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Altamont Fair Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 13, 2009

Gentle judge says caring for goats gives kids a strong work ethic,
kids say their goats are their friends

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALTAMONT — The sun, filtered through spaces in the tin roof over the goat ring, shines gold on the wood chips below.

Six children, each dressed neatly in white, parade their goats in a circle. One goat stops to nuzzle its handler. Another balks and pulls back. A third charges ahead.

In the center of the ring is the judge, Jeremy Lesniak, an earnest young man of 28.

He leans forward to talk gently to the young competitors — three girls and three boys. “A lot of you really don’t know what to do — right?” he asks.

Their heads nod gravely.

“So I’m going to show you — OK?”

Again, the row of heads bob.

Lesniak reaches purposefully for one of the goats, holding the choke chain around its neck loosely but with a firm grip. He walks the goat in a circle; it follows as if by magic, step for step.

Marie Armstrong watches the scene from behind a long table she has neatly laid out with ribbons. She has been the superintendent of goats at the Altamont Fair for over 20 years. Before the first judging began on Tuesday morning, she explained that the earliest competitions would be for showmanship.

“The quality of the goat doesn’t matter,” said Armstrong. “It’s the preparation of the goat and the ability of the handler and the handler’s knowledge that counts...In the breed classes, the goat is the star. You can be a poor showman and still win.”

Armstrong said of those about to compete. “For the young people, it’s what they’ve worked for all year long and practiced in 4-H.”

She has enjoyed watching children grow and mature over the years. “You see them develop from the novice to the senior. Some of them grow up and become judges,” said Armstrong.

Raising a goat teaches a child responsibility and dependability, said Armstrong. “You have to care for it every day, even if it’s your birthday or Christmas,” she said.

She has watched Lesniak progress since he was a youngster. “He was a 4-Her and now he’s a judge — a good one,” Armstrong said with a look of satisfaction.

Becoming a judge

Lesniak, who comes from Schuyler, has raised goats since 1996 and showed them since he was 16.

“We all did it as a family,” he said. “Goats are fun animals and they’re really smart.”

He also said, with a smile, “They like to cause mischief and they have a tendency to get out of fences.”

Goats are social animals, said Lesniak. “You don’t want to keep one alone,” he said. His family takes newborn goats and feeds them by hand so they will bond more to humans and be less skittish.

Goats often give birth to twins and, even though they haven’t been raised as such, the twins, said Lesniak, “sleep next to each other when they’re older.” He concluded, “They know who they are.”

Lesniak also said that there’s a hierarchy in goat herds. Most goats are born with horns but their owners remove their horns when they are young to keep them from hurting each other, he said.

“Certain animals fight their way to the top,” said Lesniak. “Some are more laid back. It’s like people; some want to be in charge of things and some don’t.”

Lesniak has learned to be in charge of a show ring. He commands respect with a quiet presence — inspecting the animals from their hoofs to their noses, questioning their handlers and offering instruction.

In the milking animals, he examines the udders; with the dry animals, he focuses on feet and legs, looking for ideal conformation.

At the end of each session, he explains with a microphone why he chose the winners he did.

Lesniak had to take classes, and written and verbal exams through the American Dairy Goat Association to become a judge.

There are very few judges in New York — maybe a dozen, he said. Lesniak travels frequently to county fairs to judge and has traveled as far as New Jersey to judge.

He is compensated for his time, he said, adding, “I’m not getting rich on it.”

Each breed is awarded a grand champion, reserve grand champion, and best of breed.

There’s a national show annually, similar to Westminster for dogs, but held in different locations around the country — this year in California and next year in Kentucky.

Lesniak’s goats have been in the national show; his best showing was second in his class.

Doing well in the breed classes helps with selling animals, he said.

Of doing well in the showmanship classes, Lesniak said, “That’s more bragging rights....A lot of kids are very competitive against each other.”

The Altamont Fair is unique, Lesniak said, because there are two days with judging; the same animals are judged by a different person. “People get two chances,” he said; they need three victories to have their goat named grand champion.

“Good kids”

Aside from the judging, Lesniak enjoys raising goats. He cares about the details — like what they eat and how they’re fenced — but also looks at the big picture.

Worldwide, Lesniak said, more people get their milk from goats than cows. “We have more land,” he said of Americans. “In other places, like the Middle East, it’s easier for a family to keep and feed a goat.”

The American Dairy Goat Association recognizes eight breeds: Alpine, LaMancha, Toggenburg, Nubian, Oberhasli, Saanen, Sable, and Nigerian Dwarf.

Lesniak’s favorite breed is Alpine, which is Swiss. Alpine goats come in a variety of colors. “It’s neat to see the colors of the babies,” said Lesniak.

Lesniak likes drinking goats’ milk. “It has a bad rep,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh, goats’ milk.’ It’s got its own flavor. It’s good.”

Feeding goats, Lesniak said, “is all about protein.” Goats are fed hay and quality grain. “Everybody has their preference, he said, which can range from dry pellets to molasses pellets.

“Goats are not a grazing animal; they are more of a browsing animal,” said Lesniak. “They look for things above their heads.”

He went on, “They don’t eat tin cans. You see that in cartoons; I hate that. They’re interested in different things but, contrary to popular belief, they’re very finicky eaters.”

One of the things Lesniak values most in raising and judging goats is the people he meets. The culture around goat-raising has been a constant in his life, more so than his career.

After graduating from the State University of New York College at Potsdam, Lesniak became a high school math teacher. He became frustrated after a few years, though, and has returned to school to become a nurse.

“Too many kids just don’t care,” Lesniak said. He contrasted the attitude of his math students with that of the young competitors he judges in the ring.

“These are good kids,” said Lesniak. “It’s a different ball game...When you grow up caring for animals, you understand a good work ethic. You’re not sitting around, watching TV all day.” Gesturing towards the goat ring on Tuesday morning, he said, “This is what I grew up with.”

Kids ranging in age from elementary to high school sit around the ring, each with a goat, waiting for their turn to compete.

They are dressed in white because it’s a neutral color “that doesn’t take away from the goat,” Lesniak said, adding, “It’s a professional look.”

Two of those waiting patiently are the Abrams sisters of South New Berlin. They sit side by side, with their goats in tow, waiting for their senior showmanship class to begin.

Thirteen-year-old Kristie has a 9-year-old Nubian named Cassy. Cassy is large and dark with long gray ears that hang down; she nuzzles Kristie.

Sixteen-year-old Kara has a 5-year-old Alpine, named Acaidia. As Kara leans forward to talk to her sister, she casually drapes her left arm over the neck of her goat as if it were the arm of a couch.

Acaidia has a distinctive striped face and amber eyes centered with dark horizontal pupils

“They have the same kind of eyes as an octopus or squid,” says Kara. “Their pupils are rectangular.”

Both girls say they still get a little nervous before every show although they’ve been in the ring many times.

As they wait, they talk about their goats’ personalities.

“Nubians want to be with you all the time,” says Kristie.

Kara agrees, describing her sister’s goat as a “big drama queen.”

“They tend to cry a lot,” she says of Nubians, illustrating the statement with a bleating sound — “Maaaaa! Maaaaa!”

“Alpines are adventurous. They like to climb on stuff,” says Kristie.

Asked about the burden of caring for animals every day, the girls don’t see it that way. They see it as a normal part of their lives.

Asked about other interests, Kristie says they have 75 rabbits, which they also show.  “Me and my sister have been in the top in the country for five years,” says Kristie.

Both girls handle their goats beautifully in the ring under Lesniak’s watchful eye. Kara comes in first; Kristie, second.

“Both animals are extremely clean,” Lesniak says into the microphone.

The girls smile.

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