Live births are a big deal. Whether you are the mother at the end of her pregnancy, the newborn breathing air for the first time, or the midwife attending the process, the emergence of new life is not to be taken lightly.
Homesteaders attend a lot of birth events, most of which involve livestock. All manner of babies are emerging fast this time of year, and farmers need to keep on their toes to ensure that mothers and offspring are safe and healthy.
If you are expecting your first goat kids this year, there are a lot of things you can and should be doing in order to prepare for the big event. You will want to be ready both physically and emotionally, to have certain supplies on hand to help things go smoothly, and to know what to watch for when it happens.
Following are some helpful tips and a few anecdotal side notes to guide you through kidding season. This article will not cover emergency interventions—those are best addressed by a professional, and should include more details than the space here allows.
First, don’t worry. That is good advice to give and not always easy to take, but try to remind yourself that goats have been giving birth for millennia and that many generations of farmers have successfully raised goats.
One of the first things an inexperienced goat farmer should do when anticipating spring kids is to develop a strong network.
Public resources can include books, magazines, online sites, social networking groups, how-to articles, adult education classes, community workshops, and cooperative extension programs.
Personal networking can be developed through friends, family, and community members who have experience with livestock, or even those who are inexperienced but can be counted upon to provide sideline assistance and encouragement when you need it.
Do not overlook the value of having a veterinarian who will respond to your calls at any time of the day or night. If you have not already established a relationship with a trusted veterinary professional, do it now. Chances are good that you will not need one, but it is better to have one available and not need him or her than the other way around.
Next, prepare your infrastructure. If your geography, farm setup, and animal husbandry philosophy allow that the doe will be fine giving birth to her kid outdoors or within the most minimal of shelters, so be it.
Many goat owners prefer to set up an isolated place indoors in which to welcome the new kids to the world. It is common for goat barns to include “kidding stalls,” or small fenced-off areas where a doe can spend her labor and birth in isolation and safety. Mother and offspring can be left in the kidding stall for a period of time afterwards as well, to allow the doe time to recover and for the pair to bond.
Kidding stalls can be permanent sections of the barn or temporary set-ups, depending upon your overall facility and needs. It is definitely a great idea to have kidding stalls installed well in advance. You can use creativity and spare parts to wire gates, nail pallets, and bend cattle panels into the right setup for you. I have used permanent wooden stalls and pens rigged together with two metal gates and safety wire. Both worked great.
Make sure there is clean dry bedding in whatever area you plan to use.
Unless it is very warm in your climate, you probably need heat lamps and some way to install them safely. Where I live in the northeast U. S., cold, raw days can happen well into June. Newborn kids that are otherwise compromised by weakness or maternal inattention might benefit from extra heat.
Heat lamps are inherently risky. Rarely a winter passes when I do not see a story on the news about a barn and livestock lost due to a fire that started from a heat lamp. However, many people use them without incident. I like the sturdy heavy-duty plastic types with solid-base bulbs and chew-proof wire, attached very securely to a chain on the ceiling.
Once your infrastructure is in place, it is time next to begin gathering up your smaller supplies. Following is a list of useful items:
Baby monitor. Set it up in the barn so that you can hear the goings-on and can hear when your goat makes unusual sounds.
Disposable gloves. These are a must, more for the health of your doe than for keeping your hands yuck-free. You can purchase the kind from livestock supply places that are super thin clear plastic and go up above the elbow, or opt for shorter ones if they are more available to you.
Lubricant. Most people I know simply use stuff packed for human use and sold at drug stores. Choose inexpensive and unscented. Liquids sold at farm supply stores are good, too.
Umbilical cleanup. Triodine is the solution generally recommended for dipping the kid’s umbilical. Some people prefer natural treatments such as cayenne tincture. You can also use dental floss or tiny clamps to close it off, but not everyone does that.
Cleaning supplies. Old rags and towels, clean and dry, are best. You may have to towel off a newborn or even wipe up excess blood and fluids.
A way to place and receive calls without leaving the action. Most people carry cell phones everywhere nowadays, but, if, like me, you do not, I would recommend either buying a cheap pre-pay model or planning to have someone else’s phone on hand. If you need to call the vet, it will not work to trot back and forth from the land-line to the goat to observe goings-on and report back. The doctor will need a real-time play-by-play in order to either talk you through the situation or decide to come out to the farm.
Aspirator. This is a blue rubber bulb the size of a tennis ball with a tube on the end, used to remove phlegm from the newborn kid’s nose if necessary. Think “snot sucker” like people use on human infants. Without it, you can use your own breath to clear the kid’s airways if necessary—it might be pretty high on the “eww” factor, but anyone practicing midwifery has to be prepared for a certain level of “eww.”
Pritchard nipple. This is a purchased nipple that is sized to fit on a commercial soda or water bottle, and has a telescoping orifice on the end that can be cut off at just the right length to fit the needs of any sized kid. Get them from farm supply stores or catalogs, and have plenty of extras on hand. Even if you plan to dam-raise your kids, nature can throw you a curve ball.
Colostrum. In the unlikely event that the doe is unable or unwilling to feed her offspring, or that you lose her, you will need colostrum—an ultra-rich milk produced during the first few days after birth—to feed the kid. You can purchase it as powder, or as actual colostrum saved in the freezer from previous births.
Molasses. This is for the doe afterwards. You will want to make a nice molasses broth for energy and pampering. My goats love warm molasses water, and a new mother will stop whatever she is doing to suck it down with astonishing speed.
Comfort for yourself. Make sure you have adequate clothing to stay warm while on baby watch, a place to sit, and something to pass the time. A good barn radio or some light reading will be valuable during slow moments. If you have any allergies, be sure to bring along protection and remedies such as masks or inhalers.
Probiotic paste, nutrition drench, or a natural remedy of your choice for a weak kid.
Supplements needed in your area, such as selenium paste or Bo-se injectable in geographic areas which are selenium deficient.
It is convenient to keep all your kidding supplies—or even all of your goat supplies—organized in a tool tote or other container. If you keep it tidy and up-to-date, you will always have it ready to grab and go.
With a network, infrastructure, and supplies all in order, the next task is simply to wait. Sometimes this is the most difficult to do.
Goat gestation averages around 150 days. If you know when she was bred, use a chart or online calculator to calculate her due date. But be aware that some goats, particularly miniature breeds, carry kids for as little as 145 days, and other goats can go as long as 155. If the goat has kidded before, she is very likely to carry this pregnancy about the same number of days.
Signs of labor are many and vary greatly among individual goats, not unlike birth events in our own species. Some of the behavior she may or may not exhibit includes:
Pacing, facing the wall, getting up and lying down repeatedly.
Standing with her front legs elevated on a block or stump.
Refusing to eat.
Kicking at her belly with her hind legs.
Talking to her unborn kids in soft little nicker-y vocalizations.
Swollen vulva—this is the correct name for the roundish external area around the birth canal—if it has not become rounder and darker colored already during her pregnancy.
Increased milk production, often referred to as “bagging up.” This occurs in some goats days ahead, some only hours before the birth, and a few not until after the kids have arrived. In my experience, the doe’s udder will expand slowly over the last week and then increase dramatically the last day or so.
During more advanced labor, she might kick those behaviors up a notch. When birth is close, you will notice that the babies have moved. As they travel toward the birth canal, she will start to look skinnier than she has in a few months.
One of the best ways to determine how close she is to giving birth is by the feel of her ligaments. These are the ligaments that run from the back of her spine down below her tail. On a goat other than one who is about to give birth, the ligaments will feel hard and taut, just like the ones behind your knees. But as a doe’s body prepares to deliver kids, the ligaments soften dramatically. They will feel rubbery or even become so soft that you can barely find them. When that occurs, kidding is imminent.
I highly recommend beginning to identify and get a feel for your goat’s ligaments well ahead of her due date. New goat owners sometimes struggle to differentiate between ordinary ligaments and soft ones—but as with most skills, it’s easy once you know how.
When kidding time is at hand, you will know. There is likely to be a stream of goop emerging from under her tail. She will certainly be uncomfortable, possibly anxious, and may vocalize. If you want her to be in a specific location for the birth event and she is not there already, move her now.
It is common for a doe to lie down for birth, but not mandatory. If she prefers to stand, make sure the surface upon which the kid will land is adequately cushioned to prevent it being injured on impact.
If all goes well—and it usually does—birth will happen fast. Late-stage labor typically progresses quickly. The first sign of actual birth is what I call a “bubble,” a clear malleable ball that is somewhat see-through and a little reddish.
Watch for teeny little hooves to emerge from the birth canal inside the bubble. A nose should be visible soon thereafter. Your doe will be pushing to expel the kid, and probably vocalizing. In a textbook delivery, the kid will emerge in short order. Sometimes it arrives with a splash of amniotic fluid, and sometimes the doe’s water breaks beforehand.
A doe with good instincts will know it is her job to clean up the kid and will set about doing so, and a healthy kid will probably try to stand and nurse right away. However, do not be worried if both mother and baby need a little assistance and encouragement at this point, especially if it is the doe’s first time.
I once had a pair of young does and no other goats at the time. I had purchased them as kids, and their only other contact had been the brief visit from a rented buck in winter. When the first of their kids arrived, the new mother had never seen a goat baby.
She was drawn to the smell on my gloves and wanted to lap them, but it did not occur to her that the gooey heap of goat kid lying on the hay near her rump was what she was really looking for. I coaxed her to follow her nose—literally—to her newborn buckling by drawing her toward him with my hands.
It was comical to watch as every upward jerk of the baby’s head startled her. She seemed astonished at the existence of such a creature, but it did not take her very long after that to take charge and become an excellent mother.
Goats often give birth to twins, triplets, or even more. The kids can arrive in rapid succession, or there can be hours between them. Let her do things at her pace. When the placenta emerges, she is done. A goat will often eat the placenta, or you can remove it if you prefer. Do not pull on it or cut it—let it expel naturally.
Kids will usually get up on their own, but it is not necessarily cause for alarm if they lie quietly for a while first. You can offer encouragement or prodding if you want to.
Umbilical cords usually break on their own. You can tie it off or just leave it hang. It is a good idea to dip it in disinfectant, however. It works best to fill a small disposable cup and immerse the kid’s cord in it, touching its stomach with the top of the full cup.
Truly, one of the hardest things to practice is patience. It is likely that your goat will do just fine on her own, but it is common for first-timers to feel anxious.
If all does not go quite according to plan, you may need to lend a hand. Brace yourself—here comes a whole lot more of that “eww” factor.
If you are sure intervention is needed, clean up and don plastic gloves and proceed with caution. Using plenty of lubricant, try gently reaching in and massaging the outer edges of the opening. You may need to squeeze your fingers between a protruding bubble and the walls of the birth canal.
If you are able to reach inside slightly further and determine that two hooves and a nose are pointed out first, that is a good indicator that things are going well.
Things can go wrong. I have had a kid born with one foreleg bent backwards. It caused both mother and kid added stress, and a more experienced goat person than I was at the time would have pushed the kid back in and repositioned his leg. I did not, and it all worked out.
I have also had twin kids side-by-side in the birth canal. The doe exhausted herself and gave up, and I knew that the situation was beyond my skills. I am fortunate enough to have in my network a skilled goat midwife with a sense of humor about midnight emergency phone calls. She was able to push one kid back in far enough to allow them to emerge one at a time.
Had I not been able to reach her, I would have called my veterinarian. Do not feel embarrassed about asking for help if you are new to goat birthing. There is no shame in needing help or being a novice. However, I do encourage you to watch, take part, and ask questions as much as possible when a vet or expert is on site—it is an excellent learning opportunity which you will not want to miss.
Snuggling with a new baby goat, watching kids romp in the barnyard, and drinking delicious goat milk are some of the most beautiful aspects of homesteading. Now that the long season of waiting is over and you have taken the best possible care of your goat and welcomed new life into the world, it is time to pat yourself on the back and reap the rewards of your preparations and hard work.