Monday, November 16, 2009

Goats that could do with some friendlying

Here's a follow-up on our post last week about crying babies and quacking ducks. No experiments this time, just real life. We've written before about Jennifer and Melvin, dairy goat farmers who run Polymeadows Farm in Vermont. Jennifer is my sister. Ken and I go up to the farm as often as we can, which isn't nearly often enough, and try to be as helpful as we can be, which sometimes isn't as helpful as we'd like, given how much needs to be done, and how much we don't know how to do. But, it's a beautiful place, and we always love going up.

Until this year, Jen and Melvin were milking almost 200 goats. Then the economy crashed, and their buyer stopped buying their milk, so they sold some goats and built a dairy plant (which was heart-wrenching, and astounding, in that order), and now are making and selling the best goat milk, yogurt, feta and chèvre in all of New England (and Albany and soon, New York City). And we're not the only ones who say so!

But, back when they were milking 200 goats, Jennifer was incredibly busy feeding all the kids that the does were producing two times a year. Each kidding season lasted 2 - 3 months, and each doe had 1, 2, 3 or 4 kids. That made for a lot of babies to be fed, even accounting for the fact that they only keep the girls. (Because, it turns out that boys aren't of much use on a dairy farm.)

So, if 200 goats just have twins, that's 400 kids, that all needed to be fed, at least until someone came up and took the non-keepers off their hands. That's bottle-fed. So Jen was very happy when she bought some nipple buckets. She just had to train the babies to use them. She did this for a while, but it quickly became her least favorite job on the farm (some kids just can't figure it out, and sometimes it seems that the purpose of a baby goat's life -- after hugs and kisses -- is to deprive another baby goat of her chance at the milk, which makes training them even less fun). But, for a couple of years this was how she fed the babies.

To Jen and Melvin, right up there on the list of most important qualities a milk goat needs to have is that she be people-friendly. That's almost as important as giving lots of milk, and Jennifer and Melvin were very happy to have built up a herd of goats that always included friendly bucks (not a given in a herd of goats!) and girls who wouldn't leave the milking parlor without a hug and a kiss (from a human, not the buck). These goats were hand-raised with love.

However, Jen began to notice that her nipple-bucket babies weren't as friendly as the bottle-fed ones. Now, less friendly goats aren't mean or aggressive, they mostly just don't like their hugs and kisses as much as other goats do.  But this wasn't good, and in spite of the fact that it's more work to feed each one by hand, she's now back to bottle-feeding all her kids. They've got fewer goats now than they used to, and thus a lot fewer kids, but she's still bottle-feeding a bunch of kids.

Jennifer tells me that bottle-feeding doesn't automatically make the wary kid of an unfriendly mother friendly herself. She'll come around, but it takes longer, more cuddling.

Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee are sisters who were joined at the hip at birth (right, not literally, but they were inseparable in the barn, the yard, and so on). They are so inseparable that when one of them turns her head, the other one does, too, they go everywhere together, and so on. (Alice hangs with the Tweedles too, but she isn't quite as co-dependent, or into the choreography of life).  Tweedle Dum had her first kids before Tweedle Dee, but Jennifer brought them both up to the big barn, where the milk goats live and, by rights, before Tweedle Dee's time, so they wouldn't have to spend even a night apart.

Tweedle Dee just had twin girls -- I asked Jen if they are as inseparable as the Tweedles, and she said yep, so far they are. And, their mother isn't all that people-friendly -- perhaps because she was raised on a nipple bucket, and spent inordinate amounts of time with her sister -- and the kids are also more wary of people. Their grandmother, Dumbo, was wary, too.  The kids will eventually warm up, but they'll take more friendlying than kids who aren't so wary at birth, Jen says.

Is any of this a surprise? No, but it's interesting to see it playing out on the farm, where a specific behavior doesn't look to be genetic per se, but the ability to learn how to respond to the environment might be.  This is a point Ken and I frequently make -- it's adaptability that evolved, more so than exquisite adaptation.

Equally as interesting, to a geneticist, was the time Jennifer called to say that a goat had just given birth to a baby...and a leg. Just a leg. Or, when she called to tell us about the baby with hairy eyeballs -- his wattles, those long things that dangle from each side of a goat's neck, had gotten seriously misplaced. He could see just fine, but it was weird. (I have a picture, but do you really want to see it?) He was adopted by a little boy who loved him dearly. 

Geneticists spend so much time in the lab, with inbred flies, mice, zebrafish, arabidopsis plants, and so on that it's good to be reminded what it all looks like on the ground.


Jennifer said...

you forgot to mention that when the leg was born and I called to tell you, Ken was annoyed that hadn't instantly packed it in ice and sent it to you!

Anne Buchanan said...

That is true. I also didn't mention that Ken was very easily bribed to come up to the farm by the promise of a visit to see the goat with the hairy eyeballs!

Holly Dunsworth said...

Oh boy/girl/kid do I love reading about Jennifer's goats!

Anne Buchanan said...

You know, I tried getting Vermont Public Radio to do a piece on Polymeadows a few years back but the editor was from New York City and though he was a touch interested, and we exchanged some emails, and he even made a date to go down to the farm, in the end he was more perplexed by the whole idea than interested and he canceled. It would have been the best show ever.

Jennifer said...

VPR HAS done a whole series of farm visits, but all up in Northern Vermont, not down here. Bennington isn't really considered part of Vermont by the rest of the state. I think Anne should demand some kind of compensation for the idea.