Friday, June 17, 2011

Farm Story for June 18, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

Years ago we heard an expression that has proved over and over again to be the absolute truth, at least based on our limited experience. That expression is “If a fence won’t hold water it won’t hold a goat.”

The reason I bring that up is that this time of year we are often asked if we have a garden. We have free range chickens as well as numerous goats so we do not really have a garden. I grow a few herbs and sometimes fool with garlic in a small fenced area but the majority of our fresh produce comes from our sweet friends, Jeff and Kim of Iszy’s Heirlooms, our neighbor at the Saturday Market.

It is probably easy to understand how chickens could get into the garden. We do not trim wings so they can fly where they want. Since our birds are totally free range we want them to be able to get out of the way of trouble. Trimming a wing on each bird is a good way to keep them contained in a fence as they cannot fly well but even the notion of tracking down 300 hens, unfurling a wing on each one and trimming it with a pair of scissors sounds like a ridiculous task. When we lived in the suburbs of Jacksonville with just four hens we did contain them that way but no longer have to worry about the birds going off into neighboring yards now. And since the hens can fly they would easily find a way to a ripening tomato, an attractive squash or any other garden goodie that catches their eye.

Even if we could contain the chickens, the goats are another matter. There are several techniques that we’ve become familiar with through our years of trying to keep them contained. We do have good fencing around the whole property. It is a combination of high tensile fence and electric fencing. We also have a generator which, should we lose power for an extended period, we can use to keep the fence “hot”. We don’t mind living without power in the house for a bit but would prefer the animals stay here rather than wander down the highway and off into the surrounding woods. Most of the time the animals do not test the fencing but should one discover it won’t get shocked and can push on through it will not be long before everyone else follows along. It is a chance we’d rather not take.

So basically the perimeter of our property is fairly tight but we do have some issues with the cross fencing and gates within the property. And the goats are the first to find a weak spot. One of our funniest goats when it came to dealing with a fence was Baby Doll. Years ago someone informed us that they had a friend in Georgia who had to get rid of her Angora goats. We already had a few lovely angora goats and enjoy them for their gentle personalities and soft mohair so decided to go buy a few. We drove down, looked at the herd, chose a few and decided to come back in a few days with a trailer to retrieve them. As we rounded up the large, handsome goats we’d chosen we noticed a petite goat. She was obviously stunted compared to the rest so we hadn’t originally chosen her but as the pasture emptied out we felt sorry for her and bought her at the last minute. She was so tiny that we named her Baby Doll. Although she grew a bit more once she arrived her, she remained one of our smaller goats. She was a little pistol and quite the fence-tester. She would push on gates to see if they would scoot open just enough so that she could slide through. She would wiggle her way through our board fences as well. She had horns that curled back toward her ears so would carefully shove one horn through the space, turn her head and wiggle the other horn through before slipping between the boards. If she couldn’t just step through the boards she would wiggle her head through and then turn her body almost on its side so that one shoulder rested on the bottom board. She would then scoot one leg and hip through the fence, pushing the whole time with her hind legs to propel her forward. Once the first shoulder was through the narrow opening she would wiggle so that her other shoulder fit into the spot. A bit more pushing with her hind legs and her whole front half would be through the fence. She would then patiently pull herself forward with her front legs as she gradually wiggled one hip at a time through the fence opening. The first time I watched her do this I was fascinated and was sure it was just accidental luck that allowed her to squeeze through. That was not the case at all. This became her technique and one that she managed to teach all of her offspring through the years. Long after she had died of old age, we could tell if a goat was her son or daughter based on how they approached a board fence! Baby Doll’s daughters also taught their kids this amazing trick but I never saw a goat that was not related to Baby Doll manage the stunt.

Vincent is another goat who is not bothered by fences. He came from Split Creek Dairy and is the offspring of a LaMancha mother and a Nigerian Dwarf father. He is one of our largest goats and has the teeny tiny ears of a LaMancha. Because of his funny ears we named him Vincent VanGoat and have simply adored him. He is about ten years old but is still quite spry. He does not have any fence tricks. He just takes a step back and jumps them. He can easily clear every fence on the property and that is just a problem we’ve learned to deal with. When we need to unload feed from the truck to the stable we usually just pull everyone out of the barnyard and into one of the pastures. Vincent compliantly follows the herd as we move them into a pasture, waits for us to lock the gate and then just jumps back over the fence to try to eat open the bags of sweet feed or chicken feed as we unload them. In order to contain Vincent we have to lock him in a stall and it has to be one of the stalls with metal bars that go almost all the way to the barn ceiling.

Some of the other goats are just gate testers. They seem to push up against any locked gate on the chance that the chain did not quite fall into place and they can push it open. Once a gate is open and a single animal moves through it everyone has to follow. Just this week I came out to find four adult goats, three kids, three adult sheep and a few lambs in the tractor shed where we store square bales of hay. They literally were having a hay day climbing the bales and eating as fast as they could. It seems the last person to feed hay had not dropped the end of the chain that holds the gate shut all the way down into its little notch so that when a goat pushed up against the gate it opened enough that the crew slipped in. Fortunately most of the hay from the tractor shed had already been fed out but they were still making a mess of the remaining hay. I was frustrated but not surprised to see them in there. I flung the gate all the way open to chase them out. The very friendly sheep and goats mostly ignore me when I try to chase them but I had an empty bucket on my arm as I’d been on my way to gather eggs. I threw a few sticks and rocks in the bucket, shook it and ran. Everyone assumed I had a bucket of feed and quickly raced out of the hay. I tossed the bucket ahead of me, waited for the flock and herd to run by me and doubled back to properly chain the gate. Once everyone realized there was no grain they wandered off. I picked up my bucket and continued on to gather eggs to complete my fairly normal day.

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