Have you probably heard the English ditty - Old MacDonald had a farm E-I-E-I-O? But have you heard of Old Macdonald's Travelling Farms.
While the colourful mobile trailers transport a host of small farm animals across Australia, the main attraction is always the goat kids. With their delightful antics, individual personalities and friendly nature they prove most popular with audiences of any age. “Goats are ideal because they are so adaptable," the Farm operator said.
In Australia the Travelling Farms operate on a franchise basis in each state. To go on the road, each operator is equipped with a brightly painted horse float packed with tents, barriers and 40 assorted young animals. Travelling together with a variety of goat kids, which are the most popular, are lambs, piglets, rabbits, ducks, chickens and even a calf.
"You can imagine the looks we get when people see the colourful float at road rest stops. From the number of people who stop to take photos it is obvious even the vehicle is a tourist attraction!"
For the animals of the travelling farm, the extended horse float is their farm-shed on wheels. And it is often their home for several weeks.
On one country trip, the West Australian troupe travelled 5,500 kilometers.
At each location the operators set up a large enclosure with portable barriers and a decorated green tent. Once the animals have settled in, the public are allowed in to hand-feed, touch and mingle with the babies. The main venues are schools and kindergartens, country fairs and agricultural shows, shopping centres and nursing homes. It often surprises the operators how many country bookings they get for their farm animals.
But the role is not simply entertainment. Old Macdonald’s Farms are approved by the Department of Education as an educational unit for primary children. At schools they promote the attributes of the goats for meat, fibre and milk production. At fairs and shows they explain about goat milk and use of fibre for spinning and weaving.
The question most frequently asked is "What's that?" and it usually refers to an angora kid. "Angoras confuse everyone. Surprisingly many adults and teachers think fibre goats are sheep or lambs." It seems that most people identify goats by their smooth hair and horns.
Travelling with the animals, the operators recognize the different characteristics of the various breeds at an early age.
"The dairy goats are the attention seekers. They like to be around you and be next to you. I think the Saanans and Alpines are the most loving and the friendliest.
They are the ones the children often prefer. The Anglo Nubians kids are more striking with their multi-coloured markings, but they are rather like spoilt children and often have a mind of their own."
The nursery also includes feral kids. These also are pretty often in mixed colours and are far more independent than the dairy breeds.
"They think barriers are made for jumping over," the operator said. "They are our Houdinis. And the angora kids are the timid ones." Both white and black angoras travel with the troupe.
And what about the Boer goat kids?
"We have a team of nine Boers and Boer crosses at the moment," I was told. "They are like nine rugby union players in a pack. They always have to be first out of the float and first fed. You can hear their feet clopping along behind you like baby elephants."
I asked if there was a difference between the behavior of the kids and lambs and was told that the goat kids want attention, whereas the lambs don’t seem to need human contact.
"Kids that join the troupe at a few days old need no training and go straight on the road but lambs take a little longer to settle in."
Feeding times are popular with any audience. The kids are fed three bottles of cold formula daily. Children love to help. At a fair in a capital city recently 1000 children visited the mobile farmyard. At the shows, Old Macdonald's Travelling Farms charges a small entry fee. For an extra fifty cents children can buy a cup of feed for the animals.
"We try to watch how much each kid or lamb is getting but that is sometimes a bit difficult," said the operator. "Because of this we only feed chaff, no muesli. The animals get this when they get home."
At the end of the day the tent and barriers are dismantled and the animals returned to their mobile farm shed to sleep. "The different breeds interact extremely well. They are one big happy cross-species family."
The operators source their animals from local breeders and are happy to receive orphaned kids and unwanted males. The kids stay with them from three to six months depending on their nature and rate of growth and when they graduate there is no problems finding good homes for them.
For the Travelling Farms operators life is hectic, but also rewarding in more ways than one. "The smiles make it all worthwhile.
"And it’s not children who derive pleasure from the farm. Adults who are passing often stop to look over our barriers. Their faces light up when they see the children surrounded by animals. The animals are so calm they seem to have a calming effect on others."
Plus, the constant stream of questions confirms that Old Macdonald's is not just an entertainment unit. "We make every attempt to educate the public and feel strongly that this is one of our roles as a travelling animal farm."
Note: While I wrote this article several years ago and it was pubished in New Zealand's GOAT FARMER magazine, the Old Macdonald’s Travelling Farms are still popular in Australia.
Information on visits and franchises is available from: http://www.oldmacfarms.com.au/
Pics of animals from author's own stock. Tent pics courtesy of Old Macdonalds.