A Socratic Rancher 7-13-09 | TheFencePost.com

A Socratic Rancher 7-13-09

There was a time when I didn’t speak in public about keeping goats. Back in the late 1960s, goats – even good milkers – weren’t held in the esteem they now command at the sale barn, or in the more subtle market of public perception. To put a fine point on it, 40-some years ago, a person with goats was considered eccentric (at best).

I first got interested in goats through my neighbor, Kenny, who used a big wether to herd his sheep. “That’s one smart ol’ goat,” he boasted. “Takes the place of two to three dogs. Doesn’t push the herd; he just leads it.”

One afternoon I observed the wether in action as he responded to Kenny’s hand signals, moving the sheep from pasture to pasture. Leading a band of faithful ewes, the wether strutted like royalty on carpet, carrying his head high, a glint of superiority in his eye. “Those danged ewes’ll follow that goat anywhere,” Kenny laughed.

Charmed by this introduction, and unaware of possible stigmas from neighbors, we bought six Saanen nannies at the sale barn one spring day in 1968 for $12 a head, and suddenly had a twice-a-day milking job. I fondly recall the gurgling in the nannies’ bellies when my ear was near during milking, and their voracious attack on a scoop of flaked corn and oats, such that we had to sprinkle vinegar on the milking ration to slow their intake.

Each goat gave close to a gallon, morning and evening, so, of course, we had to buy more critters to consume the substantial volume left over after we kept what little we needed for drinking, cheese, and yogurt.

Bum calves did extremely well on goat milk, and baby Holstein bulls were readily available every week at the sale barn for about $15 to $20. Before we knew it, we had over 20 milking nannies and jug pens holding 18 bucket calves, and still had enough milk to supplement the feed of a couple pigs, two dozen laying hens, and seven bum lambs who wandered into the sale ring and sold to my wife for a dollar. Oh, and there was our resident donkey, Jerusalem – received in a complex trade involving hay and a Moline Z tractor – who leaned over the fence one morning to drink from an unattended milk bucket, and thereafter brayed dolorously if not allowed to lick the bucket clean.

It seemed to me like a no-brainer that goats were good business. Yes, they were labor intensive, but proportionally rewarding. We went to Production Credit with a loan request to expand our goat-calf operation, complete with spread sheets showing that one goat could easily raise a calf, and do it much cheaper than a cow. We had records and experience to prove it. We’d even come up with a special stanchion that allowed the calves to milk the goats without damaging their udders, thus saving a lot of hand labor.

The loan officer, Jack, listened with apparent interest, nodding at pertinent points, but when we’d finished our presentation, Jack said, “You’re not actually applying for a loan to buy goats, are you?” The way he said the word “goats,” he might as well have said “vermin,” and then, upon seeing that we were serious, began to laugh. And it took a while for him to stop, but when he did, he gave us this jewel of advice: “When you make enough money with these goats, or whatever they are, then you come back here, and we’ll talk about getting you into some cows.”

Long story short: Three years later we sold the goats, leveraged our profits into a loan to buy cows, and three years after that, we had to sell the cows and calves to meet the Production Credit obligation, and did so at a loss that exceeded all our prior profit from the goats.

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