I fed the babies their bottles in the barn while Spencer watered and fed the animals in their various paddocks. I heard him curse in the dark, but couldn’t make out the words. He usually does this in the mornings so I didn’t pay any attention. Once I was done, I dropped the bottles off in the sink at the house and sprinted back to the barn. I grabbed the milking equipment and put it in the milking parlor. Not all of the goats were in the pen. In fact the gate was still wide open with Spencer nowhere to be seen. I shooed them in and noticed a lump on the ground in the dim dawning light. I realized it was Sweet Pea, one of my goats. She was bloated and had been dead for some time. Probably all night.
She was newer to my herd and was constantly being bullied by the others. I had seen it happen before. A larger goat will head-butt another and hit it a little too hard; it can snap the smaller goat’s neck. This is the first thing that came to mind. But then I noticed our buck, Big Jake up the hill, also dead and bloated. He was the biggest thing on the farm; no way that would be the case for him. Something else was going on. I looked to my left and saw Juicy Fruit. She’s one of my best milkers and she wasn’t acting normal. She was curled up on the ground and grunting. She is usually skittish, but she didn’t move as I came up. In fact, I couldn’t get her to move at all. We pulled and pushed her into the milk parlor.
While Spencer doctored her up, I went searching for other goats. What else would I find? By now I started to wonder if it was something they’d eaten. It was the most logical explanation. In the hilltop shelter I found three more. Lucy, Checkers and Snow Girl. Little Ruth was crying in pain curled around Lucy’s dead body and four others looked frightened as they cowered in the back corner.
I circled around the shelter and found the greens. A mound of recently cut shrubs. Some friends of ours had cut up their hedges and had given the clippings to us to feed our goats yesterday afternoon. We walked the property and found a few more dead. Then we turned our attention to the living.
After getting nothing useful online, we finally called our friend who’d given us the greens. He did some research and assured us he was on his way over. Meanwhile we started giving the sick goats some home remedies just to make ourselves feel better like we were doing something useful when in fact we had no idea what we were dealing with.
Our friend called back to say they were Bayberry bushes which also go by the name of Japanese Yew. Turns out that is pretty deadly for goats. Not much you can do except start digging a hole because in the three hours it takes to dig a hole big enough, your goat will be dead. Except that we had nine dead by mid-morning. Not only do we not have a place to bury that many goats, we have no way to bury that many goats.
Our two farmers markets weren’t going to happen. But we looked at the mounting pile of dead animals and conceded that we needed to make some money today to try and recoup. Not that anything sold at market today would come close to our losses and not just financially. Spencer raced down to Roanoke to sell as much cheese and greens as he could while I stayed behind with my children and in-laws to care for the ill.
Once we found out how the yew affected them we made the best decisions possible and hoped it would work. We gave them some meds and then forced water, laced with a vitamin punch, down their throats. As we ministered to the sick, we noticed more and more goats were showing symptoms. Largely dilated eyes, hunched up when standing, and later uncontrollable twitching and cries of pain before lying down and dying. Eyes always open.
Basically they died from respiratory shut down or cardiac arrest. The meds would hopefully give them time to let the water purge the toxins through their system. It worked…on some of them. Several goats we thought were the runners for survival tanked suddenly while those that seemed the worst pulled through, so far. But we’re not out of the woods yet.
When each goat died, it would begin to bloat almost immediately. We needed to dispose of the yew branches too. So we piled them all up together in our garden. Our only option was to burn the bodies. There were a dozen dead Christmas Trees left after the goats had eaten the leaves and these would serve as decent kindling along with all the left over lumber from various projects. Burning animals isn’t pretty.
Burning is a quick and efficient way to bring nutrients back to the land. Most farms are void of calcium because the animals raised there are sold and butchered off the property. Burning bones or leaving the carcasses to decompose naturally makes the cycle of life complete on a farm.
As it stands now our sick count is now up to nine goats. Two are my big butterfat-producing milkers, two are does we planned to breed this fall for milking next year, three are four-month old bucklings for our meat business and two are girls born this past January. Hopefully they don’t move off this list and go to the dead list below.
Now this is the hard part for me: the dead. These animals are not just livestock, they are my livelihood. I have spent countless hours with them. As well as Spencer, the kids, and my in-laws. Together we have contributed to raising and caring for these animals. I spent an entire summer giving ghost tours in Lexington to earn enough money to buy most of these animals for my business. We have taken turns getting up every hour on the hour at night for weeks to check on our goats during kidding season. Our arms ache from tendonitis due to the amount of milking we do on a daily basis. And right now burning in my garden are 14 animals.
Big Jake—our buck we just bought in November.
Juicy Fruit—one of my best milkers. I lost it as she died on my parlor floor this morning.
Sweet Pea—our newest addition to the farm. She had such potential.
Trouble—lived up to her name, but had a fine udder. She was pregnant and due any day.
Pretty Legs—was just ready to breed. Would have been a fine milker.
Checkers—she was born on Spencer’s birthday last year. Would have been bred this fall.
Ice Cream—another goat we would have had for a milker next season. Gone.
Lucy—I raised her from birth in a box next to my bedroom. She was and always will be my baby.
Margaret—A meat goat that had just recovered from scours. Such a waste.
Nutmeg—She went downhill fast but not fast enough. I had to put her down. The first life I’ve ever intentionally taken. It was not easy but she was in pain and only four months old.
Bottomless Pit—He lived up to his name and was going to be one of the best meat goats this season.
Orca—A close second to Bottomless Pit. He was a fine looking goat and a fast grower.
Snow Girl—She was only four months old. We only had seven girls this season, now even less.
Little Ruth—Another four month old. She would have been a perfect milker in temperament and lineage.
We have been dealt a great blow today. It was not how any of us wanted to spend our Saturday. But it was a day of learning. Lessons in life are hardly ever easy. But this one was especially difficult. It is one thing to have to learn a lesson and feel the sting of truth, but it is another to have innocent lives suffer because of ignorance.
I hold no malice for our friends who gave us the clippings. I don’t even hold guilt over my own head. It was just one of those things that happens and you stand by helplessly turning in circles looking at the twisted reality around you.
All day I keep thinking of what one of our religious leaders said last week at a conference for church.
“When we are grateful to God in our circumstances, we can experience gentle peace in the midst of tribulation...
“We sometimes think that being grateful is what we do after our problems are solved, but how terribly shortsighted that is. How much of life do we miss by waiting to see the rainbow before thanking God that there is rain?
“Being grateful in times of distress does not mean that we are pleased with our circumstances. It does mean that through the eyes of faith we look beyond our present-day challenges.”
-President Dieter F. Uchtdorf
I’m not sure of all the things we’re meant to learn in this trial. I don’t know why it had to be my animals that suffered because of our lack of knowledge. But I do know that being grateful while in the midst of my troubles, I will be stronger to handle those problems that come my way next time. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I just hope it holds true for my ladies fighting to survive in the barn tonight.