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Love Them or Not, Bucks Must Be Cared For With Consideration

By Jennifer Stultz

People are attracted to dairy goats for a variety of reasons—the kids are so cute and playful; the does have delightful personalities; they have beautiful coloring/hair coats; they produce wonderful milk; they are perfect for the small farm family; they are perfect for the commercial production of milk and cheese; they can be economical; they can be fun to show; they are great educational experiences for home school and agricultural schools alike. However, I have yet to meet someone who got into dairy goats because they (speaking of bucks here) smelled so “interesting” or because they (the people) liked the wear and tear on facilities caused by a buck. Yet, after a year or two of loving those beautiful does, every herd owner has to face the fact that buying, keeping, or at least exposing does to a buck is a necessity for every dairy goat herd plan. For some, those bucks become as much an industry attractant as the original does. And when it’s not breeding season, many bucks are as much a part of the farm family as the does.

Whether beloved or simply put up with as a necessary part of the plan, bucks need to be cared for with the same consideration and respect as their female counterparts: they must have proper shelter and housing; they must have good feed choices; and they must be wormed, vaccinated, trimmed and appreciated, in much the same ways that the does are.

There are three main guidelines to consider when providing a buck with shelter. One, the owner must be able to safely and efficiently feed the buck; two, comfort and protection from weather must be adequate, and three, exercise and contact (visually at the very least) with other goats will help him maintain proper mental health.

One of the reasons bucks sometimes become the forgotten members of the herd is that they are often penned far away from the does in the back pasture or lower barn, accessible only after climbing three fences and jumping the creek. It is hard work to get out there every day with an armload of hay, a bucket of water, and a can of grain. When considering buck facilities, it is just as important to consider the abilities of the owner, the proximity to feed and water, and the obstacles that could impede the regular, daily care routine. If it is easy to get the feed to the buck pen, the buck is going to be easy to care for, simple as that.

A dilemma in feeding bucks often is the result of their larger physique and male habits. Does are often fed from feeders which they stick their heads in or through in order to prevent waste of hay or grain. This type of fenceline or enclosed feeder feeding also keeps their feet and hooves out, limiting spoilage and parasite infliction. Bucks often have bigger heads, sometimes persistent scurs, and often long, dirty beards. These things prevent them from effectively utilizing fenceline feeders so something different must be used. We have found that bar gate feeders are good for bucks with big heads as they can reach what they need to without getting stuck. However, we have also learned that smaller bucks can sometimes slip right through those bar gate feeders and end up where they are not supposed to be…in the doe pen! Flexibility in providing buck feeders is the key to offering a clean selection of feed without compromising the safety of the buck while he is eating. Some people choose to use black rubber tubs for bucks to eat from when they are in welded wire panel fences or any other type of fence which they cannot reach their heads through. But then they must deal with getting that feeder back to the edge for cleaning prior to the next chore time. I remember hearing about a breeder who bored a hole in each rubber pan, slid a rope through and knotted it on the inside, then attached the rope to the edge of the pen, making it possible to reel in the feeder without having to enter the buck pen each day. Bucks love to knock around feeders and/or other loose objects in the pen and by keeping them attached to a rope, the owner was able to get them back after the buck was done eating. Care must be taken not to leave a length of rope in any type of pen for any unobserved length of time, however, as a buck could accidentally choke or hang himself on the rope.

Providing comfort and protection, while keeping in mind stability and safety for the buck can be difficult. Most dairy goat buck owners prefer to pen the buck away from the does, on a permanent basis, except for breeding, for a variety of reasons. Those reasons include a predictable kidding season in which careful records are kept for each doe indicating when they were bred and by which buck. Also important is the safety and health of the buck when allowed to repeatedly service the same doe over and over again during her heat cycle. A buck should be used sparingly and breed each doe once, maybe twice at standing heat, thus saving him for a longer more efficient life of production. By providing a buck with a safe, secure environment, which he cannot escape from, the owner is extending and enhancing his or her own investment in the buck.

Factors to consider when providing shelter for a buck include space in a barn or three-sided shed where there is adequate protection from wind, rain, hot sun, or other environmental hazards. Some breeders opt to build a box stall, with an outside yard opening, in a corner of a larger shed which might house does or other animals. The advantage of this type of set-up is that the buck can see the other animals and not be lonely, as well as being close to the feed center of the farm. Other buck owners prefer to build separate small shelters for each buck, with an exercise run and fencing made of welded wire panels. Fencing options could be woven wire fencing combined with electric fence lines on top and bottom. Barbed wire and sheep wire fencing is not recommended because of safety and durability issues. Bucks should never be subjected to tether lines as they could break their necks and/or legs, and they are vulnerable to attack from dogs or other predators.

A buck should not be placed in a yard or pasture without strong fences, because once he gets out, it’s even harder to keep him in. Fences for standard size dairy bucks should be at least five to six feet high. Sometimes combinations of fencing types and styles are the most effective choices, especially when housing bucks of different sizes. For example, we learned from experience that the typical standard buck fence does not work for the miniature Nigerian Dwarf bucks. We had to combine the tallest welded wire cattle panels with a wired-on layer of garden fence to keep those little bad boys from jumping over or squeezing under or through our regular buck pens.

In addition to shelter, bucks must be allowed to exercise on a daily basis, preferably in their own pens. It is simply a poor management practice to confine a buck in a small pen where he can only stand or turn around or walk a few paces without proper exercise. This type of enclosure is more prevalent than most want to admit, but it can ruin a buck as a breeder and turn him into a temperamental warrior. The importance of exercise for bucks is often overlooked. Not only is a buck that can get out and move happier, but his breeding life can be prolonged if he is able to exercise throughout the year, not just during breeding season. Some ways to encourage buck exercise is to provide a platform for him to jump on in his pen, a tire or keg to butt around, or a pen mate of similar size and congenial personality to play with.

Bucks like herd mates too, but keep them separated during breeding season to prevent fighting.
Bucks like herd mates too, but keep them separated during breeding season to prevent fighting.

Bucks also like having a fellow herd mate in the next pen over to socialize with, but keeping them separate with a sturdy fence will prevent injury when breeding season rolls around and they get more aggressive. Older bucks who get along fine during the “off-season” can become competitive when a doe in heat is near-by. Younger bucks seem to grow better and are more content to eat and grow if they have a similar sized and aged “buddy” in the same pen. It is important to make sure that all bucks or bucklings in a pen have access and room at the hay and grain feeders, as a lot of pushing and shoving goes on as these youngsters grow and develop into useful breeding bucks.

Feeding bucks does not have to be a complicated ordeal. They have pretty much the same basic requirements as does…quality hay, a small amount of grain, fresh clean water, and access to minerals and/or salt. Some breeders feed their bucks only the lower quality hay or “junk” left over from the does’ feeder. Still others turn them out in buck packs in the back pasture, hoping they will forage their way into breeding condition by fall. These are not good practices and often result in underweight or unhealthy bucks. In order to be vigorous and fertile breeders, bucks must be fed the same quality hay as does. There are those who believe alfalfa is not a good hay choice for bucks as it could cause urinary calculi, or the build up of kidney stones. But we have always fed our bucks the same type of quality alfalfa as our does and never had trouble with kidney stones in bucks. Whether feeding alfalfa, brome, peanut hay, grass hay, orchard grass, or any other variety of quality roughage, the key to a good buck diet is the balance of phosphorus and calcium levels. We also feed our goats good quality oats, keeping a good balance of nutrient ratios. Extension agents and county agriculture offices are good resources for learning how to balance rations and determine the proper levels of phosphorous and calcium in feed sources. It is important to remember to offer bucks, as well as does, salt and clean water to encourage feed consumption and growth.

Bucks should be fed enough to keep them in good health, but not so much grain that they become fat and lazy. High finish, too many treats, or too much grain can result in a sluggish buck that cannot accomplish the rigors of servicing does. More often than not, however, a buck spends so much time running after the ladies during breeding season that he sometimes forgets to eat and often wears off any excess weight put on during the off-season. Sometimes bucks in rut need to be fed in a place where they cannot see or smell does so that they get adequate nutrition during this most important time of the year.

A good buck, fed properly year-round and in good health at breeding season, is capable of servicing 80 to 100 does during a year’s time, but it is not advisable to allow a mature buck to breed more than two does per day. A buck should not serve more than 20 does before he is a year old and until he is 20 months old the numbers of breedings should be limited. It is possible for buck kids to be fertile as young as three months of age, but they should not be used regularly until they are six to 10 months of age, and then only if they are of sufficient size and maturity. Some bucks just are not mentally ready until they are a year of age, while others seem born to breed. This is why the wise herd manager separates bucklings from doelings at birth or by two months of age and keeps all bucks separate from the doe pen, until planned breedings are arranged. To overuse any buck, but especially a young one less than 20 months, may cause stunted development and sterility.

Other factors that can cause stunted growth and/or sterility in a buck are worms or diseases preventable by a good deworming program and annual vaccinations. As a species, dairy goats are very susceptible to parasites and worms, with common types being lung worms, stomach worms, tapeworms, and coccidia. Bucks, in particular, are sometimes overlooked when the doe herd is being wormed, because they do not come into the milk room every day. The doe herd often participates in rotational grazing as well, which reduces their exposure to high levels of parasite infection, while bucks are put in a pen and often remain in that pen until led out for breeding. Then they are exposed to whatever load the doe they are to service might be carrying at a time when their own resistance is lower, due to energy being put to other use at the time…like breeding.

The only way to get a handle on parasite loads and what to do about them is to consult a goat-knowledgeable veterinarian and have them do a fecal examination to determine what the best course of deworming might be for each particular buck. There are more and more goat owners who are learning how to do fecals themselves, saving on expense and raising the bar of quality care for their goats, bucks included. While different types of de-wormers are effective in different parts of the country, I will venture to say that Cydectin has been very successful for our herd in the middle of the United States. This purple liquid is marketed as a pour-on for cattle, but we use it as an oral dose only for our goats. It is very effective against all types of wors mentioned above, plus the liver fluke, which has become a problem during wet and humid summers. The best treatment I have found for coccidia is something marketed for chickens and turkeys and available in just about any farm store, a liquid given orally called Sulmet. It works great for dairy goats, and bucks, if coccidia is a diagnosed problem.

The importance of vaccinations depends on the experiences of the breeder and/or herd manager. In different parts of the country or world, it is possible for breeders to have differing experiences in what is important and what is not, when considering a vaccination schedule. For the most part, dairy goats need to be vaccinated with what I call a three-way vaccine, labeled C, D, and T, in one shot. This shot, given twice during the first year and then boosted annually, can help prevent enterotoxemia and tetanus caused by the toxins of Clostridium perfringens types C and D and Clostridium tetani. It is important to consult a local veterinarian when setting up a vaccination program, in order to determine what is best for each herd. This is only a basic recommendation. Giving vaccinations and antibiotics to bucks close to or during breeding season is not a good idea, as it could render the goat temporarily sterile. This again is something to discuss with a goat-knowledgeable vet.

Perhaps one of the hardest aspects of buck care, or most repulsive for me anyway, is that of hoof-trimming. While not a pleasure to trim the does’ hooves either, it is a job that must be done and can be accomplished without much hardship. Trimming a buck’s hooves however, can be a daunting and intimidating task. The most important thing to remember is to get it done before breeding season! I failed to do this last year and when it became obvious that the old Nubian buck needed a trim or wouldn’t be able to get his selected does bred, I had to hold my breath and go in. I knew I was in trouble when I grabbed a hold of that front leg and my hand slid down the slippery slope of extreme smell-dom. Someone had told me to wear gloves, but I had not heeded that advice. Not only were the buck’s legs slippery from all that pre-nuptial spraying bucks are known for, but soon my hoof trimmer was slimy, my hands slick, and everything smelled so bad my nostrils burned. I learned my lesson…buck’s hooves must be checked and trimmed in the summer time, no exceptions. It helps to have some sort of rock surface or concrete slab in a buck’s pen so he can naturally wear down some of that hoof growth, but since bucks seem to spend their time off eating, sleeping, and getting smelly, they certainly need some help in the manicure department before breeding season rolls around.

Despite the drawbacks and discomforts of caring for a buck, the rewards are worth all the effort when the babies start arriving in spring. The main purpose for a buck’s being is to consistently sire daughters that are higher producers and more desirable in conformation than their mothers. These are lofty goals but ones that can be made more attainable with the proper care and treatment of the buck. A good buck is half the herd, and a well-cared for buck brings value and recognition to his breeder and owner through his offspring.

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