Late December 2010 was a particularly cold year for us here in North Georgia. In a region that snow is a rare but special treat – this winter was brewing up to be snowy and in fact – frigid event. Anytime that the temperatures suddenly dropped with a cold spell, somebody here at the farm would say, “it must be time for baby goats to be born…..” because it certainly seems that it is the dead of winter that brings on the arrival of our goat kids.
This was the December in fact that Jill and I had finally had debated back and forth over whether to make the plunge and “start our wedding business.” So at this stage, we were still full of ideas and what if’s and work lists….and then of course – Christmas! With the unusual frigid winter blasts hitting the farm, it put us all into Hunker-Down mode. This meant all animals were brought into the barn to be stalled – each in their separate areas. Buckets for food and buckets for water, nailing up some tarps to keep that Arctic wind from blowing in – the list was long and detailed. The early snowfall was beautiful and fun but the 10-15 degree temps just put a sting into every activity and outdoor task.
Christmas Day arrived on cue as in every year. The family rituals of coming here to the house early, opening presents, eating a festive brunch, and a nice drawn out family time was right on schedule when reality harkened. We knew we needed to pop up to the barn and check in on all of the boarded up critters. Though they had been well stocked the night before, it was time to give another quick check on them. “Quick” likely wasn’t the best word since it meant piling on layers and layers of clothes and gloves and boots and hats – but the animals would surely need some additional hay or possibly for us to break the ice in their water buckets.
Jill had her two young boys to take back to the farmhouse – so I headed to the barn alone. As I approached the inside of the barn, I knew that something had happened. All of the horses were at their stall doors looking towards the middle of the barn. All of the goats were huddled in the hay and looking towards the middle of the barn. There in the middle atop of a soft pile of hay were two newborn baby goats. Births are always a precious thing and even the animals sense it is special too. It creates our own little Nativity scene as the wonder of life plays out before our very eyes.
But on this cold cold morning – the circumstances were not in their favor. For there on the hay beside their attentive mother, laid one dead baby goat and his brother who showed some lingering signs of life – but just barely. I made sure that there was indeed no life in the first before I went to the next. I grabbed up the lifeless goat kid and held him in my coat as I ran off towards the nearest house – Jill’s farmhouse.
One thing you can always count on with Jill living in the old farmhouse – is that she will have a huge fire roaring in the wood stove. With towels and a fierce body massage – the weak goat kid gave some reassuring signs of life. Grabbed from the jaws of death, at the moment, it looked as though we had saved one life. We have bottled fed many-a baby goats over the years. Usually it was when a mother had triplets and just didn’t seem to have enough milk for a third – or if a kid was just a bit smaller than its siblings and was pushed to the side by the bigger ones. When a friend from Australia sent me a special delivery one time – three empty whiskey bottles and special rubber “goat nipples” that screwed on the top of the bottles. They were perfect fit and our baby goats always took right to them so much better than the nipple accessories here in the States. Those Aussie’s know their goat nipples! ha, ha!
Anyway – so we dug out the milk bottle, made a batch of goat milk from powder, warmed it up to the right temperature, and tried as best we could to get the baby to perk up some interest to the bottle and the milk – but to no avail. After trying and letting him rest – and trying again….we knew we had little time to spare.
We called our down the street neighbor, Matt, who owns a small flock of sheep. We knew that he tube fed his baby lambs from time to time. We hoped he was home. Fortunately, he was and he brought his supplies and came immediately. Tube feeding is when you carefully funnel a long rubber like straw down the side of the throat till the end gets into the stomach. You then take a large needless syringe full of goat milk and insert it into the tube which takes the milk directly to the stomach. This method puts the nutrition right where it needs to go no matter the willingness of its recipient. Instantly – the milk begins to do its magic, the belly is full, and the kid can go to sleep now with a full belly – warming him up as well as giving him some much needed nutrition and energy. Part two is that I had to learn how to do this. It is scary beyond words. Funneling this tube down the throat is not only difficult and not suited for anyone lacking confidence – but you have to steer it in the right way or it could go down into their lungs – which of course would be disastrous and likely lethal if I got milk into the lungs. So, this task definitely falls into the category of “you do what you have to do because nobody else will – and it HAS TO BE DONE!”
So, we kept the little kid in a box on a blanket right beside the wood stove. I came back up and tube fed him two or three more times before sunset. The recovery was quick and a delight to see a frisky little kid emerge. Though he begrudged the tube process, he was anxious to have his belly full again. We wanted to take him back to his mother since he was feeling so much better. If we kept him too long away from his mother – she may reject him. So before bedtime, we took him back, confident that we had given him the necessary boost he needed. We built an igloo of square hay bales in one of the stalls and put him and his mom, Annie, in it. We helped to steer him to his mother teats and he got connected and happily nursed as instinct prevailed. She wasn’t sure what to think of him but was submissive to the process, but we were confident that she would accept him and let him nurse again. With plenty of hay as a bed and locked in a stall, we left them for the night.
Early the next morning, Jill was the quick one to head to the barn and check on the baby. To her surprise, there were more babies born to two different mothers. These babies all lay shivering and dazed by the frigid environment. She knew from yesterday’s experience that a quick rescue plan was needed to save these babies. As she peaked into the stall to check on Annie and her boy, she saw the little boy kid laying lifeless once again on the hay. Annie seemed interested in his plight but was obviously unwilling to accept him as hers. A quick panic-ridden phone call to me meant hustling out of bed quickly to fetch as many towels as I could locate and rush up to the barn.
It was a Chinese Fire Drill of sorts…..grabbing up baby goats, wrapping them in towels, heading for the warmth of Jill’s house, looking for boxes to place them in, trying to keep them separated so we knew who was who and who belonged to who – in the hopes of somehow returning some of these babies back to their moma’s at some point. But for now….our emergency mode was frantic. The poor little original boy kid was at death’s door again – cold and lifeless but alive. He had likely laid all night unattended by his mom….and not even benefited from her body heat during the additional freezing temperatures.
The other baby kids were in much better shape but we realized that the extreme cold temperatures were just taking a toll on their newborn situation. Now imagine this. All of these baby goats (a set up triplets, a set of twins, and the original boy) were white with some bits of colors on their head. It was certainly a task to put one set of twins in this box and remember that they belonged to Snow White – while in these other boxes, these three babies belonged to Comet and then one for the original boy. I wish now that we had taken a picture of this. Jill’s kitchen living room area is more or less one large room with a huge brick fireplace in the middle that only serves as decor at this point. The large separate wood stove sets in front of it with its ventilation pipe running up the original brick chimney. In the corner of the room is a Christmas tree of course. There are couches and kids and toys and furniture and now four boxes of baby goats. What a sight!
With a quick batch of warm goat milk, first up was the lifeless little boy goat in hopes that he would somehow regain his strength – once again. We felt so guilt ridden as if we had sent him out in the cold to die. But our mindset had been that he would reunite with his mother…and maybe he would have had the temperatures not be so awfully cold. Once again, the tube feeding method was completed – slowly, carefully, and cautiously. In fact, I went down the line and tube fed each and every baby there. Quick and easy (per say) and it got them all full and sleepy, making it easy to bed them down by the wood stove. Poor Jill with her two young children, Finn and Tucker – 5 mos. old and 3 years old. What a task she had keeping the goats in the boxes, keeping Finn out of the boxes, and soliciting Tucker for continual assistance. Maybe it is actually “Poor John”, Jill’s husband, who didn’t grow up on a farm but often has had to learn to be understanding when the Farm Girl role was required of his wife. But four boxes of baby goats – that might’ve been a lot to ask of him…but he endured it despite it all.
As if we didn’t have enough to do, our tasks that day also included devising a plan to create some sort of housing for these new nanny goats so that we could re turn their babies back to them – a way to hang a heat lamp safely, a barrier from any wind, where they won’t be so apt to lose their body warmth. Plus – goats tend to all get pregnant one right after the other, so we knew full well that more babies were to come. If we didn’t come up with the right solution, we would need more boxes – and that didn’t seem like a good option.
Stringing up heat lamps is risky business. If hung haphazardly, a heat lamp could catch hay on fire and you could lose your whole barn – animals included. It was an immense fear of mine so we really struggled to find suitable and safe alternatives. The barn seemed semi-full already with our horses. Baby goats would need a dry, warm place out of the wind where they couldn’t even get into trouble if they wanted to. Where in the world would that be? Our best plan was to convert the Milkhouse. The Milkhouse is a masonry building (a.k.a. the current Groom’s Room and current Workshop) with two rooms. Each room was full to the gills with stuff and junk. But, it was best to be as close to the barn as possible to keep our animal chores within range of each other. So, we began pulling stuff and creating several segregated areas so that each nanny could have an area just for her and her babies. This helps to keep the peace but it also helps them to bond better since we were still keeping their babies part time in the boxes in the farmhouse and returning them back to their moms periodically for feedings.
The following day – which is day three for the little original kid – we saw much improvement. We switched him over to the bottle to feed him which he took to now because he had some strength to him. He had become our little baby – as they always do when you bottle feed them. We knew we needed a name for him and pondered some good choices. Jill’s littlest boy, Finn, was especially intrigued with the little goat. Finn found it fascinating that the goat got a bottle just like a baby would. Jill in essence had two little babies….and we knew that Finn would become the goats buddy in no time. Because of some family history and because of the cuteness in the names….we opted to call the little baby boy kid – Huckleberry….so that we would have Huckleberry and Finn! Corny – yes, I know but cute!
Over the next week, we indeed ended up with many more baby goats – a total of 21 babies born in 10 days! I swear it was a bumper crop that year. The temperatures remained extra frigid for another couple of weeks so we had 4-5 heat lamps sprawled over a slew of baby goats. Even days after the first couple of deliveries – Jill, out of precaution, would bring the babies inside at night just to oversee them during the coldest of the temperatures – to return them back to their respective mothers the following days. We would haul the kids – one under one arm, the other under the other arm….walk out towards the pen as their mothers would be baaing out to them and them back to their mom’s. It was a crazy routine for a few weeks as we had all available space full of sectioned off contraptions as make-shift pens….watermelon boxes cut up as a floor so they would not chill on the cold concrete floors….with layers of hay on top. Plus their moma’s beside them – segregated by twos so that we could find two amiable nanny’s who would get along during this close confinement. I know as I write all of this is sounds so chaotic and confusing and trust me…the regimen was crazy. Most people would never believe of such a story – of such a hectic regimen but it is part of living on a farm with animals….Unbelievable – Amazing – Rewarding – Totally Looney! If it wasn’t for the love that we have for our critters – it would’ve been horrible. But….we saved them all and lost only the first initial one….and for that, we were tickled pink.
But, that is not the end of the story of Huckleberry. It is only the remarkable beginning. It is part of the wonderful story because he was a Christmas baby and that alone should make him feel special. It is part of the wonderful story because he was brought back to life – not just once from death’s door, but twice! What a miracle. And also because he was our special little kid who eventually would not sleep in the box by the wood stove in Jill’s house but in the barn stall with a slew of other thriving goat kids. But three times a day, we would go out to the barn and holler “Huckleberry!” and he would hear us and holler the loudest and more frantic baa back. In fact his “baa” sound more like a “baAAAAAAAA!” We would let Huckleberry just hang around us when we were working on things. Remember – by this time, Jill and I had already decided that we would convert the barn to a wedding venue, so we were on task almost every day especially if the sun was shiny and out. Huckleberry would follow us like a dog – or like a shadow for in his mind – we were his Moma….and Finn AND Tucker were his playmates. He became a special kid to us from these special times and connections and as he grew – he greeted friends, family, and visitors to the farm and they were all amused at him and his friendliness. He looked like a goat but he acted like a dog. We got Bear – our little Great Pyrenese pup – to protect the goats one day. He and Huckleberry were fast friends. As spring approached, we opted to keep Huckleberry as a neutered male pet instead of sell him as we often do some of our herd each year. Huckleberry was just too much fun to have around. So, we kept Huckleberry until……………..