Days 98-104: Near Rangiora, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

December 2, 2014

Days 98-104: Near Rangiora, NZ

The goats are the reason we chose to stay on this small family farm twenty-five miles outside of Christchurch. We wanted to learn more about what's involved in raising them, in caring for them, in milking them, and in arranging your life around the needs of a herd of animals that require your attention every morning after you wake and every evening before you sit down to eat dinner. As far as this kind of caprine education goes we do not come away disappointed.

The herd.
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The first thing we do each day after heading outside at a quarter past eight is to walk over to the goat barn, where we pick up and store the dozen feeding buckets that were set out the night before, and then clean and refill the two large buckets of water that make up most of the goats' water supply. We return to the barn two hours later to dive into the highly choreographed ritual of milking, which on this farm involves five of the dozen female goats mature enough to produce milk. The driving force behind everything is the hierarchy of the herd. There's the herd queen named Tikki, who has the biggest body, the biggest horns, and the kind of iron hoof it takes to keep eleven other curious and strong-willed animals in line. As soon as we start to prepare the barn for the milking process, she trots over to one of the two gates and tries to wedge her head into the gap between the fence and the post, no matter how small it might be. At the same time, Sarah's favorite goat, a sweet and friendly old girl named Gracie, walks over to the opposite gate and waits patiently for it to swing open.

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When we're ready to go, I open Gracie's gate and she makes a beeline for the first milking stand. At the end of each stand is a bucket filled with a combination of barley mash and a sweetened mix of corn and grains that to the goats is like chocolate and alcohol and pizza all put together. It's their favorite thing in the world, from now until the end of forever. Once Gracie's face is buried in the bucket, two vertical pieces of wood slide loosely around her neck so that she's comfortable but also unable to back away. As soon as this as done, I open the gate behind which Tikki stands, and she runs into the barn at full speed and dives face-first into the bucket at the end of the other stand. With the animals in place, Kristen and I work through the task of extracting milk from the pair of swinging udders. It involves a set of suction cups connected to a series of tubes and a holding tank that are all driven by a vacuum system powered by a pump that sounds more or less like an unmuffled lawnmower engine.

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It's controlled chaos, with the two of us working diligently to ensure that the cups are aligned the correct way, that the buckets of food remain full, and that the series of tubes and pumps and valves are all opened and closed at the right times and kept clear of stomping goat legs. It gets wilder when each animal is finished milking, because we then have to angle their head away from the best-thing-ever food, spread our arms wide as we try to herd them toward the door, and then get ready to let in the next anxious goat. And of course while some of the goats trot right out after they're done, others refuse to leave the milking area and have to be chained to the fence that runs along its edges until the whole process is finished. Then there's the goat named Harriet, who isn't part of the process at all, but who nevertheless wishes that she was and at some point each day jumps over the fence while we're distracted with something else. We then have to catch her, grab her collar with the right combination of care and force, and tie her up alongside the others. It's a lot of work, and it takes a great amount of skill to get it right, but we come to love the rhythm and structure and routine that go along with it. And within two days we've developed enough proficiency in running the milking process that we run it ourselves for the rest of our stay, and have no trouble getting a total of nine or ten liters of milk from the five goats every morning.

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Some time between 5:30 and 6:30 in the evening we walk over to the barn area for the last time, where we fill the food buckets with a mixture of barley mash and alfalfa and then top up the buckets of water. As soon as this is done, we swing open the gate that separates the paddock and the barn area, and at once the tinkling of a dozen tiny bells and the bleating of goat calls fill our ears as the animals hoof it as fast as they can toward their dinner. By the end of the week we're able to recognize which goat is talking based only on the sound of their voice.

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Although the goats were what brought us to the farm, most of the working hours of our days are spent elsewhere. That's because apart from a consistent but basic level of feeding and hydration, unless an animal is sick or hurt, they are almost entirely capable of taking care of themselves, which in this case means spending every waking moment eating some combination of grass, barley mash, alfalfa, or the branches or bark from fallen tree limbs. As a result, we spend a great deal of time sawing and lopping and then moving massive tree branches, pulling weeds from the gardens and flower beds and the edges of the house, re-positioning huge and heavy plastic barrels filled with barley mash, or making cheese or soap using the milk that we helped pull from the goats. It's a helpful reminder that running a small family farm isn't quite as romantic a proposition as city-dwellers who aspire to do such a thing might believe. The work is varied, it is spread all throughout the property, and it is never-ending. Even the most motivated farmer with the best of intentions ends up not so much managing the direction of this kind of farm as moving from one immediate concern to the next while trying to solve problems they've never before experienced and have no idea how to solve. The amount of energy it takes to do it, while also raising a family and maintaining a home, is staggering. We have an incredible amount of respect for Sarah and Steve and the work they do.

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Interesting experiences you can't find anywhere but on an animal farm are everywhere. Among these are the two times when we take part in the process of castration, first with a little goat and then with a big calf. To make this kind of thing happen, the person doing the work takes a stainless steel device that looks like a pair of pliers and places a tiny plastic band about the width of a Cheerio around the end of a set of prongs. When the handle of the pliers are extended the prongs stretch the band to the width of a golf ball, which allows it to fit over the little pair of animal balls and flush again the stomach. When the tension is released, the band snaps tight against the top of the scrotum and begins to starve the contents of the package of their blood supply. Within a few days time the tissue dies, the nuts fall off, and life on the farm continues on the way life on farms does.

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Well, except when the nuts don't fall off. Part of the process didn't go quite right for one of the little goats last week, and the result is that the dying bits of balls continue to hang on by what looks like only a thread of skin, which leaves the wee one in constant pain. To fix this, Sarah, Steve, Clementine, Kristen and I head over to the goat barn one evening before dinner and form a large circle around the goat in question. We then slowly walk inward, shrinking the diameter of the circle until there's no more than three feet of space between each person. Although we intend to close around the goat and just pick him up, he has other ideas and tries to sprint through one of the gaps between our legs and out toward an open area of the paddock. But this little goat isn't ready for Kristen. She drops to her knees at once, grabs him by the front legs and the chest, and wrestles him to the ground in the kind of solid hold usually reserved for college-level wrestlers. This gives Sarah the chance to bring the goat into the barn, disinfect the area around his testicles with a splash of iodine, and then in one quick flick of the wrist pull them downward and rip them free. We draw upon this new-found knowledge a few days later when Kristen and I and four other people surround, grab, and then pin down a big, heavy, angry calf and watch as one of the bands is applied for the first time. Moments later we spring back and away from the calf as fast as we can to avoid taking a swift kick to the face.

We set out on this trip looking for unique and unexpected experiences, and without question we are finding them.

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Annie the Pugalier confronting serious thoughts.
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The instruction continues on Sunday evening, when we go with Sarah as she heads out to a pair of goat breeders in the area to pick up two new additions to the herd. At the first farm, the man who's in charge of the breeding picks up the three-month-old goat and places it in the canopy-covered bed of the ute, which has been lined with a fresh layer of straw. Almost at once the kid begins to cry at full volume, calling out to its mother who feeds in the paddock just on the other side of the fence that runs next to the truck. But the mother is focused only on eating the grass three inches in front of her face and refuses to look our way. This leads the little one to scream out over and over and over again, in a way that's heartbreaking on its own merits, but that's all the more difficult to listen to because the tone of its cries make it sound as if it's saying "Mom! Mom! Mom!"

The noise goes on for the next half hour until we arrive at the second farm. But on this farm the owners are three sheets to the wind and in no condition for handling a living, breathing, jumping, screaming animal, so the task falls to me. With Sarah calling out instructions from the other side of the fence, I head into a tiny goat barn, corner the kid that I've been told I need to pick up, and then with eyes half open and my head half turned away I lunge for him. Even though this part of the job turns out to be not so difficult, in order to make it from the barn to the truck without the goat breaking free and running out into the paddock, I then have to re-position my arms so that the left wraps tightly around her chest and the other supports her back legs and keeps them from kicking. This is easier said than done when the animal in question is scared, wiggling in every direction except the one you want it to go, and screaming as loud as it can for its mother when its mouth is placed about a foot from your right ear.

In the end, as with every other task I'm asked to do on the farm, I struggle and struggle and think I'm about to fail before finally something in my head clicks and I figure it out. And with the goat under control I walk out of the barn, carry it a few hundred feet down a hill, and then drop it in the back of the truck with its new herd-mate.

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Our week on the farm is wonderful in so many ways, but it's not without one frustrating, unpleasant constant: the pollen allergies that continue to make life miserable any time I'm not asleep. When the northwest winds kick up the worst of the stuff they cause an unending stream of tears to run out of my right eye, down along my cheekbone, and pool above the corner of my mouth. The area around the eye soon turns so swollen that it almost closes. While all of this goes on, my nose runs uncontrollably, I sneeze every three minutes, and the veins along my temples stand out in relief from the pressure as my head throbs and pounds. All I can do is stand or sit or lay down without moving, with my eyes closed, wishing that all of it will end. The upshot is that instead of using the week to catch up on writing and work and rest, I spend most of my non-farming time trying to feel less miserable, apologizing for how awful I look and feel, and looking forward to reaching the driest, hottest, most plant-free area of Australia that we can find.

The good news is that by the time our goat farming experience is done, that escape stands only five days away.

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