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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, so if you own goats you can also use the best undercoat rake to groom them, since is a great tool for shedding pets.

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.

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Capitalism still sucks. News at 11.

I went on a bit of a Twitter rant the other day about an article on veteran farmers. The two farmers featured in the piece were both officers, and that’s no mistake. The vast majority of programs that provide grants and low/no interest loans to help out veteran farmers are for people who already own land, but at unsecuredloans4u you can get a loan with no credit without owning lawn. Land takes money, and officers are in a much better position to be able to get a loan or lay out the cash for enough land to farm than enlisted people. This means that huge numbers of veterans who want to farm are unable to access programs simply because they don’t have the land to get started. Encroaching urbanization in many areas is driving up the price of an acre of fertile land to put farms out of reach of a generation of folks who would love nothing better than to be part of our nation’s agricultural web.

The division between enlisted and officers starts early. While someone who has just joined the military as an enlisted person might get one class on financial management skills and avoiding predatory lenders, a new officer is offered a low-interest car loan. It’s all very well and good to tell young enlisted people to stay away from shitty lenders, but they aren’t offered guaranteed access to good lenders, while a million exploitative used car lots and payday lenders spring up at the gates of every base. Financial management is a learned skill, and as enlisted folks are increasingly drawn from impoverished communities they haven’t had a chance to learn those skills and the military doesn’t help. Between low pay that qualifies some families for food stamps and the lack of financial literacy classes, some enlisted people come out of the military with credit worse than if they’d never gone in.

Homelessness and unemployment are also perennial problems among the veteran population, largely among former enlisted. An officer has a college degree and experience in managing people and systems. But how does someone who spent four years shooting people for a living translate that into skills that the private sector can understand, let alone finds desirable? We lure young people into the military with a promise that they’ll have job skills when they get out and the ability to pursue a college education, but offer them no help in pursuing either one of these things. If you can’t navigate the bureaucracy of your local college or university’s admissions office and office of veterans services, you’re going to be shit out of luck.

Offering enlisted folks a chance to buy a farm, whether through loans or grants, plus mentorship and guidance to get them established, would offer so much to both veterans and to the country. Our nation’s farmers are aging and family farms are increasingly being replaced by large corporate endeavors. It is not in the country’s interest to have a few large multinational corporations take over the agricultural landscape entirely (they already dominate it) and it is not in the country’s interest to waste the talents of veterans. Yet we seem willing to do both, by excluding veterans who can’t come up with the initial capital to buy a $500,000 piece of property.

It’s time to actually put our money where our mouths are as a nation here in the US. We say we want family farms and diverse agriculture, but we reserve subsidies for giant monocropping operations growing corn and soybeans and let talented veteran farmers interested in diverse, sustainable agriculture fall by the wayside. We let farms be sold to developers and build subdivisions where the only thing their fertile topsoils grow are very nice lawns while simultaneously espousing an “eat local” philosophy. Our actions and our words are not compatible, and it’s time to insist that the government back us up with policies designed to support veterans, diverse agriculture, and farms not lawns.

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Let me just wax lyrical for a bit…

Sometimes, at night, I go sit outside and look at my sheep. I generally take a length of acrylic fleece to use as a shepherd’s plaid what with I haven’t had the chance to make one from my sheep. Maybe in 2017. There is something magical about nights at the onset of winter here in the Piedmont, when the cold breaks the hazy humidity of summer. There’s so many stars in the sky, and if I trouble myself to go out back of the barn on a moonless night where the glare from our “safety light” doesn’t reach, I can see the Milky Way.

Anyway. I sit, wrapped in my fleece, and I watch my sheep sleep with Xita beside me. It’s magical. Times like that, you can almost feel a kinship with pre-industrial shepherds. Indeed, when it’s just the Soays out sleeping next to the hay bale, I can almost feel the first Neolithic shepherds beside me. THey’d probably appreciate modern touches like acrylic fleece and my very fine German Shepherd. Some things have changed very little over the millenia, and shepherds and farmers appreciate a good dog and warm, durable fabric.

It’s on nights like that as much as on slaughter days that I remember why I have animals, why I eat the meat they produce and take their manure to grow vegetables. It’s a very fundamental connection to the land and to the past that nourishes the soul along with the body.

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Chickens are not that fragile.

Ah, fall, when new livestock owners panic at the thought of cold weather and break out the heavy duty plastic. I was there a few years back, so I have some sympathy for you, but my learnings, let me show you them.

Chickens are not that fragile, y’all. Provided they can stay dry, they will do just fine roosting in the open air. Most of ours sleep in the barn rafters, a few go sleep in the trees. Before that they roosted in the run the geese currently occupy, which is open air except for the roof. We have never yet lost a chicken to winter cold, not even during the periodic polar vortices that swoop down from the north.

If you’re living way up north, windbreaks become necessary, but you still shouldn’t hermetically seal your barn or chicken house. Damp conditions arising from their own respiration will give chickens (and goats and sheep) pneumonia. If they’ve been living outside, your livestock are well-adapted to handling the weather. Make sure they have food, water, and a way to stay dry and they’ll be just fine. Honestly.

Remember that up until very, very recently nobody considered a chicken a pet. Their bodies are well adapted to outside conditions, and honestly if they can’t handle living like actual chickens you’re better off without them. Certainly don’t breed any bird that can’t deal with the very basics of chicken life. You aren’t doing its offspring or their future owners any favors.

But above all, remember: ventilation is more important than a totally sealed, draft-free chicken coop. Don’t make your comfort more important than the actual needs of your chickens. Sealing up their house is about what makes you feel good, not what keeps a chicken healthy and happy.

A good roof, lots of food, and available water are all you need to see chickens through the winter. They’ll be fine, I promise.

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Boom and bust cycles, or buy pigs now!

At least if you’re in Virginia between DC a and the south reaches of Richmond, from the mountains out to Fredericksburg, pork on the hoof is cheap as hell right now.

In fact, as the annual rush to secure winter hay supplies begins and the spring/summer breeding cycles come to an end, everything from pigeons to horses can be had at dirt cheap prices if not free. People often get lost in the optimism of lush summer pastures and the lure of higher livestock prices, only to discover that a horse eats a lot of hay, piglets are no longer selling for $150 each, and pigeons multiply like rodents given the opportunity. Looking to reduce feed bills they start dumping stock below cost, and the long plummet b of a market glut has begun.

Teacup pigs are a very striking example of the market cycle in my area right now, people are buying it from A year ago or more, a potbelly or American Guinea Hog piglet fetched around $150-$200 on the private market. Predictably, many people saw dollar signs and began pumping out litters of piglets, with the end result that starting late this summer some folks with young potbelly pigs were having trouble giving them away for free. Everyone in central Virginia who wanted a piglet had one, it seemed like. Prices are running from free to $50 each for potbelly pigs now, and $25-$75 for young American Guinea Hogs. These prices are well below the cost to raise a piglet to weaning age, leaving producers the prospect of either continuing to raise them to butcher age and then putting an entire litter in the freezer (who has that much freezer space??) or to take a loss just to get the animals off their property.

At least there’s little stigma attached to sending AGH to slaughter. The potbelly pigs, while also made of delicious pork, have been sold as pets so long that many of them wind up in bad situations receiving substandard care because of the novelty value. Rescues work hard to take them in but space is limited. Arguably it’s kinder to put an animal down and eat it than to keep it living alone, belly-deep in water and feces, because as it turns out many of a pig’s natural behaviors (like rooting) aren’t compatible with the house pet life. And while pigs are as smart as dogs, they haven’t had the benefit of 30,000 years of selective breeding to be enjoyable companions.

Pigs, goats, and sheep sold for below slaughter value are likely to wind up in slaughter channels no matter how many caps locked “NOT FOR FOOD” warnings the seller puts in an ad. Around here, those channels start with people who trawl craigslist for cheap livestock. They run them to the auctions, where they’re either bought directly by a few small local slaughterhouses that don’t have contacts with enough supplies to buy directly, or by bunchers who then take them to the New Holland auction in Pennsylvania. An animal raised as a cherished and cuddled pet will suddenly find itself in a world of shouting and cattle prods. It’s tough even on animals not socialized to enjoy human company. Dealers expect an animal to lose up to 25% of its weight as a result of the stress even if treated well.

Horses have it much wise since horse slaughter has been effectively ended in the US, meaning they have a long miserable trip to Canada or Mexico awaiting them. There just isn’t a market for pasture pets and half-wild horses that haven’t been ridden in a year beyond slaughter when so many steady, useful horses are also on the market.

In the end it’s much, much kinder for an animal to get a dish of grain and a well placed bullet in familiar surroundings, or one trip to the slaughterhouse. Even more ideally, small producers will limit their breeding to ensure a smaller surplus come fall. The large farms that have made names for themselves aren’t the ones glutting the market, they’re the ones that line up buyers before breeding season even begins, or have built a customer base for themselves at Farmers Markets and in local butcher shops.

Breed to feed yourself and your friends and family. It is nearly impossible to make money in small livestock without access to the economies of scale a large producer has. It sucks, but that’s the market.

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Things I do when I’m not farming: reading

Black Wolves by Kate Elliott, available for pre-order from Hachette Press via many fine outlets, release date 3 November.

So it turns out that sometimes you can in fact sad face enough at an author (and also be the first person to name a goat after one of her characters) that you can score a sneak peek at a book! Which was me and Black Wolves, because I am a huge fan of epic fantasy and when I heard Kate was working on a new one, I was all a-flutter. BW is set in the same world as her Crossroads Trilogy, although years later. You don’t need to have read Crossroads to read this, but if you have you may find a whiff of comfort among the familiar places (and faces) even as Madam Elliott exercises the reader-torturing skills for which we adore her. I know I’m reading a Genuine Kate Elliott Novel(tm) when at least two or three times I have to resist the urge to tweet “OMG WHAT HAVE YOU DONE”.

The plot synopsis is available at every bookseller, so let me say this: BW is a book about what family means, about love, about grief, about betrayal, about hope and about struggle. It is also about, and I quote, “giant justice eagles”. It is not the book you pick up when you’re half-delirious from the flu and need to kill some time, rather it is the book you pick up to sink into a world and a plot so rich and complex it feels almost more documentary than fictional. If you’re me, it’s the book you pick up because you love fantasy and the recent trend toward “realistic” books (where “realistic” means “full of gratuitous violence against women” hi Mr Martin) has made you wary of picking up new books.

That’s not to say nothing bad happens to women here, but it doesn’t feel like it’s there to titillate or to add “grittiness”. Kate Elliott almost invariably invites the reader to empathize with the victims of violence, though, in a marked contrast to many authors, and it’s no different here. This focus means that the incidents of bloodshed are many times more devastating for the reader than they would be otherwise. You’ll probably join me in the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth if not the desperate capslocked pleas for mercy on Twitter.

In short, if you would like to read fantasy with giant eagles set in an east Asia analogue instead of your standard western European analogue fantasy setting, if you would like to read fantasy with complex human relationships in all their messy glory, you should pre-order this book in whatever format suits your fancy. If you don’t like to read these things, you should question your life choices and then buy it anyway.

5/5 fuzzy little sheep for keeping me riveted from beginning to end.

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And the Windows of heaven were opened.

I’m late blogging today courtesy of a combination of an unnamed monsoon followed by the outer edges of Hurricane Joaquin.

A black rubber two quart feed pan full of water. Tethys the pig side eyes it.
The monsoon filled two quart feed pans in just a couple hours.

The heavy storm a few nights ago means Joaquin is dumping water on ground already saturated. In many areas of my pasture that’s not much of a problem, since pigs and plant roots have created enough soil permeability to allow drainage. In other areas, however, there are pools of liquid mud just waiting to try to suck my boots off. It’s not fun.

Hurricane prep also required us to get the grain out of the feed stall and into the shed so we could open both stalls up for the goats, sheep, and pigs to shelter in. Having both stalls open ensures that large pushy animals like Queen May and Sanglant can’t keep the smaller, more retiring animals out of the barn. The rabbit colony needed a new roof and a wall on the east side, and the piglets needed their house moved and stuffed with straw so they could stay warm and dry.

In the middle of all this the goats broke into the feed stall before it was prepped and ate approximately 25 pounds of grain, leading to horrifying diarrhea and the early attempts at exploration by the juvenile poultry who’d been living happily in that stall.

Never a dull moment, especially where goats are concerned. So the ruminants are on a hay-only diet for a couple days while hurricane Joaquin brings cold, wind, and wet. In the house, we’ve filled water containers and located flashlights and batteries. Now we just wait to see whether or not the power will stay on until Tuesday, when current weather predictions show the last of the storm leaving our area and the sun returning for the first time in a week and a half.

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Things I do when I’m not farming: knitting

Mostly I’m putting this here as a blog post in the hope that it will inspire a vague sense of accountability and I’ll actually finish this thing. You see, I’m one of those knitters who’s really good at starting projects but really terrible at finishing them, which leads to a certain accumulation of forlorn unfinished objects.

My latest project is a shawl, from the “A Handsome Triangle” pattern in Victorian Lace Today. Except that I hate knitting with lace weight yarn, aka “thread” and also shawls knit with tiny yarn are very pretty but basically useless for staying warm. So instead I’m knitting it from heathered brown wool, in fact Fisherman’s Wool from Lion. It won’t win awards for the delicate beauty of the stitches and pattern, but it will be a durable, warm, functional garment. The lace pattern is a little too fancy for me to call it Shaker-esque in its simple, functional beauty. But my preference is definitely for items of clothing that prioritize durability and functionality over, say, the ability to pull the whole thing through a woman’s wedding ring. Much like my beloved Soay sheep, this is a shawl meant to endure and be good at its intended function rather than being flashy and high-maintenance.

Oh wait, you wanted a picture? Here’s part of one half, all stretched out so you can see the lace pattern.

Dark brown sweater-weight wool, knitted into a pattern reminiscent of over-lapping leaves on a vine.

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Fall growth is coming along

We had a soggy week here last week, so the fall-planted food, forage, and cover crops are growing like, well, weeds. Cool, most weather means our friends the decomposer fungi are coming out to play!

A broad-capped white mushroom surrounded by young grass, legumes, and brassicas.

The primitive einkorn wheat I planted is thrilled with the fall weather, and doubles in size overnight. Here it is as newborn leaves.

Tiny, delicate blades of green wheat leaves standing straight and about an inch and a half tall.

Even trees are getting in on an early fall burst of growth, as this baby sassafras tree demonstrates; however I did have to call the tree removal services from, since one of the trees was almost falling inside of our deck.

A six inch tall a sassafras tree with a bushy growth of green-gold leaves. Some leaves are shaped like pointed ovals, some like mittens, and some are divided into three lobes.

The late summer/early fall burst of activity from the vegetable world always raises my spirits, despite the number the cool, damp weather does on my pain levels. The grasses and trees will grow until the frost nips them, then sleep until spring when they’ll put on a wild, celebratory burst of growth and become flush and heavy with seeds.

Some time in April, before the wheat harvest, the front grazing area with its ample supply of sunshine will be ready for its first grazing, just in time for spring lambs to really start wanting solid food. I’m looking forward to it, and clinging to the way this small fall growth boom reminds me that spring will come.