This past week was spent at what has been my favorite experience apart from Tasmania. I went to stay with a nice couple named Kate and Alex on their 83 acre farm in Learmonth. This farm consisted of a small garden and acres of paddocks that held almost every animal you would think might be on a farm. There were sheep, donkeys, goats, cows, chickens, ducks, pheasants, a turkey, peacocks, pigs, a cat and several dogs. I don’t think I’m missing anything there haha, but maybe I’ve left out a bird species or two.
I have to say quickly that I’m sorry for a lack of photos in this article. I was trying to pay attention for the first week and get good at what I was doing. Kate and Alex had asked that Aaron and I watch their farm while they go to a festival over the long weekend coming up, where I had hoped we would be able to get all kinds of awesome photos of each other taking care of the animals, but plans changed and we never went back unfortunately. So I didn’t really get much for photos which is a bummer.
The First Day on Animal Farm
My first day was fantastic. Kate picked me up from the train station and the 20 minute drive to the farm was a breeze as we just got right to talking about everything, almost as if we already knew each other; my adventures so far while pregnant, what it is like on her farm and her other general interests and background. Once we reached the farm we were greeted by her four dogs, two Irish Wolf Hounds, Eileen and Finbar, a very sophisticated mutt named Baggins and a Border Terrier mix named Annabelle. Baggins would apparently “go to work” each day, making the half kilometer trek to the neighbors sheep farm to help him herd his sheep. Nobody arranged this relationship, he just showed up to help one day and it all worked out. The neighbors actual dog, Archie, wasn’t much for working and would spend most of his day at Kate’s farm. It was quite funny, there was a little doggie community that just did it’s own thing.
I got a quick tour of the house and was brought to my room, directly next to the bathroom (thank you so much Kate, since I get up about 8x per night to pee now) in my own little wing of the house. The view outside of the window was beautiful as the sun was setting. The rest of the house was so large and just had a beautiful simple farm feel to it. Baskets of various fruit and veggies were out on the counter tops (or excuse me… benches… I’m in Australia now), as well as deep ones on the floor to use for cooking and just to pick at and eat. There was a large dinner table and sitting room with simple furniture. As you moved through you found a large pantry room with another large table and furniture, a sitting room and three more guest rooms. Kate and Alex had a boarder named Daniel who had a room nearby as well. In my wing, you walked through the library hall, with a door to the right that led to the laundry room and contained an attic door that led to a very cozy attic room, and I stayed in one room with another empty room right down the hall. They could have run a bed and breakfast out of this thing!
First Night of Milking Goats
Soon after I settled in, Kate took me to the paddock at the top of the hill in her little Honda Quad Bike (or fourwheeler for you in the northern hemisphere) and we herded the goats down to the milking barn. I helped Kate to heat up a large bottle of goats milk and get everything ready. We had to set up the filter we would use for the goats milk when done, sweep out the troughs and set up the container inside the milking area where all the milk would be pumped in. Once the bottle of milk was warm, we dumped the hot water into a bucket, added a small amount of iodine, and brought it into the milking area as well as a little steel bucket for hand milking. Kate then introduced me to Stanley. Stanley is their Jersey Bull calf who thinks he’s a goat. He doesn’t like the cows much, and I later in the week found out why as I watched a number of them bully him with their sharp horns. It all started to make sense, as I found it pretty odd that a small bull was herding in along with this large group of goats when we went up to fetch them in the paddock. Kate and Alex bought Stanley to be their stud for their Jersey cow as well as their other cows who were Jersey mix. But Stanley was being reared on goats milk. She handed me the large bottle and told me to stand on the opposite side of the fence. I called Stanley over and he, very messily and loudly, emptied the bottle within minutes. We then emptied one bucket of mixed grains, hay, carrots and bread into four troughs that sat behind the first gate into the shed from the outside. Another bucket was emptied half way into four containers that sat behind the second gate in the back of the shed where the milking was to be done. Two of the containers were set up on the stands where the goats would climb up, stick their heads in to eat and we would close the gap around their heads to sort of restrict them from backing up while we milked them. It wasn’t at all uncomfortable looking, so that was cool. It was interesting to see that when you opened up the first gate to let the goats through to eat, there were four that would immediately walk up to the second gate and wait to be let in. They were always the first four to be milked and they knew the drill.
The first milking went pretty well and it was interesting to see the two ways of milking: mechanical and by hand. You first needed to wash their utters with the hot water and iodine mix we had brought in. This was very important to help prevent dead skin and hairs getting into the milk as you did your thing. Some of the goats needed to be hand milked because they were fairly new and required a lot more massaging to get the milk to drop and come through. The seasoned veterans were hooked up to a small pump device that attached to both utters and pumped the milk out into a large steel container. We rotated through 9 goats that were all very patient with us, filling up the feed buckets with the second half of their dinner mix when it ran out. I saw why we had to do it half and half at a time. I don’t think there would have been any left for the second round of goats. These animals eat in a frenzy!
Once we were done it was a fairly quick process of filtering the milk into a sterilized bucket, getting rid of any excess skin and hairs and what not, putting the bucket into a refrigerator, sterilizing everything we had used, and sweeping/hosing out the milking pen. The goats and Stanley simply settled down in the barn for a sleep once everything was finished.
Soon the vet arrived and had to take a look at one of the lady goats. She was very bloated and unhealthy looking. The vet showed me that her gums were white, which told him she was anemic. He stuck a small needle into the side of her stomach, one that would normally get hooked up to a tube in order to take blood, and a clear fluid came running out. He explained that due to the placement of the needle he was confident that this was not amniotic fluid and that the goat had a tumor that was most likely cancerous. Kate and Alex had two options. They could allow the vet to perform surgery to be sure that the goat did not just have a dead kid inside of her along with a large build up of amniotic fluid (in which case she may not even survive the surgery), or they could just put her down and out of her misery. She was very uncomfortable and her breathing was becoming very shallow. Although this goat was Alex’s baby and favorite girl he made the hard decision to put her down, but asked the vet to cut her open afterwards for confirmation. I didn’t stay for this process but apparently upon opening her up they found a liver about 10x the size it was meant to be. Poor Papa Gaina had liver cancer. Alex wrapped her up and gave her a nice burial in the goat paddock. It was a sad way to end the day but tomorrow was a new day and we drank to Papa Gaina that night (tea for me).
Working Against Nature 😦
The next day I got a quick tour of Kate’s garden. It consisted first of a section of “seeding boxes”. Kate had said she harvests her own seeds so I asked her about it. She said she did harvest some, but for the most part she would just let the plants she planned on planting in her garden each year to grow inside these seed boxes. Some she would take out and plant into the garden and a few she would leave and let go to seed. Once they did go to seed she would just shake the plants to spread the seed out through the boxes and let them grow up the next season when it was their time to grow again. Her perception was that people just made it too damned complicated haha. I liked it. She got other seeds from harvesting as well as seed swaps that happened within the community. So awesome. We then moved on to the vegetable area. It looked lush and beautiful, at least until I was told that my next task was to weed it. I realized all those plants in there were mostly weeds and she intended to rip them out….sigh. Finally we moved on to the herb garden which was also very beautiful and simple. Just a bunch of herbs planted all willy nilly together in their own little section. I loved it.
Now to address the weeding part. The key principle to permaculture is to work with nature, not against it. As my next three days were filled with ripping out 2/3 of the life that lived in that garden bed and I watched Kate mow the lawn it kicked me right in the face just how important that principle is. Everything I have been reading and studying started to make so much more sense as I experienced the exact opposite of it all. Permaculture gardens do not require zero maintenance by any means, but you will never spend three days straight weeding a garden bed. You build your bed with plants that will work together to keep out unwanted species of plants as well as unwanted pests. Your garden bed will look to an old school farmer like “a mess”. Kate even expressed her hatred of the permaculture movement as she found it very messy. Everyone is entitled to their opinions. So I did not argue, I just celebrated in my mind the fact that I would never, ever….. ever, spend the better part of a week fighting nature again while trying desperately to save the insect life that was trying to turn that vegetable bed into fertile ground and advance it into it’s next stage of nature’s process. Better detail to these concepts can be read and appreciated in the first book I have nearly gotten through called Gaia’s Garden. It is an EXCELLENT introductory book to the permaculture idea. If you are at all interested, please pick it up and read it. It’s not very long and it’s a very easy read. Toby Hemenway is a fantastic writer that makes you feel like you are sitting in his kitchen and drinking tea while having a pleasant conversation (or just listening to him) but it’s all so intriguing and will change your outlook on “conventional” gardening forever.
Beware the Elusive Garden Toad!
As I worked on this truly exasperating weeding project, I placed my hand down to steady myself while ripping up more roots and felt something of true substance moved around in my palm. As a panicked and quite audible noise of surprise left my mouth I tore my hand away and looked down to barely recognize an eyeball looking up at me with and expression of “Do You Mind Madame!”
Sorry buddy…..As I weeded, I threw the plants into a wheelbarrow and carted them over to the bird pens. I dumped half of each load into one pen containing mostly chickens and pheasants, and the other into the pen containing mostly ducks. The birds LOVED scratching around in the clippings, eating bugs I failed to save and loads of the plants that were perfectly edible and nutritious. By the time they were done there was just a few dried up bits of plant that were ground nicely into the soil around their pens. This, my friends, is a great way to build up your soil.
Other than the ducks in the one pen there was a turkey whom I dubbed Mr. Man. I have no idea what his real name was, if he in fact had a name. But he was magnificent. Although he looks a bit intimidating, he was a perfect gentleman and loved a good pat. I could never catch a photo of him while his head was white, but it was amazing to watch when you first walked in, all that red part of his head would be white as paper, and would quickly fill up with blood and become firm (yes, just like what you’re thinking) as he “presented” himself. He would present this way both for flirting and for intimidation. You’d know which was which as you got to know him. Unfortunately, Mr. Man’s woman was taken by a fox and his breed is hard to come by here in Australia so Kate and Alex have yet to be able to bring him a new mate. At the end of this post I have added a video for your entertainment of our dog Ozzy meeting Mr. Man for the first time. The last night I was at the farm, Aaron and Ozzy came to stay as Aaron was meant to be in Ballarat where the sheep farm his company owns resides. Ozzy got to spend the next day with me before I met back up with Aaron to go home. Watching him run around a meet all these new and strange creatures was just so funny and awesome. I can’t wait to build this environment for him permanently. But Mr. Man was not too excited about Ozzy’s presence in his pen. As the ducks ran under the bird sheds, he presented and told Ozzy what was what. It was hilarious.
I Love Goats
After the first day, I asked Alex if I could join him in the rounds of taking care of the rest of the animals in the afternoon. It was a whole process of putting together different feeding buckets and walking the vast grounds to feed first the pigs, then the bucks that were isolated from the goats because they were on a strict mating regiment (don’t worry they had their own paddocks and were very happy), then the quails and finally on to milk the goats. Alex taught me how to hand milk the goats in a way that had yet to be explained to me properly and my skills increased 10 fold. He also taught me to feed Stanley properly, but standing in front of him and holding the bottle low so he had to bring his head around and keep it low as if he were feeding on a cow utter. He drank much more slowly this way. I would get the whole round of feeding done before Alex got home the rest of the week and just helped him to milk at the end. I loved going around and spending time with each of the animals. The pigs weren’t too tame and so a little obnoxious but I really loved the goats. They are so funny and so loving. They love to have you come in and feed them, pat them and talk to them for a while. The baby bucks as well as one of the older bucks would escort me back out of the paddock and then wine and cry that I was leaving. I always had to go back for another quick conversation and a neck and head scratch. I cannot wait to have my own goats. And do not get me started on how awesome goats milk is. I can’t even buy the crap cows milk from the store anymore. Every morning I was blessed with an amazing glass of milk to go with my eggs and home made goats cheese on toast. Oh how I miss it already. I need to find where to get these things here in Werribee!! I don’t want to buy it though I just want to have the goats and milk them and make the cheese! Can we please just have our own place already?!
No… still lots to learn. I hope that this has been a fun read for you all. Without further adieu, Ozzy and Mr. Man: