Author Kat Heatherington

a goat named July

Back when we bought Sunflower River, and were talking about getting goats, and were working on building some infrastructure for goats, I had a conversation with a co-worker about her experience of owning goats. She said, “you know they’re a lot before you get them, but they are more even than you think. Be sure you’re ready before you jump in. Goats are next-level farming.” She had been living on her 6 acre property with a large garden, horses, poultry and a herd of about 15-20 goats for several years at that time.

We got rabbits fairly early on, because somebody wanted to re-home some meat rabbits and we decided we could do that. They were a lot more than we thought they would be, and necessitated a lot of very rapid infrastructure-building, some of which is in use (for other purposes) to this day. Ultimately, we decided that we are not up for the various experiences involved in raising and processing meat rabbits.

Now it’s many years later and we have goats. Three, because we wanted to start small, and go slow, and make sure we had time to build all our necessary infrastructure before we were faced with kidding and milking (and milk-storage and cheesemaking and sanitation and all the other parts of milking) and processing them. Because of course, processing the unwanted males is part of raising any kind of livestock on a farm – we do it with chickens, and anybody raising a dairy animal has to come to terms with it. In order to have milk, you must breed the females, and then you have kids, who will of course be a mix of males & females, and either you have to sell them or keep them or process them. In general, with dairy goats, most folks will castrate the males and process them for meat, and either keep or sell the young females depending on if they want to grow their own herd or not. You have to keep good breeding records, but you don’t have to keep an unneutered male; you can take your doe out for a date with a stud goat when she’s in season and you’re ready to breed her. because male goats are undesirable on small farms – particularly a farm as small as ours.

So how did we end up with a male goat? Well, he’s wethered, neutered. So he can’t breed, and generally wethering is supposed to help them get over the worst of the problems with billy goats. And he was a really cute, sweet kid when we got him. He was supposed to be processed in July, so I started calling him July so that I wouldn’t get attached. I got attached anyway, and we ended up buying him as well as the doelings – basically as a pet. Unfortuantely, now that July is growing up, he’s much less sweet – he headbutts everybody (in a dominance, trying-to-push-you-down kind of way, not a cute “i love you” way), he jumps on people (I still think this is playful/friendly, but he’s large, and it’s getting difficult to handle – and he is resisting all attempts to train him out of it), and – the most significant thing – he has gotten food-aggessive with Stella.

And Stella, our shy sweet girl from Coonridge, our youngest goat – Stella is going to be a milker next year. Which means she has a lot more long-term value on this farm than July does. She needs to be healthy, plump, and friendly. And he’s not letting her eat – whenever anything good comes into the pen, treats or weeds or elm branches, he works hard to keep her away from it, aggressively head-butting her, attempting to catch her on his horns, chasing her around time and again. He hasn’t injured her yet, but he’s escalating, and it may well just be a matter of time. She sneaks around his back and eats when he’s not looking. Then he goes after her again. She’s eating a decent amount of hay, which he doesn’t try as hard to keep her away from – but she hasn’t started putting on the girth that she should yet for her age, and we think July is a big part of why.

So, we’re going to eat July. I thought I had until Spring of 2021 to get ready to kill a goat myself – but here we go, December it is. (Spring 2021 accounts for breeding the does next late fall/early winter, then a 5-month gestation period.) Of Sunflower River’s five Stewards, Jenny and Tristan have done this work several times, with sheep and pigs at a friend’s farm, and are familiar with and have performed all parts of the process except the killing itself. I haven’t killed anything larger than a turkey, and the last time I had to kill rabbits was extremely difficult for me.

I expect this to be much harder, though for different reasons. The rabbits were physically difficult to kill; since we will be using a bolt-gun, this will not be the case with July. And July is not soft and fuzzy like the bunnies – he’s muscled and coarse, rather, and blessed with sharp hard hooves that he jumps on me with – but he’s cute, I am really fond of him. And, this is the right thing, and it is time. I don’t know that I can or should harden my heart to him – living in close contact with your food doesn’t mean not loving it, and it doesn’t mean failing to bring love to the process of killing for food. Rather the opposite. I expect to cry – and I expect also to do a good job, and do my absolute best to make his last moments as painless and easy for him as possible, because I care about him, and it matters.

Meanwhile, we’ve got July in the pen, because the pen will hold him and the field will not (he bounces right over the gate), and Stella and Dulcinea in the field now, so that they can eat without him. He doesn’t like it, but the does seem to be doing fine without him. And eating well. Still, I aim to make sure July’s last month is as comfortable as I can make it, and I’m trying to visit him regularly and bring him raisins, which he loves above all things except maybe elm leaves.

We will process him next month. I’ve ordered a book of goat meat recipes, and a butchering book specific to goats, so we can study up in advance. We are planning to use all the parts – a friend will take the hide to tan, and I will dry the skull with his beautiful horns, for art. If he didn’t get quite as long of a lease on life as we were originally planning, still, he brings us a great gift: that of learning.