What a weekend! Our friends in Bemidji have a farm homestead and they occasionally like to take a family vacation which means we get to Farm-sit. This was a full weekend of adventure. We made a lot of mistakes which will be recognizable to experienced farm people right away but, as noobs who do not have goats or dogs, we were taken by surprise. It was also full of fun and happy surprises that really made it special.
Our first mistake was unavoidable as it is winter and Friday was a work day. We arrived after dark. It’s been such a long time since we’ve done this that 1) we’d forgotten there were outside lights we could have turned on to light up the yard and 2) several of the animals had moved or were new. Once we had opened the door to let the dogs out, we unloaded our gear into the house. Then we found some wind up flashlights in the drawer in the mud room and we headed out to get the chores done. [Note: We realized later that Paul’s videos, also made after dark, were actually pretty representative but we’d watched them the previous day so were doing our best to remember as we trundled through the dark.] The first thing was giving water to the horses, which was uneventful. We weren’t worried that we didn’t see any horses. We were just glad to have only to fill about 4 5-gallon buckets to refill their trough and were happy Sara and Paul had left a big hay bale in the feeder so we didn’t have to throw hay. As we finished this task, we were amazed with the brilliant stars and stopped for a pause to enjoy the night sky.
Next we went to get water for the ducks, who were shut in the greenhouse. The first instance of cuteness was that Gracie, one of the three black labs, had to get a drink from the water spigot as I filled the bucket of water for the ducks and bunny. She would repeat this over and over and it was adorable. The ducks had food so we just had to fill the water bowls and gather eggs. Sara had warned us of the “fake” eggs that they leave in the nests. And as I went to gather eggs, I just couldn’t tell the difference between the fakes and the real ones. I didn’t know how many fakes there were so kept second guessing and finally ended up taking all but two into the house. I figured if I had any fakes inside I could just return them to the ducks later. Sara texted me later saying the fakes were larger but the duck eggs were pretty huge too. There were some I collected that seemed just as big as the big ones I left outside. (These below will not allow this carton to close.)
After the ducks, we took care of the rabbit which was the easiest job, the only hard part being pulling back the chicken wire roll to gain access. The bunny is adorable and very happy to have fresh, liquid water and a handful of food pellets. The chickens were good for the day so we headed next to the goat care, which is where the real fun began. In the dark, we walked straight past the hay bales on our left as we looked to the right at the deck where it was supposed to be. However, we happened upon some straw which I remembered using with the goats a year before so we grabbed a couple flakes and headed to the boy goat quarters, figuring milking would be the last thing we did. We stuffed the hay bags with the flakes and saw no evidence of goats. The previous year, I’d gone in the male goat quarters with the kids (who seemed not excited about entering) and I’d survived. Seeing no goats, I decided to go in to get their water, now an ice bucket, busted up and re-filled. The entryway to the area was quite tricky as one side of the door is tied in place and the other side is tied in place at the bottom and has a bungie tie holding the top of the chicken wire. I unhooked the bungie and stepped up and over, contorting myself through with a definite lack of finesse. Thank goodness Dan was holding the light so I could see what I was doing. After getting things with the water in order, I headed back out to take care of milking the two girl goats.
First we headed to the shed for the grain which we knew we would need to distract the ladies as we milked. [I missed an obvious sign that would later become clear. Paul had said something about running out of grain for the goats but from what I could see, there was about a third of a 50 gallon barrel and another half barrel of feed. This first red flag did not deter me from my task of getting these goats milked.]
As we looked over the female goat pen, we tried to come up with a game plan. I went inside and looked around while Dan waited outside. I kept getting bitten in the butt by someone – turns out it was mostly Milkshake. After making an assessment of the area, I figured we had to get one of the two milking goats into the shed, up on the stanchion, with grain dish in place and then wash the udder, work in the bucket and get the milking done. Having only two hands to hold the grain, the bucket for milking, the water bottle for the rag to wash the udder, the aforementioned rag, and the second bucket of grain (for the second milking goat) was making things tough. Danny had his own battles trying to give me enough light with the windup flashlight (which, as you may have guessed, meant frequent turning which required both hands) while also fighting the rush of the other 5 goats, the second milker and 4 younger gals, who also were trying to get to the grain I was juggling. The first milker is meanwhile looking at me like I was crazy asking her to jump up on this stanchion in the shed. [This was red flag number two. The goats, Sara told me, were readily jumping up for milking. This was not going as well as I had envisioned.]
Dan eventually pulled the shed door closed to keep the other 5 goats out while I finagled the rest of the process after eventually getting the first milker in place. Dan had meanwhile injured his back fighting the goats and was now writhing in pain as he tried to hold closed the door. [At one point he yelled out, “I think we’re gonna have kabobs soon!!”] The goats outside are making his job tougher as they keep biting at his gloved fingers on the hand holding the door closed. I milked the first goat, re-learning the process which I’d only done a couple times previously and had never done alone. I managed pretty well, and was able to get a good amount of milk before the grain supply was devoured by Angel. I let her go back outside and we managed to get Milkshake, and only Milkshake, into the shed for round 2. (Though it sounds easy, it took quite a while as everyone wanted to bum rush the shed for the grain during the transition.) She also looked at me like I was crazy, fought longer to get up on the stanchion but finally surrendered and made her way up. [Red flag #3 ignored.] I was now milking better, remembering the squeeze from top to bottom of the teat. Though Milkshake was much more sensitive and several times tried lifting her leg, I managed to keep her from kicking over the bucket as I milked. Again, I didn’t feel I’d done a thorough job but at this point, we’d been at chores for over two hours and I finally let her go as well. We ended up with about 3 pints of milk and I knew I’d at least kept them from being too uncomfortable for the evening. I’d try again in the morning. With some light.
We’d managed to lose the udder rag along the way. First, we’d lost it when I put the water bottle and rag down with the grain and milking bucket outside the pen as Dan and I considered our options. When he brought the water bottle and bucket over I asked, “Where is the rag?” “What rag?” he says. Turns out Hunter, the youngest of the black labs, had decided it was a toy. [This should have been a sign for me to watch Hunter moving forward but I failed to catch on to this. I know dog owners everywhere are like, “What is she, NEW?!?” Yes. I am.] We see Hunter in the backwash of the light shining from the house, rag dangling from his mouth. Danny goes to him and secures the rag bringing it to me. Once inside and finally getting the first goat washed down, I tuck the rag between my knees. Yes, I have gloves and rag between the knees as I struggle to milk, prevent a loss of the bucket and try to see in the half light of Dan’s wind-up flashlight. When the goat switch happened, I looked down for the rag to wash the second udder and… it’s nowhere. I am sure that one of the goats grabbed it and, very likely, are it. We found it nowhere all weekend long. I was glad to have managed to not lose either glove.
After finally finishing the chores about 8:30 PM, who knows, maybe later, we headed inside to make some dinner and relax with the cats and dogs. I strained the milk, washed the milking bucket and duck eggs gathered and prepared to make some fresh scrambled eggs. Each time I banged an egg against the counter I was sure it would be a fake. They were large with very hard shells. But each time… voila! A real egg! We enjoyed a delicious dinner and started to relax. After being inside a while, we realized we were short by one cat and texted Sara asking about Gatito, the calico. Apparently she’d left one day last October and never came back. While this sucks (Gatito was my favorite of the two because she was really lovey and let you pet her forever), I too lost a cat this way once and it was the easiest loss I’d ever had, as far as cats are concerned. I grieved more easily once I realized he was not coming home and could always wonder with a bit of hope that he was out living a fat cat life. The one cat remaining was the GIGANTIC orange tabby named Lucky. Yes, he’s so big that he tripped the DNR cameras once and the DNR guys thought they had a mountain lion until Paul, a DNR officer, told his buddies, “Nope, that’s just my cat.” The camera was low, so when he came through, Lucky looked even bigger than he is. He’s not nearly as big as a cougar, but he is big. And he was more lovey-dovey than ever! He was immediately in Danny’s lap, rubbing and purring and snuggling. It was hilarious! He gave me a bit of love but Danny got the lion’s share.
Finally in bed late, I only had to get up a couple times for the dogs to head outside so got a bit of sleep. I woke up about eight, knowing Dan was really feeling his back, I figured I’d get as much of the chore work done as I could. Maybe I could even milk the goats on my own! Yes, I was awake but was really dreaming on this one…
Heading outside into the light of day, I had multiple realizations and knew, as much as we felt like we’d accomplished the previous night, we had made many mistakes. We had certainly worked hard, had tried our best, pushing the limits of frustration with the goats to get the job done, but we are not seasoned and had made many rookie mistakes. And I had more to make today…
The first thing I saw coming around the house were the large bales of hay sitting at the fence, yes, near the deck but not visible if you are walking between them and the deck, looking at the deck. The farmers were laughing paragraphs ago (or maybe just shaking their heads in disbelief) but I quickly realized: Hay is not Straw and Straw is not Hay. I realized not only had I NOT given the boy goats any food, but I’d also not thrown fresh hay into the manger for the girls either! In all the frustration of milking, I’d forgotten this completely. So first thing, I headed to see the boys who were out of their shed and watching my approach. Frederick was super lovey, rubbing his head on the fence. I grabbed the bags of straw, still full, though it was obvious they’d tried it… Goats will eat almost anything but apparently they have to be real hungry to eat straw! I threw the straw into the girls bedding area and filled the bags quickly. I noticed thankfully there was still hay in the manger so felt a bit less guilty. I had ducked into the chicken coop to see if they were OK (since we hadn’t checked on them at all the night before and grabbed the one egg – they are a bunch of freeloaders – and tucked it into the egg carton I’d brought from the house). Frederick was so happy to see me coming with the hay bags and, I dumped the egg carton into the 5 gallon feed bucket as I tucked inside the pen to break up and re-fill the water. Frederick and I head butted each other and I gave both boys apologies and love.
I left the pen and looked down realizing the egg carton was gone. What happened? Well, it was either Hunter or Gracie (Jake wouldn’t do that) who had stolen my egg carton. I found the carton but no egg. I yelled at the dogs, then threw the rest of the hay in to the girls and went to reload the wheelbarrow. I threw a bit more hay and then looking at the pen area in the light of day realized I could close all the other goats into the feed side of the pen and isolate one milker. I could do this myself! I pulled Milkshake into the shed side and closed off the gate. I didn’t know until later but Danny was now up and watching this unfold through the living room window. What he saw, that I didn’t, as I walked toward the shed, was the goats behind me already sticking their heads through the gate figuring a way to come after the grain. Sure enough, by the time I got into the shed and turned around to encourage Milkshake to get up on the stanchion, here’s a baby goat staring at me through the door. Luckily Dan had gotten his boots on and was heading out to help.
I was in fact able to do it the milking myself with Dan holding the gate closed keeping all the herd out of my hair. Now they were biting his pants! [We initially tried it the other way with one milker on the manger side of the pen (since all the goats were now ahead of me and would not leave the shed side…), but that was just not going to work and it’s just another long and unsuccessful story.] So, while I thought chores would be shorter, in fact, they were just as long or longer than the previous evening. At least I felt like I had gotten more milk from the girls giving them a real milking and relief.
I was near exhaustion after another hard fought battle of chores. But I was also feeling like a champ when I had almost two whole quarts of milk filtered. We made GF pancakes and then I made some goat cheese with the fridge full of milk from the previous week.
This was a fun process and new for me but the recipe was simple: Heat the milk to 150° then add some vinegar and let it sit for an hour. Then, put the whole shebang through the cheese cloth, and you have cheese!! It was pretty exciting to make my first goat cheese knowing I’d been a part of the whole process of making it. I made three types: simple chives with salt, garlic, and red & white pepper w/parsley, turmeric and white pepper. And later that evening we found it to be pretty tasty!
But first we were heading out to meet our friends Megan and Ryan for dinner. They’d also done goat sitting for Sara and Paul and my first question was going to be, “How do you milk the goats?” I just knew I was missing something but could not for my life figure out what. Sara couldn’t possibly spend two hours twice a day taking care of this farm. In order to save some time with evening chores in the dark, we put the ducks away in the greenhouse getting them all set for food and water, made sure the horses were good, I even through them some fresh hay (though they had some remaining, I figured we’d make that hay last). [I think I was just so excited about hay that I wanted everyone to have some!] I also refilled the boy goats’ hay bags (with hay this time!) and set them aside so all we had to do was hang them later in the dark.
At the Becida Bar (best place in town for food! – you will only get this joke if you know how big Becida is – it’s the only place in town), we met with Megan and Ryan and I asked my question. Ryan says, “Well, you have the grain and the milk bucket and you put the grain in first.” I stopped him and said, “No, start from the beginning, how do you get the milking goat isolated and keep the other goats from interfering?” He says, “Well, you let the milking goat out of the pen and she runs right to the milking trailer, but you definitely want to have the grain in there before you let her out.” I am dumbfounded. “Milking Trailer?!?” I say, “Are you fucking kidding me?” (Quote marks mean I have to say what I really said.) “Where is that?” Turns out, that horse trailer in the middle of the animal area? It’s a milking trailer!! I text Sara, “So, Megan says you have a milking trailer.” Now the text she sent Friday night makes perfect sense. In reply to my asking her, in the midst of figuring out the process, “What is the trick to get Milkshake up for milking?” She replied simply, “Grain” Yeah, like I wasn’t trying that! And now it made perfect sense to her how insane I must have been. Trying to convince the goats to do something that was now foreign to them and actually succeeding in getting the milking done (though wanting to almost kill the goats in the process (especially the one that kept biting my ass)) was a real miracle. [I did take some pride in being able to get all this done the hard way. And I was able to inform Ryan of the proper technique for accessing the male goat pen which had to date eluded him.]
As much as I was so ticked at Danny and I having struggled for so long the previous 24 hours, I was greatly relieved for the evening’s chore round. By doing a lot of pre-work and knowing we could try the milking station, I was sure we’d be well under the average chore time of more than 2 hours. Indeed we were. We were done with everything in less than 45 minutes. Since I could handily milk each lady in peace all by myself, Dan was free to handle all the other work. I milked each girl completely and was so happy to have had an easy time of it. The next morning I was able to allow Dan to sleep in and did all the chores solo. I was lucky that it was warm enough that the water just needed refills as ice had not formed. I can’t recall how long it took but under an hour for sure. I even refilled the hay wheelbarrow so the folks relieving us for Sunday night would be all set.
So was it all worth it? Yes! Sara left a nice gift bag for Dan and me and we got lots of love from the animals. The best moments were with Lucky, After I’d thrown hay for the horses Saturday morning, he came running up to me and so I went to pick him up and he jumped up on my shoulder wrapping around my neck and snuggling against my head, purring like crazy. He rode around on my shoulders all around the house as I walked to the bedroom window to show Danny and around the deck area and up to the back door. Lucky did this shoulder trick a few more times and every time it was wonderful. Then, this morning, I found him lying on the bed all stretched out and I laid down by him and put my head to his. He snuggled with me, putting him paws up on my hands and arms as I pet him and then he licked my face like it was a big ice cream cone! He also jumped into bed with us in the mornings when he came in from outside and snuggled a bunch. So, yeah, I learned a TON of stuff, realized how much I don’t know, and had a bunch of fun. I’ll sign up again in a heartbeat.
Oh, anticipating the question most will ask… There are 4 horses, 29 ducks, 1 rabbit, 8 goats, 20 chickens, 3 dogs, 2 fish, and 1 cat.