A Story from Merciful Hearts Farm
Deb Potter, 12 July 2008
Sunday evening I asked Mr. Potter to come outside with me to help me measure the tail on one of the oxen. Fortunately, Mr. Potter has a good sense of humor so he grabbed a tape measure & walked to the side pasture with me. He didn't ask why – just measured the tail while I stroked Gates on the head. And Gates' tail is five feet long.
The reason I wanted him to measure the tail is because I thought I wanted to write about tails for you this week. And I wanted to be able to tell you not only that the oxen have long tails but that their tails are a good five feet long! Their long tails are seem long but are the right size for their bodies. As long as we were measuring, we measured across their hips by standing at their backsides & holding the tape from one hip bone to the other. The span of their hips turns out to be almost three feet wide. So a long tail is handy for reaching up to swat flies.
I've also been swatted by an ox tail. I like to brush on Zeb & Gates. If I am standing at their side running the brush down their neck, a tail will often fly up & slap against my arm. It doesn't hurt to be switched by the long hair at the end of the tail but if I am farther back & get caught by the meaty part of their tail I definitely feel a bit of a sting. But I don't take it personally. In the summer when the flies are busy the tails are too. It seems the oxen don't even have to think about it but just continuously & slowly flick their tails from one side to the other. If a small swarm of flies have landed, they take off again as the tail flies over. On occasion a fly will get squished & fall to the ground.
The oxen have another way of dealing with flies that we find rather funny. They can give a little shiver & all of their skin will shake in a ripple down their bodies. This usually causes the little flies or gnats to jump off in a hurry. And if an ox has a fly up near its shoulders where the tail cannot reach, it will fling its head around to scare it off. That is not a good time to be brushing the ox as not only can you get hit with a big pointed horn flying by but chances are good the ox hasn't thought to swallow before slinging its head so you will get splattered with a mouthful of spit. All of that is pretty effective at keeping the flies away but it isn't very nice if you happen to be standing nearby as it happens.
The donkeys also use their tails in the same way but I have also seen the donkeys handle flies just a little bit differently. Occasionally a huge horse fly will decide it wants to eat a donkey. The donkey may also flick its tail or shiver its skin but the funniest thing I've seen is when the horse fly takes off, turns around & prepares to land again. I have seen a donkey use its hind foot to kick the horse fly right out of the air. The first time I saw it happen, I couldn't imagine that Zeke, our male donkey, had actually hit the fly so I walked over for a closer look. There on the ground next to Zeke's rear hoof was a newly dead horse fly almost as big as a quarter. And I've seen it happen more than once!
The donkeys have very good aim when they kick. I can tell you that as I've been a target before. One day I was moving some goats that had slipped into the wrong pasture. I had a bucket of grain & was calling the goats along. As the goats crowded beside me to get the grain as we paraded to the proper pasture, Zeke saw what we were doing. He came running through the still-opened gate & the goats scattered. Zeke approached my bucket. I had my mind on moving the goats so I yanked the bucket away from his nose & told him, “No!”. He tried again & I responded the same way. He was not very happy but looked like he was going to give up. He walked just a few steps ahead of me, lifted his right rear leg & kicked me twice on my left thigh. I was so mad that I flung the bucket down the hill & had to sit down to catch my breath. Of course Zeke & all the goats chased the grain bucket as it rolled down the hill. I finally stood back up & shut the gate on the whole mess of them. The goats were in the proper pasture & as that point I didn't care where Zeke was as I could move him later. Esther, his companion, was still in her original pasture staring at the whole production.
When I got to the house I looked at my leg. There was a very bright red donkey hoof print outlined on my skin. It soon turned black & then over the next few weeks went through the whole bruise-rainbow of purples, blues, greens & finally that sickly yellow before it faded away. The thing that amazed me over the whole episode was the fact that I had just a single perfect hoof print on my leg. Zeke had definitely hit me twice but his aim was so good that he had apparently hit me in the same place twice!
But I started out to tell you about tails, not ornery donkeys.
We have both sheep & goats on the farm. Many of our goats are Angora goats that produce the mohair that I spin so they are covered with long white curls. When people look at my animal pictures, they often call those curly goats sheep. So here is a how-to-tell-a-sheep-from-a-goat tip: A goat carries its tail pointed up, a sheep's tail hangs down. Right now one of our funniest tails on the farm belongs to Thing Two, a little Nubian cross kid that was born this spring. She has a little white tail pointing straight up from the end of her back. It looks like a pretty normal goat hair covered with short white hairs all the way up to the end. But the very tip is also covered with long, fine fly-away hairs pointing in every direction. When she wags it, which goats often do to show you they are happy, it looks like she is shaking a funny little pompom. Her brother, Thing One, has a perfectly normal goat tail so I don't know quite what happened to her.
Speaking of wagging tails, it is important to watch the tails of lambs & kids. When a baby first starts to nurse from its mother, it can be very awkward. Sometimes it doesn't know what it is looking for under it mother so will suck on anything. A baby may end up sucking on a clump of hair that isn't even near its mother's udder full of milk. So it is important to watch little tails. When a lamb or kid is successfully getting milk, its tail wags rapidly from side to side. We have seen this over & over. A baby under a mother with a still tail usually means that one of us has to lay down on our stomach on the barn floor, watch the baby & see what it is trying to nurse. Sometimes a mother will have an udder that is a little plugged up so the baby may be sucking the right place but no milk is coming out. We hand milk the mother for a squirt or two & then the baby can nurse. Other times the baby just needs redirected to the right place. But the instant that baby latches on & gets milk, the tail starts to flutter. It is a sign I've learned to look for whenever I see a baby up under its mother trying to eat.
And I will tell you one more goat-tail thing before I run out of space. It is often hard to tell when a goat is going to have a kid until almost the time it will give birth. They don't always get big in the belly like pregnant ladies & often they don't even get much of an udder until it is almost the end of their five months of pregnancy. But you can often tell if a goat is bred by feeling her tail. Goats have hair along the tops of their tails but on the bottom of the tail right at the base of their spine it feels more like the skin covered bottom of a dog's paw. Even early on when you think a goat is bred, you can feel that part & it feels soft & spongy, chances are very good that the goat will be having a kid or two or three!