Kidding Season: Three Days on a Massachusetts Goat Farm

Twin goats at Overlook Farm in Rutland, Massachusetts. Photos by Liisa EcolaTwin goats at Overlook Farm in Rutland, Massachusetts. Photos by Liisa Ecola

Kidding! Three Days on a Massachusetts Goat Farm

By Liisa Ecola
I was awakened that first night by a hysterical scream: “Doublewide is having her babies!”

Instead of pulling the covers up, I happily got up from the bunk bed, pulled on my mud boots, and trekked out with a dozen other women to a barn to watch a goat give birth.

My minor goat obsession started with a joke. Not long after we moved into our new house, I was frantically looking for my notebook when my exasperated fiancé teased me that it was easy to “get my goat.”

Since then, we’ve had several years of goat jokes, gifts, and photos, even a visit to a friend who moved to rural Virginia to marry a hobby farmer with goats, but no real day-to-day goat contact.

When I heard about Overlook Farm in Rutland, Massachusetts (about an hour-and-a-half due west of Boston), and the chance to spend three days there during goat kidding season, when the female goats give birth, I thought it would be a great chance to see if I really liked goats, up close and personal.

Overlook Farm is operated by the charity Heifer International as a “learning center,” meaning that its main focus is providing educational opportunities to learn about world poverty, hunger, and sustainable agriculture.

My now-husband and I had “bought a goat” through Heifer each of the past several years, and as donors we receive their magazine, where I originally read about the goat kidding program.

While Heifer’s main approach to alleviating poverty is by providing livestock and other income-producing animals to families in need, the goats and other animals on the farm aren’t destined for life overseas. Instead, Overlook Farm hosts about 20,000 visitors annually, many of them school groups, to learn about Heifer’s work and the conditions they hope to alleviate.

Doublewide the night before giving birthDoublewide the night before giving birth

As a city girl, I approached the three-day experiment with a bit of trepidation. It was a relief to pull up to the farmhouse and find that we had indoor plumbing (somehow I had missed that on the web site).

The accommodations were best described as summer camp for adults, with four bunk beds per room and four showers for 17 women, the largest group they can accommodate.

While Overlook provides a number of overnight programs, the goat kidding and lambing sessions are women-only. My fellow attendees were a nice mix, all from the Mid-Atlantic.

We had two mother-daughter pairs, a retired pastor with her daughter-in-law and another church member, several groups of friends, and three solo women. In such close quarters, we quickly bonded over the group activities and baby goats.

We were the last of four kidding sessions in February and March, so over a dozen baby goats had already been born.

Baby goats love to sleep in a 'pile of cuteness.'Baby goats love to sleep in a ‘pile of cuteness.’

The resident livestock manager, a big woman with a cowboy hat and earthy sense of humor, called her new charges a “pile of cuteness,” and none of us could resist picking them up to ooh and aah.

Baby goats sleep in a big cuddle and caper like puppies — the word “caper,” in fact, comes from the Latin word for goat, “capra.”

I had signed up thinking it would be a volunteer experience, but goats don’t need much human help in kidding, unless something goes wrong. So our main responsibility with regards to the kidding process was to check on the pregnant goats overnight, to ensure that any births in progress could be attended by a livestock volunteer in case of problems.

Our first night, the women on the 4 a.m. watch ran in excitedly to let us know that the most heavily pregnant goat, dubbed “Doublewide” by the staff because she was nearly as wide as she was long, was giving birth. Most of us pulled on our sweatshirts and mud boots to check out the action.

The first kid — goats generally have twins, and often triplets — is generally the longest to birth, and he was already out of the womb when we arrived. As we looked on, the second came out, much more swiftly — the whole process from front hooves to fully birthed took only a minute or less.

The baby goat just after he came out of his mother.The baby goat just after he came out of his mother.

The kid emerged in a sac of goo, which eager volunteers wiped away so that the kid could start breathing on its own. Another volunteer dipped the remnants of the umbilical cord in iodine to prevent infection.

To ensure that the mother and kids bond, we brought them to a small indoor pen in the heated section of the barn. The mother goat licked them off, and within a few hours, the kids were dried and already beginning to nurse.

Much as the group swooned over the kids, I was drawn to the adult goats. At Overlook, the females (called does) are kept in one pen in the barn. It’s about the size of two big rooms, and accommodates about two dozen does and their dozen-plus kids.

As members of the goat kidding program, we had the run of the barn, and during the free time in our surprisingly busy schedule many of the women simply stood in the sunshine that came streaming in to the pen, each holding a kid and chatting.

I loved to pet the does, who with a few exceptions were gentle and friendly. My favorite was a lovely Boer goat, mostly white with a brown face and the floppy ears I find adorable.

She would walk straight up to me while I squatted on the ground, and happily nibble on the drawstring of my sweatshirt or unzip my pocket. Anything loose and hanging — shoelaces, scarves, long hair — is like catnip to a goat.

Goats sense that breakfast is on the way and stand up for a better view. Goats sense that breakfast is on the way and stand up for a better view.

We were invited to help the resident volunteers with the farm chores at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., and I decided to feed the goats. The first thing I learned is not to obstruct a hungry goat.

According to the directions written out for us on a whiteboard, the goats were to receive a twice-daily ration of grain and hay, in that order. Apparently this is the caprine equivalent “life is short — eat dessert first.” Goats munch the hay, but they attack the grain.

When the goats saw me coming with a bucket of grain, they began moving toward me in a determined herd. By the time I opened the gate, they were swarming me, and in the six feet it took me to get to the feed trough, I was nearly knocked over.

Goats can stand on their hind legs to reach food, whether a low-hanging tree branch or a novice volunteer. They crowded the trough so tightly that I ended up pouring a goodly portion of the grain, which smells like slightly fermented breakfast cereal, on their heads. By the time I went back to the hay barn for the entrée, the grain had been devoured.

Our group of kidding volunteers waits patiently for a pregnant goat to give birth. Our group of kidding volunteers waits patiently for a pregnant goat to give birth.

I had gone for a volunteer experience, but with the exception of chores and the overnight birth shifts, the program was far more education than work.

Our group’s planned activities mixed poverty and hunger education with a solid dose of “back to the land” pastimes that our grandparents would have found old hat — canning, pickling, cheese- and yogurt-making, carding and spinning. The theme of the food demonstrations, whose outcomes we were invited to taste, was “It’s easy and cheap.”

I found myself thinking some of this would make sense if I lived on a farm, but not for my own life. Even though I had previously made cheese once at home, without ready access to a milking goat I saved maybe one dollar by spending an hour making it from scratch.

I also wasn’t picturing my time-strapped urban friends coming over for a canning party in my ten-foot square rowhouse kitchen. And while the composting toilet was a revelation — I thought it would smell like a port-a-potty, and it didn’t — I don’t think I’ll be installing one anytime soon.

The biggest revelation was the quality of the food. As a believer in sustainable agriculture, Overlook Farm’s full-time chef uses mostly ingredients grown or raised on the farm.

The author, feeding grain to hungry goatsThe author, feeding grain to hungry goats.

With the exception of breakfast, which consisted of store-bought breads, jam, and cereal, meals were hardy and delicious — lentil soup, pickled beet salad with goat cheese, lamb curry, zucchini fritters, scones, and buttermilk biscuits were among the tasty dishes served cafeteria style.

While vegetarian options were provided nightly, the farm does use some of the animals it raises for meat. While I’m not a vegetarian, I appreciated having the tofu steaks and lentil loaf available, in part because I was observing Lent (which calls for meatless Fridays) and in part because it was hard to pet a sheep in the afternoon and eat him for dinner.

Their gift shop stocks grass-fed lamb and beef, widely thought to be better for the environment as well as for its consumers.

Another nice side effect of being with other women on a farm, where hay stuck to our clothes and mud to our boots, was that we collectively lost interest in our appearance. One woman spilled whey (the liquid by-product of cheesemaking) on herself, and she noted that if she’d been at home, she would have found a napkin.

Hungry goats try to steal granola bars.Hungry goats try to steal granola bars.

At the farm, she just wiped her hand off on her jeans. She said this right before remarking that Frank Sinatra Jr. had once asked her for a date. Just not the kind of thing you admit to with your and others’ husbands in the room.

It was hard to leave the farm, which I found nourishing physically as well as emotionally. While I don’t know if I’ll see any of the women again, I know I’ll be ruminating about our shared experience (“ruminate” being another word associated with goats — they chew their cud after its time in the rumen, one of their four stomachs, making them look like munching philosophers).

I returned home thinking that I’ll probably never can my own vegetables or spin my own yarn, but that I can renew my commitment to buying locally and purchasing organic food. I can feel more gratitude for the blessings I have and share more of them with others. And I’ll be getting back in touch with my friend who has goats — I have lots more shoelaces for nibbling.

Related web sites:

A brief overview of Overlook Farm’s women’s kidding and lambing program

While it’s easiest to reach the farm via car, Worchester Limo Service provides pre-paid shuttle service from Boston:

Liisa Ecola

Liisa Ecola conducts research on transportation policy at a think tank. She lives with her husband Chuck in Washington, DC.

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