Hand milking goats is not an easy procedure. Before does can produce milk, they generally have to produce kids, and that means you have to manage the mating process, pregnancy, kidding and the day-to-day farming of the does and kids as well as the milking process itself.
(Surprisingly, the occasional doe does produce milk without kidding, if she has a 'false pregnancy'. Then she shows all the signs of being pregnant and even produces milk, but there is no pregnancy and no kid at the end of it.)
Doe kids reach puberty at about 6 months of age but sometimes as young as 4 months, and buck kids can be sexually active at an even earlier age. So take care when running does with entire bucks of any age! Generally, it's best to wait until the young does are about 18 months old before mating. If your doe kids at 6 months old are well grown and in good body condition and you have experience of kidding does, they could be mated at this age but only if a small-framed buck is used. Large kids can cause significant damage to small dams, particularly during their first kidding.
Does generally have heat periods lasting 2 to 3 days at regular intervals of about 17 to 20 days from March to October, but some does in warm areas and some Nubian does can start cycling even earlier. When they are in heat they usually let everyone know they are ready for a buck by standing apart from the mob, bleating or blaring loudly, and wagging their tail.
Selecting a good quality buck is important if you want to breed for better milk production or for showing. You can get advice from experienced goat farmers in your area, and view potential sires at local agricultural shows. If you use a commercial buck, you can assess his performance as a sire by viewing the milk recording data of his daughters.
For mating, you can take your doe to the buck or the buck might be brought to you. If the doe is in heat, mating is usually over very quickly, so the visit could be as short as an hour or so. When she has been successfully mated she won't come into season again. If she does, a repeat visit is necessary. Sometimes it's possible to let the buck and doe run together for at least 4 weeks after the first service so that if she doesn't conceive at the first cycle she can be covered again 3 weeks later.
If you are using the services of a registered buck, the owner may require you to produce a CAE-negative testing certificate, so find out well in advance. The owner of the buck will give you a Certificate of Service that you can use when you register the kids.
Remember that it's good practice when taking goats to another farm to make sure they have been recently wormed and their feet are in good condition.
If you visit the buck with an in-heat doe for same-day service, take care to minimise stress on the doe when you take her home. For example, don't tie her up for transportation. Stress can reduce the chances of her conceiving.
If you have a buck on your farm, be aware that his temperament will change dramatically in autumn. Hormonal changes in autumn prepare bucks for mating and make them aggressive and very smelly, even if for most of the year they are quite docile. Where there are only a few does it's important to make sure they are not harassed by the buck.
Bucks tend to lose weight when they are running with does because they are much more interested in mating than in eating. When mating is over, the bucks need good feed to build them up again before winter. They do best with the company, so when their aggressiveness wears off they can be run with other bucks or wethers until the next mating season.
Pregnancy lasts about 150-152 days.
Multiple births are common in dairy breeds. Twins are the norm, but triplets are not uncommon. Pregnant does need up to twice the amount of feed that non pregnant does do, and does carrying triplets need up to three times maintenance, especially during the latter stages of pregnancy. Good quality rather than bulky feed is vital in late pregnancy as there is not a lot of extra space in the abdomen for a lot of fibrous food. The same type of grain or concentrate pellet can be fed through late pregnancy and lactation, making sure there is no rapid change in quantity or type of feed that might cause digestive upsets.
Give the does a clostridial vaccination course or a booster as appropriate at least 6 weeks before kidding, and consider dosing for worms at this stage.
Fortunately, metabolic diseases like sleepy sickness are not common in goats, but they can occur so the does need a steady supply of feed even when there are sudden spells of bad weather.
Pregnant does should usually be given supplements of selenium and iodine, but it's best to discuss the pros and cons of this with your vet. Supplementation of selenium-deficient does will prevent white muscle disease (a killer of young kids) but too much can be toxic. Supplementation with iodine will prevent goitre in the kids. Overdosing is not usually a problem with iodine but the best form of supplementation is a long-lasting iodine injection by a veterinarian.
When kidding is close the doe should have access to a clean, dry, sheltered area, preferably a covered shed, where she can have her kids with no hassles from other goats ….or over-zealous attendants.
With multiple pregnancies, gestation length may be shorter, there may be a higher level of faulty presentations leading to difficult births, and there may be poorer bonding between doe and kids. All this means that increased supervision is necessary to ensure the newborn kids are successfully delivered and receive enough colostrum to give them a good start in life.
- As the time for kidding approaches, the doe gets restless and anxious.
- She will have "bagged up" and will choose a quiet birthing place where she paws the ground and intermittently stands and lies as contractions begin.
- The water bag appears first but don't be tempted to break it.
- A front foot then both front feet should appear in the bag then just behind them the nose.
- Sometimes the back feet are presented first with the hind legs extended and the kid face down in the birth canal. This does not usually cause problems.
- After the feet have appeared it usually takes only a couple of big pushes before the kid is out.
- The doe may let out some disconcerting bellows with the final pushes!
- The membranes around the kid's head and the umbilical cord are usually broken at birth or soon after, as it struggles and the doe turns round to greet it.
- The doe will lick the kid clean and lick away any membranes from its face.
- The placenta or afterbirth is usually passed within an hour of the birth.
- Soon after one kid and its placenta have been delivered, the next kid will be on its way.
When to help
Most does give birth with little help and it's best to keep a watchful eye on proceedings from a distance. There are all sorts of birth problems that can develop but fortunately, they are not common in goats. The head can be twisted to one side, the tail head can come first, or two kids may become jammed in the birth canal!
The signs of this are usually prolonged straining efforts with no progress has been made. When should you intervene or get expert help? As a guide, does should not be left longer than 30 minutes if they have been showing vigorous and regular straining with no progress being made.
If you want to check the position of the kid in the canal, make sure your hands are scrupulously clean and nails short and smooth. Use plenty of lubricant such as KY Jelly. Pulling on the kid's legs will not help if the canal is dry or the kid is in the wrong position. You must first make sure it is in the proper dive position with both front legs fully extended even at the elbow and the head extended over them. If the hind feet are coming first, the hind legs should be fully extended. To determine if the legs presented are front or hind legs you have to feel the angles of the fetlocks and the main joint above it. If both flex the same way it is a front leg, if they flex different ways it is a hind leg.
When the kid is in the proper position and the canal is well lubricated, gentle pulls in time with the doe's contractions angled downwards towards the hocks should help to ease the kid out.
If you are not able to position the kids correctly in the canal don't pull harder and harder. It's easy to do serious damage to the birth canal. Call your vet or an experienced sheep or goat farmer!
Goat kids are usually able to stand and stagger to the udder within a very short time of birth - perhaps only half an hour or so. It's frustrating to watch their efforts at the start, but don't be tempted to 'help' too early. You will interfere with the normal bonding process.
Most kids are able to find the teat eventually and when they have latched on once, they are usually well able to find it again. The first feed of colostrum acts like magic. It provides warmth and energy and helps strengthen the kid almost right away. It also contains antibodies that help the kid ward off many infectious diseases.
It's important that kids get a good feed of colostrum within 12 hours of birth, and preferably within 6 hours.
Dipping the kid's umbilical cord and navel in a pottle of dilute iodine can help prevent navel infections.
After a good feed, and when the kids have been cleaned and dried by their mother, they generally snuggle down contentedly in a comfortable and sheltered spot.
Unlike lambs, very young kids don't follow their mothers everywhere. They tend to 'park' and wait for their mother to return to feed them at intervals during the day. It's easy to 'lose' them in a dark corner!
Dealing with weak kids
Many dairy goat kids seem rather weak at birth and they often benefit from assistance. If the kid is chilled and too weak to stand, you can warm it with a hair drier and towels, then help it to feed. It may be able to find the teat for itself, otherwise, you should give it a hand. When does have very large teats or teats close to the ground, it's hard for the kid to latch on at first, and sometimes there seems to be a plug-in the teat canal that is hard for the kid to shift. Helping the kid by milking colostrum from the doe and feeding it by bottle or stomach tube will give the kid a kick start because the colostrum will soon strengthen it. Taking some colostrum from the doe has the added advantage of helping clear the teat canals to make sure the milk can flow easily.
When helping the kid to feed on the doe, clumsy attempts are worse than none at all. Here's a technique that I find useful:
- Get a helper to hold the doe steady.
- Support the kid's hind end so that its head is free and in about the right position to find the teat.
- Don't hold its head, it will struggle against this.
- Support the udder so that the teat is accessible for the kid.
- Gently rub the base of the kid's tail as its mother would if she was licking it, and its strong nuzzling and sucking instincts will usually take over.
Kids should have about 120 ml colostrum per feed in five or six feeds a day, even if they are to be hand-reared.
If newborn kids are too weak to suck, they can be given colostrum by stomach tube. A rubber stomach tube custom-made for small lambs can be bought from rural suppliers or your vet. Tubes that are too large can cause damage.
- Extend the kid's head so the mouth, throat, and gullet (oesophagus) are in a straight line.
- Gently thread the tube through the mouth into the throat, then down into the gullet, taking care to ensure it hasn't gone into the windpipe.
- If the tube is correctly inserted, you will see it distend the gullet a little on the left of the windpipe as it goes down the neck into the stomach.
- Warm the colostrum to body temperature before pouring it down the stomach tube but don't use a microwave as this destroys the antibodies.
Bottle rearing of kids has been discussed in Part 2 (Food and Water).