Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Today was a beautiful day. Sunny and in the 50's with a brisk wind. A windy day is always a good day for me. Wind makes the world come alive.

As I walked back across the pastures towards the house though, the goat's half of the barnyard was empty. Ashley and Mary Kate weren't out sunning themselves, or running up to the fence to greet me. Ashley wasn't looking out her favorite window. Though I had just buried both of them, I still half expected to see them there in the barn.

Yesterday, in the mail, we received the results for some blood tests we'd had taken on our goats and cow. Both of the goats tested positive for Johne's disease. It's a chronic degenerative disease, for which there is no cure. It affects only ruminants, and most are only susceptible to contracting it in the first three months of life. Our goats were born within a couple weeks of each other on the same farm, and were probably both infected then.

It's difficult to test for as well, since symptoms rarely show before the animal reaches two years of age, and tests often return false negatives. Apparently about 70% of all dairy farms have some infected animals, so it's not uncommon.

I suspect that it's not unlike tuberculosis in that many animals may carry the disease without expressing any symptoms, unless their immune system becomes compromised. Even so -- even if we could keep the goats in good health -- the risk of infecting their kids or Buttercup's future calves is unacceptable. So I had to put them both down today. I think it's probably the hardest thing I've ever done.

Some of my best memories as of late are of sitting in the barnyard in the evening after work, with Rachel and Henry. Buttercup would come up close to see what we were up to. Mary Kate would nibble at my jacket in an attempt to get a head-scratching out of me. The chickens seemed to always show up and start scratching through the leaves, and the barn cats would come out looking for attention. Being surrounded by all these creatures really creates a sense of well being. I just have to remember that all life is temporary.

When you get livestock, you know that someday you'll likely be butchering them. I figure that making sure they live the best life possible is the important part. I didn't have much of a problem butchering chickens, probably because I knew from the beginning that they would end up as food. Chickens aren't particularly endearing, but the goats, however, were just as affectionate and playful as dogs.

I like dairy animals in part because they're not all butchered after a year or two. I guess I allowed myself to grow attached to these two because I didn't expect that they'd have to be butchered or put down for quite a few years. Such is life, eh?

Henry says we should put up a good head stone for the goats to remember them by. I think it's a good idea.

Now on to other, less depressing subjects...

Last week Rachel and Henry held down the fort while I had my first direct experience with draft horses in a four day class at Tillers International. Along with three other students and a handful of Tiller's interns, we worked with four Belgians, learning how to harness, drive, plow, disk, harrow, seed, and log with the draft teams. Tillers even has a freshly restored road grader that we hooked up and used for a bit.

Though I've seen them before, what really struck me is how *enormous* these horses are. It wouldn't take much for them to squash me like a mosquito, but they're exceptionally gentle.

One of the cool things about draft horses is that they tend to know where you want to go. That's a good thing when a hapless student messes up his gee and haw commands. Or so I'm told...

The down side of that is that they don't always think you want them to go where you really do want them to go. When we switched from plowing to disking, I could tell that they were still trying to walk in the furrow while I was trying to get them on a different path.

Tillers is a really neat organization. Aside from teaching a number of classes in everything from training oxen to timber framing or blacksmithing, they work to promote the use of draft animals (primarily oxen) in many parts of the world where they make a big difference in people's lives. They have an amazing collection of old farm implements. Many of the older implements are easily copied by craftsmen in these countries, as they often use much more wood than metal.

A couple weeks ago we started planting peas in the garden, and came to the realization that our chickens would soon find the sprouts to be irresistible (as our old chickens did in Bellingham). So -- we've started fencing it in. As luck would have it, Rachel found an ad in Craigslist for black locust fenceposts, which are exactly what we wanted (they're never available in stores), so we've now got a nice big stack which should see us through our fencing endeavors over the next couple years.

No comments: