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Janzens have 'fallen' for unusual goats

Staff writer

What started eight years ago as a hobby for Steve and Phoebe Janzen has now become the focus of their goat farming operation — and these are no ordinary goats.

Originally, they wanted to clear their narrow strip of land, 24.5 acres southwest of Florence, of the serious overgrowth of weeds and brush.

Mission accomplished — the goats cleared the majority of the land to the fence, including all poison ivy.

Now, the goat farm is the main operation. The Janzens breed and sell a variety of goats. They also use the goats’ milk.

The Janzens’ fainting goats are especially unique and valuable.

Fainting goats will stiffen up and fall flat on their sides when they are startled. Steve Janzen demonstrated the goats’ trait by quickly opening up an umbrella. One of the pygmy fainting goats dropped like a bag of rocks at the sudden pop of the umbrella. The goat got up a few seconds later.

Even though the goats fall over, they do not lose consciousness.

Fainting is caused by a myotonic muscle condition that makes the goats stiffen up when frightened. Steve said fainting is genetic and was a trait breeders sought. Shepherds wanted the fainting goats to be easy prey — or a scapegoat — for predators coming to terrorize a herd of sheep.

In an amazing turnaround, fainting goats outlived their initial design. The fainting trait is rare, making the goats expensive. For one of their pygmy fainters, the Janzens paid $450. Steve said herders still use scapegoats but they are more often llamas or some other less expensive animal.

Fainters come with varying degrees of the myotonic condition. Level one fainters may only have their muscles stiffen. Level six fainters are the goats that fall over easily; on the Janzen farm, other goats can startle the level fives or sixes into falling over.

“We’ll hear a noise. ‘Oh it was just one of the goats falling over,’” Phoebe said. “You just can’t predict when they’re going to do it.”

The Janzens also said that fainting goats can be easier for aspiring goat owners because they are incapable of jumping.

The couple purchased their first fainters from Nancy Shanklin who was selling the goats cheap and they have become a major attraction.

“People like to come and watch them,” Phoebe said.

Bud Hannaford, of Marion, once took a large crowd of retirees to see the fainters.

“It was like a convoy of five cars,” Steve said. “I went out and did the trick with the umbrella and it made their weekend.”

People will come from around Kansas to buy a goat at the farm. The Janzens talked about one man who drove from Salina and bought two small billy goats.

The Janzens put the two goats into the back of the man’s new luxury car without a cage.

“They aren’t trained,” Steve told the man.

They said that the man came back later with the goats in tow.

“He had them trained like pets,” Phoebe said.

Phoebe takes care of the goats, shampooing them, trimming their hooves, and milking them. It takes work, especially during the goats’ mating and birthing seasons, but Janzen said the work is relaxing for her after coming home from her day as Marion High School guidance counselor.

“You know you stay healthier if you’re doing physical stuff,” she said

Even though the Janzen goat population has ballooned to nearly 60 goats, Phoebe has continued to name them all, with newborn goats adopting the first letter of their mother’s name; Lolita and Lydia are Lacey’s babies for instance. However, the goats, with the exception of Maddy a female fainter, don’t recognize their names.

The Janzens’ bond with the goats proved more valuable than profit when a man wanted to buy the goats for meat. They turned him down.

“I would be a vegetarian,” Phoebe said of what she’d do if she had to kill an animal for meat. “I couldn’t eat my friends.”

It was also tough for the Janzens when the first goats they bought died. Steve said goats can generally live 10 or 11 years in captivity with some goats living to be 19.

“That was tough for Phoebe,” Steve said. “I had to go and bury them.”

The goats will even worm their way into the heart of someone looking to ignore them. The Janzens’ foster son, Andrew, said he wanted nothing to do with the goats when he first moved in. Now, Andrew helps clean out the sheds.

Goats, even though they have a penchant for jumping fences and destroying gardens, have grown on the Janzens.

“You get to know them,” Phoebe said. “They all have different personalities.”

Last modified June 9, 2010

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