Sometimes I feel like what I'm doing isn't real. I'm not really a farmer or a homesteader. I'm just a city slicker who moved out here to play make believe. Then sometimes reality smacks me in the face. That happened yesterday. Another buck died. It's the third one this week. For the past three years, we've had bucks die over the winter. Although our does have not died, some have had trouble with aborting pregnancies and not getting pregnant. Last summer, when a doe died, I thought I'd discovered the culprit when I learned that she had been severely deficient in copper. I started to give all the goats copper boluses since it's the only copper supplement available without a prescription, and none of the vets believe that copper deficiency exists -- even when faced with lab results that confirm it. Since I started giving them the copper boluses, the does have improved dramatically. We've had no trouble getting anyone pregnant, and we've had no abortions (knock on wood) this year. But a week ago, my bucks started dieing.
Yesterday, I decided that we needed to get a better picture of the buck's nutrition. Maybe something is missing from their diets. Maybe they're dieing from lead poisoning. The health department won't test our water because it has sulfur in it -- no, I don't understand the reasoning. Two years ago we sent our water in to the state, and we were told that they would not test it because there was sulfur in it. So, I called the local vet to ask if she'd send the goat's liver to the state lab because that's where copper, selenium, iron, and lead are stored. The local vet is not a large animal vet, but seriously, how hard is it to send a liver to a lab? I don't think it's much different than doing a necropsy on a golden retriever dog.
Almost a dozen phone calls later -- to the local vet, the university lab, and the state lab -- I realize that my options are not good. The local vet won't do it, a reality that confuses me, as well as the doctor at the state lab. I start crying. I briefly consider driving 199 miles to the state lab to deliver the goat myself. I can't spend $300 on a necropsy every time a goat dies, but I can't just let them keep dieing without knowing what I need to do.
I call my husband's cell phone and office phone with the idea that I'll ask him to come home and remove the goat's liver, so I can freeze it and then mail it. As I'm dialing the phone, I apologize to my daughter for being such a wimp. Both phones ring until I get voice mail. I can't leave a message. It's too embarrassing. I hear my mother's voice saying, "Don't bother him at work with that!" I know what she would have done. I stop crying and say to my daughter, "I'm going to get the liver." She looked at me in disbelief. "You can help, but you don't have to. I don't care."
It's a small goat, so the liver should fit into a pint-sized Ziploc bag. I grab three, as well as a quart-sized bag, just in case I'm wrong. I find the disposable scalpel that I bought several years ago from the livestock supply catalog -- just becuase it was cheap, and who knows when you might need it? Or why? Katherine says that rubber gloves were left in the barn after the last time goats were tattooed. I put on my barn clothes and coat and head out. She follows me and asks, "What if we do something wrong?" I chuckle. "He's dead. What can we do wrong? If I faint, don't worry about it. As soon as my head goes down, I'll start breathing again, and I'll wake up. It'll be fine."
We put the goat in the middle of the barn floor, which is covered with straw. Having no idea what to expect, I say, "If there's a lot of blood, the straw will soak it up, and then we can just throw it in the garden. Blood is good fertilizer." I remove the scalpel from the packaging and ask Katherine if she wants to do it. She takes the scalpel and asks where she should cut. I know the liver is on one side, but I'm not sure which side, so I suggest that she just cut open the middle of the abdomen. At first, she just stabs at it, and the goat's belly deflates as gas escapes. I don't recall all the little details of the next 10 minutes, but she cut the layers of skin one at a time and accidentally cut open the rumen before we realized what it was. It was full of chewed up hay. There was no blood, and the parts were all rather fascinating. I never felt faint, and as we figured out the identity of each part, we announced it to each other and to the barn cat who was watching, hoping for a morsel. "Oh, this is the large intestines," Katherine said. "You can see the poop in there."
While most of the parts came out easily, we learned that the liver was attached. It took us twice as long to actually remove the liver as it did for me to find it. We didn't know how much of the liver was needed, so we wanted to be sure to get all of it. Once it was detached, I dropped it into the pint-sized bag, then took it into the store room to wash the blood off the outside of the bag, then put it into another pint-sized bag and another one and finally the quart-sized bag. The liver is in the freezer now, and today it will be on its way to the lab.
Last night, I was talking to a cattle farmer, expressing my frustration about the lack of large animal vets. He added that vets really are of little use to farmers anyway. "If you can't take care of it yourself, it's usually too late," he said. Yes, I've learned that too. While I was certainly upset that the vet would not remove the liver for me, I was also upset about my goats dieing and my feeling of helplessness. Death is a part of life, but our spoiled 21st century minds don't want to accept that. We want 0 risk; we want 100% success. At times like these, I remember Thoreau's words about wanting to experience all of life, even if some parts are mean and ugly. This is real.
Cutting open a goat in the middle of my barn to harvest the liver was a surreal experience for me, but it was not any different than simply butchering an animal. I've never done it myself, but I've watched my husband do it, glad that he was willing. While this experience was a big deal for my daughter and me, I remind myself that it's something that every hunter does during deer hunting season. While part of me thinks that my mother would have been proud of me for handling the situation, realistically I know that she would have expected nothing less.