Dairy character is one of those desirable traits which novice and experienced goat enthusiasts can pick out, whether they realize it or not. At first glance, the near perfect dairy goat, one with combined excellence of the various elements involved, will impress even the complete novice. This is because dairy character is, above all, grace and refinement, superposed on body strength and capacity to produce. In other words, that doe which really catches the eye and seems to glow with health and productivity…she’s got dairy character.
Dairy character is, by definition, angularity and general openness with strong yet refined and clean bone structure, showing freedom from coarseness and with evidence of milking ability giving due regard to stage of lactation. It becomes a practical, not theoretical, grouping of body traits found to correspond with milk production. This group of body traits (neck, withers, ribs, flanks, thighs and skin) sets apart generations of superior animals from their average contemporaries. Repeated observation and study of these desired dairy traits can help anyone develop a basis for picking out the likely capability to produce milk, even before the dairy animal reaches breeding age.
For a specific breakdown on where to look on a goat for dairy character, check the wording of the American Dairy Goat Association (ADGA) judging scorecard. The following components are listed in head to tail order. Thinking of them in this order helps develop a viewing pattern or study sequence for the assessment of dairy character.
“Neck: long, lean, and blending smoothly into the shoulders; clean cut throat and brisket.” By truly studying many, many does and bucks, the observer will see very large differences in necks and throat shape. Cleanness becomes obvious. It helps some to look from the top down to evaluate the neck-shoulder blend.
“Withers: prominent and wedge-shaped with the dorsal process arising slightly above the shoulder blades.” The withers encompass one of the most complicated joining of body elements in the goat structure… shoulder blades, ribs, backbone and its extension into the neck. With all these bones meeting at one point, one tends to think of it as a nearly fixed configuration, stable in appearance and feel. Not only does the basic formation vary tremendously from goat to goat, it changes surprisingly in a given animal with differences in stance, with both neck and head positions, and especially with neck in tension versus neck in compression.
A good showman can position and hold an animal to make the withers look and feel better than they really are. This can be proven with experimentation. With one hand positioned with one finger on each shoulder blade and one on the backbone, raise and lower the dairy goat’s head; next, misalign the front feet; compare the feel of the withers with the head up and pulled backwards and with the head up and pulled somewhat forward… in both cases the collar is to be high, really lifting at the throat. Head attitude of the goat can also create differences in wither perception. A nose-out head carriage (face nearly horizontal) does not create the desired alignment effect that a chin-in position (face close to vertical) can. With the chin-in and the neck gracefully extended, the tension in the top of the neck reaches all the way down into the withers and lifts the neck immediately in front of the withers to smooth the top line. At the same time, tugging forward brings the front legs into a vertical line.
Often, an experienced showman will choose to set the hind legs back, then slightly lift the dairy goat by the chest to let the front legs swing back also. By doing so, the entire back from pool to pins is placed in its best possible profile. As a last check, compare the withers of thin, well-fitted and fat, over-fitted individuals.
Of course, not all withers can be made good. There are still noticeable fundamental differences in the construction of withers and top lines that begin in genetic standards and contribute to the overall dairy character assessment.
“Ribs: flat, flinty, wide apart, and long” is the third specific called out in the dairy character definition. Many dairy producers and judges alike, rely on rib structure to provide the best indication of milk production potential. Placement reasons in the show ring often reflect appreciation for “wide apart” spacing. This correlates to the scorecard statement that dairy character requires general openness, and freedom from excess tissue. Greater rib spacing spells openness, but the ribs must also feel bony and lean to be correct.
A way to measure rib spacing is to place one’s fingers between the rib bones. Differences can be noted in the width there (or lack of it). The hand can also detect tightness or roundness of rib bones… not as desirable as the flat, open-ribbed feel. After evaluating the spaces, check the condition of the goat. If correctly fitted, the ribs might feel somewhat like the back of the human hand. The time of lactation should be taken into consideration when evaluating condition as felt over the ribs.
The excellent producer may start putting on weight after milking six to 12 months, but the rib feel will come through as an accurate indicator of true production. For example, a tight-ribbed doe carrying an udder of good size and appearance is very apt to have more permanent tissue than milk, i.e., a meaty udder.
Length of rib is also desirable, a hint towards greater depth of body and increased body capacity, which combined with wideness, flatness and large spacing rib to rib, make for the better goat, the greater milk producer.
“Flanks: deep, yet arched and free of excess tissue.” This is probably the most obscure section of the dairy character definition to flesh out, unless you understand that it deals with the flap of skin—a sort of webbing—located between the frontal surface of the rear leg and the body side. It is a curtain, sort of, that shadows the upper part of the udder from the side. In beef animals, this flap hangs well down and has an almost straight bottom from body to rear leg. To compare the beef animal type to a dairy animal type, picture trimming or cutting out the larger part of the webbing. The result is a refined, clean arch in front of the rear leg where it joins the body. The webbing left is short and the side of the front half of the dairy goat udder is put in clear sight.
“Thighs: in side profile, moderately incurving from pin bone to stifle; from the rear, clean and wide apart, highly arched and out-curving into the escutcheon to provide ample room for the udder and its attachment.” To visualize dairy character in the thigh area, one must be familiar with goat parts. Once the parts are known, the wording in the thigh category becomes fairly self explanatory. Comprehension is somewhat easier if the entire picture is thought of from top to bottom. The wanted shape is straight to flaring or curving out to the side; the “incurving” applies more accurately when tracing the thigh upward from stifle to pelvis. A wider stance is assured if the thigh swings out (curves out) as it extends down to the stifle. The result is a roomier escutcheon and more natural space for the udder for the same width of hips, thurls, and pin bones.
“Skin: thin, loose, and pliable with soft, lustrous hair.” The range of observable differences in this category is large. It is important to recognize skin quality as a simple but effective gauge of the health of the animal. Poor diet and parasite infestations quickly dull and coarsen the hair and tighten and stiffen the skin. These factors act along with genetic influences to establish skin characteristics. There is no mention of bloom or shine on the scorecard, but superior animals of any specie have it. It is not a consequence of shampoo or show coat toner. Bloom, a.k.a. superior dairy skin and hair, comes from the inside, a memorable combination of the right care and the right heritage. Good skin and hair quality seem to bring with them the many other desirable attributes dairy goat breeders strive for. Experienced judges consistently award merit to soft pliable skin and a beautiful hair coat on the dairy animal.
In the overall scheme of things, dairy character doesn’t stand alone in the Champion circle. It’s part of several interrelated points (general appearance, structural correctness, mammary system, body capacity, etc.) that join together to make the perfect goat. But it is an important aspect to understand because often the goat with exquisite dairy character is the one which not only catches the eye but also puts the most milk in the pail.