Hello and Goodbye: Losing Farm Babies

Originally written by Cheryl for HeritageHomesteaders.com. We reclaimed ownership of this article after the announcement of their Sept. 1st, 2014 termination date.

This article was supposed to be about how to make simple coats for newborn livestock out of repurposed materials. I had the perfect models in mind, too- one of our Nigerian Dwarf does had just given birth to triplets. We were just thrilled with them, our first tri-colored doeling and two beautiful bucklings. Small, even for triplets, but they seemed to be doing really well. Then over the course of 48 hours, all three of them died.

They were slightly premature, especially the little 1lb doe. She didn’t have any teeth through her gums so I fed her her mama’s milk with a medicine syringe every two to four hours. She toddled around the pen, nuzzling her mom and butting her brothers. They had all the necessary supplements and seemed to be off to the best start we could give them, but one by one they just stopped functioning.

I worked as a certified nursing assistant at a private hospice facility for a few years before our second child arrived. I planned to pursue a career in nursing, and hoped to continue in hospice. It wasn’t the easiest profession, but it was incredibly fulfilling and I was told I was good at it. For sure I could breeze through something as simple as a few of our spring goat kids coming a bit early and not pulling through, right? Apparently not. Losing those babies has absolutely torn my heart out.

When I pictured life on our homestead, I always wanted goats to be a main part. I’ve loved all things caprine since I was a child. I pictured their cozy pens in our (much less messy) barn. I could almost see them out in the pastures, the spring babies browsing with their mothers and playing in the grass. I didn’t picture sitting on a bucket administering IV fluids to a tiny limp baby at 2 o’clock in the morning. I didn’t picture myself pacing, wracking my brain for anything I could’ve missed and combing Google for any possible trick to save the life that was rapidly slipping away in front of my eyes. I knew we’d lose animals here and there, babies included, but I never imagined I’d feel so helpless and heartbroken. These were the first babies actually born here, alive, to die.

My mother passed away very suddenly last fall; we’d had a falling out, and didn’t get a chance to mend that rift before she had a heart attack. She was 59 years old. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive to loss while navigating that profound grief and the overwhelming guilt it carries along with it, or maybe its just my nature anyways. Regardless, it sucks. This was never part of my plan, I didn’t want to be digging little graves in the dark and comforting my devastated children. I didn’t want to spend hours trying to coax our heartbroken doe to eat instead of tearing up the bedding in her kidding pen, frantically searching for her babies. I never thought I’d be laying awake in bed listening to her call for them from out in the barn, her voice hoarse and her pain so palpable, with blisters on my hands from burying them.  I didn’t sign up for this! I only wanted that pastoral serenity, the beauty and wholesomeness and all the good things that come along with it. I did NOT sign up for this… except, indirectly, I did.

Keeping livestock is so much more than just admiring them from the porch while sipping iced tea. Shoveling manure, carrying water buckets, scrubbing and raking and brushing and milking (and milking, and milking) and rescuing shoelaces & drawstrings from an untimely consumption all take a physical toll after awhile. Mending fences, pounding posts in, and fixing the hay feeders that always manage to get the legs twisted off do too. I expected all of that. What I didn’t expect was the emotional toll, but its there all the same. When you add livestock to your homestead you invest in them physically, financially and emotionally; losing them, or their babies, before their time is rough. I was brought to tears today watching our forlorn mama goat rejoin the other does in the doe pen; her twin sister, herself a mother of triplets this spring, sought her out and has not left her side since. She succeeded where I failed, and got her sister to eat and drink some water. Its not pleasant, but there is such profound beauty in loss just the same. This experience has given me a new respect for my goats, the depth of the attachments they’re capable of forming with each other and with ‘their people,’ and the strength of the bond between mother and babies.

Our (human) kids have had a hard time with this. Our 8 year old daughter absolutely loved the little doeling; she named her, and we were going to keep her as ‘her’ goat. She helped me wrap the tiny little body up and said goodbye, she takes treats out to the barn for her mama. As much as it hurts, our kids are learning compassion firsthand. They’re learning empathy, and to support the bereaved. They’re seeing that things don’t always work out the way they do in the storybooks, that not every ending is a happy one but that things go on just the same. That life is tenuous, fragile, and so very very precious. I hate seeing my children sad but I’m thankful they’re growing up in an environment that hasn’t been washed clean of all emotion and rewritten to resemble a made-for-TV movie.  Life isn’t always perfect, isn’t always fair and some things will cut you to the bone; but, you stand back up again and keep on living. One of the triplets was a little black and white buckling who refused to breathe after his birth, I had to hang him upside down by his feet to drain amniotic fluid from his lungs before he finally took that first breath. Exactly 7 days later (almost to the hour) he took his last breath in the same place, my arms. As gut-wrenching as that was, I feel honored to have been a part of that short life in such a way and I know that each of those babies were wrapped in love for the brief time their tiny hooves touched down on our farm. I did everything I possibly could, and it wasn’t enough. It hurts, but its going to be okay.

The little bucklings passed away within an hour of each other. I buried them together, sobbing like an idiot while their mama cried for them from her kidding stall. When I was done I hung the shovel up in the barn and sat down on my milking stool to rest and get myself together before going in the house. There was a nudge at my elbow, and a little face appeared. Bombur, our new Nigerian Dwarf buckling who had arrived from northern Michigan the day before, was looking up at me. He nudged my hand up onto his fuzzy little head and rubbed his face against my leg. Our other Nigerian Dwarf baby buck, Roscoe, appeared at his side. Within seconds there was a full-on brawl for sitting rights to my lap, ending with Bombur in my lap and Roscoe halfway on top of him. They kissed my tears away and helped me find my smile. I’m sure we’ll lose more baby goats along the way; and chicks, and poults, and other baby animals that leave this earth when they’ve barely arrived. It’s never going to be easy, but its part of this life that we’ve chosen. I’m always going to remember those beautiful babies who stole our hearts in the few days they shared with us, but for now, my feet just have to keep moving. My husband jokes that I’m not cut out for this life, that I’m just too sensitive. He’s right, but I’m also stubborn… and maybe a little bit stronger than I give myself credit for sometimes.

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