Get Your Goat
A summer's exploration of the biological needs of browsers. - by Mark Tarnacki, photos by Brian MacDonald
More than 50 young goats munched an island of brush rising from the buggy flood-plain pasture beside the Winooski River one bright August morning, blissfully ignorant of their ability to stir cultural, nutritional and scientific buzz among college scholars and New Americans.
This particular shrub-foraging session was only five months into the lives of these playful and curious March-born goats. "These buddy boys won't have to endure a Vermont winter," says one of their tenders, Karen Freudenberger, gently delivering the news that with the arrival of fall, these little feasters were destined to become feasts at Bhutanese and Muslim festival meals.
"There's never a dull moment with goats," says Freudenberger, a community development volunteer among Burlington-area immigrants from Africa, the Himalayas, Mideast and beyond. Learning of these communities' great demand for fresh goat meat, she helped found the Vermont Goat Collaborative last year on a farm three miles west of campus. She then brought in a Bhutanese family of experienced goat-herders to live at the property's modern white farmhouse and tend the animals.
Last summer, biology students and their professor, Mark Lubkowitz, worked with the Vermont Goat Collaborative to study the nutrition in the plant diet of their herd of young goats.
Freudenberger next brought biology professor Mark Lubkowitz and his students into the enterprise. Tom DeNuccio '15 and Lubkowitz spent last summer studying the nutritional value of plants in the goats' diets, sampling plants for nutrients with a chlorophyll-measuring device. They brought many back to a Cheray Hall lab for more analysis to ensure the goats had a proper diet.
"I didn't think that the goats would be so playful, and I didn't think they would love me so much," says DeNuccio, a good-natured rugby player who had worked construction past summers but was far happier with this summer's work routine. The goats placed their front legs on his chest in greeting, nibbled on his clothes, and climbed up on a bright toy wagon to play with him.
In August, Lubkowitz and Freudenberger walked down to see the goats with DeNuccio and a local man, originally from Burundi, who was interested in buying one, and DeNuccio spoke of the challenges of his work. "I didn't expect to have such a difficult time identifying plants," he says, explaining how some different species look practically the same to a newcomer's eye. It took him several weeks to get comfortable identifying them from leaves, stems and bark.
"But now I can just go through the fields and take some samples quickly and easily," he says. Once DeNuccio determined which varieties were most nutritious for goats, he created a reference booklet for the collaborative to use. He's sampled Virginia creeper, Basswood, elm, speckled alder, hackberry, box elder, dogwoods and cottonwood, among other species."They even love poison ivy and it doesn't hurt them," says Lubkowitz.
Eighty percent of the goats raised last summer were castrated males, culled from a dairy farm that kept the females. A few older goats were placed among the kids to comfort and lead them around, serving "like sages to show them proper etiquette," says Lubkowitz.
St. Mike's students created a reference book on maximum plant nutrition for the goats, based on their summer research. The goats' diet varied diet included poison ivy "which doesn't hurt them", says Professor Mark Lubkowitz.
No animals were to be kept over the winter, Freudenberger says, even while petting and earnestly talking to some of her favorites. "Part of the challenge of this project is affordability - keeping the meat affordable for the new Americans who are mostly lowincome consumers." It's one reason the work by the Saint Michael's scientists is so vital; providing better nutrition for the goats by introducing the best shrubs for them to forage will maximize the farm's efficient output relative to cost.
For Saint Michael's students, Lubkowitz says, "this is not only research, but real-world research that matters to somebody. It's not experiments you're just doing for a class. It actually has implications for somebody's livelihood. I think that raises the stakes of the experience, because it has consequences. You have to follow through - you have to deliver and do quality work."
"I'm a plant person, so I didn't know anything about goats before starting this," says Lubkowitz. He began bringing students from his whole plant biology course to the farm this past fall, with trips to dig up pasture field shrubs and then transplant them among these goats, monitoring the transplants' progress too.
"I've been at St. Mike's for 13 years doing a lot of different things," Lubkowitz says, "but direct community engaged research is a new avenue for me, and I look forward to doing more. I took what I was doing in the lab, and I thought, 'how can I use this on the local level,'" he explains. He plans to write a scholarly article about the experience, and has already been invited to speak of the project at the University of Nebraska. He and Freudenberger hope the relationship can be ongoing.
DeNuccio says his involvement in the goat project has become the highlight of his student experience. "Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would be doing something close to this when I came up here [as a student], but I'm absolutely ecstatic," he says.