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Structure by Shelene

Heads Tell About The Body

By Shelene Costello

I love a pretty head on my dairy goats. After all, when I step out my door and look into the goat pens, it thrills me to my toes to have a pretty head swivel around to look at me. Nothing is better than bending over and getting sweet goatie kisses from my favorites, especially when that head is so pretty it takes my breath away. Luckily, what appeals to me is not what has to appeal to anyone else, and not only do different breeds have slightly different heads, but individuals in each breed may vary as well.

Rainsong SC Destiny has a near ideal head for a Nigerian Dwarf, and her daughter behind her does as well. Photo by Shelene Costello

The ideal head of each dairy goat has beauty in itself, as well as being one of the defining characteristics of its breed. From the Roman noses and large droopy ears of a Nubian, to the straight and dished faces and tiny (almost invisible), ears of a La Mancha, to the upright ears and straight or dished faces of the Nigerian Dwarf and standard Swiss breeds, along with the airplane ears of some of the crossbreds and some of the lesser-known breeds, each type appeals in some way to the owners who choose to breed that variety. Add in an array of color differences and it’s easy to see how and why the head of the dairy goat captures the attention of those who are attracted to them.

Heads in dairy goats are often overlooked as they don’t seem to contribute to the makings of great milk production, but I find a head can often tell you a lot about the rest of the goat body behind it. Each of the breeds has typical head styles that are common, and variations of each that range from pretty to barely functional. Many times, though not all, a head will match the body behind it and show the width, depth, power, refinement, and the producing qualities of that animal.

Elegant beauty is evident in this purebred yearling Nubian doe, owned and bred by Danny Mitchell, Arkansas City, Kansas, Dan-Judd’s Nubians. Note the strong Roman-shaped nose and deep, bell-curved ears. Photo by Laura Dailey

If one remembers that the domestic breeds of goats started with wild goats and were prey animals that browsed the mountainsides, one can appreciate the fact that goat eyes are set on the sides of the head. This placing makes it easier for the goat to see around and behind to watch for predators. It gives them a chance to flee long before they are caught. Large well-set eyes sparkle with life and mischievousness that I love so well in my goats.

Large, open nostrils that can bring lots of fresh air into the lungs are needed for the tremendous draw of oxygen in a prey animal, plus a milk-producing goat needs lots of good oxygenated blood to make that milk. But those nostrils had better be tightly enough held to not catch on brambles and briars of the native habitat they originally lived in. And even with today’s more confined feeding habits, those tighter held nostrils (and tough skin) pay off for the animal eating stemmy hays in the feeders as well as brushy and thorny weeds in pastures.

Tough lip skin protects the goats from the pointy, tough, fibrous foods they love; yet that skin is sensitive enough to feel through food to pick and choose the right bits. A wide muzzle with well-placed and shaped jaws and teeth rip and tear browse and hay. Dairy goats must be able to eat lots of high-fiber, low-protein foods to make lovely milk, along with feeding all the little bugs in their gut that break that fiber down into useable foodstuffs. Ideally the bony upper palate is shaped well and the lower jaw meets the palate at a proper length and angles. In grazing those front teeth rip the grasses off by meeting the bony upper palate without being too far in front of or behind the bony ridge.

Jaws that don’t meet evenly and hang out too much on top or bottom result in a goat that may have trouble eating. An overbite or extreme underbite are also discredits to the show animal that may not place as high in the show arena with these defects.

This classic Alpine head shows strength and femininity, with a long, strong (and colorful) facial pattern. Her name is Seau A Lait Cassiopeia. Photo by Shelbi Stultz

I find my goats often pull things back into the back of their mouths to use those sharp rows of back teeth to chew off tougher branches and twigs of hay and browse. The width of the jaw needs to be in balance with the wide of the muzzle along with proper dentition to provide even wear on the teeth over the life of the goat. If the balance is off the teeth will either wear unevenly, requiring dental care to file off the points, or some teeth will go bad and need to be pulled so they do not get infected and cause the goat to go off feed.

The head needs to be long enough to provide long air passages to heat and cool the air they breathe, and provide plenty of room for all of the teeth required to be functional. Short heads may crowd teeth and result in dental problems, which can shorten a goat’s life and affect the rest of the organs in the body by passing on infection from the mouth through the digestive system. And, not always, but often, short heads are attached to shorter boned bodies.

With all the varieties of ears in goats, I’ve not noticed a lot of functionality differences in various ear shapes, except that larger ears are reportedly better at dispelling heat. In my anecdotal study of my own herd, I’ve not noticed my La Manchas (with hardly any external ears) having any more trouble with hearing than my Nigerians and other eared goats, including the Nubians we have had over the years. So, while there may be a great deal of difference in ear types among the breeds of goats, all are able to hear at the same levels, which is their primary task. Personal preference from "no ears" to long, bell-shaped curvatures are simply that…personal preference of breeders.

Even bucks can have beautiful heads…well, handsome, anyway. This strong, virile Oberhasli buck, Dorema-Farms GESW Buddy, is very attractive with gorgeous type, wide forehead, deep muzzle, and dishy side profile. Photo by Jennifer Stultz

I know that the horn debate as to whether to have horns or not on goats is pretty heated at times. I personally do not do horns on anything on my farm. It is accepted practice in the United States to remove all horns on goat kids at a young age by disbudding. I started out with a few horned goats many, many years ago and had them get caught in fences, injure herd mates, poke me and smash my fingers. It also seemed to me that any goat with horns had quite a different personality than those who were disbudded or polled. I would much rather work with a non-horned goat than one with horns. It is standard procedure on my farm to remove horns by disbudding kids, and to me a goat without horns is a beautiful picture of tranquility.

When one considers all the parts that go into making a beautiful head on a dairy goat, there is no doubt that function follows form, and the goat with a beautiful head will more likely lead a long, productive life, than not. A functional head will help the goat eat properly to produce wonderful milk, in addition to providing pure enjoyment for the owner.

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