Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Beginner's luck?

Some might say there is no such thing as beginniner's luck, and I might be inclined to agree, even though our own personal experience on the farm would seem to contradict that idea. Our first year or two with goats, sheep, cows, rabbits, turkeys, chickens -- indeed, every animal -- seemed to be practically perfect in every way. Everyone got pregnant instantly. No one needed assistance with birthing. We had close to 100% fertility with hatching eggs -- both chickens and turkeys. All the bunnies, kids, lambs and calves survived. Maybe there was a touch of beginner's luck in there.

During the third kidding season, 2004, we found ourselves tube-feeding our first kid AND our second. We had our first kid die. We had our first issues with breeding -- Star, our best milk goat wasn't getting pregnant. During our second lambing season, we had a lamb born without an anus, a ewe with a retained placenta, a ewe who ran around the pasture for 45 minutes with a lamb's head hanging out of her, and a ewe whose udder was so overful with milk that her Jersey-sized teats were impossible for her little lambs to nurse from. The second time our French angora rabbit had babies, she ate them. The hatch rate of our turkey eggs was about 25% during our second year -- for both setting hens and the incubator, so I can't blame either hatching practice. Although our first (and only) calves survived and thrived in the pasture with their mothers, training them was another matter, and less than two years later, they were in the freezer.

Although some of the not-so-great things could be attributed to just plain bad luck, a lot of it could have been due to the fact that we had enough knowledge at that point to be detrimental. In the beginning, we did everything "by the book," from breeding to kidding, and we were meticulous. It was all so new and exciting. ( New things are always fun -- I'll never forget how many times I vacuumed my carpet the first week I had a new vacuum cleaner.) The first time we hatched eggs in the incubator, everyone in the family turned them multiple times every day. The first time we bred our goats, we were so excited about having kids that we marked the calendars and waited impatiently for the big day to arrive. Then we sat with the goats from the first sign of labor, reading our goat books over and over again while we sat in the freezing barn the first week of March.

But as we became accustomed to life on the farm, we may have relaxed a bit too much. The ewe's retained placenta could have been a mineral deficiency, because no one had noticed their mineral block was all used up a couple months before kidding. Although I don't know why the hens had difficulty hatching eggs the second year, our forgetfulness about turning the eggs probably contributed to the low hatch rate in the incubator.

We may not have needed to tube feed that kid if we had been there when she was born. Her mama had three babies so quickly, she was unable to get all three of them cleaned up, and with the low temperature in the barn, the mucous-covered kid quickly became chilled and too weak to nurse. Of course, we had been there for two straight days already. If only we hadn't noticed the mama's first twinge of labor, we would have been more patient in the beginning and left her alone when we didn't need to be there. After two days of goat sitting, we no longer trusted our observation that kidding time was getting closer.

Sometimes, perhaps we relied too much on the books and experts, rather than just using common sense. When Star wouldn't get pregnant, I called the Univeristy of Illinois Vet Clinic. The local vet did blood work. We gave her hormones. Then after almost a year of trying, I finally decided to put her in a pen with a buck for a month. Even though I never saw any signs of her being in heat, five months later, she gave birth to beautiful triplets. Sometimes the simplest, most natural approach works best.

What appears to be good luck is more than just the absence of bad luck. It was just plain bad luck to have a lamb born without an anus. I wouldn't say we've been lucky that most of our babies have been born with all the necessary parts. That's the way it normally works. But even if they are born with all the necessary parts, their chance to survive isn't going to be as great if we haven't done everything we can to ensure positive outcomes.

With spring just around the corner and our first goat due to kid on Feb. 14, these are the things on my mind today. It's time to restock the kidding and lambing box with supplies and make sure we have plenty of clean, dry towels. But beyond the obvious, we also need the wisdom to know when to sit on our hands and let nature take its course and when to intervene. If only it were as easy to acquire that wisdom as it is to acquire another mineral block!

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