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Kidding is an anticipated and awe-filled time of year in my goat shed. Each year, I look forward to a riotous new crop of gamboling kids. I keep Myotonic goats for brush control and for the sheer joy of watching them be goats. Kidding goes well most of the time. Indeed, goats live ferally in some parts of the world and have survived for generations without human intervention. This helps me remember that it’s usually best to relax and just watch. But kidding also brings angst, because I have no backup veterinary care where I live.
The University of Arkansas reports that worldwide perinatal mortality for goats is between 13 percent and 40 percent, and 14 percent in the United States. I’ve watched or helped with almost 70 births here on my farm, Persimmon Ridge. For all but one of them, I was alone. For that one, I had to load and transport the goat to the vet, arriving too late to save the kid. Although the average goatherd won’t be able to anticipate and handle every possible scenario, being well-informed and prepared will help in most situations. Even a little basic information can help you “do no harm.” I hope to help you prepare by describing how to know when delivery time is near, what a normal labor and delivery looks like, what supplies to have on hand, and how to help if necessary.
Signs Your Doe Is in Labor
Goats deliver about 150 days after breeding. The best way to know when a doe will deliver is to know when she was bred. Gestation varies by a few days and by breed. For example, Myotonic goats have a gestation period of roughly 145 days, and all my goats’ births have occurred between 141 and 151 days.
Changes in the doe will occur as delivery time approaches. Her udder will fill with milk, or “bag up.” Some goats’ udders can begin to fill as early as six weeks before delivery, but others, usually first-time moms, won’t experience their udders bagging up until delivery.
Tail ligaments will soften with impending delivery, and they’ll become indiscernible within about a day of giving birth. Hormones will be released that soften these ligaments and allow them to stretch during labor. Practice checking them well in advance by placing your thumb and forefinger around the area where the tail connects to the goat’s rump. When taut, these ligaments will feel like tightropes on either side of the tail. If you accustom yourself to their normal rigid feel, you’ll discern when they become spongy and “disappear.”
A mucous plug will dislodge from the doe’s vagina up to a few days before kidding as her muscles soften and relax. Mucous will string from the vulva, which will swell and gape open.
When a doe goes into early labor, she’ll become restless. She may pace, get up and down, look back at her hindquarters, make murmuring noises, or stop eating. This period before active pushing will usually last 10 to 12 hours for first-time moms but can vary greatly. Active pushing should last only about 30 minutes.
What to Expect When All Goes Well
Early labor brings the restless behavior and signs mentioned previously. After up to 30 minutes of active pushing, the kid’s nose and front hooves will become visible at the vaginal opening and will usually be covered by the caul, or amniotic sac. The doe will deliver either lying on her side or standing and pushing, similar to urinating. The kid will come out nose and front hooves first, as if diving out into the world. When the kid emerges, it’ll fall from the doe’s vulva, breaking the cord. The doe will begin licking and cleaning the kid to remove the caul from its face, nose, and body. Goats usually have twins, so this process may repeat within a few minutes. After the births, part of the amniotic sac and the cord attached to the placenta will hang from the doe’s vulva; she’ll pass it within an hour.
If the doe is doing her job, it’s best to sit back quietly and watch. The first moments after birth are critical in the doe’s bonding with her kid. She’ll learn to identify it by licking it clean. The smells of the infant and the hormones that are released at birth facilitate this imprinting. These hormones also help the doe’s uterus to contract and expel the afterbirth, lessening the chance of excessive bleeding. Licking stimulates and dries the kid, which will stand on wobbly legs to search for the teat and to nurse on Mom’s colostrum. Colostrum is the immunity-passing substance produced before the doe’s milk comes in, and it’s critical to the health of the kid.
It can be hard to watch a newborn kid wobble about trying to find the teat, and you’ll want to help. But as long as Mom is doing her job and not running away, remain calm, distant, and patient. Use this time to take lots of photos!
After the kid has nursed, usually within an hour of birth, you can happily hug it, smell its innocent goatiness, and count its hooves. Clean the cord with an antiseptic if you wish, and check to make sure the placenta has passed. The doe’s licking will also serve to clean the cord, so cleaning it won’t be critical if you have a good mom. Sometimes, the doe will eat part or all of the placenta. I don’t know exactly why, but she seems to know. Discard the remainder away from the goat shed to deter predators from being lured in by the scent. Give Mom some food and water to replenish her energy and to calm her. My goats enjoy a little molasses stirred into their water right after birthing.
What to Have on Hand
In preparation for kidding, establish proper shelter and gather supplies so you’re ready for most situations that may arise. A three-sided shelter will provide protection from the weather and good ventilation for your goats. Add a deep-litter bedding of hay or straw, which will not only cover urine and feces, keeping down parasites and pathogens, but will also provide warmth. Creating a kidding pen, a section of the shelter where the doe and kid can be isolated briefly from the rest of the herd, will also be helpful, especially for does giving birth for the first time.
Have old towels on hand so you can help the doe dry the kid more quickly if it’s cold. First-time moms sometimes get so occupied with the first kid that they ignore the second one when it arrives. You may need to nudge her in its direction or help clean the caul away from its nose so it can breathe. Once Mom dries the kid and it has nursed, it can usually withstand cold temperatures. If the temperature is below freezing, you can use a tarp in addition to lots of bedding to temporarily block the open side of the shed. If you use heat lamps, make sure they’re wired to the rafters so they can’t be knocked down by a curious goat, and so they don’t come in contact with the hay. To prevent fire, don’t leave them on unattended.
Supplies to have on hand include sterile lubricant, disinfectant, gloves, powdered colostrum, bottles and nipples, an eyedropper, a feeding tube, and a 50 cc syringe. Learn all you can in advance so you feel more comfortable if you must intervene. If you’re lucky enough to have a veterinarian you can call in an emergency, have that number handy.
Common Kidding Problems
The kid becomes stuck in the birth canal.
If a doe actively pushes for more than 30 minutes without the kid fully emerging, she’ll need your help. The kid may be stuck or may not be in the proper position for birthing. The head could be turned to the side, or a hoof may be turned backward. The kid could be presenting breach or could be very large. Glove up and use the lubricant to help you reach inside the doe to feel for the hooves and head. If you don’t feel them, sometimes pushing the kid back up out of the birth canal will free it and allow it to then come down in the proper position, nose and front hooves first. Feel for the hooves and nose and pull them down.
If the kid is very large, you may have to pull it out. Grab hold of both front hooves and pull slowly but firmly with the contractions. Pull out and down, as if drawing a comma in the air between the doe’s vulva and the ground. When I’ve had to do this, I worried about the pressure I used on the kid’s legs, but I knew I’d lose both kid and doe if I didn’t get it out. Fortunately, the big guy didn’t seem to mind and was unfazed afterward.
The newborn is too cold or too weak to nurse.
If a newborn kid becomes too cold to nurse, you can revive it by taking it indoors and putting it in a warm bath in the kitchen sink. I had to do this during a polar vortex. I had been making two-hour checks during the night, but Mom had her own timing. When the twins revived and warmed up, I dried them thoroughly and returned them to Mom and the heat lamp. They did well.
With a kid that’s not strong enough to nurse, use a syringe or dropper to feed colostrum if it can swallow. If the kid can’t swallow, consider tube-feeding. Being able to tube-feed a kid will require reading about it in advance and watching some videos. You’ll learn how to measure how much of the tube to pass, how to position the kid for insertion, and how to check proper tube placement before feeding. As soon as possible, return the kid to its mom, even if you must repeat the process. This worked well for me when I had to care for tiny twins; they became strong enough to nurse after a couple of tube-feedings.
If a doe delivers triplets or quadruplets, she’ll often need help. Some does can nurse three, but many can’t. Some goatherds get all the kids used to the bottle from the start so they can help Mom feed. Others choose to exclusively bottle-feed the extra kids.
Sometimes, despite Mom’s and your best efforts, a kid is just too small or too weak to survive. I’ve lost five kids through the years, putting my loss at 7 percent. Although this is much better than average, each loss is truly heartbreaking. I take comfort in the wisdom of nature, which seems to provide kids in multiples so at least one survives. With each of these losses, the surviving sibling was larger and more robust, and it benefited from the extra care and nurturing Mom provided.
The doe rejects her kid.
Some goats seem completely bewildered by their kids. It’s as if Mom doesn’t even know what this new creature is or where the heck it came from. If that’s the case for one of your does, put her in the kidding pen. Give her the molasses water and some feed to distract her while the kid searches for the teat. If she moves away from the kid, you may have to hold her still the first time or two that she nurses. Once the kid latches on, everybody usually figures it out. This has worked for me all but once – my doe Bella consistently refused to care for her kids. She delivered healthy kids and then butted them away whenever they came near. Her kids became bottle babies, and then someone’s pets. The second time she kidded and refused to care for her kids was the last time I let her breed.
Relax – you did it! Enjoy these lively little creatures. Within hours, they’ll be jumping about, exploring the world, and finding mischief as if they’ve always been a part of your herd.
Betty Taylor keeps a small herd of Myotonic goats in Middle Tennessee for brush control and for the sheer joy of watching and learning from them.