Lessons in Goat Rearing: Part Three
Text and illustrations by Amy King
If you’ve been following along since the Spring/Summer 2014 issue (Part One, Part Two), you’ve gotten to know quite a bit about my goats. So much happens on our little farm that it’s difficult to sum it all up in a few articles. So I’m going to end this series with a beginning: the birthing of baby goats. It’s a mess, but if you've had your own children or witnessed the birth of others, you know that’s it’s a beautiful mess. This is my girl Nikki's birth story.
Let’s start with the reproductive basics. Human females have a cycle that is roughly 28 days; goats cycle about every 21 days. Most breeds of goats (and sheep for that matter) are only fertile from fall to early winter. This is why the majority of all babies are born in the spring and early summer. There are a few breeds that cycle year-round but most cycles are triggered by the cooler weather. After all, who doesn't want to snuggle when the temperatures drop?
To get things rolling we introduced Nikki to her date, Lightning, and left them to get to know one another. There are two routes a breeder can take here: leave the lady goat with her beau for a few nights when you’re fairly certain she’s ovulating or keep them together for a full cycle of 21 days. We usually choose to leave the lovers together for a full month if the buck is available to borrow for that long. If the goat doesn’t cycle again after either type of romantic interlude, she's likely pregnant. At that point the 150-day countdown to birthing day begins.
Of course there’s always the possibility that the goat isn’t actually pregnant. Goats are a little more foolproof than humans but it's not 100 percent; there was the possibility that Nikki wasn’t cycling for some reason other than pregnancy. I couldn't stand not knowing for sure. When I was trying to get pregnant, I peed on many sticks until I finally got that plus sign. I needed to test my lady goat. Wouldn't you know it? There is a service that does this.
We were sending in all the goat’s blood for a routine health workup anyway, so we decided to add in a pregnancy test for Nikki. We filled up all the little vials with blood, labeled them, and sent off all the proper forms and waited. Those 60 seconds of uncertainty after peeing on a stick is nothing like the week you have to wait for test results to be mailed out and back. I've never been so interested before or since about what was being delivered in the mail.
Eventually the results arrived: POSITIVE! The report also gave us the number of days that Nikki was likely pregnant—40. I flipped through the calendar counting out 110 more days and marked down her due date, thrilled that I was going to have goat babies. Well, not me personally, but given the butterflies I had off and on for the next hundred or so days, it might as well have been me.
By the time January 12 was near, Nikki seemed to be as wide as she was tall. We started taking bets on how close to her due date she'd be. The poor thing seemed tired of the whole business, getting more and more cranky by the day. I didn’t blame her and started looking for signs of her impending labor. That entailed spending a good deal of time watching her nether regions. If you thought following a goat around to check out the poo was funny, this exercise was even more amusing: Nikki’s lady parts became a daily topic of discussion.
Has it changed? What is the shape? Is she swollen more? What is the color? You get the idea. More than once the words, “not while I'm eating” were uttered, as it was a nonstop discussion. We checked the ligaments in her back by pressing on them near her tailbone. Once they’ve softened and loosened, you can expect that birthing is near. We also kept watch on her udder to see if it was filling in preparation for babies. Nikki loves attention but even she got a little tired of all the poking and prodding; she began waddling away whenever she saw us coming.
A farmer tries to plan breeding/birthing so that the kids will arrive after the goats have been sheared. Less hair to get gooey and the fluff won't be covering up the udder so the babes can get nourishment easily. If the kids are due before shearing then a trim might be in order. Luckily for us, Nikki is a short-haired milking goat. If she’d been one of our Angoras we’d be getting out the clippers.
Waiting Is the Hardest Part
Nikki’s due date came and went. As did many days after that. I began to wonder if there had been some mix-up with the blood work at the lab. She was obviously growing tumors and would never have babies. NEVER. By then she was two weeks (TWO WEEKS!) beyond when we thought we’d have a barn full of kids. That's 14 days of excruciating wait time on top of the many days before that. Nikki was getting more irritable and complained a lot. I would run to the barn each time she let out a holler to see if she was in labor. Each time I was disappointed. She just wanted company. Really? When I was near labor, I just wanted to be left alone.
Not Nikki. Every time she started in on a new rant I'd find myself checking on her, sitting with her for a few minutes, and then heading back to work. I began to consider setting up my dye pots in the barn so I could work around her neediness. Instead I decided I wouldn’t run for the barn every single time she bleated.
One unseasonably warm Thursday (January 30 to be exact), the sun was shining bright and, as usual, Nikki was bleating. It was a little more intense than usual but I thought she was just being particularly cranky because she was stuck inside on such a beautiful day. (There was still snow on the ground making it a little treacherous for a goat in her condition.) My mom was working around the house that day too and she couldn't take it, she decided to go keep Nikki company. A few minutes later she was yelling form the barn.
“COME QUICK!!! THE BABIES ARE HERE!!!”
I grabbed our birthing blankets (old towels) and ran to the barn, as did everyone else within earshot of my mother. This was a good thing because there ended up being four babies. I scooped them up one at a time up, wrapping each of them in the warm towels and letting momma Nikki see them before passing them on my helpers to be cleaned off. There they were, four beautiful babies—three boys and one girl.
As we were cleaning the kids and comforting Nikki I looked up to take in the rest of the barn. All of Nikki’s goat friends had gathered around, watching. None of them were being the pain in the side they usually are when one goat is getting more attention than another. They were just standing quietly by, looking curious. It was like one of those crazy Christmas cartoons of animals in the nativity.
Nikki was a proud mama, but a tired one. I sent everyone off to move her to the warmth of our heated barn while I tidied up the mess she’d made in this one. Then I headed to the kitchen to whip up a little something to boost her system and replace the electrolytes she’d lost in the hard work of pushing out four kids. Coffee, molasses, and some watered-down apple cider vinegar did the trick. I know it sounds like a less-than-palatable combination but Nikki loved it and it did seem to give her a boost.
Nikki had delivered four little wobbly legged babies, no assistance necessary. The fourth-born kid (the girl) was a little more wobbly than the rest so we decided to keep an extra-close eye on her. With my two human kids here to help, that wasn't going to be a problem. They watched Nikki nuzzled her babies and clean them up. By the end of the day, they all had names—Hercules, Hershey, Holstein, and Hope (my kids are into alliteration)—and the three boys had nursed. The little girl needed a bit more attention so she was brought inside for the night for bottle feeding and to make sure she stayed warm.
Having a baby goat in the house is much like having a human baby—if that baby could move around immediately and didn't wear a diaper. We stayed up with her all night, her well-being was worth the sacrifice in sleep. By the next afternoon all four kids were doing wonderfully and even the little girl had started to nurse from her mom. Success!
Birthing doesn’t always go so smoothly. Breech babies, stuck shoulders, and stillbirth are just a few of issues a farmer encounters. We dodged those bullets but weren’t in the clear yet. When we went to the barn the second morning we found that the wee girl had passed in the night. This is the hardest part about having animals. They don't always make it. I am always thankful for the healthy goats we have.
Today Nikki is doing very well. Two of her kids are living happily as pets with another family while one of her little boys remains with us. And this year it will be Rose and Gypsy who get to put me through the waiting Grandma routine.
Amy King is the dyer at Spunky Eclectic and chief goat herder of her family's little hobby farm. The goats, however, think they're in charge of themselves. There's never a dull moment.