A growing breed of livestock preserves an old way of life on a Sangamon County farm
Like an art critic judging a sculpture, Mike Earles leans back and places the end of his goateed chin between the raised thumb and forefinger of his left hand. His eyes narrow as he leans forward.
Meanwhile, his brother, Drew, pauses and steps back, too. He grips in one hand an electric hair clipper that buzzes like a swarm of angry hornets disturbed in their nest.
Just outside the open-ended barn, the two young men closely eyeball the object of their attention that stands loosely restrained atop a knee-high platform. They silently note minor imperfections for tiny adjustments later, nodding appreciatively over the smooth lines and shape that makes it a possible blue ribbon winner.
The object is no manmade piece of art.
It’s a 75-pound South African Boer Goat named Mistletoe, born the day after last Christmas at Thornridge, the Earles family farm in rural Mechanicsburg, about 10 minutes east of Springfield on I-72. This short-legged, seven-month-old lass is being readied for the center ring in the Junior Livestock Building at the Illinois State Fair Aug. 15 to find out if she is indeed the fairest of them all, as far as female Boer goats are concerned.
Drew sees an uneven spot on Mistletoe’s coat, brushes away some barnyard flies swarming around his sweating forehead, and moves in with the clippers.
Drew, 27, gently lifts the clippers and nods, satisfied. He looks up at Mike, 22.
“Good,” Mike says, nods at Drew then turns to today’s visitors from the city. “I kind of rough ’em out. Drew is the detail man.”
The Earles brothers are no strangers to the competitive world of livestock shows and life on the farm. Since they began showing Boer goats, they’ve accumulated an impressive list of wins, including the 2007 Illinois State Fair Grand Champion wether and two other Illinois State Fair champions.
Thornridge, with 40 head of goats, will show 10 of them at the upcoming state fair: two full-blood bucks — Rip Van Winkle and Contender — and eight does — Bertha, Hope, Cajun Queen, Annie Get Your Gun, Katie Wants a Fast One, Bo-Licious, Daisy Duke and, of course, Mistletoe. Mike’s wife, Melissa, shows most of the does, and the two brothers show the bucks and assist three junior exhibitors with their six show wethers (castrated males).
This warm Sunday summer afternoon’s assignment is Mistletoe, from her wedge-shaped block of a head to her short white tail. Her head and long, feminine neck are covered with a rough red-brown fur or hide. It seems as if she wears a hood that ends at her shoulders.
Her long, basset-hound ears seem out of place on a goat.
Her signature goat’s beard is short compared to those of the rugged bucks elsewhere at Thornridge. Four tough two-toed hooves firmly plant Mistletoe on the trimming platform.
The rest of her ample body is stout and white, except for the random red-brown spot and the entire left foreleg of the same color. Drew ran his hands over the doe’s large, almost bloated-appearing abdomen. “A goat is a ruminant … it has a four-chambered stomach to digest the forage. The judges like this shape. She has a lot of capacity.”
Two small horns maybe four inches long that look like dull stone daggers jut out the back of Mistletoe’s skull. Mike points out that the distance between the two bases of a goat’s horns are indicators of how much muscle (meat) the animal will produce. The wider the gap, the meatier the beast.
Drew points to the red-brown coat of the goat’s lean, muscular left front leg. “Some of the buyers like that,” he said. “They look for the red color in unique places to make them stand out.”
The brothers were raised on the farm owned by their mother’s family since the 1960s. Today, an uncle and another area farmer work the ground.
Their parents are Dave and Cinda Earles. He is a professional land surveyor, and she is an insurance company recruiter, both working in Springfield. They own and operate Thornridge with their sons.
The couple encouraged Drew and Mike to get active in 4-H. Both started at age 8, and today still show goats and help junior exhibitors with their 4-H show projects.
The family also raises a herd of cattle that started as one of Drew’s 4-H projects. “I bought a cow, then another cow, and then a bull and started raising babies,” said Drew, whose father and mother got interested in raising cattle as well. “Dad really enjoys it. We all learned it together.
“That’s a nice thing about agriculture. It is so family-oriented. Goin’ to the shows, all of us look forward to it. You get to see all your friends from all over the country, and you get to visit and share stories.”
Mike and Drew say 4-H taught them more than a love for agriculture.
“I really learned a lot about agriculture and livestock judging in 4-H, but it really helps you in so many aspects of life that you don’t really realize,” said Mike. “It’s hard to describe until you are a part of it. You get up at 5 a.m. to do your chores, go to school or practice, then you’re doin’ chores again. You learn that responsibility.”
“Sure, growing up, Mike and I might have wanted to go off and play with our friends. But we always had to be here in the morning and at night,” said Drew. “Otherwise our animals would starve. It is second nature to us. That is why Mike and I want to raise our families the same way.”
Both brothers have full-time jobs in agriculture: Mike, with an associate’s degree in agribusiness management from Lincoln Land Community College, is an independent contractor for a seed company; Drew, with a bachelor of science in animal sciences from the University of Illinois, is the director of business development for eGrain, a Web-based company that helps those in the grain industry create computer-based electronic documents.
Their lifelong passion for raising cattle took an abrupt turn when the Boer goats came along. It didn’t take Mike long to catch goat fever. He bought the farm’s first goat in 2005.
“I was doing a lot of livestock judging, so I got around to a lot of farms,” Mike recalls. “I kinda got a wild hair with the goat thing. I’d been around cattle my whole life. But I said, ‘Let’s buy some goats.’ So we did. My girlfriend thought I was crazy.
“Well, she’s my wife now and I guess I got bit pretty hard by the goat bug ’cause I have been on a buying frenzy ever since. We’ve been developing our own breeding stock, working with the show wethers, trying to help out the junior exhibitors.” Mike calls their foray into goats a “high-end breeding stock and show goat” operation.
With their full-time jobs to support themselves, the brothers say their “hobby” is slowly transforming into a “for profit” endeavor selling breeding stock via the Internet and at goat shows. Also, Thornridge culls out goats that don’t fit their quality standards and wethers past their prime show days. Those goats are sold at an auction house, then slaughtered for market.
Drew said they have had a good year, but next year should be even better in terms of quality animals. Most of their customers buy the animals to show or for breeding to build their own herds. Many of their wethers were raised specifically for use by junior exhibitors at county fairs.
Besides the farm outside Mechanicsburg, Thornridge last year expanded to what its Web site calls “The North Division.”
It’s the 20-acre place established when Mike and his new wife, Melissa, purchased property near Buffalo Hart, 15 miles northeast of Springfield. “This beautiful property is surrounded by majestic oaks and rolling hills,” says the Web site.
The North Division is also the site of a specially built kidding room: an insulated and heated shed where the does give birth to kids.
“You have to be right there,” said Mike. “It is very intense during the birth. We stay there through the whole process, get the kids dried off right away and get ’em going. If they get the slightest bit cold, it’s pretty much game over. It’s a struggle, and in January and February, it’s stressful, out there every three hours a night, then working all day at our jobs. It takes a toll on you.”
The brothers give a special blend of feed to the wethers they are bulking up with meat for junior exhibitors to show and have developed a specially formulated feed that they give to the females that are pregnant and need the extra nutrition.
With its four-chamber stomach, Boer goats can digest materials most other animals cannot. That’s what makes them so affordable to raise.
“The first year I went and got alfalfa, clover and grass mix, went out and tore up our pasture and planted it all in there. Well, it grew real nice,” recalled Mike. “They nibbled on it a little bit but I didn’t understand why they didn’t eat more grass. I was used to cattle. Cattle would mow it down.
“As the summer wore on, the weeds started coming on, the burrs, the jimson weed and thistle. They go right after that stuff. They’d bite the burr right off a jimson weed. It’s a learning process. We learn something new every day.”
Rick Wade is a freelance writer and lifelong central Illinois resident. He currently lives in Pekin, with his wife, two dogs and a cat. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See also "The Growing U.S. Goat Market" .