Working with animals is more than just a job for one woman.
All week Linda Goin had an inkling. And as someone who’s been in the company of livestock all her life, she could take stock in an inkling.
“I’ll bet ya we got a pair of newborn lambs this mornin’,” says Goin, entering the barn holding most of the dozen sheep at Missouri Town 1855, where Goin is the animal handler.
Goin is greeted by a crescendo of “bahs” and “nehs” as she walks into the dark of the barn. She emerges with two trembling lambs under each arm – and a mother sheep in nervous pursuit.
“I got your babies,” says Goin, lowering the lambs so the mother can catch scent of them. She must do this every minute or so to keep the mother’s interest or risk losing her to the feeding trough or to the comforts of the barn. Goin’s objective is to pin the sheep and lambs together in a stall for three days where the lambs can be properly nursed.
“Some momma sheep are more maternal than others,” says Goin, warding off the mother sheep’s attempt for the feeding trough. “This one ain’t as ready as some of the others.”
One of the sheep – too young yet to bear young – splits from the trough, snaps a whiff of the lambs and bolts for the stall reserved for the mother sheep and her kin.
“Get out of there, you stinker,” Goin says.
It takes some tugging, yanking and finger-pointing, but eventually Goin rids the stall of the stray sheep and isolates the mother sheep with her lambs.
When she’s done, she grabs a handful of straw to wipe the lambs’ leftovers from her blouse.
“Not too lady-like, I suppose,” she says. Goin looks something out of a mid 19th century photo album, when rural women wore earth-tone ankle-length skirts, had hands as rough as the midwestern weather and donned bonnets not to be trendy but keep the sun from their faces, which still managed a hue of dusty gold.
Goin began her journey into the cattle business at age 8, when she was given a calf of her own.
“I cared for her, raised her; she was my responsibility, and I kept her for years and years,” Goin says.
Goin says she was well-established in the cattle trade by 18, when her parents encouraged her to enroll in college. She refused.
“In order to go to college I would have had to sell my herd of cattle,” Goin says. “I thought that seemed to defeat the purpose.”
The cattle business runs thick in Goin’s bloodline, which includes both sets of grandparents and her mother and father.
“My grandparents had Angus (cattle) in their pastures long before they were the popular breed,” Goin says.
Goin and her husband, Jeff, who works for the Missouri Department of Conservation, own about 75 head of Angus cattle on several hundred acres in southernmost Jackson County.
As small business owners, both must hold second jobs for purposes of diversification.
“Farmers used to be diversified,” Goin says. “They had some hogs, they had some cattle they sent to slaughter, maybe they milked a few cows; I kind of look at having an outside job away from the farm as diversified – if the cattle market goes bad, we still got our paychecks.”
As a result of the soaring cost of grain coupled with the hefty price self-employed farmers must pay for health care and transportation, Goin says one must be of a hardy disposition to go into the cattle trade.
But perhaps this has always been the case.
“Cattle farming has never been easy,” Goin says. “Even the post-war good economics – when you’d make money no matter what you did – didn’t mean your cattle couldn’t be wiped out by foot-and-mouth (disease).”
In good times, Goin says she is humbled by a sign posted on her refrigerator. It reads: There’s a great deal more to being rich than making a lot of money.
Goin says she could have found extra work that pays better. Previously she worked for a sign company where she was without a window, which “kept me from knowing how the weather changed during the day; I didn’t like that,” she says.
No, Goin has always been partial to livestock, particularly cattle. Nine years ago, she accepted the position of animal handler at Missouri Town 1855 in part because she would play lead in acquiring two milking shorthorns that would form an oxen team. She would call them Abraham and Moses.
More than a year after Abraham’s death, Moses has been sidelined in lieu of a new pair of oxen-in-the-making (they are officially working steer until their fourth birthday; all breeds of steer are capable of becoming oxen, though the Milking Shorthorn is considered a heritage breed, meaning it was traditionally coveted as oxen due to its size, strength and intelligence).
They are Pete and Newt.
Pete’s name comes from old-time wagon maker Peter Schutter, while Newt takes his from the Newton Wagon Company.
Half brothers, Pete and Newt were acquired in Rogersville, Mo., and set in the bed of a pickup beneath a camper shell. Then they were no bigger than German shepherds. Now, at 1 year and 2 months, they are as large as full-grown hogs. In a few more years, they will each weigh more than one ton.
On first glance, Pete and Newt seem inseparable, though not in Goin’s eye.
“I could set these two apart several hundred yards out,” she says.
Newt has a splash more white, a slightly different horn shape and lacks Pete’s sheen in his coat. The plentitude of baby hair is befitting of Newt, who lacks Pete’s work ethic.
“Newt’s not the sharpest pencil in the pack,” says Goin, snapping her whip on the ground to awaken the team. Pete springs to attention; Newt shakes his head, not even bothering to open his eyes.
After Goin gets them upright and lends them each a thorough brushing, she bands them together in a yoke leading to a hunk of lumber.
Standing ahead of the team with a whip in hand (she only uses the whip to lightly tap the animals and give signals), Goin leads Pete and Newt through simple voice commands like “back,” “gee” (move right), “haw” (move left) and “whoa” (halt).
“I’ve still got a lot to learn, but Moses and Abraham taught me plenty,” says Goin, who has participated in a number of week-long ox-driving classes in Kalamazoo, Mich.
While Pete is seamless in his abilities, lurching forth at a commanding trot, Newt lags, his head buried. Not that Pete minds.
When the two are removed of the yoke and allowed to roam freely in a pasture, they remain side-by-side, searching out the same islands of grass.
Meanwhile, in a separate pasture, Moses watches them, his tail swinging to and fro with the regularity of a pendulum in a grandfather clock.
Moses occasionally services Missouri Town 1855 as a single ox but is mostly regarded as a pet.
“I don’t think Moses minds being semi-retired,” Goin says.
When a horde of youngsters rollick down the path, Moses perks up and lumbers towards the outlying fence, his snout jutting outside it, eager for a rub.
Like his namesake, Moses has made way for another generation and knows he must now step aside.
Remember Nicodemus, the horse?
Nicodemus, a standard-bred horse, lives on.
“We thought when we celebrated his 40th birthday last year that that would be it for the old fella,” Goin says.
Recently, Nic – as he’s known by Missouri Town 1855 staff – turned 41 and may well see 42.
“He’s still as strong as an ox,” Goin says. “Trust me, that’s saying a lot.”
A decade following the Civil War, the first Belgian Draft Horse was imported into the United States. Twice as fast and nearly as strong, draft horses ultimately took over the role of oxen, before being replaced themselves by machines. Today, oxen are seldom seen outside of some lumber companies, where they are used to pull logs through thick brush because they cause less damage than machines to the understory and spook less easily than horses.