Failure has always been an element in my homesteading experience. Sometimes things don’t work the way I think they will, or I’ve forgotten some key element. Sometimes I can make adjustments and it works, but there have been more than a few times that I’ve scrapped an entire project because it just didn’t measure up to expectations. Even though I’ve come to expect some failures, those with my livestock weigh the heaviest on me because they frequently involve the suffering of a creature I am committed to caring for. These hard lessons leave a lasting impression and I carefully consider how I can assure such a thing never happens again.
I had just such a lesson with our milk goat, Hush, this winter. A perfect combination of circumstances has led to her losing half her udder to frostbite. Had one detail of this incident been different, she would have been fine. The very first factor was that Hush has a less than stellar udder anyway. She was poorly managed by her initial owners during her first lactation and one side of her udder was distended badly. While careful management would likely have prevented this, it is a genetic predisposition and would have shown up later in life.
The stage was set when we decided to make a trip to Wyoming for Christmas. I found someone willing to homestead-sit. She wasn’t experienced with farm animals, but was very reliable and excited about doing the chores. I offered to dry Hush off before we left as we’d need to do so shortly after we got back. She really wanted the experience of milking and since it was the end of Hush’s lactation, no harm would be done by a less than perfect milking style. When we left, the temperature was in the 50’s. It plunged to single digits while we were gone, but my farm sitter did her best and everyone seemed fine when we came back.
I milked for a few more days after our vacation and then just stopped to dry Hush off. It was time to give her a rest so she could get ready to have her babies in the first week of April. The temperature plummeted to well below zero the second night after I stopped milking, something that had never happened in the 7 years I’ve lived here. The next morning, Hush was obviously in pain, the distended side of her udder was very hard and wouldn’t milk out. She cried when I handled it. Assuming mastitis, I treated her for that for the next few days. The skin on the back of her udder started to look blistered and then blackened. I knew I was dealing with frostbite and the only thing to do was to keep an eye on it and wait to see how much damage was done.
I discovered the degree of the injury yesterday. The black area had scabbed over and most of the surface skin on her udder had peeled off. I’d been bathing her udder and putting Bag Balm on it to keep the skin soft and help it slough off. The scab began to pull away from healthy skin several days ago and as I washed it a burst of old, nasty smelling milk poured out. I have a strong stomach and have dealt with all kinds of injuries, but this made even me queasy. It loosened further over the next few days and I was finally able to take the whole thing off. Two thirds of the back of her teat and most of the left side of her udder came with it, leaving a gaping hole most horrible to see.
Faced with the magnitude of the injury, I shuddered and then rapidly began to consider the best way to treat her. I immediately discarded the notion of putting her down. She didn’t seem to be suffering and had a healthy appetite and bright eyes. The remaining tissue looked clean and no sign of infection was present. I briefly considered amputating what remained of her teat and closing the injury over. This option was also discarded relatively quickly. Closing up the cavity would most likely result in an infection that would be impossible to treat without reopening the wound. I decided the best option is to treat it as an open wound. It is rinsed every day with cool saline water and sprayed with an oil/thyme wound treatment to keep it from drying too badly (ointment doesn’t stick to the raw flesh in the cold).
While it’s hard to imagine anything about this could be good, there are a few bright spots. It’s winter, so no flies and it’s less likely she’ll get infection. The damage is so extensive it’s unlikely that side will produce any milk, a good thing since it would just dribble out all the time and chances of mastitis are very high. The right side of her udder does not appear to have been affected at all, so she should produce just fine and that side will make up in production, to some extent, for the missing one. At the very least she should produce enough milk to bottle feed her babies.
I hate it that my poor choices injured Hush. Had I just dried her off before we left, or had I continued milking until the worst cold passed, I would not be writing this post. I am planning on breeding later next year so babies are born in June. This way, I won’t be drying off during the cold. I will focus on breeding for high, tight udders as well so injury is much less likely.