Panic In The Goat Shed

When we first got to the farm, I felt no particular affinity for the goats. As far as I was concerned, they were a row of udders to milk — albeit, with some udders considerably more jumpy than the others (I’m looking at you, angora goat!). But that’s started to change. I’ve been spending more time in the goat shed between milkings, and have begun developing a sense of affection toward them. They’re cute, with their oddly shaped heads and conveniently backwards-angled horns. They seem to enjoy it when I pet them on the heads. And sometimes, if I’m lucky, they come up and lean against my legs, like affectionate dogs. I take pleasure in this, my time in the goat shed. And I’ve also realized something potentially embarrassing: I really, really, want the goats to like me.

I fear that, after this morning’s fiasco, they may not. Peter and I were in charge of the morning’s milking and, since it was approximately our 26th time doing so, we were getting a little cocky. Instead of letting the goats into the milking stalls in groups of two or three, we let in an entire group of 10.

“What’s the big deal?” I hear you asking. “They do this every morning of their lives.”

Here’s what: As Peter described in his legendary “How To Milk A Goat in 35 Steps” post (which we mentioned to Laurent, prompting many jokes about what the 36th step would be), there is a complicated head-locking mechanism that keeps the goats in place and eating while we milk them. It only works if the goats stick their heads into the trough one after the other — and it’s a narrow enough row that if one goat misses her chance to stick her head in a feeding slot, she’s stuck: there’s no way to sneak around the next goat to an open space.

That is, of course, exactly what happened. After displaying their customary confusion at the sight of the milking stalls (“What the hell are these?”) the goats caught sight of the food and began to stick their heads into the troughs, each successive goat accompanied by the satisfying clank of her head locking into place. But not our little brown goat. No, she took her time. Unfortunately, things move fast in the milking pen, and by the time she’d figured out that yes, this was exactly the same situation she’d been in every other morning and evening of her life, it was too late: her neighbors had blocked her out.

If the goat was agitated, it was nothing compared to me and Peter, now facing the backsides of a row of  livestock munching away as the stranded goat attempted to make a break for it by diving forward, backwards, and beneath her neighbors’ legs. Peter, thinking quickly, grabbed the soup pot that we use to measure out food and handed it to me so that I could provide her with her own personal feeding trough. He then got to milking, a slow task given that the goats who are the quickest to come in also happen to be those with the most milk. As it turned out, the stranded goat had a great morning: since I had to keep her occupied till the other goats were finished, she ended up with three servings of food. Oh well. Sometimes, you just need to keep the ladies happy.

We emptied out that round and got ready to bring in the rest — which I wouldn’t have thought would be a problem either.

Wrong again. The first three goats we brought in, unused to being the leaders of the pack, took one look at the milking stalls and panicked. What were these crazy things? And where did we want them to put their heads? They began walking in tight circles, glancing at the food, and walking in circles again. I tried talking to them, I tried pointing at the food, I tried gently swatting their bottoms with a folded paper bag. No go. (Or, rather, no goat.)

By now, I was feeling panicked — I’d just grossly overfed one of our top producers, and now we had three animals with bloated udders walking in circles while their colleagues bleated in the background, poking their heads around the edge of the gate as they waited to be let in. Please, God, I thought to myself, don’t let Laurent or Isabelle show up now.

Luckily, they didn’t. Instead, we made the bold move of letting in one additional goat. She turned out to be a leader of the herd, walking right to the end of the row and sticking her head in to feed, ignoring the panic around her. The other goats immediately followed. And about 15 minutes later, my heart rate had returned to normal.

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