There are few times of the year that gets my heart pumping more than kidding season on the goat dairy farm. After raising dairy goats for over 20 years, I think I may have possibly seen or heard of all the different things that can occur or go wrong during kidding, from breech births, to three kids coming at once, to the difficult emergency C-section, I’ve seen it all. While most freshenings proceed normally with little fanfare and result in healthy kids and milky mamas, it’s the difficult ones that stick in my memory. Like most goat breeders my experiences have run the gamut, from tragic to triumph in outcome, but all are just part of this lifestyle I’ve chosen and love, that of a goat breeder.
Sometimes when a doe is inlabor and nothing seems to be happening, the problem can be a malpositioned kid. One that somehow gets up into the birth canal, rump or hind feet first is called a breech. Often this problem can only be determined by soaping up and sticking one’s hand in to find out what part is presenting, or not. The first thing one feels is almost unidentifiable, a mass of hair with no determining features. At least that is what it felt like to me when I was confronted with my first "breech birth" experience.
The doe in labor was an older Oberhasli doe named Pepsi. We were just getting started in the Oberhasli breed and this was the first year Pepsi was freshening at our farm, though at her age of six, I am sure she had many successful freshenings behind her. There were several aspects of Pepsi’s impending birth that made this an experience to remember. First, I was pregnant with my third child and due any day—meaning that it was nearly impossible for me to get down and get a good look at what exactly was going on with Pepsi and why no kids seemed to be coming out. Second, Pepsi was our first successful artificially inseminated doe and we were very excited to see what we would be getting from that semen, which we had spent $50 per straw on—a whole lot to us at the time.
One week after his C-section birth, this strong and vigorous Sable buckling seems to defy logic that he did indeed come out of the small framed young Sable doe that was his dam.
Despite my own "enlarged" condition, I knew fairly early on in her labor, that Pepsi was in trouble. She went through all the regular symptoms of getting ready to give birth, standing apart from the herd at feeding time, pawing a hole in the bedding in the corner of the barn, stretching out her body as if uncomfortable, and finally lying down to push. But it was all to no avail—nothing came of her efforts except for an early rush of mucus and water, which normally comes just prior to the peeking of small front hooves and a baby nose. As best I could I knelt behind Pepsi and with a clean soapy hand tried to feel with my fingers why baby was not emerging from her vulva. I felt a mass of hair! This was certainly not the nose or legs I was expecting. Instead it just felt like a big mass of fur. I tried to push it back, no luck. I tried to reposition Pepsi, no luck. I then panicked and phoned my husband who was away at work, and a friend who also had goats and might be able to help me.
Poor Pepsi just lay quietly on her bed of straw and waited. Labor seemed to come to a standstill for her, she quit pushing, she quit making noises, she just lay there, head on the straw, and looked at me with those big dark eyes pleading, "I need help." In my condition, there was no way I could load Pepsi up and dash for a vet. Besides it was coming on evening and this would have been an after-hours call—something I learned by experience would cost me an arm and a leg and couldn’t afford right now. Waiting was the only option I had, and it was agonizing, knowing that every minute that ticked by meant less of a chance of saving Pepsi’s kids, maybe even Pepsi.
I did what I could though, and while waiting for help to arrive, dashed for my dairy goat books and scoured my favorite literary helps. The only thing that made sense was this had to be a breech birth. I went back out and felt around again. Sure enough, there was a tail on the end of the fuzzy mass, but the birth canal was so tight I couldn’t get a finger in or around to the hocks. This poor baby seemed to be slammed up against the opening and unable to go in or out. I got out all the items I thought might be needed: clean towels, plastic gloves, a bottle of antibacterial dish soap, a bucket of warm water, and I went to sit in the barn with Pepsi and wait.
Finally my husband and friends arrived. It was impossible to work on Pepsi while she was lying down. They got her up, one holding her head and another person bracing her body, and my husband went to work, soapy with antibacterial dish soap and plastic gloves, pushing and easing the kid back into the birth canal enough to fit a finger around and pull up on a hock and back leg. Finally after a lot of pushing and pulling and groaning on the part of all involved, there was a loud pop, and a humongous black buckling was delivered. We all thought he was dead, but friend Kathy grabbed him by the hind legs and began swinging him around, banging on his lungs, stopping only long enough to rub him vigorously and pull slime out of his mouth before swinging him again. I thought for sure she would kill him a second time! But the swinging got the fluid from his lungs and he coughed and gurgled a few times, blinked his eyes, and decided to join the living.
Shortly after the big buckling was delivered, my husband pulled a second, much smaller buckling from Pepsi—another black one! In the Oberhasli breed, black bucklings are not considered registerable with the American Dairy Goat Association, so our foray into the Oberhasli breed didn’t result in any registerable offspring, no matter the money we had invested in AI. We also learned later that the loud pop heard at birth was Pepsi’s hip and we were never able to breed her again. But really, that night we were all just elated that the babies and Pepsi survived and we had healthy kids on the ground. My own baby, son Keenan, was born two days later, after another exciting goat experience in the barn, but that’s another story for another day.
Since that first breech birth experience, I have had much better luck delivering breech positioned kids myself, with the key being to check out the situation much sooner in the delivery process, before all the birth fluids have dried up, making it much easier on dam, baby, and deliverer. When presented with a hairy backside and a tail, it is important to try to push the kid back into the birth canal far enough to reach in and bring up both rear legs, thus delivering the baby by pulling the hind legs together. There is always a danger of the kid drowning in birth fluid during a breech birth, and this is why my friend Kathy worked so hard, swinging that black Oberhasli buckling around by his hind legs, to quickly drain the fluids from his lungs.
Probably another very memorable goat birthing experience happened just two years ago, when I was all by myself, working with a doe in labor and not quite sure what the problem was. The doe was a beautiful tri-colored Alpine named Tiddell. She was two-years-old and had no trouble birthing the year before, but this year she was extremely large and carrying a heavy load of babies when her time for delivery came.
I was with her from the get-go, watching as she made her "nest" in the chosen corner of the barn and lay down to get serious with the delivery. She pushed and panted and when she started bleating I knew something wasn’t quite right. I soaped up my hand and arm and went in for a look with my fingers. It was a jumbled mass trying to make entrance into the world through a narrow canal. I felt not one set of front legs and head, not two, but three little noses, all pushing into the opening. Panic – what to do? I went in again and tried to sort out which feet belonged to which head but couldn’t follow them all the way back, they were a jumbled mess. Luckily it was still early enough into the labor that everything was still slippery and well lubed, although that made it extremely difficult for me to grab a hold of anything solid to pull. I finally took off the gloves so I could get a better grip, and decided, one way or the other I had to get those kids out of there! It felt as if the kids were stacked one on top of the other. I finally matched up one front leg with a head that seemed to be just a centimeter ahead of the others, and at the bottom of the stack. I grabbed a hold and pulled downward, towards the doe’s hocks, letting gravity help me get the straining mass of babies out. As the first baby began to slide out, just ahead of the other two, they also began to move. I pulled the first one out and the other two followed in a rush, all kicking and squirming, and ready to take on the world. After quickly drying the heads and making sure all were breathing, I did the next most important thing—checked to see what sex they were. I was elated to discover all three were doelings! Oh happy day!
Sometimes difficult kiddings end happily, other times they don’t, sometimes you don’t know until the very end, which way it will go. This is how it was with a difficult C-section experience we had last year with a very young Sable doe. Zelda had been bred by accident. It happens. No matter how careful one tries to be, sometimes nature has a way of taking over during breeding season. Most dairy goat breeders worry about bucks getting out and into the wrong pen during breeding season. At our farm, it seems to be the young hussy does who find a way to break out, over, or under in order to get to the buck of their dreams, when in estrus. Such was the case with Zelda, who got herself into a compromising situation at the age of six months, meaning with a traditional five-month gestation, would kid at 11 months of age…too young in my book. But, as we needed more Sable does in milk to make a sanction at a spring show we were involved with, I let the pregnancy continue as nature intended. It almost had a very bad outcome, however.
One week after a C-section freshening, Zelda, an 11-month-old Sable doe, was a happy, healthy (and muchloved) member of our milking herd. Note the shaved section just in front of her udder on the lower abdomen.
Zelda’s due date was February 17, 2010, but at noon on February 16, I very surely knew she was in trouble. She was pushing, straining, crying out, and generally a miserable mess when I went out for my noontime barn check. She was not at all interested in standing still for me to investigate matters further, so I called for help. My husband came home and we both went to work. He held her still while I soaped up and went in for a finger look. There was definitely a large kid in the birth canal. It was presenting right…at least I thought so. I could feel some hooves and a very large head. The whole thing was very much stuck however, and being very careful I tried to push it back in the birth canal to get a better position. Nothing much budged. It was wedged in there like a cork on a bottle.
Since Zelda was a very special doe—one of only four purebred Sables in my son’s 4-H project herd, we wanted to make sure this ended well. I phoned in to the vet and was promised, if I could get her there in 20 minutes, they would have time to look at her. We loaded her up in the back of the pick-up topper with plenty of bedding and took off—20 miles to the vet office and not a moment to spare. We were there in time, but unfortunately a cow in labor arrived first and we were told to take a seat in the waiting room and wait. I was not happy! My chances of a successful delivery were diminishing with every moment I spent pacing the office room floor in that office.
Finally, an hour after we arrived, the vet came out, asked us to hoist Zelda up on an examining table and proceeded to jamb her hand and arm up into my precious goat. She was very rough with my doe and began pulling and yanking on the kid like it was a calf or something larger. After a few grunts and choice words we were asked which we wanted to save, the kid or the doe? By this time I was more than a bit angry. I said I brought this doe in for help, not to be manhandled to death. The kid was alive last time I checked and still would be if care were taken in the situation. It was too large to be delivered normally, could we please proceed with a C-section? The vet declined, stating she could deliver this kid. It might not survive but she could get it out in parts and save the doe. As she got out a knife and a wirepuller, I stepped behind my doe and said, "No way." This is not what we came for. My doe needed a C-section, and if she wouldn’t do it, I would take her somewhere else.
It was at that time the vet admitted to being in a hurry to catch up to other appointments now pushed back on her schedule. But, after a bit more fussing around, my doe was sedated and a C-section operation proceeded. We were allowed to watch the entire thing and it was very interesting, though a bit bizarre. My doe was placed on her back, like a dog, and plastic was draped over her entire body, exposing just the lower abdomen. An oxygen mask was placed over her muzzle as she "slept." The vet made a long incision and then pulled out some stomach parts that were in the way. Next she lifted up a large bubble—it looked like a plastic purse. Still intact, it was the birth sack, and inside was the very large culprit—a big-headed single buckling. I was allowed to help get the buckling out of his birth sack and stimulate him to life. He was surprisingly strong after the ordeal he had gone through. During this time, the vet cleaned all the body parts that needed to go back into our dear Zelda, placed them back inside her abdomen, and proceeded to sew her up with what looked like fishing string. It was a fascinating experience, and I was glad we had finally gotten to this point. All ended well, with Zelda coming out of anesthesia as expected and turning out to be a wonderful milker. She had no long-term effects of the C-section, healed up fabulously, and we expect a normal kidding experience with her this year. The buckling, too, turned out healthy and well, and went on to be a growthy and vigorous individual.
I was very happy to have the expertise of the vet on call to do the C-section we needed. I just wish that, as a long-time dairy goat owner and breeder, my evaluation of the situation had been seriously considered right off the bat and we could have avoided some very tense and unhappy moments. Needless to say, the whole experience cost us over $350 in vet bills, but it was worth it to be able to take home a doe that would live to be part of a growing Sable herd and a healthy kid.
That is the goal in all birthing situations, no matter how easy or difficult they may be. Determining when help is needed and getting in there before it is too late are keys to surviving difficult birth experiences. All the stories shared here ended with living kids and dams, but sometimes it doesn’t turn out that way. Along with the good of kidding season there is some bad to deal with. It’s just the chances we take with life and with the life-cycle of breeding and birthing dairy goats. Hopefully, those tough learning experiences lead to some other very happy outcomes in the future.