COBLESKILL — Peter Croteau was feeding beef cows in the small hours of Wednesday morning.
Rain fell on the tin roof of the livestock barn at SUNY Cobleskill — filling the air with a gentle roar. He described the barn as an island of light and warmth in the early morning darkness. For the first time all winter, he was comfortable in a sweatshirt.
It was on that near-spring morning, at the beginning of Croteau’s 5 a.m. shift, that a goat in Cobleskill’s livestock program decided to give birth to quintuplets. That’s extremely rare — a minor miracle in goat terms — but Croteau didn’t take much notice right away.
“I didn’t really pay attention,” he said.
New kids aren’t a huge deal. The livestock program results in about 20 goat births a year. They’re more common than midterms.
“She popped out one, two, three kids,” he said. “Then I started to notice.”
The mother goat in question, a 4-year-old Boer-Kiko doe with a white coat and long ears, had gotten pretty big since breeding in October, Croteau said. He expected triplets, which are pretty common in the goat business. Around 5:30, the mother goat was in the process of bringing a fourth kid into the world.
“I was speechless,” Croteau said.
He’s an agriculture engineering major. The 5 a.m. livestock feeding job is just a way to make money. Luckily, freshman agriculture business major Melissa Pinckney was around. She grew up on a 250-head sheep farm in Cayuga. She’s seen a lot of animal births.
“Peter was a little freaked out,” she said, “but he caught on fast.”
She and Croteau gathered up the four kids as the doe had a fifth. At that point, Peter called university livestock manager Donna Cappadona.
“I was driving as fast as I could,” she said. “Trying to get there, and they call, ‘Oh my god here comes a fifth.’ ”
Goat births might not be a huge event in the SUNY Cobleskill barns, Cappadona said, but goat quintuplets are rare. She didn’t have any national statistics, but her own experience illustrates just how uncommon Tuesday’s delivery really was.
This is Cappadona’s 15th year running the livestock program at the university. In that time, more than 400 goats gave birth. Before that she ran a goat farm in Perth. In all her years of witnessing the start of new goat lives, she never saw a set of quintuplets, and only once saw quadruplets.
By the time she got to the barn Tuesday morning, after an hourlong drive from her Perth home, all five kids were out in the world, cleaned up and doing fine. “You’d think they’d be small,” Pinckney said, “with so many of them in there, but they’re all pretty big.”
By pretty big, she means 8 pounds or so each, all carried by a mother goat weighing roughly 200 pounds — an impressive feat of strength beyond the surprising powers of fertility. When the goat quints reach age, they’ll either join the college’s herd or be sold to other farmers.
According to Cappadona, a lot of factors contribute to the size of a goat’s litter.
Weather and time of year affect fertility, as well as feed and a whole host of other little things. She attributes the new quintuplets to a feeding system called flushing.
“We gave them a lot of grain and good hay for two weeks before breeding,” she said.
All that nutrition results in healthier kids, just not usually in batches of five.
The livestock program also purchased a new goat stud recently. He is, Cappadona said, a very good specimen.