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Doe replacement strategies
for working goat herds


Exploring hidden costs and various replacement strategies with emphasis on replacing dairy does in small commercial herds

By David Heininger

While sitting out with our goats, watching the doe kids frolic and thinking about how they would soon be earning their keep as full-fledged members of our small commercial dairy herd, I began to think about the whole process of herd growth and doe replacements and wanted to learn more.

Most of this article applies to all small goat herds, though it is written primarily with production dairy herds in mind.

Why replace?

Everyone who has goats on more than a completely casual basis and who keeps them for more than a few years will have to deal with the reality of having to replace their animals periodically. There are dozens of reasons for needing, or wanting, to replace the goats in a herd and scores of considerations the well-informed herd manager will want to address along the way.

It doesn’t matter if a breeder runs strings of pack goats, keeps goats primarily for showing and breeding, maintains a herd for their fine hair, or maybe (like us) has a small commercial dairy-from time to time those hard working goats will need to be replaced or augmented.

As much as many of us would like to simply keep each and every one of our goats forever, that is not a practical possibility. Even if possible, it probably would not be a wise move as we all certainly look to improve our herds in one way or another. Even in herds primarily geared towards a high rate of turnover-those where most of the herd is sold off soon after every breeding season (think meat goats), there will be a central or core main herd group that will need to be maintained and improved.

Goats leave the average herd under a variety of circumstances. If overall herd improvement is a goal, goats may be sold in order to upgrade genetics, or productivity. Animals may also leave the herd as the result of other culling criteria or death. To maintain the herd’s strength and depth, suitable replacements will have to be sought out.

Herd-building is another good example of where new, fresh goats will need to be brought into a herd. While these aren’t technically "replacement" does (they are usually called "expansion does") the processes and costs for bringing them into the herd is the same.

Herd replacement standards

I was unable to find any published statistics for goat dairy doe replacements but there is a lot of this type of data available for cow dairies and some for sheep as well. The published numbers, especially the culling rates and projected mortality figures, surprised me in being so high. In researching this article, I spoke with a number of other dairy goat farmers, none of whose mortality or goat replacement rates were anywhere near as severe as the ones published for cows. Despite their elevated values, the cow figures were still interesting in how they clearly showed the relationships between the major factors for replacement planning.

The cow dairy model

As David Mackenzie put it in his book Goat Husbandry (5th edition, ? Mrs. Josephine Gardner, Faber and Faber London, 1993) "…Providence has decreed that goats are very far from being miniature cows." In spite of that, here is how cow dairy people look at their replacement costs (adapted as best as possible for dairy goats).

In order to quantify the replacement needs of a particular herd, a number of factors have to be identified and examined.

Herd size

This is the basic building block to which all of the other factors relate. This is the number of milking does (or desired number in herd-building situations) one is trying to maintain.

Replacement ratio

How many does need to be replaced on an annual basis? All normal culls or deaths should be factored in.

This ties in directly to the overall condition of the herd, how long one keeps does in production, general health and productivity of the goats and their ages. An older herd will, naturally, have more expected deaths and retirements.

When herd building, if growing at a pre-determined rate, say 20% per annum, that number would be added to the loss rate to determine the corrected ratio.

If managing an aggressive herd improvement program, the cull rate might be quite high as stronger does are brought online, replacing their weaker predecessors quickly.

Replacement ratios from 30 to 35% are commonly used in the cow dairy industry. At that rate one would expect to replace their entire herd every three years. Large commercial goat dairies more commonly keep their goats a bit longer to about the age of six. Assuming an average first kidding age of 12 months, annual freshenings and keeping the goat until the end of her sixth year, the dairy would then expect six lactations from a doe before replacing her. This comes out to around a 17% replacement ratio (six lactations divided by 100). In other words, using these figures, a herd owner might plan to replace 17% of his or her herd every year-approximately one out of every six does.

Smaller, less intense operations, like ours, may keep does productive for several years longer, as long as they remain healthy and would, therefore, have a smaller replacement ratio.

Doe and kid mortality rate

Historic recorded kid and doeling mortality numbers for goats were unavailable to my research but several reference resources for cow dairies used the following calf and heifer mortality rates: 10-15% from birth to six weeks and an additional 5% after six weeks for a total of 20% mortality before the first calving. To me, these numbers sounded outrageously high. One experienced goat breeder I trust, thinks that an overall 2% mortality rate (mostly through accidents) is reasonable. I personally think anything approaching a 10% mortality rate in a modern goat herd is probably indicative of a very serious problem which needs to be addressed immediately.

Doeling cull rate

Some doelings will be culled for conformation before they are bred or later culled for failure to breed. A figure of 10% is often used in cows for this culling calculation and will vary greatly in goat operations depending on a multitude of management policies and decisions.

Replacement potential

The "replacement potential" for the goat herd is found in expected kidding rates for doelings minus the combination of mortality and culling rates. Again, there are not too many published numbers available for dairy goats (though the meat goat folks are apparently gathering some solid data to begin working with). If we look at cow dairies, we find that they work with numbers in the 25-28% range for replacement potential. In other words, a 100-cow dairy will expect to be able to produce 25 to 28 replacement heifers each year. You will notice the gap between this and the 30 to 35 they expect to need as discussed in the previous Replacement Ratio section. Further, these numbers were based on the assumption that each cow is bred every year, which is increasingly not the case these days.

Dairy goats, on the other hand, are generally bred every year and the averages lead us to expect two kids (one male and one female) from each doe giving a gross replacement potential of 100%. Factor in operator culling and mortality percentages and that will give a working replacement potential.

Example: 100% gross replacement potential minus 5% mortality, minus 20% cull rate equals 75% replacement potential. In other words, this example herd could expect to be able to replace 75% of its does from internal sources every year, if it wanted to.

Doe’s age at first kidding and kidding intervals

Calving intervals are lengthening in the cow dairy industry as a whole, compounding their replacement stock difficulties. While I spoke with several goat breeders who commented on the odd goat or two who would provide decent milk for two seasons before needing to be freshened there was no indication that there is any industry-wide trend to encourage this practice. We’ll continue assuming that annual freshening for each doe is the standard practice that will be used.

Age at first kidding is a hugely important factor that can significantly alter the end results of the replacement calculations. The age at first kidding doesn’t effect the number of replacement kids one needs annually but it does effect the number of goats who must be in the replacement herd at any given time and, of course, the costs and risks to get each replacement doe to her first kidding. More time equals more money.

Interestingly enough, the decision on when to first breed a doeling is approached by most breeders somewhat arbitrarily, based on fiscal needs, personal preferences, or regional norms rather than on proven ideals. While opinions abound, I found little solid scientific data on the best breeding age for goats. This may be due to the distinct differences between breeds and even individual genetic lines or geographical regions.

The age of goats kept in the replacement herd, of course, translates into direct costs (feeding, housing and maintaining the additional goats for the additional time) as well as opportunity costs (the goat could have been in production earlier, making milk to sell and kids to sell or keep). Additional risks also attach during that additional time "fallow". An accident, illness or disease could take the doe before ever making a fiscal contribution to the herd operation.

The risks for breeding too early are of equal concern. Kidding complications can be expected from does bred much too young. One could lose the doe and kids during kidding, and with her, all of her potential-not just the one season’s offspring missed by waiting another year. Competent medical and herd management advice and skills must all be brought together in making the best decision in any given circumstance.

Table 1 exemplifies some of the differences the application of this important management decision can make.

Summarizing the cow model

The point of all this is that there are dozens of inter-related factors, specific to each herd and management style, which need to be examined before intelligently determining the proper course for replacement strategy. It doesn’t have to be the big, cumbersome process that it might sound like.

As a matter of fact, most breeders probably already know a close approximation of most of the values for the factors just discussed without having to initiate some great data-gathering process for their herd. Chances are, if a dairy goat herd is successful at all, replacement program numbers are already in use without much formal thought.

The above information was primarily provided as a management guide. Hopefully it gives those interested a place to start if they are just getting serious about replacement strategy.

Doe replacement methods

After determining the number of replacement does needed on an annual basis, the goat owner should determine how to obtain them.

There are two ways of obtaining replacement goats. First-to bring new goats into the herd from outside sources, or second-breed and raise them. The two strategies are different in approach, cost (or at least, cash-flow) and in application so we’ll look at them individually.

Here’s a brief comparison chart with some of the main considerations between the different methods. (See Table 2.)

Bringing new goats to the herd or raise your own?

The chart compares a few key criteria to help one decide whether to raise replacements from on-farm stock or bring in new goats. The weight given to each consideration will vary for each operation.

If the decision to bring in outside goats for your replacement needs is made, the first big consideration is, "How old do I want them to be?" Goats are available to purchase from just a few days old to seasoned, productive seniors. There are some distinct advantages to buying an adult doe in-milk but there are others in either buying a kid or rearing one of your own. The decision as to the best solution for a given situation lies in the herd needs and goals of the operation.

Let’s look a little closer at some of the factors highlighted in the chart.

Advantages

  • Quick productivity. If the home dairy is running short on milk now, the only replacement solution that makes sense is to bring in mature, proven milkers, in lactation, with a good continued production potential.
  • Known quantity. Buying a mature, in-production goat will take a lot of the guesswork out of any buying decision. There will be no question of whether she will freshen, how her udder will come in, or if she will develop the proper dairy quality sought after. It will all be there for evaluation, up-front.
  • Trained. Everybody has their own herd management style and their own set of expectations for their goat’s behaviors and daily rhythms. It is, by far, easier to bring a new kid up to the way of working than it is to persuade a seasoned senior goat to follow.
  • They are so darned cute. What can I say? I’m a complete sucker for a cute little goat kid. How can a value be put on being able to bond with a new herd member so that she thinks I am her family?
  • Breeding costs. Obviously, if buying a doe from an outside source there are no breeding costs involved. That leaves the comparison between breeding on-property and off-property servicing of the doe.

Off-property breeding will likely entail transportation costs, servicing fees, and possibly health certificates, CAE or other test costs. There is also the risk of bringing in a disease to home herd. If boarding the doe with an off-property buck for breeding is necessary, the costs can really begin to add up.

It might seem like the costs for in-house goat replacements approach nil. A little prenatal care and some extra feed may be all there is to invest to get successfully through to the birthing day, right? Well, not necessarily. There is another big cost that is sometimes overlooked: The buck(s).

Most breeders keep several bucks on premise year-’round and, if we are to be fiscally accurate, the entire year’s cost of keeping each buck needs to be allocated to the does he breeds and then down to the kids he sires. If breeding only a few does to a buck that has been kept for the last year, off-site servicing fees begin to seem very inexpensive by comparison.

A.I. expenses can be easily quantified and calculated for those breeders choosing that method for their does.

Disadvantages

  • Bad habits or other problems? Any senior goat has picked up some habits along the way and some of them may be a challenge to resolve to an acceptable way of doing things. We run a primarily free-range herd. The concept of going out and finding their own food somewhere on our 280 acres can be a tough one to get across to some of the adult does we’ve acquired. Those who had spent their whole lives up to that point in small pens with neat little flakes of hay presented to them to eat often had a bit of an adjustment period.
  • Alter herd dynamics. Adult goats coming from other herds will also have established their proper place in their old herd. Whether it had been at the very top or the very bottom, they (and the goats they are newly joining) will all have to sort out the new pecking order. This can be disruptive to the whole herd for some time.
  • Transportation. Unless new goats for the herd are coming from very near-by there will be some possibly significant transportation costs to factor in to the acquisition decision.

There is also the very real concern about travel-related stress and productivity problems for goats associated with any significant transportation of them.

  • Unknown potential. Pedigree forms and DHIR reports, and linear appraisal reviews for the dam and sire do provide some background on production of such animals, but the fact is that there are no guarantees. The (on-paper) ideal breeding of the century can as easily produce a dud as produce a winner. It’s not possible to accurately predict the future performance of a young kid, despite the best genetics and nurturing, so any kid acquisition or breeding plan must be undertaken with the understanding that it may not work out in the end.
  • Limited genetics. Unless set up and experienced in AI, breeding completely in-house will, obviously, result in a limited gene pool with which to work to accomplish goat replacement goals. Even with does from excellent and diverse genetic backgrounds and a number of unrelated bucks, the breeding combinations after a few generations become limited before the realm of linebreeding becomes a reality. Linebreeding (the practice of intentionally breeding closely related goats in the attempt to encourage the positive traits in their offspring while hoping not to encourage the negative ones) done poorly, can result in quickly diminishing returns for the breeder.

It is joked that the difference between "linebreeding" and "inbreeding" is in the results. If the result is good, it was linebreeding. If not, it was inbreeding.

  • Pregnancy/birthing and rearing risks. While most dairy goat does are, as a rule, strong during pregnancy, good, easy kidders and caring mothers that doesn’t mean that accidents and complications don’t happen. It’s not something one needs to obsess about but it is something to factor in when trying to get a balanced view of risks and costs when discussing goat replacements.

Ditto with all of the other potential difficulties while raising a kid to maturity. Bad things don’t usually happen, but they can and the possibility needs to be considered and prepared for.

  • Developmental risks. Let’s face it. There are inherent risks in raising goat kids. While the risk of loss (depending on individual set-up and situation) is not likely to even approach the figures quoted earlier for the cow dairy industry, they are real and need to be accounted for. Between predation, accidents, kid illnesses and parasite problems some losses must be anticipated despite best management efforts and techniques.

There are additional risks when bringing in a kid from far away. Not only are there transport-related stresses to contend with, but there is a good chance that the kid will have no immunity or resistance to the parasites and strains of diseases she will encounter at her new home.

  • Rearing costs. Feed: Sometimes a good deal can be found for buying a two-week old kid but that price is going to be offset to some extent by the cost of raising her. Every operation will manage and account for rearing differently. Here, we feed our kids only pure, fresh goat milk (not replacer) which, as cheese makers, has a minimum potential value to us of about $10 per gallon. That means that a kid drinking 40 oz. a day for 84 days (12 weeks) costs us about $260 in milk alone to get to weaning.
  • Medical. Even assuming no serious injury or illness, there will still be some normal and routine medical expenses incurred with a new dry doe or doeling before she becomes productive. The biggest cost-saving opportunity for this set of expenses will be for those operations capable and willing to do most of the necessary procedures themselves, calling on their herd veterinarian only in the more challenging situations.

Some of the common procedures likely to be performed on a new goat include: disbudding, vaccination series, worming procedures etc. This list will vary depending on the goat’s age, geographic location, and other factors.

Testing is another potential expense. If serious about properly managing the goat herd, it is necessary to make sure that they are as healthy as possible. This will likely mean screening new replacements for certain diseases/defects like CAE or G6S (a genetic defect which can be found in some Nubian goat lines), brucellosis and TB. This screening will require certain blood tests be run by qualified laboratory staffs.

  • Other. Feed, housing, medical and labor/management costs right up until a doe’s first freshening all contribute to the costs that should be examined.

Summarizing a few case studies

Several commercial dairy goat operators from across the country agreed to spend some of their precious time and energy discussing the subject of doe replacements with me. Their operations varied widely not only in location but in breed, size, scope, focus and underlying goals and philosophies. Here are some of their thoughts on the process:

Redwood Hills Farm and Creamery, California

Scot Bice, the farm manager for Redwood Hills described their cheese and yogurt operation for me. They carry between 350 to 400 head of free-range Alpines, Saanens, LaManchas and Nubians on their 10 acres at any given time with 150 to 200 of them on the milk line.

They internally replace about 40 does a year. The Redwood Hills Farm replacement herd starts at about 60 doeling kids annually. Mortality from birth to six weeks: 2-3%, mortality from six weeks to weaning at 10 weeks: 2%.

Following an evaluation after weaning there is some culling for defect/confirmation issues (around 2%) at which time the replacement herd is further reduced through sales of kids. They are currently planning on increasing the replacement doe herd size to provide greater depth which will result in higher cull rates largely due to space restrictions. They rarely bring in adults for replacements.

Kids are raised on heat treated colostrum followed by pasteurized milk or excess yogurt from the creamery.

Redwood Hills Farm likes the doelings to be at least one year old before breeding. Many will freshen at two years of age. Their breeding plan looks first at the size of the goat, then the age. Unlike many commercial operations, they do not necessarily breed all their does every year with some milking two or three years.

Bice said it costs them about $300 to raise a goat from birth until she enters production.

Briarwind, Minnesota

Jeanne Leger is an experienced, conscientious and successful breeder who is also, apparently, a sharp business person who keeps her eye on costs. Some breeders I spoke with had absolutely no idea what their doe replacement costs were but Jeanne was definitely not one of those. She was able to quickly provide me with her cull and mortality rates and then articulate her strategies and costs. The herd at Briarwind is predominately Saanen.

Leger figures replacement costs two ways: What will it cost to raise a doeling to go on-line, and what would it cost to purchase a good milking doe from a clean herd? She finds that it usually costs $250 to $300 for her to raise a doeling. About $75 of the cost is for the pasteurized milk with some quality calf milk replacer added before she weans at eight weeks.

She doesn’t usually purchase outside does for her milking line but, in the past, has found that they have cost from $250 to $450. With purchased does she found that she could count on recouping the purchase cost up to $350 in the first year and in some years recoup the $450. Leger has found that the milk production usually drops after moving a doe in from another location but it does a lot better the second year.

Briarwind has a very low kid mortality rate. Leger may lose one or two kids out of 160 to 200 born in a given year. She generally keeps about 25 doe kids as future replacements a year.

Conclusion

Because of the number of variables between different goat operations there are no magic formulas to tell all of us the "One Way" to deal with our replacement doe needs.

The best we can each do is try to be aware of as many of the contributing factors and their associated costs as possible and look at each variable on its own merits and as it applies to our individual herds and management styles. With proper understanding of the underlying factors, we can then make well informed and, hopefully, profitable decisions.

Now, seeing those same little doelings frolicking, I can appreciate that there is much more at work to their being here than simply kids at play, but it doesn’t take anything away from the pure joy of watching them cavort.

Credits and contacts

  • Cow and Lamb Information, Monte Hemenover, Avenues For Change, 2379 Grissom Dr., St. Louis, MO 63146.
  • Virginia Cooperative Extension, 150B Slayton Ave., Suite 112D, Danville, VA 24540.
  • Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, Southwest Area Extension Office, 4500 E. Mary St., Garden City, KS 67846.
  • Dairy Research & Technology Centre, Building F-62, Edmonton Research Station, University of Alberta, 115 Street and 61 Ave., Edmonton, AB, Canada T6H 2V8; www.afns.ualberta.ca/.

Goat Information

  • Rutgers University Cooperative Extension Service; http://aesop.rutgers.edu/.
  • The Pennsylvania State University, 112 Agricultural Administration Building, University Park, PA 16802. (814) 865-6713; http://agalternatives.aers.psu.edu/.
    Special thanks to:
  • Redwood Hill Farm, Scott and Jennifer Bice, 5480 Thomas Rd., Sebastopol, CA 95472; 707-823-4790; 707-823-6976; rwdhill@sonic.net; www.redwoodhill.com
  • Jeanne Leger, Briarwind Dairy & Goats; jmleger@smig.net

Contact the author

Black Mesa Ranch Inc., David Heininger, David@BlackMesaRanchOnline.com; www.BlackMesaRanchOnline.com





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