Visiting the Goats

In an effort to meet my extended neighbors, I took a ride from Ithaca to Ulysses to visit BWW Farm, named after the three original owners in the 1800s: Bates, Walker and Wertis. Earlier in the week I had received a call from John Wertis inviting me to his farm to meet his goats. Realizing I had never been to a goat farm nor had a farmer ever invited me to a farm, I thought this might be an interesting way to spend a Friday afternoon.

John Wertis is a former middle school teacher. He taught the sciences for over 35 years and retired in the late 1990s. In addition to goat farming, he also serves as treasurer of the Empire State Meat Goat Producers Association (ESMGPA), a New York State goat breeders’ organization that provides a forum for goat breeders and buyers alike to exchange ideas and information on breeding goats.

John has run BWW Farm for almost a half a century. He had been a dairy farmer when his children were young but decided to stop raising cows because of the amount of work. “Forty years ago, we were raising dairy heifers, buying 2- or 3-day-old female calves from farmer friends and raising them until they were ready to calve themselves.”

Raising Goats for Meat
It is only within the past five years that John and his partner, Marian, have acquired goats. They first purchased 25 doelings from a healthy herd in Spencer. With the help and training of a Cornell Animal Science Professor, Tatiana Stanton, who lives down the road from BWW Farm, they were able to acquire more. Professor Stanton mentions several advantages of having goats – their small size, which makes them easy to handle and less risky to raise, their low initial investment and their versatile eating habits.

John pointed this out to me on my farm visit: goats are indeed not particular about what they eat, but they do know their hay. As I was feeding them, John explained to me that the goats consume different kinds of hay; I was feeding them from last season’s third cutting. I noticed the goats seemed more eager to eat this season’s recent cutting, which was softer, greener and even had some alfalfa in it. The older goats receive just hay and water, while he gives the kids a combination of medicated pellet-food, corn and minerals to ensure they grow strong and healthy.

John and Marian work together to care for more than 50 goats and manage the farm. They are one of four farms raising meat goats on their road. Fifteen to 20 of BWW Farm goats are “this year’s crop of kids, now 6 months old,” John notes. “Our basic herd has about 35 moms, each 4 to 5 years old.” BWW Farm is also home to several young and older bucks.

Goat is the most consumed meat in the world because of its price and availability. In New York, the sheep and goat industry provides “full or supplemental income for more than 3,600 farmers, many of whom reside in economically depressed areas of rural New York. Meat goat production has become a common livestock enterprise (in New York),” said Professor Stanton.

Some meat goats are known as Boers. The Boer goat was developed in South Africa in the early 1900s for meat production; Boer is Dutch for farmer. “Not all meat goats are Boers,” John tells me. “Some are Kikos, Spanish Goats, and there are others, too. Boers are the most prevalent now, producing the meatiest carcasses.”

Making More Goats
When asked about breeding, John explained the importance of keeping the male and females separate. On Halloween, John and Marian let the males and females commingle, with the hope of having several kids in the spring. Does of every breed come into heat every 21 days for two days. Since John keeps his does and bucks separate for most of the time, they are ready for each other’s company. Gestation is around 150 days, and the kid goats are typically born in the spring, the perfect time to become accustomed to their surroundings. Most does give birth to twins, and birthing is generally uncomplicated.

The Cornell Small Farm program estimates there are 3 million acres of idle land that could be used for pasture and hay in New York State. John Wertis alone owns 90 acres of farmland. Recently, he has begun a new venture – sharing a portion of his land with an organic farmer who sells his harvest to local restaurants. Farmers often lend the use of their land to others for minimal or no cost for esthetic and tax relief reasons, Professor Stanton notes.

Driving around John’s property made me look at farm life differently. Certainly I was aware that farming meant a lot of work, but what I didn’t understand is that farming is a lifestyle and a major life-altering commitment. When I asked John if he and Marian ever get to take a vacation, he laughed. “Marian or I can sometimes sneak away for a few days, but we can never leave the goats.”

I left BWW Farm with a general appreciation of the work of the farmer. Despite my previous encounter with these goats – when they chased me down the road during my morning run, I had discovered that they were not scary beasts to avoid, but rather the livelihood of many people who lived near me. Spending time with John, Marian and their goats opened my eyes to a different kind of living and to different kinds of neighbors.

by Katie Irish
The author makes her home in Ithaca. During the day she works raising millions of dollars for Cornell University and spends her evenings writing everything from goat stories to sestinas.

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