Sustainability is often in my thoughts but lately arising from my homestead landscape, tiny pieces of the puzzling picture are irritating me.
Atapi has been very sick. She had been going down hill for a month, slowly at first. Two days in a row I expected to find her dead in the morning. The reasons are complex and have been difficult to see, especially given most of the knowledge I have about goats is informed by my own experience, or the experience of others, in many different situations but not in this particular situation. All winter long I fed the Tiny Forest herd a fermented alfalfa product that is harvested and packaged in Texas: Chaffhaye. I traveled 75 minutes each way to buy the 50 pound bags at over $16.00 each. Together the herd and Suki went through a bag a week. There is no waste with it. They all did so well. When winter ended, I didn’t go for more. It is not in my feed budget – nor was it ever my intention – to feed year round. By this time Atapi had freshened and she was eating quite a bit of commercial goat feed. This photo shows Atapi when her kids were one week old.
Atapi was a first freshener this year and it turned out she is a strong producer. She started to lose condition as her lactation increased. When I read about feeding amounts of grain for a strong producer like Atapi, I was startled to learn that up to 3 pounds of grain was recommended! I thought that was too much for a goat but I obediently increased her grain. She started to eat less of it, not more, and she continued to lose weight and condition. No amount of tweaking or adding supplements helped her. The more I tweaked her nutrition, the skinnier she became. She refused anything new including sunflower seeds and alfalfa pellets (the whole herd refused them). I purchased different types of hay including packaged alfalfa and an oat, alfalfa, timothy blend they have liked before. She refused them. Then she started to scour and the loss of condition and weight accelerated. She went from a body score of 6 on freshening to a body score of 1.5 in eight weeks. Next thing I knew I was trying to help her with B complex, kaopectate, probiotics, a calcium drench, herbal dewormers and copper. Nothing helped her. She took a turn for the worse on Easter weekend and I thought she would die before Monday. On Monday she had no warmth in her mouth. Her breathing was shallow. She had stopped ruminating. I couldn’t hear her gut moving. On Tuesday morning I took the cart with me when I went to feed them. I thought I would find her dead. Imagine my surprise when I found her standing and looking at me. I took her to Dr. Bell. He couldn’t find anything to account for the scouring or her emaciated condition. This is Atapi, at her lowest point.
She was hydrated he told me, much to my surprise. Her rumen was still working. She had no parasites or coccidia ( I knew that already). Her temperature was normal but she had a cough. We were sent home with a B-12 injection, an antibiotic, which she would not take and a steroid to give her energy. The steroid was injected in the muscle and for this reason, I could give it to her. She would no longer accept me drenching her and I didn’t blame her. She resisted it so fiercely that some of the drench she was given was aspirated into her lungs, hence the raspy coughing. A week after visiting Dr. Bell, she had exhausted her reserves. She was a walking shriveled skeleton and I saw death in her eyes. Yet still, she had milk for her buckling even though she was living on air, not ruminating, not eating and with persistent watery scours.
Everyday I cut down branches of different trees and took them to her. Sometimes she would sniff and take a nibble. Sometimes she would sniff and refuse. I gave up giving her any medicines because I honestly felt horrible doing it. It was obvious that she resisted firmly. The administration of medicines and maybe the medicines themselves bothered her and aggravated her condition.
On a visit to H and H Dairy in Saltillo, I told Joe Hehe about Atapi. He gave me a bale of his farm grown alfalfa and a good chunk of an alfalfa hay he had purchased with 20% protein. The kindness and generosity of H and H Dairy was a balm on my tired mind. When I got home I offered Atapi a fistful of Joe’s farm grown alfalfa and to my surprise she took it. She took a whole mouthful and chewed and chewed but she was so weak she couldn’t chew enough. She swallowed some and the rest fell out of her mouth. I offered her the leaves of the 20% alfalfa and she took it. She could chew it and swallow. Fast forward two days and she was ruminating again though still scouring. I kept to my promise and did not do anything for the scours which was mucousy and almost clear that day. The next day her scouring was yellow and thicker.
Atapi is not yet out of the woods. (edited: Atapi is now much better) She has lost her reserves but she is defecating normally. No more scours. Everyday, she gets a little stronger. I add molasses to 4 cups of warm water each morning and she slurps down the whole thing without coaxing. She now walks out to the wooded area of her pasture with me – she had stayed in the loafing shed all this time. I lower the branches that are too high for her to take on her own. She is eating with more gusto. Both of her kids (she has 2 kids but a very strong preference for her buckling) get a small drink of milk when they seek her out. She refused grain the entire time she was sick. The herd, in general, was refusing grain. This meant something to me.
Here I sit at the fork of sustainability and the carrying capacity of the land and the symbiosis of the land and the herd. Thinking about this is helpful for planning but experience is the teacher. I looked for hay all winter and encountered a couple of problems. The first problem is more of an annoyance, a 50 bale load of sericea hay that was promised to me was sold out from under me. Secondly, the goats refused even premium horse quality Bermuda hay that was offered before spring. I was removing it from the hay rack and leaving it for bedding. They wouldn’t touch it. I think at least toward some of the hay I offered, they were just being picky. I couldn’t find a steady supply of the same hay and had to keep switching. But often enough they were just being picky because they could, because they were otherwise getting Chaffhaye and commercial goat feed. That story has ended.
I currently have three large bales of locally-grown mixed grass hay that is lovely. Suki loves it. The kids love it too and Atapi and Khanti have no excuse. For their nutritional well-being however they are also getting the 20% alfalfa hay that was referred to me by Joe Hehe and by Megan Huls Patrick. I picked up an 860 pound square bale that I’ve no way to take off of my trailer. It sits covered on the utility trailer. I switched to Purina Dairy Special to supplement their lactation. Atapi has started to eat a little grain and while I prefer not to feed it, there is no way to support her lactation without it. However my does receive only 1 pound of grain per day, not 3 pounds 2x a day that is recommended. To our benefit the woods are greening and their favorite food, the natural scape in their pasture is increasing. I hope to have the second pasture fenced by the end of April. Suki, my Jersey heifer, and the herd will spend summer in the new pasture and return to the present pasture in fall. It is too early to think about next winter but I have a valuable lesson to help me plan.
The possibility of losing Atapi to a nutritionally-related complex of causes is a sustainability issue. Purchasing commercial feed or a packaged product, even a very good one like Chaffhaye, was never my intention when I set out to create a sustainable forest farm. The intention was to allow the land to heal and to begin to carry a small herd of animals in symbiotic relationships with each other and with the land. The land is not there yet; still much work to be done. Neither is the fencing. Yet there are already animals here and so hay is necessary year round. But to depend entirely on one or two products for their health and maintenance is a disaster in the making. Winter of course is a challenge even in Tennessee but we have three seasons here that provide a ruminant buffet when the herd numbers and fencing are poised for rotational grazing.
I don’t think Atapi would have made it had this happened in winter or if she did not have such a strong bond to her buckling. Fortunately for her, her kids and Hannah and me (because we are all in this together) she had a strong support network to match her strong resilience. I have seen how the best intentions can still lead to catastrophe, how good products that work very well can still be unsustainable, how hands on experience is the teacher and guide, and how the Earth evolved for her creatures is still the best way for her creatures. Mother knows best. I’m sticking with that.