Barbara Ann Adams

Creta Farms

Goat Husbandry

I.  Food for Thought

Goats won’t eat tin cans or pop bottles or last summer’s blown-out flip flops. Such folklore might have arisen when someone unfamiliar with goats observed one of the species hauling around a tin can, mouthing it perhaps to test for leftover pears or asparagus. I have seen goats twirl a beer can by the pull tab, pick up a rib bone discarded by the dog and pass it around for hours, suck on a rusty chain like it was Twizzler. But I have never seen them ingest any such items.  Like human kids, goats learn by putting stuff in their mouths. What concerns me is what they will eat: ornamental grasses, trees, garden and decorative plants—the more expensive, the better.

The spring after we built our new farmhouse, I got the idea to camouflage that magnificent, ugly square of metal essential to living comfortably here in western Oklahoma. The heat pump unit sat on the north side of the house and was the first thing visitors saw when they drove up to our place. I thought the box stood out like a hairy, black wart, and I meant to cover it up with a garden.

I bought a very pricey tree rose as a center piece, visited the pasture to gather field stones for decoration, added a crepe myrtle, Mexican heather, dianthus, moss roses, and a sign that read Welcome to My Garden. Two months later the effect was perfect; the heat pump disguise had flourished along with all the other new trees and shrubs in the yard.

The summer that year was especially dry, though, and when it doesn’t rain, the clay soil here in our corner of the state gets as hard as a terracotta pot. These conditions prevent  the electric fence from packing the kind jolt necessary to keep goats contained. They can smell electricity, determine when it’s safe to challenge the fence, and then slip through the wire like a cavalry unit taking the field. The mass escape puts in peril anything growing, anywhere within their reach.

It was a trip to town one afternoon and the arid heat that did it. I think the goats tracked our movements, watched us leave and knew the time to escape was at hand. My husband and I were only gone a couple of hours, but as we drove back down our road, we began to see goats in places they should never be. About thirty nannies stood on our front porch, and one chewed languidly on her cud in the porch swing.  A group of kid goats played on the picnic table, and the rest engaged in divesting me of my yard.

    Once we had them back where they belonged, facing the destruction more than peeved me. My new red maple tree, completely stripped of bark and leaves, was a total loss. The other young trees were badly damaged, and every one of my crepe myrtles was eaten to ground. And the little garden—it looked the victim of a plague of Biblical proportions. All that remained was the stem of the tree rose, stripped of its green bark with a few measly branches sticking out at odd angles from the top, a stick man with thinning hair. And that damned sign. I vowed then and there, no more ornamental plants, adamantly refusing to spend one more dime on perfectly healthy flora that would eventually end up as manure!

Ticked off at the goats, the weather, the fence, and farming in general, my anger lasted through winter. I didn’t replace or repair a single thing. But when the next spring arrived, trailing its siren song of promise, I began to entertain the idea of replacing just the dead maple. Its service as a monument to the folly of mixing goats and gardenias seemed a bit insensible. What's more, it was truly an ugly sight. 

Once I mentioned it, my husband Keith came up with a clever strategy to protect any new trees—lengths of four inch PVC pipe split up one side and then slipped around the entire length of the tree trunks. Future goats might reach a few leaves, but stripping the young bark would be impossible. 
“I can build you a little fence around that heat pump garden, if you’d like to try again” he also offered.
The scheme appeared sound enough, and the battle was rejoined. Once again, tender plants felt like a caress in my hands, and the secret scent of turned earth rose as luxurious as warm chocolate. That we carried forth behind sturdy wire seemed an adjustment worth making, so I remain hopeful, relatively certain goats won’t eat plastic pipe.

II. Exercise Equipment

    Goats won’t stay on the ground if there is something higher to stand on. Climbing is their version of Disneyland.  In the years before we built the usually reliable four-wire electric fence, we had a much less efficient barrier, and the magic kingdom was anywhere they chose. 

At the time I drove a ‘97 Cougar, the old body style with a hood which resembled the landing strip on an aircraft carrier.  Low and wide, that car took curves like it was glued to the road.  I really loved my Cougar. She came with me when I married my farmer husband and moved from my hometown in Texas to his place in Oklahoma.  The car and I were both city girls struggling to adjust to country ways.  A mile and a half of dirt and gravel road leading to the house troubled her. When it rained the road became almost impassable for my road hugging, low-slung Mercury.  Letting go of my urban mindset was the issue for me, or rather embracing the rural life. Everything came with a learning curve: from walking, alert for rattlesnakes, to grocery shopping (milk was a twenty minute drive away).  And the goats, they gave us both problems.

 The first time I foolishly parked under the big elm tree behind the house, I thought I had devised a great way to keep the car cooler in the summer heat.  Obviously, the goats were a new feature around the place, their habits still unfamiliar to me.  Later in the day I glanced out the back door to find them balanced on their hind legs atop the roof of the Cougar. Their necks extended, lips stretching upward in delicate puckers, they were just able to reach the end of a few dangling leaves. Their bizarre ballet put me in mind of Aesop’s fox, but I was the one left reflecting on sour grapes. 

The damage the gravel road did to the Cougar’s paint job was nothing compared with the ruin inflicted by twenty goats.  It became a game for them. I am sure of it. When I wasn’t looking, they often snuck through the fence and circled home from a direction not easily monitored to practice their tap or pirouettes. The car was their stage. Roof top king-of-the-mountain and windshield skiing were other favorite diversions. One quick look out the door and a shrill, ‘Get the crap off that car!’ and they shot away to the next bit of mischief. I rarely got to lay my broom across a rump or two, either. Their timing was perfect.  And so started my campaign for the kind of fence that could keep them in. If any such enclosure existed.

 About a year later, I made the decision to trade my Cougar at the dealership for a much taller, practical Jeep. As the salesman made his initial inspection, I ran my hand over the hood. My fingers traced one of the hundreds of scuff marks in the champagne-colored finish that no amount of polishing would ever cover.

“I’m really sorry about this.” 

Hearing my words, the guy looked up and shrugged his shoulders, but I moved quickly to the back of the car and opened the trunk wide. I told myself the lithe Cougar would surely fare better on pavement and highways, and that any new owner would ignore her time spent down on the farm.

III. Care and Grooming

Goats don’t always make things easy for those who care for them. They have a tendency to end up on the wrong side of trouble: heads stuck in fences or entire groups squeezed into spaces which are three sizes too small. And the kids can be an entirely separate catastrophe.

It was late February, had been raining for a week, and the entire farm was a sloppy mess.  Picking my way to the barn during afternoon chores, I glanced at the big metal stock tank to be sure there was plenty of water for the larger livestock and something odd caught my eye.  A strange object, some kind of white towel or plastic bag, was lying next to the tank.  It stood out brightly against the yards of black, gooey mud.  Churned up by our cattle and horse, the morass looked like dark swampy tar and smelled worse. Looking closer, I realized the white sack was actually a tiny kid. It must have crawled through the wire of the goat pen into the big lot. Hopelessly mired, the goat’s tiny nostrils and mouth were covered in the goop and only the top two inches of its body remained above the muck. 

    As I ran to the gate between the two pens, I wondered at the best way to reach the kid.  Six feet of mud stood between us, and I had come without my mud boots.  I tried to pry it out with a long pole, but it was so stuck lifting it that way was impossible.  When the little nose lowered into the mud again, I closed my eyes and waded in.  Cold, black slime covered my shoes and ankles, but getting a firm hold on the baby was impossible. I couldn’t lift it by the exposed hair.  Finally, I ran my hands deep down under its belly and pulled hard. The kid’s body made a hideous sucking noise as it lurched free of the mire.

I held the little chilled body close, my shoes threatening to come loose with every step as I battled to get us clear of the mud. A fleeting image from one of those ridiculous quicksand-traps-heroine movies flashed through my head, but I fought it off and managed to escape my predicament minus the thick vine with hero attached. The baby shivered in my arms, barely breathing.  Cold and slimy, the pair of us looked and smelled like we’d been keeping company with Swamp Thing.

Stopping at the water hose to rinse the baby would have been the easiest answer, but it was just too cold. Our old farm house, then occupied by Keith’s daughter, presented the next closest solution. She was not home, so I gingerly left my shoes on the back step and let myself in the door.  White linoleum covered the floor at the back of the house, and I left messy footprints on my way to the bathroom.  I had all but forgotten her choice of bathroom décor, too—yellow ducks! Even the bath mat was one of those cutesy duck- shaped things. Kicking it aside, I shuddered at the mess the two of us were about to make…   

My husband tracked us down sometime later, after we had moved our misfortune to the bedroom.  On tiptoes to keep my muddy jeans off the carpet, I was crouched over the now white-again kid, toweling her and using a blow dryer on the limp baby. I’m sure just arriving on the scene did not cast my actions on the side of sanity, and I should have tossed out something like, “I couldn’t get her an appointment at the salon, they were all booked up.”  Instead my answer came out in a frenzied rush.

 “I found her drowning in mud next to the stock tank.  I didn’t have my boots; she’s about frozen to death.  Go look at the bathroom!”

From start to finish, the incident took four hours, cleaning time included, but the kid made it.
When I returned the runaway to her mother later in the evening, warm, dry and smelling of strawberry shampoo, the nanny welcomed her little one with a low murmuring, urged her to nurse, and the baby latched on with noisy intent. An honest conclusion to the day, those sounds.  An honest effort, the fight that keeps something beautiful thriving.


The views expressed in The Oklahoma Review do not necessarily correspond to those of Cameron University, and the university's support of this magazine should not be seen as an endorsement of any philosophy other than faith in -- and support of -- free expression. The content of this publication may not be reproduced without the written consent of The Oklahoma Review or the authors. © 2008 The Oklahoma Review