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Good Fences and Good Records Make for a More Satisfying Breeding Season

By Jennifer Stultz

There are two things that usually happen during breeding season on our Kansas dairy goat farm: 1) fences that have been adequate for years fall apart, and 2) my phone rings off the wall with questions from new goat owners wondering how, when, and what to do about getting their does bred. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem dealing with these issues as I find comfort in knowing that the circle of life will continue on, no matter what the other problems of the times might be. In order to help everyone deal with the onslaught of breeding season and to achieve an optimal outcome next spring, here are some basic breeding facts for review.

First there is the fencing issue. I will be the first to admit that on our rather secluded farm we have a very relaxed approach to dairy goat fencing. I learned long ago that a more efficient way to look at caprine containment was to build several "prison" pens for repeat offenders, and then fence the goats out of any area they were not allowed, rather than try to fence them in. Consequently, we have six to eight buck pens, several young doeling pens, and then the rest of the herd basically comes and goes as they wish. We have a 30-acre alfalfa field just east of the milk parlor, and when they exit from milking duties in the morning and evening the doe herd goes out to browse their own high-protein hay, fresh from the field. On the way back to the barns they hit several tree rows and shelter belts around the 70-acre pasture for some wood and leaf treats, and we are all very happy with the self-sufficient way they gather a well-rounded diet.

The bucks however, do not have such luxury. They are secured with six-foot-high welded-wire cattle panels in large 30′ x 60′ pens, with individual three-sided barns. Some of the larger, more aggressive bucks (like Mr. Pepperidge, the Saanen), also get an electric hot-wire around the top of the fence to prevent any acrobatic attempts to get out with the does. Most of the time this is a workable solution, but during breeding season, I have learned to expect the unexpected. Take this morning, for instance. One of our doeling pens shares a fenceline with three bucks, who at any other time of the year, are giant, sweet teddy bears. It just so happened that the three doelings in residence all came into heat on the same day, and the three bucks next door went berserk!

Never mind that the welded-wire panels were six-feet high and wired tightly to metal t-posts. The bucks got themselves worked up into such a frenzy with the enticement of tails twitching next door, they pounded and rammed the fence so hard that the posts came loose and the whole fence, which has been a secure compound for 10 or so years, began to gradually lean. It became the perfect vaulting pad for the crazed bucks. I believe I got the doelings out of the pen and out of sight to safety on the other end of the farm before the big boys got to them. It helped that the three bucks were so busy fighting each other that none of them had a split second of peace to mount the young doelings before getting blasted over by the other two bucks. It was pure chaos, however, with blubbering, scent spraying, fence vaulting, head banging, and doelings rolling their eyes in fear and running for cover. Though they were the cause of the whole event, they were very happy to escape the disaster zone.

The point of the example above is that no matter how good that buck fence might seem at any other time of the year, expect the unexpected when breeding season rolls around. Be sure to check the security of fence posts in the ground, make sure all attachment wires are good (not rusted or loose), and double check electric insulators, wires and plug-ins, to make sure they are in working order, long before the tails start twitching.

When it comes to advice on how to build a good fence for a buck my advice is to make it high and tight, with the strongest material available. Then, don’t forget to check it and double check the corners, the bottom, the top, and any place where parts join together. Be sure to double-check the gate latch too. It’s easy to get lulled into the belief that the sweet buck over there could never be anything but a big pet. When breeding season hits, most bucks will do whatever it takes to get in on the breeding action.

For those who choose not to keep a buck year-round (likely for the reasons above) and prefer to travel with their does to visit a buck of choice or use artificial insemination, there are basic universal breeding guidelines which apply. It is important to remember that dairy goat does cycle in estrus, or heat, every 19-21 days, from sometime in August through February, and sometimes as late as March. The length of these heat cycles vary with each doe, but sometimes can be very similar from dam to daughter. I like to keep track of heat cycles on a handy pocket-sized calendar, recording first signs of heat, length of heat, doe name, breed and age. Some does exhibit signs of heat, such as tail wagging, increasing bleating, mucous discharge from the vulva, fighting with herdmates, for three days. Others might exhibit these heat signs as little as four hours, or any time-frame in between. The most common heat cycle lasts for two days. There is a theory of breeding held by many experienced goat owners that waiting until the end of the heat cycle to expose the doe to a buck, or to artificially inseminate, will result in a greater percentage of doe kids, or at least a better chance of settling the doe. A doe is settled and considered bred if she does not cycle again during the next normal 19-21 day heat period. By recording heat signs and length on my pocket calendar, I can also predict ahead 19-21 days, and by the third cycle pretty much pinpoint when and how long each doe will be in heat. It is amazing to me to see how similar dam and daughter heat cylces are in length and timing.

If someone does not have a buck around to help determine if a doe is in heat (a resident buck makes this apparent with all the interest shown in the doe in question during the heat cycle), a breeding rag can be used to stimulate the doe. This can be a rag or even a collar that has been rubbed on or worn by the buck. A good place to rub a breeding rag for optimum smell is down the back side of his front legs where he "scents" himself. This rag or collar can be placed in a covered jar, then opened under the nose of a doe to stimulate a heat cycle. Does with no access to a live buck will often respond quite readily to the buck scent and begin a heat cycle within one or two days, with repeated exposure to the buck rag or collar. I have even heard of does stealing the rag or collar out of the jar and running off with it. If it is too early in the breeding season (before August), or too late (after March) most does will not show any interest in such things. But during the normal seasonal breeding season, a buck rag or collar can be effective in determining or bringing on heat cycles.

Strong buck-proof fences and gates are a must-have during breeding season.
Strong buck-proof fences and gates are a must-have during breeding season.

While most people would agree that bucks in rut smell really bad, I am convinced that does have entirely the opposite opinion. Often, it seems that the buck which smells the worst attracts the most doe interest. We prefer to hand breed all our does, taking them to the bucks we wish them to be bred to, and witnessing and recording such service so we can pinpoint freshening dates and arrange the best possible matings. However, it often seems that a doe will "pick" a certain buck and have no interest in other bucks when she comes in heat.

Take, for instance, our four-year-old Nigerian doe, Spring Shower. Every year she tends to be one of the first does in the herd to start cycling, and she has a very deep attraction for the biggest and smelliest standard-sized bucks in our yard. She will go immediately to the fenceline of the Saanen or Oberhasli buck but will totally ignore the young Nigerian buck we take her to for breeding. We know she is definitely in heat because of her behavior, but she seems to want to have nothing to do with the mate we pick for her. In order to get her bred, I often have to hold her, lifting one front leg off the ground, so she cannot move so quickly to avoid the Nigerian buck service intended for her. So far, in the past two of three years she has been part of our herd, we have managed to get her bred as we see fit. But it is always a struggle to make sure the right buck breeds her as she is so adamant on wanting to choose her own mate, no matter what size, or breed. The only thing consistent is that she chooses the biggest, smelliest buck in the yard each year. Interestingly enough, she has always had buck kids and I have to wonder, if we were to let her "get bred" as she wanted and not regulate her choice, would she bless us with doelings? We’ll probably never know because I am not about to take the chance of crossbreeding, when I just might get those coveted purebred Nigerian doelings next spring from her.

For someone looking for buck service for their doe, it is often a better practice to chart the doe’s heat cycle and then take her to visit a chosen buck at the appropriate time, rather than dump her off for several months, hoping for the best. It is not fair for the buck owner to have to assume management and care of a strange doe, and it is not good for the doe to have to change feed patterns and be exposed to an entirely different herd during the stressful time of breeding season. One or two buck services, with the buck mounting the doe and completing the service with a backwards thrust, should ensure conception. Repeated breeding over the period of the heat cycle, which could last as long as three days, is strenuous for both the buck and the doe and not necessary.

On the same note, leasing a buck or leasing out a buck for breeding service is a viable option, but one that places the life and health of the buck in peril. Changes in feed, exposure to different parasite levels, and the unforeseen accidents that can happen whenever an animal is taken from his comfort zone and placed into a new situation, can be costly, even to the point of damaging the buck’s health and viability for years to come.

Breeding season is an exciting time, one made more enjoyable for all involved if some basic planning and preparation takes place first. By paying attention to fencelines and figuring out heat cycles, the average dairy goat owner will experience more success and satisfaction in the spring. The average gestation for dairy goats is 150 days or five months, and the best way to tell if a doe has been settled or not is to track those heat cycles and keep a close eye on her during the 19-21 day mark. Good fences and good records are the keys to happiness during breeding season, and after, when the results come in, for most dairy goat owners.

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