A Socratic Rancher 9-7-09
I don’t admit this in the mixed company of cattle ranchers, but before I had cows, I had goats. In fact, it was the profits from various goat operations in the late 1960s that enabled me to get into the cattle business in the first place, but that’s another story. Suffice it to say I have always had a fondness for goats, yet haven’t been around any for many years. When the chance presented to visit Bob and Janelle Kukuk and their goats, I jumped at the chance.
As most people in the Rio Grande area know, Bob and Janelle live year-round in the mountains above Creede. Bob manages Santa Maria and Continental Reservoirs, and Janelle home schools their two children, keeps a homestead style house and among a host of other chores and community activities, they all participate in the milking and keeping of a couple dozen goats for milk, cheese, and yogurt. There’s a deep quiet in people who live this way, as it’s a life requiring patience, curiosity, and resourcefulness – characteristics often found in people who keep goats. Maybe that’s why someone famous once said, “The more I see of people, the more I like goats.”
I hadn’t milked a goat for many years, and when I offered to do so, the opportunity was granted with a chuckle. Afterward, as the goats headed out to pasture, the kid goats romping off to the lead, my hands really felt the strain, especially at the base of my thumbs.
Bob and Janelle’s goats have a great life browsing among the rocks, grasses, and high altitude forbes and bush. After milking we watched the goats disperse into the surrounding terrain, foraging here and there, occasionally bleating to each other as the morning sun came full over the mountains. One older nanny hobbled along to catch up, and it was about her that Bob told me a heartwarming story. She was one of their matriarchal nannies, the mother of many good milkers, but a year or so back, Bob found her lying in the gateway where, apparently, she’d tried to pass ahead of a horse who didn’t agree.
“I thought she was dead,” Bob explained. “She was flat to the ground, her legs barely moving sideways in the dirt.”
He drove his truck down to the corral. She was still breathing so he loaded her into the truckbed and headed for Doc Howard. By the time he arrived, the goat had lifted her head and before long she took unsteadily to her feet and bleated nervously, as if to say, “Where are the other goats? Take me home!”
“She no doubt broke some bones,” Bob mused, “and to this day, she’s a little slow, but she’s still milking and still going out every day with the herd. Just a bit slower.”
My visit was topped off when Janelle whipped up a smoothie of blended wild berries and goat yogurt. Taking a chair in the dining room of their cabin, looking out the wide window on the rocky terrain being patiently interrogated by the goats, life felt like it was going along at a pace that allowed for just the right amount of speculation.
“Been a funny year,” I suggested. “Wet in June, dry in July, frost in early August …”
“Yup,” Bob agreed. “It’s been another funny one like that.”
It dawned on me then that there needed to be an addition to that famous saying about people and goats: The more I meet people with goats, the more I like both.
In the late 1960s when I started farming and needed stock to clean up feed, good cows cost about $300, which was more than we could afford.
A neighbor who bought hay from us, Oliver, had goats, and showed us how to set up a goat-calf operation with great economy. Bum calves and decent milk goats both sold for $15-$25 at that time, and a decent milk goat could handily raise one calf, and sometimes two, to a size where they were capable of going on solid feed and out to pasture.
For three years we raised goats and calves, averaging a herd of about 50, and at one point we ran a large herd of mohair goats on a Forest Service permit to clean up the willows and return the meadows to grass. Each year we tried to get a loan from Production Credit, but the loan officer, Jack, never seemed to understand the word “goat” in the context of ag lending. It wasn’t until we brought in three years’ tax returns showing how profitable the goats had, in fact, been that Jack said, “You’re ready for cows.”
I felt as if I’d been elevated to a higher station in life. We bought older cows, on the theory that they were old for a reason, and saved the heifers to create a herd of close to 200. After six years we sold out, having expended all the profits we’d made from the goats.
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