Goat Sitters: Finding one, being one, and realizing I am not goat sitter material.

People sure do love their goats. Listen to members of The Goat Spot forum profess their devotion: On the subject of how goats make life better, “wndgrvr” swears, “If I didn’t have my animals I would be just an old fat lady watching TV.” On selling their kids (i.e. goat babies), “billmac” groans, “We advertise, and then we agonize. I want to have the FBI do a background check on these people so I know they’re going to a good home.” And on leaving the farm to travel, “TexasRanger” pleads, “Does anyone know some good questions to ask someone before I let them NEAR my goats?”

For anxious goat keepers like TexasRanger who need or want time away from the farm, the online goat community is a font of wisdom. Here’s what they say on the subject of…

Finding a competent goat sitter

4-h1. Contact the 4-H Club or Future Farmers of America to find an agriculturally inclined teenager looking for experience and pocket money. Some are already raising their own goats.

2. Ask for referrals at your local farmers’ market. Surely they must have some intel on trustworthy farm sitters; after all, they leave their animals every week to peddle their wares.

3. Hire a professional farm sitting company. Depending on your needs, they can basically move in while you’re gone, or pop by a couple times a day as needed.

4. Barter with neighbors–goat care in exchange for goat care, or some equivalent services. But people frowned on the idea of dropping your goats off for an extended slumber party at your neighbor’s house while you travel; the change of scene and routine can really jangle a goat’s nerves.

Once you’ve tracked down someone reliable, what are the main jobs they’ll  do?

Feeding

That’s a no-brainer. It is a well-known fact that goats thrive on a diet of tablecloths and tin cans. OK that’s a myth. But they’re versatile noshers. They can even eat noxious stuff like poison ivy. Some snack on paper. In her book Raising Goats for Dummies, Cheryl K. Smith posits that the tin can fallacy was born when someone saw a goat trying to eat the label off the can.

So what normal stuff do they eat?

goats eating treesGoats are willing to graze, meaning they’ll eat grasses and other low-lying plants, but most are primarily browsers, i.e. munchers of the leaves and branches of bushes, shrubs and small trees. In addition to whatever they nibble during free grazing or browsing time, staples of the farm goat diet include hay, grain, and minerals like copper and salt, in varying amounts and proportions depending on a goat’s stage of life. For example, pregnant and lactating goats, and kids, need more grain to get sufficient protein and calories. For everyone else, go lightly; porking out on all those carbs can make a goat as fat as a cow. Grain comes in many forms, including commercially produced–there’s even such a thing as Purina® Goat Chow®.

There IS a lot to know about feeding goats a balanced, nutritious diet. But a goat sitter doesn’t need to figure this out on her own. A lot of farmers suggest just portioning out each goat’s rations into separate containers before leaving, so the goat sitter just has to know which goat gets which container. One Goat Spot member, “loggyacreslivestock”, does even more hand holding: “We place each animal’s feed in paper bags and have their name on it, their name on their [feed] pan, their name at their spot to eat and a poster with everyone’s picture prominently displayed inside the barn. That way [sitters] only have to dump a bag in a pan and match it to the goat.” So simple a monkey could do it. (Oh my god wait! Should I start a business where I train monkeys to feed goats?)

Milking

Milking is where things could get hairy. If a goat is “in milk”, the goat sitter better know how to finesse an udder. Milking a goat is on my bucket list, meaning I haven’t done it yet but I really want to learn. Having watched an entire film festival’s worth of YouTube videos, I now bring you these instructions. Grab a goat and let’s begin.

1. Milk twice a day, at 12 hour intervals.

Tips-for-Training-a-Goat-to-the-Milk-Stand
from the wonderful web site ThePrairieHomestead.com

2. Most people used some sort of milking stand to keep the goat in optimal milking position. The goat puts her head through an opening to access a feed trough filled with tasty grain. That keeps her busy so she doesn’t get fidgety.

 

3. Next, wash the udder and teats so whatever crud is on there doesn’t plop into the milk bucket. Plain old water or soapy water seem to do the trick, but if you prefer “convenient, one-step udder preparation in a sturdy yet gentle wipe,” you can use Milk Check Teat Wipes! Talk about a niche product. 

4. Now, let the milking begin. First off, do you tug and yank? No you do not. Do it lovingly. Hold a teat at the top by making a loose ring with your thumb and index finger. Then gently squeeze till it empties, release it, let it refill, repeat. Piece o’cake, the videos promise. You can start off one teat at a time and graduate to double fisted once you’re a pro.

5. To get out the last drops, a few videos recommend “bumping” the teats like a baby goat would, or massaging the udder, which is basically going to second base with your goat. Since other videos don’t bother with these shenanigans, I concluded whether you fondle and tickle your goat is your business, not a required step.

Or…a machine can do the job. Options are as varied as snowflakes. The Goat Spot forum members discussed everything from $1800 industrial quality mechanized milkers to a basic manual pump from manufacturer Udderly EZ (get it?). If you’re a maker type, instructions for DIY versions abound. Some farmers thought a milking device might make the process idiot-proof for a less experienced goat sitter. As an aspiring goat sitter and self-diagnosed idiot myself, I think more moving parts means more ways to muck things up.

 

Dealing with emergencies

Little Goat
credit: Dave Wild via Flickr, see Creative Commons for usage rights.

If a goat develops a medical problem, it might not even be apparent to someone who doesn’t know goats, or know this particular goat. Animals often hide their weaknesses, making some illness and injury hard to detect. If a goat is sick or hurt, the nearest vet who treats livestock may be far away, and not available for off-hour emergencies. Maybe there’s a large animal vet hospital within reach, maybe not. Also, some said their goats do “naughty” things like escaping their pen, and it could be tricky to round them up again.

While on the lam or even in the presumed safety of their own living quarters, misfortune can strike in many forms. Thorns and splinters can cause festering abscesses. Ingesting a stray nail while feeding can bring on the rare but serious “hardware disease”, which could require surgery. Chowing on certain plants (like vegetation from certain fruit-bearing trees, including cherry and peach) can poison a goat. Overeating can result in a treatable but life-threatening condition called bloat. No wonder goat farmers fret about leaving.

Goats someday…not today

So…a lot to think about for a prospective goat sitter. The more I read, the more I recognize how much preparation and education it takes to become genuinely qualified. I’m not deterred, necessarily…but I’ve become distracted by another tantalizing way to mingle with goats: renting them on Amazon.com. Really. In certain geographic areas you can now hire goats as landscapers. They’ll devour your weeds and pretty up your yard. According to the “Hire a Goat Grazer” page, goats will dine on “thistle, blackberry, English Ivy, kudzu, poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, wisteria” and other garden invaders.

I was so taken with the idea that I dreamed some nearby homeowners were already harboring small herds on their property, and I jealously coveted my neighbors’ goats. The service isn’t available yet in my county. However, local residents may raise livestock if they have at least two acres of land. I’ve joked for years about forming a co-op with neighbors on my cul-de-sac, pooling our land to meet the minimum acreage. No takers yet….

dirty-chick-coverA final thought: In my previous post I wished in vain for farm sitter’s memoir for a behind-the-scenes gawk at the experience. But where is my brain? I just realized I already read–and LOVED–such a book. It’s Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer by Antonia Murphy, who tended a farm in rural New Zealand during the owners’ extended absence and eventually became a hobby farmer herself. HIGHLY recommend. I must re-read.

Do you love goats? Write about goats? Raise goats? Sit goats? Do you have advice for me or your own stories to tell? Share it here!

Are YOU My Mother?

pet duck
from CBS Evening News

A couple days ago CBS Evening News aired the story of a little girl who plays mom to a pet duck. The duck lives in her house (wearing a custom-made duck diaper), sleeps in her bed, and follows her wherever she goes–whether it’s to the pond at the park or trick-or-treating or a sleepover party. It’s the story of a beautiful friendship, and a heartwarming illustration of an avian instinct called filial imprinting. (Watch the video at the bottom!)

P1020500To be precise, we’re not talking about all birds–just precocial, nidifugous (“nest-fleeing”) birds. These are fancy terms for birds that were born ready: fully feathered, able to bust out of the nest at the first opportunity. The most common examples are waterfowl–ducks, geese and the like. Contrast this with our stock mental image of bare-fleshed, open-beaked nestlings waiting helplessly for mama bird to deposit regurgitated worms into their mouths. Nidifugous birds would call them candy-asses.

So precocial, nidifugous birds have this natural drive to venture out. But if they didn’t have a mechanism that impelled them to follow a leader, they might waddle off in all directions, including into the hungry jaws of their predators–turtles, raccoons, foxes, big fish, and the list goes on. In these species’ distant evolutionary past, such mavericks and heedless wanderers were weeded out; they bumbled into danger and didn’t live to reproduce. Those that played it safe by velcro-ing themselves to mom were more likely to survive to adulthood, and produce offspring that shared their mother-following tendencies.

dog-with-ducklingsOver time, filial imprinting–the instinct to attach to their mother and follow her everywhere–became deeply ingrained in nidifugous birds. This survival imperative is so strong that, if their biological mother is absent at the time imprinting would naturally occur, chicks will imprint on the first moving object they see. Konrad Lorenz, one of the most influential animal behavior scholars in history, identified this phenomenon and then manipulated it to amusing (and enlightening) effect. He found he could get chicks to imprint on him, his boots, other animals, and even a box traveling atop a model train. In each case the birds toddled after these surrogate “imprintees” as devotedly as they’d’ve trailed their own mother.

 

fly away home

Manipulating the process of filial imprinting hasn’t just been done for scientific discovery, or laughs. It’s also been an effective tool in wildlife conservation. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was attempting to establish a second migrating population of endangered whooping cranes, they induced chicks to imprint on an ultralight plane, and then had them fly behind the plane to their designated wintering grounds. Having learned the route this way, the cranes returned to their breeding grounds unassisted. If you’ve seen the movie “Fly Away Home”, based on a true story, this approach will sound delightfully familiar.
baby bird and cow

A whimsical look at imprinting can be found within the pages of a favorite childhood classic, Are You My Mother? A baby bird hatches while his mom is off searching for food. Finding himself alone, he naively strikes out on quest to find her. But he doesn’t know what she looks like; he hasn’t imprinted on her yet. To him, it’s equally plausible that a cow, an airplane, and a snorting piece of heavy construction equipment might answer affirmatively to his pleading question, “Are you my mother?” It’s probably a good thing all those non-mother entities were sitting still; if they’d sprung into motion, he’d probably have followed. Then the baby bird might’ve ended up imprinting on, say, the cat. And the story would’ve had a far different ending indeed.

 

 

Siamese Cats: Feline Mood Rings

I’ve been thinking about how cats get their markings. My brother once told me someone told him it has something to do with temperature. That always stuck with me, but…the temperature of what, exactly? I pictured a tangle of kitten fetuses squished up against each other in utero. I imagined different splotches of color spreading across swaths of their fur depending on how and where each one was snuggled up against another. Maybe it worked sort of like a mood ring? A whimsical notion but almost certainly deeply flawed.

When I looked into the matter, I found I was pretty far afield. The temperature thing definitely doesn’t apply to feline coat markings across the boards. But it wasn’t a complete red herring. Temperature comes into play in a specific form of albinism that produces the trademark “point” coloration of Siamese cats (and their similarly patterned brethren–the Himalayans, Burmese, Tonkinese, Balinese, etc.).

http://purrfectcatbreeds.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/siamese51.jpg
http://purrfectcatbreeds.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/siamese51.jpg

There’s an enzyme, tyrosinase, whose job is to make melanin–the pigment that gives fur its color. In Siamese cats, the gene that makes tyrosinase is a clunker; the resulting enzyme doesn’t work at the regular body temperature of cats. Result: No color. But on the bits of the body that are cooler–the ears, face, tail and paws–tyrosinase behaves normally. The result is that striking contrast between the light torso and dark point areas.

And there is an in utero aspect that’s worth mentioning. Because unborn kittens in the womb are kept so uniformly toasty-warm, Siamese kittens are solid white when make their debut. Their dark points don’t start to emerge till a few weeks after birth.

http://www.fanciersplus.com/feature/bluegem-siamese-cattery.htm
http://www.fanciersplus.com/feature/bluegem/bluegemsiamesnewborn.jpg

Throughout their lives, temperature will continue to influence the shades of Siamese cats’ coats. If fur has to be shaved, for example for a veterinary procedure, it will commonly grow back dark. That’s because the skin temperature when “bald” is cooler, and therefore the screwed up enzyme is able to produce melanin. It’ll fade when the skin is furry again and therefore warmer. I even saw an anecdote about a cat who liked to lounge on a heat register and developed a very light patch of fur corresponding to the shape of the vent. If a Siamese cat spends a lot of time outdoors, its coat may lighten in the summer and darken in the winter. The mnemonic “cooler=color, warmer=whiter” helps me remember this intriguing relationship between temperature and pigment.

http://www.globalanimal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Siamese-Cats.jpg
Must be chilly in their house! http://www.globalanimal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Siamese-Cats.jpg

Do you have a Siamese cat? Ever notice any color shifting?