a yearling buck and then stops growing. He’s maybe half the size of the other bucklings his age. He’ll never have the stature of an adult Savanna buck. Plus, he’s still a bit wobbly, and he’s still the punching bag for the young bucklings just taken from their moms. Even with the protection of the dogs, the young bucklings get in a few good licks. So, we make him a wether, which makes it possible for him to live with his mom (who’s also lucky I haven’t culled her yet) and the other does. His mother enjoys his company in the pasture; at night they bed down together. And the young doelings love playing with him. He’s their Uncle Tiny. Each year, after weaning, the doelings weep and wail at the separation. Uncle Tiny steps in to take care of the sad little doelings. He leads the way to the pond, tells them when to get out of the sun, and makes sure they nap in the pine thicket. He’s Uncle Tiny Tim. He has an important role and his own place on the farm.
For four years, Tiny Tim enjoys his job and simply being his weird little self. He gives many people a good belly-laugh when he looks at them with a mixture of pride and befuddlement. He’s the hit attraction on the farm. Folks tell me they remember their first encounter with this unordinary goat. Tiny sometimes wanders into the front yard with the dogs, bellowing along when the dogs bark at visitors. He’s sees himself as part of the guard.
I have another firm rule on my farm: I put animals down when they carry heavy worm loads that are passed along to the herd. I never deviate from this rule, no matter how much it hurts. When Tiny is five years old, he develops a heavy load of worms that he can’t overcome. After a month of doctoring, he’s no better. I must put him down.
It’s one of those hard decisions I have to make in the farming business. As my mother used to say, “it’s time to think with your head, not your heart. Don’t go against the very reason you started farming.”
Walking back to the house that evening, I know the decision to put Tiny down is right, sound, and humane. It just hurts like hell. If farming teaches you one thing, it’s how to say goodbye.
We bury Tiny next to some other special animals we’ve lost over the years. Tiny had a purpose and his place in our world. Among other things, he taught me to be careful about using the word “never.” He was a unique little gift.