One of the great joys of spending time with farm animals is to simply observe them. There are many enumerations of the herdsman working intently as he/she leans on a fence post at the edge of a field.
Observing is one of those passive/active activities that has led to discoveries and knowledge forever after in the history of man. We use such marvelous adjectives as “astute” with “observation,” and “careful, thoughtful, patient.” Putting myself into this role gives me a chance to be present, out of my head, into a universe of basic and complex weaving.
In my Waldorf Teachers’ training we gave a Western philosopher, writer, scientist, humanist’s name to this way of looking at the world. Goethe. In his treatises on color, sight and plants he offered up tremendous learning through observation without judgement, prejudice or anticipation.
And so, when I walk with goats in the woods and pasture, I observe. It is fall. What are they eating? When? What do they prefer? Where do they roam if I stand still?
Heading out from the barn in the morning, when the dew is still on the grass, we go to the woods first. Hungrily they nip at the lower Beech leaves, the Sugar Maple saplings along the ground, and the packets of Oak leaves, recently dropped from the majestic trunks beside us, brought down by the weight of the acorns and the West wind blowing through. Beech is preferred to Maple. Oak is sought out and leads them further from my side.
And then, as we move further into the woods, we come across a long needled fir (Douglas?) and they gobble up the needles, the tender branch points, and stay there for as long as I permit, reveling in the resinous virtues of the pine. Intellectually, I remember that pine has antibiotic properties, and what else? I will seek further into the vitamins, minerals, and more that these different plants carry at this time of year. I imagine the cooling of the weather is also bringing out sugary flavors, as it does in our root vegetables.
Heading closer to the pasture, we come across thickets of golden rod, already gone to fluffy seed heads. They nibble the yellowing leaves, standing there at ease reaching for these plants that are just below head height.
Grass and low growing plants are not desirable in the morning hours. They don’t like the dew. They avoid eating wet plants in general. And you’ll never have an easier time getting them back to the barn than on a rainy day! Fair weather friends they are.
For those who dislike the invasive Autumn Olive, goats are your ideal pet. They will nibble leaves, tender shoots, and completely strip a tree in minutes. I find these on the edge between woods and orchard, along the dirt roads, by a friend’s tennis court.
I’d been told that they’d eat Poison Ivy. And yes, I’ve seen them nibble it a bit. But either it’s not a favorite, or they prefer it young and tender in the spring. In any case, they’re not making much of a dent on the lush growths of it that I bring them to, preferring the leaves of the nearby beech, fir and maple.