It’s fall, and while human children pick out their new notebooks, folders, and backpacks, I pick out my top does and bucks.
By Stephanie Fisher
The days grow shorter, and the temperature cools each day. Milk production has dipped and will continue to dip until the goats produce next to to nothing come their dry-off in mid-December. But for now it’s breeding season, a time of infinite possibility. I start thinking about breeding in the spring. The goats are first fresh, every one of them producing close to their peak. I watch their kids, and take note of which breeding pairs I liked best, which kids are the most thrifty, the perfect birth weight, and of course, the most interesting colors. I continue to file these mental notes away as the kids get older and does progress through their lactation throughout the summer. I look for patterns – all of the doelings with precocious udders were sired by Pierre; Annika has a tendency toward hoof rot and a runny nose, and her daughter seems to be on the poorer side of thrifty.
Then comes the fall, or specifically pre-fall, in August, when we begin our pre-breeding preparation. While human children pick out their new notebooks, folders, and backpacks, I pick out my top does and bucks. I look through our Dairy Herd Improvement Registry (DHIR) records from the year’s tests. DHIR records are invaluable, and we base most of our breeding decisions on the test results. We test our herd monthly: we get immediate production results per doe, but also receive a more detailed breakdown of each doe’s butterfat, protein, somatic cell count (SCC), milk urea nitrogen (MUN), and days in milk (DIM). The information is provided for the most recent test, the previous test, and a projection for their 305-lactation. Not all of the information is relevant to us, and depending on your herd’s situation, may not be relevant to you either. But it’s nice to have it all in the event any future buyer is interested.
I highlight our top fifteen percent and bottom ten percent in production, then I look at their butterfat, protein, and SCC. I consider SCC in our breeding because SCC is an inheritable trait. I tend to look at it positively, meaning I utilize a low SCC as a pro in breeding decisions. I also look at a doe’s thriftiness, confirmation, and overall condition. How was her freshening? Was her coat shiny and smooth throughout the summer? Does she carry a healthy weight? Were her FAMACHA scores consistently low? How are her hooves? Has she had any serious sicknesses this season? How is her udder? Answering these questions provides a hollistic picture of an individual doe.
What about those pesky bottom ten percent? In short, we cull. We work to sell the does and then utilize that money to purchase kids in the spring. We give buyers the option of having the does bred before they leave the farm, or they can chose to bring the does back free of charge when they are in heat.
We start the pre-breeding process by “flushing” about a month before our first scheduled breeding. Flushing is the act of increasing nutrition for a short period of time. You can flush by bumping up the herd’s grain consumption (slowly) or feeding out exceptionally high quality hay or putting them onto a rich pasture. We flush the herd primarily to increase their body condition before heading into the stressful breeding period. Flushing also encourages estrus and higher rates of ovulation in does with a lower body condition, which are typically our heaviest producers. We also flush our bucks to ensure they are especially bulky.
Then come the vaccinations. Our pre-breeding immunizations are CD & T, Rabies, and BoSe. This gives us a chance to bring each doe onto the stand to trim her hooves and record her FAMACHA and body condition scores. We like FAMACHA scores in the 1-3 range and body condition scores in the 3-3.5 range, which is a little higher than our usual 2.5-3. We expect each doe to lose weight during the breeding period and drop back down to a healthy 2.5-3 as she goes into her gestation. This is also a good time to do annual blood testing for CAE, CL, and Johnes. This way you’ll know if any of your does is a carrier, and you can adjust your culls and breeding plan accordingly.
We make all of our breeding decisions before we introduce our bucks to the herd. We typically keep 3-4 bucks for our herd of 50 does. We keep a buck for each breed that we prefer, in our case two Alpines (one pure French, one American), a Saanen, and a Kiko. Our breeding strategy has three distinct components: 1) replacements for our herd, 2) sale stock, and 3) meat kids. All does producing over the herd average are bred to our dairy bucks, with a preference for purebred stock. We try to breed these does first so that their doelings will have plenty of time to grow to the ideal 70 lb weight range for first year breeding. From that pool of kids, we try to sell and keep as many doelings as possible, vetting each one for the strong dairy qualities I mentioned above. Bucklings are tricky. Ideally you would only keep a buckling from a proven sire and dam, meaning both the dam and sire have high producing daughters in the milking line with good udder confirmation, condition, and thriftiness. Any does that we choose not to keep are then delineated for sale stock. We like to sell as many kids as we can, and we utilize a sliding pay scale based on the kids’ age at the time of the sale. The rest of the herd is bred to our Kiko buck, and all of his kids are raised for meat.
We aim to begin breeding in the first week of October so that our first freshening will occur at the beginning of March. We bring our bucks to their fall home about one to two weeks ahead of our targeted first breeding date – the bucks live in a barn that shares a fence line with our milking lane so the does are forced to walk past them twice a day. As the does walk by for milking, we know right away who is in heat. Aside from the usual tail wagging, unwarranted yelling, and fresh behavior, the doe will also linger at the fence line. Then we pull out the doe and put her in with the designated buck. You’ll know she is in the necessary standing heat if she “stands” for the buck, otherwise you will be watching an endless game of cat and mouse as the doe runs the buck in circles around the breeding pen. We then calculate when the doe’s next heat will be (18 to 21 days later) so we can rebreed her in the event she didn’t take the first time. It’s possible for a doe to have a “false” second heat if she’s already been bred, or to have an irregular cycle, so we rebreed at any sign of estrus.
There are a thousand ways to go about breeding a dairy goat herd, and some of the things mentioned above may not apply to a smaller scale herd. In general, a breeding strategy should always aim to improve the genetics of the herd as a whole, whether your focus is showing or production, or better yet, both. Don’t be disappointed if you find yourself with a doe or buck who doesn’t quite live up to their breeding pedigree. Breeding is a gamble, and despite all of your carefully laid plans and best intentions, sometimes the genes just don’t fit. For further reading on genetics, try tatiana Stanton’s paper “Who’s Your Daddy – Selective Breeding in Goats” which you can download for free on the Cornell Extension Goat site at http://ansci.cornell.edu/goats/genetics.html.