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Keep or cull?

Dairy goat evaluation starts at home

By Nancy Nickel

There comes a time each year, that we at Nickel Dairy Goats, Clark, MO, go through a total herd evaluation program. As far as management goes, it is the hardest thing we have to do-to be harsh in one’s own barn and to be critical of the does and kids that we have raised and loved. But it an important part of our herd’s success in milk production and show ring achievements, due to the fact that dairy goats are very reproductive animals and it would be fiscally impossible to keep all of them, and their kids, grandkids, etc. Practicing keep or cull evaluation skills should be a priority on any dairy goat farm with a goal of being self-supporting.

With our goals firmly in mind that milk production as well as show wins support the dairy goat project on our farm, we look carefully at each doe and her offspring to determine which animals stay and which will have alternate destinations. We use a committee approach to evaluation as we have many individuals involved in the dairy work. Not all of us see the animals in the same way nor do we all have the same line of priorities. It is very important that no one feel "worker alienation." Feeling a closeness to the project is fostered by having every opinion valued.

We begin with consideration of the milking dams of the kids. Dams that do not stay have daughters that may stay only on probation. The following year the daughters must make the quota of milk. In our herd that is five pounds as a yearling and eight pounds as a two year old with very few exceptions. Three year olds are expected to improve on the gallon a day production. The ultimate goal for every doe is to have one lactation of over 3,000 pounds of milk, Linear Appraise 90 or HES 90, and finish a Permanent Grand Championship in the show ring. Evaluation in retrospect is easy. Predicting which does will move us toward this goal is the challenge.

The first rule of keep or cull evaluation is to measure each animal against the same standard. This may be a standard that is adopted from the American Dairy Goat Association Scorecard or other association of choice, or it may be a standard that suits our individual herd needs. We like to use the scorecard presented in the ADGA Guide Book and each member of the team is familiar with it.

One kid at a time is brought up to the patio and we sit in a circle and watch the kid as it walks freely around. It helps to view each kid as an assembly of parts, adding them together at the end. This removes us from thinking about the personality favorites or the pedigree advantages until the very end of the procedure.

Even if we do not show, or have consideration of showing or appraising on a formal level, it is still important to use the scorecards developed for this purpose. The scorecard has factored in longevity and production, weighting these traits heavily, which are the most closely tied to a long productive life and heritability. Heritable traits for these factors mean money in our pocket in the long run, as we will need to spend less money on purchasing or growing our own replacements of breeding stock.

A scoring system can be as individual as the breeder or team of scorers. We give scores of +, 0, and – for each trait observed, and translate that to aseven, eight, or nine final scores. The goal is to keep only the nines for herd replacements. Scoring is done with the total group of folks who work with the goats. The standard for assessment is normed on our herd group by individual breed. We use the live kid and all the information we can gain about her life and life style, the goal being to separate feelings from the facts we see.

General appearance is considered first with its heavy influence on feet and legs. Each member of the panel watches the kid walk naturally on untrimmed feet. Natural hoof growth gives an indication of the work it will take in the future to keep the feet ideal. Good feet are those that need trimming only five or six times a year. Feet that want to roll over or grow with a twist can be maintained in ideal form, however it may take trimming every two or three weeks to do this. If a herd is large the additional trimmings needed may very well be an issue that would make a kid undesirable as a herd member in the future. We are also very critical of rear pastern length and set to the rear leg. A tendency to sickle hock with a longer pastern may tell that the kid will break down in later adult years. These are two difficulties we are looking at very strongly as our herd numbers increase.

Weight gain and growth are evaluated as ongoing managemental tools. However, we wish to keep only those kids that can gain three pounds a week from birth to six months and are ready to breed at 80 pounds the first fall. It would take a kid who was very special in other ways to make the cut if she did not make this rate of growth. This factor separates out the kids who do not use their natural immunity, as well as the management advantages offered, to fight disease and worms efficiently. It separates out the nervous kid who wastes energy making noise instead of growth. We also use the information gained from the person who feeds and look very favorably at the kids who are vigorous eaters. The kid who is the first to the manger when the hay is given and who will shoulder out her siblings to get her full share seems to be the doe of the future who will stand the stress of dairy group living and be able to milk above our average.

Since we are a show herd, we evaluate the top lines rumps and front assemblies. Traits that will help us stand well in competition are scored most highly. Scoring kids on mammary systems, the other large category on the scorecard is difficult. It takes an eye developed over years of working with certain genetic strains to see into the future. For this we look to the dam of the kid and the dam of the sire to try to make a prediction. Kids who have large teats, poorly formed teats and poorly placed teats will generally be milkers exhibiting these traits. To make a culling decision based on a kid’s udder-to-be is not something I am comfortable doing. However, any animals with teat anomalies that would interfere with future milking are culled to the meat pen at birth. We do make notes on the score sheet of traits we predict and compare it with the reality we see as they freshen in the spring. It is hoped that we will be adding to the store of information that may some day be useful in making udder predictions from what we see in dry stock.

Dairy character is the third category we look at considering the flat bone with open bone pattern, long dairy neck, pliable skin, and prominent veining across the rear leg just above the hock. It is our view that these traits translate to more milk in a doe’s future. Dairy wedges are not always apparent in young kids, but once the kid is consuming a quantity of hay we see the rear barrel deepening and width of rear barrel being gained when viewed from the top. Capacity to eat forage is essential to making milk later in life. The management of kids fosters this development, however we see some individuals who are better able to develop barrel given the same opportunity-those are the dairy does of the future!

Body capacity is the lowest valued category of the scorecard, and the least considered as a separate entity. However, it is weighted in the dairy character consideration, as it is needed to give the wedge shaped appearance we like to see. In this section of evaluation we also considered the long bone pattern which will yield a longer doe over all. This too gives us body capacity, as a longer barrel is more capacious than a short one, if depth and width are equal.

Each kid viewed is given a final score by each team member. A consensus is reached and a list of keepers made. Factors such as continuation of a family lineage may be argued and personal favorites may add a few more in a probationary category. However, over the years there are very few does that were kept by exception that proved to be excellent herd members.

Taking a critical look at our own animals has fostered greater awareness of what traits work for us in meeting our goals. It has also helped to hone our understanding of what makes a kid turn into a good doe. Reducing a kid to a series of numbers corresponding with the scorecard helps eliminate the personality choices we all find so easy to make. The goal of our keep or cull exercise is two fold. It develops a better dairyman with a keener eye as it works to develop a better herd.

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