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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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Outcrossing for Genetic Improvement

I’ve finally found a buck to breed three of my goat does to this fall. I’m extremely pleased, as I found a Baylis line Spanish Goat buck reasonably nearby that I can cross my ladies to.

As I mentioned in the Case Against Purebred Livestock, the loss of genetic diversity represented by randomly closing gene pools is a serious problem where myths that aren’t true. In dairy goats, heavy selection for milk production has also meant the loss of some important characteristics like parasite resistance and low-maintenance hooves. Breeders are willing to worm their dairy goats frequently and trim their hooves before every show, so you wind up with animals that are higher-maintenance and not as hardy as they could be. Kind of like if you see Dobermans with uncropped ears, you will see a weird variety in those ears for purebred dogs, because Dobes have been shown cropped for so long that there’s been little selection pressure for a standardized natural ear.

All of which explains why I’m excited to find a Baylis buck to whom I can outcross. The Baylis line goats aren’t as weirdly bulked up as Boer goats (for instance) and have a long body and angulation reminiscent of dairy “type”, so the kids shouldn’t look radically different from dairy goats in general appearance. But hopefully they’ll carry some of their daddy’s parasite-resistance and slow-growing hooves. I will probably keep the best doeling from the lot, a girl of moderate size, good udder attachment, and who doesn’t need worming around weaning time. And then I can use her to braid together dairy and Spanish genetics, looking for that one in a million goat who thrives on minimal grain, minimal worming, and yet produces sweet, creamy milk in a reasonable quantity. I’m very much willing to sacrifice extreme dairy production in return for hardiness, it seems to me that the bargain represents in the end what is best for the goats.

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This year, people, this year.

Inside the last month I’ve felt kind of like we were The House Of Death. My rehab project goat Chism didn’t make it — the vet thought he was too far gone by the time he got to me for me to actually save, and I wound up having to have him put down. Then we lost Barachiel, our big black long-tailed Sumatra rooster, and yesterday we lost Captain Crooked Toes, our ginger-red standard Old English Game rooster.

Chism’s death was a blow, and I’m still grieving him. He deserved better, and it hurts hugely that I wasn’t able to save him. I ended up having to take him to Tidewater Trail Animal Hospital since the goat vet couldn’t make it out here for a couple days when I called. Dr. Andi sent him on his way with love and kindness while I scratched his special very itchy spots on his face. They’re normally dog and cat vets, but came through for me in a big way on this one and I can never say enough about their professionalism and compassion and wonderfulness.

Barachiel and Captain Crooked Toes were smaller blows, but still. They weren’t even on the list of “Roosters I Would Like To Drop Dead And/Or Put In The Freezer In Plastic Bags”. They were both gorgeous, but more to the point they were not only gentle with their hens but valiant in the flock’s defense. Both of them have gone up against hawks who were trying to prey on the flock, pitting their rooster selves against predators designed for killing while the hens got away. The only bright spot is that the standard Old English Game hen just hatched five chicks, and two of them look to be children of Captain Crooked Toes while one looks to be from Barachiel, so provided the little fluffballs make it to maturity we haven’t lost their genetics entirely.

Death is a part of agriculture as old as the first human being ever to domesticate an animal, but for me at least it’s never an easy part. Even a rooster destined for the fridge is an individual who deserves care and compassion, and every death deserves to be honored. Especially when it’s a death for my benefit, for that matter. But being human it’s hard not to get attached at least a little bit, and these three deaths were all so wasteful.

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Wednesday is for goats who refuse to stop lactating

Have I introduced Luv-R-Goats JHV Ambrosia? I don’t remember and I’m too lazy to go back through and look, so you get to meet her again if I did. Brosia to her friends, she came to me courtesy of Pun Kids Farm. I’ve been trying to dry her off for over two months now, and she just refuses to even consider ceasing lactation. She says she lives to lactate. I have argued her down to 3 quarts a milking now that I’m milking her every other day; previously she was giving me a gallon. It’s progress.

Ambrosia is a LaMancha, with what are called gopher ears, which means that no, no one cut her ears off. She was born like that. She is a very friendly and exceptionally inquisitive girl who likes to follow you around nibbling your fingers delicately until you give her actual food. And boy, does she love her food. It’s the only thing she loves more than going to get a drink and then coming over to dry her tiny little beard off on your hand.

Ambrosia, an earless LaMancha goat, rests her chin on my hand and looks straight into the camera.  Her coat is black, with gold stripes running from her eyebrows down to her nose.  Her nose is white.  She appears to be smiling in the way of a creature who is plotting something.

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Still Catching Up: Monday is now for young lady goats

Did I introduce Chribrydon Maybelline’s Siri? Siri (and “Sweetie”) to her friends. Her friends include every biped she’s ever met, and her favorite thing to do is to come stare lovingly into your face while she has a cud and you rub her neck. She’s a gorgeous little thing, a more modern style of Nubian with a graceful, delicate build and a lovely arch to her nose. And, of course, this gorgeous bundle of love comes wrapped in a rich mahogany red coat sprinkled with white roaning and sporting some awesome moonspots.

But mostly when you try to get pics of Siri, you get pictures of her face, because she needs to be close to you. She needs love. Love NOW, monkey. Love.

A close up of an adolescent Nubian goat's face.  She has a dark brown-red coat with a frosting of white hairs, white ears, a white nose, and a white star on her forehead.  And she loves you.

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Dairy Goat Profiles: Friday is for spotty goats!

Continuing catch up, I’d like to introduce Skinny Lane Lilliana, who is known more familiarly as Lily and Lil and “Lil Bit” (which is a joke because at 185lbs, she is the largest goat in the herd by 40lbs).

The cool thing is that she looks a LOT like Queen May, although as far as I know they are not related, except she has SPOTS. Glorious, glorious spots. Also adorable little wattles, and really elegant ears with a delightful flip on the end. Oh, and a lovely profile that has the characteristic Nubian look without being extreme. Observe!

A profile head shot of Lily, showing her Roman-nosed profile, her adorable wattles, and her chestnut coat accented with cream facial stripes and also SPOTS that start on her neck.  Her ears are a frosted with white and have an amazing upflip on the end.

Lily is a really adorable goat, very sweet and mellow. She’s taken over as Queen May’s second in command, and the two ladies are often to be found side-by-side, affectionately scratching their heads on each other and having a cud while they watch the smaller goats get up to shenanigans. She’s also dried off nicely and is about to be bred for spring babies. I can’t wait to see her kids, and I seriously hope they get her sweetness and also spots.

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Dairy Goat Profile: Wednesday is for baby goats!

Continuing my theme of playing catch up, here is Sophie (Esk’s baby). She is a really adorable little thing who is totally testing my commitment to selling excess goats and keeping the herd size under 10.

A head shot of Sophie, who is sitting in my lap. She has a black face with brown stripes running from eyes to nose, a white patch on top of her head, a white splodge on her nose, and two white streaks on her chin that make her look sort of like she has vampire fangs.

She recently discovered her ability to leap into and out of human laps without assistance. Given the hardness of the heads of even very small goats, this means that sitting down in the goat pen is a high-risk occupation and may result in receiving a ballistic baby goat to the face. But like all kids, she is adorable and sweet and wants to suck on your fingers and if you hug her enough, she will eventually settle down for a lovely cuddle and nap.

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Where to even begin…

Let’s see. Since I last updated:

1) Esk had her baby, Mixed Blessings Sophia (Sophie to her friends). Unlike the previous two does, who chose to make me stay up all night with them, Esk didn’t even let me know she was in labor. We went out for evening goat check one tuesday night and bam, baby goat.

2) Josie and First didn’t work out at their new home, so they’re back at the Manor for the moment. Once I get some good pics of them, they’ll go back on the For Sale page.

3) Frankie Four Feet has a home, he’ll be going to Roanoke once he’s old enough to be weaned. So he needs to come off the for sale page.

4) I am having a horrible time keeping up with a full time class load and suspect I’m going to have to just cave and drop two classes.

5) Great things are in the works! Which is part of why I’ve been busy as hell. But look for a site redesign coming soon, along with my new project which is mysterious and fabulous and other things ending in ous!

Oh, and I got an update from Crispin and Clementine’s people, so I’m queueing up a picture of them which will brighten your entire day.

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In love with dirt, or: Becoming the Fungus Fairy

One of the amazing things about my life is the amazing people in it. Today I got a package of fungus spores from Bountiful Gardens (along with some seeds I had also ordered). These two things are intimately connected.

My friend Gowan, you see, is a Horticultural Oracle, and a great gift she has given me is to share her love of dirt.

Most of us don’t think to much about the dirt, really. It’s there, the plants grow in it and we walk on it, and some things burrow through it, but mostly we fail to appreciate that dirt is not a dead and inert mass of decayed organic matter and pulverized rock and whatever minerals are leached out of the rain. It’s a ginormous organism, teeming with life. Macro organisms like earthworms are there, sure, but also micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi, that work together with plants to make plants healthier and more efficient at extracting nutrients from soil and putting nutrients into soil. Beneath our feet are entire worlds.

Conventional farming kills these tiny, complex worlds. The plowing and harrowing and tilling break up the delicate networks of micorrhizae, expose tender bacteria to ultraviolet light from the sun and the drying air above ground. We plant our crops in soil impoverished by the death and destruction of the soil organisms, and as a result end up having to drench them in chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

So here I am with a back acre that was denuded of topsoil a decade or two ago by a rapacious former owner, goats and chickens to feed, and the excellent guidance of a Horticultural Oracle to lead me on my way. In hand I have packets of seeds — legumes, vetches, grasses — and packets of soil organisms. Also, I have a steady and reliable supply of chicken and goat manure, along with their used bedding, which is working on becoming compost (with help from the chickens themselves). But it would take a lot more compost than I’ve got to get the back acre turned from a desolate wasteland of thorny brush and invasive trash pines into good forage for the critters, hence the seeds and spores.

The goats have done a magnificent job of clearing away what dead growth there was and pruning back the pine trees until the plants that are there could get some sunshine. The chickens did some loosening of the soil surface but not enough, so I cheated and got my neighbor to run over the naked bits with his tiller just this once, so that my seeds and spores wouldn’t just slide off the compacted surface of the clay at the first rain. The chickens, helpfully, have been going over the tilled areas and breaking the big clumps of soil up, and also pooping and then tilling that into the soil for me, so there’s little pockets of plant nutrition here and there.

After this Saturday, the poor chickens will lose their liberty for a while. Hopefully I will sell off all the spare bantams, and then the chickens will be confined to quarters so that I can go traipsing through the tilled bits of the back acre, scattering seeds and spores and water without being followed by mob of ravenous feathery beasts intent on snarfing down my precious seeds. After that, it’s up to the seeds, the spores, and the good Lord’s inclination to give me lots of sunshine but just enough rain to germinate the little buggers. By springtime, it is entirely possible that the blighted back acre will be well on its way to an accelerated recovery of topsoil, helped along by the application of extra compost when available and deposits of used goat bedding and fallen leaves from the oak trees. With grace, the dead areas will turn green with clover and vetch and grasses and brassicas, and once the plant life is mature enough that it’s no longer primarily water, the goats and chickens will be turned loose to devour and turn the greenery into more compost, which will decay there on the dirt and provide food for yet more plants.

Some day, I may even be able to look back at that acre and see a pasture of amazing rich forage with nearly entirely recovered soil, and I won’t need to monitor it as religiously for a need for another application of seed or spores. All because Gowan shared with me a love of dirt.