Spring Nibbles

Spring is here, sort of. This being Michigan, a common vision is a pile by the door of muck boots (or wellies), clogs, sneakers and flip flops. I’m never quite sure what to wear when I get up till I sample the chilly (or warm) air with my nose barometer (rather pointy and apt in this capacity). It is a given, that mornings are friskier than mid-day. Or, normally this is so. So I pull on my goat jeans (a might sprinkled in a day or two’s milk and dust), a long sleeved shirt and a couple sweaters – with the option of removing layers as needed. The rare morning calls for a hat and scarf, such as today, May 15th!!!

Yes, there was snow on the ground when I got up. SNOW! Then it sleeted tiny white pellets, a sprinkle of rain, and now the sun is shining gloriously. In France we would call it une journée de giboulée IMG_1004

But back to the goats. The mini-herd is currently comprised of five adult females and their nine offspring, five doelings and four bucklings. The last will be heading off to friends soon to be nourished through to fall, and then to fill their freezer. The kids came in two batches, one cluster in early April – predominantly does – and the second cluster three weeks later, on a full moon, 24 hours after an atmospheric shift to cooler, misty weather – predominantly bucks. As my dear Isabelle told me so many years ago now, generally by the end of a kidding season, you’ve nearly even numbers of girls to boys. And so it is.

Since early May the short goat walks have become long days on pasture. The pasture isn’t particularly lush or rich here – in fact a good chunk of it is on sandy land where clearly the past owners scraped up the top soil and sold it off. But there is sufficient greenery to put out two strands of flexible electric fencing, and keep them there for 6-7 hours, nourishing them enough to lower hay costs. They are moved daily.

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DSC_0167.JPGDSC_0184.JPGMoms are the best teachers for what is edible, as well as a naturally curious and sampling nature. Water is now a drinking option as well, though mother’s milk when within reach is often sought.

DSC_0158.JPGTime permitting, after a day on green grasses, a walk through the woods is in order, exploring what tempts. In this, the spring season, that list includes: young maple leaves, young beach leaves (and the smaller leafy treeish bush beneath it – reminds me of huckleberry leaves, though far taller), and ground cover plants including this one, Dutchman’s breeches. IMG_0983

IMG_1022IMG_1018There’s another single waxy green leaf they nip at in passing, pushing up through the ground beneath the firs, in the same spots where later in the summer there’ll be a lush crop of poison ivy. IMG_1013

They are avoiding these spottled trout lilies and in general the trillium blossoms (though a kid will nip a white flower or two with no ill effects). Wild leeks are only barely poking their heads up, they may or may not go for them.IMG_136720080420TrilliumTrees_730x5835645194348_f63fec694c

With freshening season now safely behind us, as well as high winter and the hard labor of barn-cleanout (3 days, 27 man hours), these once docile does are now lithe and powerful, determined and focused. They know where the grain is stored, they are most adept at slipping between legs and pushing out into the aisle when we enter to refill water buckets, etc., Winter was strenuous only in the refilling and carrying of water buckets. Spring is physical in a completely different way.

In their current temporary digs the physical systems are lacking, eg. no specific post-milking area; a make-shift kids’ pen of old pallets that requires daily tweaking.

It is time to start weaning the kids from their mothers, or at least separate them at night so a decent quantity of milk can be collected in the morning. But without the requisite structural elements, success is still a wistful concept. Amused as I am to find them happily with their moms in the morning, I sigh when I remember the care with which we’d locked them in the night before. I’m in one of those moments where I know what is needed, but must be patient with what is there.

What do they eat?

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.

IMG_0472Observing 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?

IMG_0508Heading 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.

IMG_0470And 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.

IMG_0516For 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.

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