14 January, 2016

So much new life in the pasture

Let’s do some photos, shall we? At two weeks old, and with the mud finally freezing, May’s babies are getting out of the barn and doing some exploring. And of course last weekend Kate-with-Soays dropped off 5 beautiful new Soay ewes! With seven new faces in the pasture I don’t know where to turn my camera, honestly.

A leggy sheep with fleece in shades of gold and sharp black trim walks toward the camera, pursued by two tiny goats. One is white with a red blanket, dramatic red eyeshadow, and black highlights on her legs. The other is pale tan with a black blanket, black knee socks, and sharp black diamonds over her eyes. They both have long floppy ears and are soft and fluffy.
Ella was rather dubious about her tiny entourage, as you can tell by the set of her ears and the way she angled her head to keep an eye on them.

The tan and black baby goat, Spice, sucks on my fingertip.
Spice pauses in the middle of exploration to find out if my fingers are food. Spoiler: they are not.

A tiny sheep, about knee high on your average human, nuzzles at my hand. His body fleece is golden-red-brown, while his face is a complex mix of cream and ash brown hairs that yield subtle stripes from his eyes to his muzzle.
Reuben seeks reassurance that despite all the new animals, he’s still my favorite Soay. Of course you are, little buddy!

Three Soay ewes rush past side on to the camera. They are varying shades of auburn brown, made darker by the angle of the light. Their bellies and insides of their legs are creamy pale, and there are markings around their eyes in the same color.
The new ewes are still in Confused Sheep mode, which means they stand still and stare at things then rush off. Here three are rushing between sets of grain dishes because a pig got too close to them. I love their graceful, high-stepping gait. Horse people will probably notice that the one in back is pacing (the legs on each side move together, rather than diagonal legs moving together). So far I’ve identified three or my seven ewes as pacers, which is intriguing. Unfortunately it’s not something the scientists on Hirta are studying. However it’s probably genetic, and if you study pics of Soays found online you can identify a lot of pacing sheep. To complicate matters, my pacing ewes sometimes trot. If I ever win the lottery, I’m funding a grant to study the locomotion of the population on Hirta.

2 January, 2016

The best laid plans of mice and men…

Alas, this is not a post to show off my beautiful new ewes! Unfortunately both Kate-with-Soays and I have come down with some kind of terrible stuffy-nosed plague, and thus the beautiful new ewes will not arrive until next weekend, when I am hopefully feeling well enough to enjoy them.

Meanwhile, most of you are probably aware by now that May presented me with a pair of surprise doelings, Sugar and Spice. After doing the math I figured out that she somehow managed a liaison with Sanglant a mere 4 days before he was wethered. Sigh. Goats will find a way, I guess. May was supposed to be retired from breeding ever again but apparently she had other ideas about it. Still, they’re freakin adorable and I promise as soon as I can handle the html there will be pictures.

27 October, 2015

Goat Science! Your goat probably likes it when you pet them.

Through the good graces of my friend Elodie (who mostly does not blog right over here, but also doesn’t blog about her narrowboat on Monday I was introduced to Dr. Alan McElligott on Twitter, who is actually now in contention with Elodie for Andrea’s Favorite Scientist because he studies goats! And Dr. McElligott was kind enough to send me a big pile of his published articles on goat behavior and health, so if you never see me again it’s because I’m acquiring an informal undergraduate degree in Caprine Studies.

Dr. McElligott’s most recent study really charmed me, though, because it looked at heart rate as a measure of stress as some goats went about their daily lives. The goats in question live at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in the UK, where a herd of 125 or so of them are privileged to live and contribute to science. The paper is officially entitled Autonomic nervous system reactivity in a free-ranging mammal: effects of dominance rank and personality and if you are into statistics about goat heart rates, relative herd rankings, and quantifying the sociability of any given goat you can get a copy at that link. But hang with me for a sec and I will sum up for you, the goat-loving public, why this paper makes me happy.

Dr. McElligott et al basically went out and hooked up some goats with wireless ECG monitors, and then followed the goats at a distance recording their behavior so it could be plotted against heart rate. They had different categories of behavior: affiliative interactions (things goats do with their friends either human or goat), eating/drinking, resting, scratching, and agonistic interactions (conflicts with other goats, including headbutting, biting, and shoving other goats out of the way). The goats were does and wethers agest 4-13, and mostly of middling rank in the herd. If only calorie expenditure accounted for heart rate, you would expect hostile behaviors to have the highest heart rate, and resting to have the lowest heart rate.

However, that wasn’t at all what the team found. In fact, eating caused the highest heart rate among the goats, confirming what goatherds know: food is very, very exciting to goats. The lowest heart rate was found not among solo resting goats, but among goats engaged in friendly behaviors like mutual grooming and goat cuddle piles.

A cuddle pile of three goats. In front, Gwyn leans against Siri and chews her cud. Siri rests in the middle, facing the same direction as Gwyn. May is behind Siri but perpendicular to her, with her head resting on Siri's flank as she sleeps.
Science suggests these goats are very relaxed and enjoying the cuddle pile.

Even better, the study goats were allowed to approach humans voluntarily for scratching and petting, and the study found that these goats, too, had lower heart rates, which suggests that they were getting the same enjoyment and relaxation from voluntarily interacting with humans as they did from interacting with their goat friends.

May rests her forehead gently against my cheek as I scratch under her chin. Her eyes are half-closed and her ears are totally floppy.
Science seems to confirm that May is getting as much benefit from chin scratches as participating in cuddle piles.

The study also found that some goats are just more socially inclined than others, and these goats tend to have lower heart rate variability in general, i.e. they are calmer goats. Their heart rates are lower when being social with their friends, but the difference from their baseline heart rate isn’t as great as it is with other goats whose heart rates vary more dramatically. This strongly suggests that the squirrlier goats in a herd will benefit the most from having a goat friend who doesn’t antagonize them but will instead engage in mutual grooming and the formation of cuddle piles. More aggressive goats still need company, but the best fit for them is one of the more placid goats who doesn’t tend to react in extremes even to hostile interactions.

It’s really nice, though, to learn that by sitting quietly and allowing goats to approach me and discover the magic of cookies and clever monkey fingers that can scratch the itchy places even horns can’t reach I’m doing as much good for the goats as I am for me. I would still prefer it though if May didn’t insist on grooming me back, as goat methods of attempting to tame human hair are not particularly fun for the human, and being licked always makes me feel vaguely ashamed, as if I’m an incompetent baby goat who isn’t capable of keeping herself clean.

23 September, 2015

Let’s call this Training Week. Pigs learn fast.

It’s very much fun to be doing actual training with the critters. Pigs learn really fast, and Tethys is eating cookies within touching distance already, so I’ve moved on to teaching her to recognize her name. This is an easy process: I say her name, then I give her a cookie. She’ll probably have it down by this weekend.

The head of a pig, obviously quite close to the camera. She is mostly black with a white stripe on the left side of her neck and another right between her eyes. Since this is the alt text, we'll pretend the picture isn't a little blurry.
Tethys eating a cookie right by my feet!

Janus is taking a little longer learning to approach, but he’s getting there! The difficulty of pigs of course course is that while they’re smart as hell, they’re not naturally inclined to listen to human voices and watch human faces like dogs are. Selective breeding makes an enormous difference in animal behavior, really, and nothing will make that more clear than playing training games.

The Soays present an even bigger conundrum: I’m still looking for an easy reward that they find meaningful. The ewes Lady Jane and Gwendolyn are easy: they want me to go away. So I walk up as close as they’ll let me, stand for a moment, tell them “Mamogion da!” (Good ewes! In Welsh) and then turn and walk away. I’ve successfully halved their flight distance using this and grain. The wethers however are much more human-social, yet not big on cookies.

The back of a little brown sheep's head, showing off the elegant sweep of his black horns. He is eating pelleted grain ration from a black rubber dish and studiously ignoring the animal cracker in the center of the same dish.
Reuben says cookies just aren’t that interesting.

They are enthused about the little bit of sweet feed they get, but it’s really difficult to use that in discrete chunks as a reward. I may end up making little wodges of oats stuck together with molasses and baked dry to try. Even if the sheep don’t eat them, the goats most certainly will, so they won’t go to waste!

Meanwhile Sebastian is learning to target and touch my open hand, which is a necessary first step to teaching him to lead with a halter instead of his current behavior when I try to lead him, which involves bracing his legs and becoming immovable.

A mahogany red goat with black horns, black stripes on his face and white poll, ears, and nose stretches up to touch my my hand with his nose.
Sebastian will target all day if your hand smells of cookies.

Sebastian has really mastered cookie Zen, which means he gets to move on to things like targeting and learning to wear a harness. His half-brother Sanglant is still really struggling with the idea that to get the cookie, you shouldn’t try to get the cookie. Every fiber of Sanglant’s curious and determined goat brain wants to treat my hand like a puzzle toy, but he’s finally beginning to back off and accept that only through patient waiting will cookies come to him.

The one thing I don’t have pics of, because I need to enlist my husband, is teaching Ella the American Blackbelly ewe to do classic obedience healing. She’s been offering it voluntarily for a few months when I have the grain scoop, so I figured why not work on putting it on cue? Hopefully I can get pics in time for Friday’s post!

21 September, 2015

Training games are the same, no matter the species

I’ve used various elements of Sue Ailsby’s Levels for dogs for more than a few years now. They will helpfully give you a structured way to teach your dog a bunch of very useful life skills. Recently, though, I’ve been using them on goats, who can use many of the same life skills, like “not being an obnoxious shit if a human is holding food”.

Using cheap cookies and my voice instead of a clicker, I’m particularly working on Food Zen. Some goats are catching on quite quickly that backing off makes a treat appear. Other goats are a little slower. The best goats, of course, are the ones who are already polite (and get lots of cookies for that).

A mahogany red goat with white ears and nose and a heavy sprinkling of white hair throughout her coat nuzzles at my hand while watching my face.
Siri tried biting my hand and that didn’t work, so she shifted to gently nuzzling my hand. But no treats appeared until she broke contact with the treat hand.

I need to keep working on it, but Siri grasped pretty quickly that standing at a polite distance and looking at my face got her cookies. Sanglant, on the other hand, just could not believe there wasn’t a way to brute force getting a cookie. He tried many, many ways to get my hand to open, but none of them involved NOT trying to maul my hand for a cookie. He’ll get it eventually I’m sure, but meanwhile Sebastian is highly amenable to positive training so I’m going to start teaching him to work in harness and do silly tricks.

The other animals that need training are the mini pigs Janus and Tethys. They’ve settled down around us a lot but still won’t approach, which is no good when they’ll eventually need routine care. So right now I just sit still and wait, and if they approach voluntarily within five feet I start gently tossing cookies to them. It took about two cookies apiece before they were standing about four feet away, so I gave them another couple cookies and ended the session. Tomorrow they’ll have to come closer than four feet, and so on until they will eat cookies from between my feet. I probably won’t teach them to take cookies from my hands since pig teeth are sharp and I don’t want to have to teach them Cookie Zen later!

Once the pigs are approaching confidently, it will be time to teach them basic skills like letting us examine their hooves and run our hands over them to check body condition. Pigs are clever beasts so I don’t expect it to take long if I let them lead the way and tell me what they’re comfortable with.

I’ll also be working with the Soays in the same way just as soon as I discover a reward they find meaningful.

Using positive reward systems to train various species is a lot of fun because of the cooperative aspect. Prey species like goats and sheep aren’t particularly amenable to harsher methods since it takes very little stress to kick them over into fight-or-flight responses. While you can get results from punishment-based training methods with some species, there’s not a lot of joy in hurting an animal until it does what you want.

7 September, 2015

Hard choices

Last week my beloved Thea started getting violent with the other ruminants. Not in the usual way of a swing of the head or a light bump, but actively trying to harm the others, culminating in an earnest attempt to hurt or kill Ferrington.

There’s a lot I can cope with, and scuffles for rank in the herd are not unusual, but this was something beyond the usual scuffles. So I made the difficult decision to place Thea in a new home, and sent Frankie with her so she’d have a buddy.

I still feel like I need a good cry. I loved them both, and I can’t even stand to look at pictures of them right now. Luckily Gwyn has adapted to the loss of her mother just fine, because I think if she were crying I really would be, too.

There’s a little bit of happiness, though, in that two potbelly pigs have come to stay and be working pigs to till the gardens and learn tricks.

On the left, a solid black pig about two feet high. On the right, a black pig with a white stripe between her eyes, white trotters, and a white stripe on one side of her neck. They are VERY fat, and also frothing at the mouth.
Apparently stressed pigs foam at the mouth. I did not know this.

The pigs don’t have names yet (I need to consult with my animal naming crew on Patreon![1]) and need to lose some weight, but they’re settling in well and finding the shady places, food, and water. The solid black pig is a barrow, a male pig neutered before puberty. The one with white is a gilt, a female pig who has never had a litter of piglets. She may have one later (she’s only 8 months old) but for now they both need to lose some weight and settle in. Future piglets will be intended for food, but these two are here to be pets and garden tillers.

The goats and sheep, by the way, are horrified.
The entire herd of goats and sheep clumped up and staring off to the right of photo where two small inoffensive pigs are located off-screen.

26 August, 2015

Life Stages: Gwyn, it’s time to stop nursing.

Gwyn, Thea’s daughter, is around five months old. Left to their own devices, a doe will get pregnant again about now and wean the existing baby. But I’ve wethered my two bucks, and Thea shows absolutely zero signs of demanding that Gwyn stop nursing. More worryingly, Thea is scary thin, having poured all her reserves straight into her udder. And Gwyn is huge for her age, nearly as tall as Thea.

Thea and Gwyn, both solid white goats with, um, horn-colored horns, lying down together and looking up at the camera.

Farmers with more land can round up kids (or lambs, or calves) and put them in a pasture separate from their mothers, where they can’t hear or see each other. I don’t have that much land, and having watched goats for a while I’d be loath to do it even if I did. Sudden separation from the herd, even with a group of buddies their own age, is really hard on goats. It’s even harder for mother/daughter pairs, who in the wild would stay together their entire lives.

The solution, in this case, was to put surgical tape over the orifices on Thea’s teats. Weirdly, the addition of tape seems to have caused Gwyn to lose the teats entirely — she acts like she just cannot find them. But day one went really well, the tape stayed on, Gwyn got to stay with her mother but didn’t nurse, and Thea was quite comfortable. This morning I milked her out and discovered Gwyn has been getting a half-gallon of milk per day. No wonder she’s huge and Thea is so skinny!

I’ll be adjusting Thea to being milked once every other day, which should be sustainable for her while providing enough for humans to have milk and cheese. Meanwhile, not-so-little Gwyn is happy and Thea is happy and that makes me happy.

14 August, 2015

Sheep smarts, a brief follow-up

Yesterday morning we went out to find that Frankie, a goat wether, had broken off the ends of his Stick of Shame and had his head stuck in the hay feeder. Again.

Right next to him was Reuben, the friendlier of the Soay wethers. Reuben’s horns actually have a wider spread than Frankie’s and more of a hook, so I was pretty sure Reuben was stuck, too. But as Daniel and I approached to wrestle Frankie out of the hay feeder, Reuben nonchalantly maneuvered his horns backwards through the gap and wandered off.

So in terms of spatial awareness and the ability to problem-solve, at least one sheep in this world is smarter than two of my goats (Thea also periodically gets her head stuck).

A small reddish brown moderately woolly sheep stands sideways to the camera. He is looking back behind him, so we see the right side of his body but the left side of his face.
You win this round, Reuben. That’ll do, little man.

14 December, 2014

Have you met Stuart Little?

If you’re one of my Twitter followers, you definitely have. But I couldn’t resist giving such an adorable little guy his very own post. Just look at this face!

A close-up of the face of a tiny black and white goat. He has straight horns about 4 inches long, and his markings give him the strange appearance of a very happy skull. His mouth is full of hay, and more hay is caught in his horns and wreaths his ears.

Stuart wasn’t thriving in his previous herd, and my friend C knows I am a sucker for tiny adorable goats, so she asked if I would take him and give him a chance. Of course I did, since I already had one wee adorable wether (neutered male goat) who was born here. Stubug spent his first few weeks living in what we referred to as his bachelor pad, a separate pen within the main pen for the boys. In there he had shelter and food and no competition for either one. Soon he’d gone from a timid and depressed little guy to one who scampered in circles and yelled at us to hurry up with his hay.

He’s actually never stopped yelling at us to hurry up with the hay since the day he discovered his voice. He now lives in a mini-herd with two other wethers, Frankie and Ben, plus the Very Contrary Sheep who refuses to accept any name I give her. His best friend is Frankie, who is at least twice his size but very, very gentle with his tiny buddy Stu.

1 September, 2013

Genetic Diversity in Dairy Goats

As I mentioned in my last quick update, I’ve made a conscious decision to cross in a meat-type buck this year, hoping to capitalize on his genetics for parasite-resistance and good hooves. I mean, man, you should see Henry’s hooves. He has amazing hooves that require no fooling with, which is a huge improvement over my dairy does.

The problem I find with the dairy goat world is that there are conformation shows. Conformation shows give me hives, because they reward a specific look but don’t reward things like hardiness, dairy production, and good hooves. The show-winning goats tend to come from herds where the breeders are engaging in some very tight line-breeding to lock that winning look in. The problem here is that tight line-breeding is difficult to do well if you aren’t willing to raise the resulting animals and ruthlessly cull the ones who fail to thrive.

Couple this with some weird genetic superstitions in the livestock world (e.g. it’s ok to breed father to daughter but not mother to son, which from a scientific point of view is an utterly meaningless distinction) and you wind up with things like the prevalence of the G6S gene in Nubian goats, and goats who need regular doses of wormer and frequent hoof-trimming to thrive. These things are problems. The fact that goats are difficult to AI has meant that on a broad scale the Popular Sire problem isn’t as bad as it is with, say, show dogs, but regionally you will still run into the same thing as people rush to the local herds that are winning awards and breeding to those bucks. It’s another huge loss of genetic diversity.

I”m not saying, mind you, that show goat people don’t care about their goats. I know for a fact that many of them love their goats as deeply as I love mine, and care for them incredibly well. It’s just a question of long-term goals for your herd, and I am fundamentally lazy. If I can breed up a dairy herd with good (but not necessarily stellar) production, consisting of goats I hardly ever have to worm with hooves I almost never have to trim, I am all over that. If I can take it further and improve feed efficiency so that the goats in my herd can keep up a healthy weight with smaller portions of grain and hay, even better.

So I’m totally fine with not being able to sell the kids from these first generations for premium prices. But I’m also certain that as I improve my herd, I will find other goat people like me, who are less interested in maintaining purity of breed and an extreme type than they are in hardy, efficient goats that are fun to be around because you can spend all your time with them smooching their noses instead of collecting poop for parasite testing or worrying over their feet.

And I do think the dairy goat world needs to take some cues from the meat goat world, where the goal is animals who thrive on an absolute minimum of human intervention. For that to happen, the goats have to be incredibly healthy, hardy, and resilient, and a goat who can handle what the world throws at it physically without stress is going to be a happier goat in general. It doesn’t mean we dairy goat people have to be less involved with our goats, but it does mean that we need to be very thoughtful and careful about our choices.

There’s also an incredible need for education in basic genetics and what they mean. Breeders need to know what a Coefficient of Inbreeding is and what it says about the risks you’re taking when you cross two animals. Instead of selling babies as young as possible to get them out of the way, we need to be keeping them for at least a couple months to see how they grow and how well they thrive. We need to be keeping track of how often our individual goats need worming, and treating parasite resistance as a trait that’s just as important as good conformation. We need to understand what the tools we use to evaluate goat health actually tell us, rather than using them blindly and half-taught.

Without this shift, we’re going to remain locked into an ever-escalating war with parasites, as one dewormer after another becomes useless because the parasites have evolved to resist it. We’re going to be dumping more and more poisons down our goats because we haven’t been making the choices required to ensure that the goats themselves can take care of the parasite load. We’re going to remain locked into a war that requires stronger and stronger antibiotics to fight off bacteria our goats can’t handle themselves. And we’re going to be spending huge amounts of money on grain and hay that are usually not organically grown and thus add to our carbon footprint, when we could be breeding toward goats who thrive on pasture and sequester carbon while they eat.

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