Our Season for Goat Breeding

I know that most of your minds are on the holiday season now, but we are still working on wrapping up goat breeding season here at Living Land!

This year we are breeding Honey and Lily, a mother-daughter team who are exceptionally healthy, easy to keep and milky, to Marley who was bred at Rosasharn Farm, an excellent line for top milk production.

Here is a truth many of us forget in our supermarket world – milk comes from female mammals (mostly – there are species and situations in which males lactate!) who have given birth after being bred to a male. If that sounds painfully obvious to you – well, yeah. If it is surprising to you – you’re not alone and you’re forgiven! Unlike poultry who will lay eggs with or without a male present, milk comes after the aforementioned process.

Fall is the breeding season for most milk animals in the northern hemisphere. Many only go into heat in the fall. Our Nigerian Dwarf goats can be bred year round but even they are clearly more interested in it in the fall. I take that cue from them (Permaculture Principle 1: Observe and Interact) and keep to that schedule. This sets them up to have kids in the milder, greener time of year.

That’s the overview – but how about some details? In this entry I’ll tell you about how we chose our breeding dates more precisely, how to bring together buck and doe, and how to know if it’s been a success.

First an aside – having been raised a modest catholic girl, I am a little shocked to find myself writing publicly about the sex life of anyone – even goats. Some of the terms are different, maybe because I’m not alone in finding it weird, but still, we know what we’re discussing. It is however a completely necessary part of dairy animal keeping so here goes – including videos!

When to breed

Our girl goats (does) start hanging around the boy (buck) enclosure in September, but we don’t let them in quite yet. We have chosen a later breeding time than is typical in our area. I heard too many stories about frozen kids (baby goats), heat lamps starting fires, and humans sleeping in the barn in the coldest weather. By starting our breeding efforts in November, kids won’t come until April, which is great weather for easy management. This delays our yield (Permaculture Principle 3: Obtain a Yield), but I’m ok with that tradeoff. Through my permaculture lens, observing the problems others were having motivated me to change our behavior to mitigate them (Permaculture Principle 4: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback).

I want my breeding done by January because the growing light triggers the buck to make less semen, the quality of that semen goes down, and his levels of sex hormones drop. I also want the kids to have time to grow to a good size before the winter sets in.

Marley, A Beautiful Buck

Choosing a buck

There are two critical factors in making a good choice – the genetics of the buck and his health status.

You want a buck that comes from a good line of healthy animals that give a lot of milk. If he is old enough to have daughters that have proven to be good producers that’s even better. You need to be careful to not breed animals too closely related to each other.

He has to be healthy, not just look healthy. There are a few nasty, incurable goat diseases. You need to insist on seeing test results from the herd the animal you are considering is in documenting the absence of these diseases. I urge you not to buy animals, bring them to your land, or breed from them if you cannot get the owners to supply you with test results from the herd, preferably several stretching over a number of years.

Doe and Buck, Connecting with Kisses

Uniting the Paramours

The options for bringing together doe and buck are: driveway breeding, longer-term buck rental, or keeping your own bucks. Artificial insemination is rare to use in small-scale goatkeeping as it takes expertise, equipment and has a low success rate. It isn’t a very natural option, either, so I won’t go into it beyond this mention.

Before telling you more about these choices, here are a few facts to keep in mind: bucks will be fertile during their entire rut season (Goat Breeding – Buck Antics). Does will go into heat (the time period she is fertile) every 20 or so days (each goat is different on how often they cycle) and each heat will last 12-36 hours. Most does show specific signs of heat (tail flagging, vocalizing, personality changes – see my video!: Goat Breeding – Cocoa in Heat), but some do not. Bucks can be difficult to deal with. They can be single-

Marley the Buck, Dripping in “Cologne” (see his legs)

minded and pushy about their wish to access the ladies. In our dwarf breed, this isn’t too hard to deal with. They also stink. I mean, really, they smell BAD. In the goat world, a boy’s urine is his cologne and he is skilled at spraying it all over himself. It is an intense and clingy odor. If the computer would let me I’d upload a sample, but that technology isn’t here yet. Come on over sometime, I’ll share!

A driveway breeding means that the doe owner identifies when the doe has gone into heat and drives their doe to the buck’s house to spend an hour or two together in a pen or literally in the driveway on leashes. Experienced goat keepers succeed with this arrangement, but I don’t know anyone new to goats who has ever had it work. You have to be very good at noting the right time in her cycle and dropping everything to chauffeur her. Remember that the window for a receptive “standing heat” can be as short as 12 hours (My video of Lily: Goat Breeding – NOT a Standing Heat).

A longer-term buck rental is what we did the first few years with great success, advised and assisted by Heidi at Tragos Trip Farm, where we bought our original girls. Under her counsel, we kept him for a month to be sure to catch one of the fertile windows for both of them. The first year was very easy – we wanted him to breed with our only two goats, so they just all lived together for the month. The second year we had kept Honey’s daughter but weren’t ready to breed her. Since goats hate being alone, we let Cocoa live with Diableau and just let in Honey when she seemed especially interested in him.

Keeping our own buck is our current situation. At first, I swore we would never keep our own males because of that terrible smell. I couldn’t imagine living with it any longer than necessary. But, I learned that the best biosecurity system meant keeping bucks of our own. I also discovered that outside of the fall rutting season, they aren’t that stinky and ours have good temperaments. We have also been able to keep the males and females separate when not wanting to breed them, which I’d worried about.

Even with our own bucks, we have not always gotten it right. Year one went smoothly, with Pan impregnating Cocoa and Juniper right on schedule. Pan is Lily’s son, Honey’s grandson, so the next year we needed to bring in a new male for breeding. That’s where our current guy, Marley, comes in. He was a late summer

Marley, Not Impressing the Girls His First Season With Us

birth, so during last year’s breeding season he was still very small and not very bucky. Honey and Lily lived with him for a full month and never let him near them. I believe if they could have talked their horrified looks would have been accompanied by the question “what do you think we are, cradle-robbers?!” I knew that it hadn’t worked.  I gave up and took them out on January 1st, not wanting kids later than June 1 and not feeling like anything was going to change soon anyway.

By this fall, he was in his full, urine-soaked glory and they began their efforts to reach him every few weeks. The first tries I just let them in with him for a few hours, hoping my timing was impeccable so he didn’t have time to really cover them with pee. I am milking them after all. However, they both came back into heat, so they are currently living with him for the month.

Did It Work?

How do I know when this has worked? It isn’t easy to be 100% sure until close to the end of a pregnancy, but if they stop going into heat, that’s a great sign. Goats do not

She is Not Pregnant – Just Eats Well!

ever look particularly pregnant. A goat’s girth changes dramatically throughout every day as she packs herself with food, then digests. People regularly ask me if they are pregnant after they’ve had a good meal. The kids are pretty small compared to some of their breakfasts. In the last few weeks of a pregnancy, they do tend to look even wider, especially the experienced moms who have, shall we say, lost their girlish figures.

There are some technical options to confirm a pregnancy, none of which I’ve used. An ultrasound machine works but is expensive. There are blood and urine tests available now, but collecting blood or urine isn’t something I would look forward to. So far I’ve been able to tell well enough just by observing.

Good notes taken during the fall then helps determine the possible birthing dates. I stick around watching and listening as much as possible at those times (yes, we set up a baby monitor we can listen to in the house). My estimates are usually close so I have been there for most births.

Because those births in the spring are what all this fuss is about!

Honey with Kids, 2014


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Goats in Good Health

Happy, Healthy Honey!

I have always loved animals, observed wildlife and had pets. But the responsibility of caring for livestock is a different, daunting experience. So, I felt relieved and proud when, at our yearly veterinarian checkup, the doctor told us our goat, Honey “looks to me like a robustly healthy animal!”

My Animal Background

During my childhood, we had many pets (cats, gerbils, hamsters, fish, turtles, newts, a parakeet, a dog). But what I ask from and need to give to our working animals demands a greater level of involvement, decision-making, and commitment. I did not grow up learning the skills and mindset needed for such work.

My first jobs in agriculture were vegetable and fruit operations. A few generations ago all farms were diversified – they had both animals and plants. Nowadays, it’s much more common to find them focused on just one. I was also a vegetarian then vegan when I first got involved in farming, so it didn’t occur to me to think about adding animals.

Honey’s daughter, Lily

However, I developed health problems related to my restricted diet. With eggs, milk and meat back on my plate, I wanted to be sure the beings making those products were well treated, for their sake and mine (how can sickly animals ever produce healthy food?).

I also discovered good research on the benefits of animals appropriately used in agriculture. If I wanted my soil and land to thrive, animals were looking to be an important addition.

So, I read, researched and went to classes. I got bees, then chickens and ducks. While not at all simple, there is a lot of information and support for bee & poultry keepers. Moving on to four-legged mammals – that felt like a whole other world.

Cocoa, Honey’s half-sister

Getting Our Goats

We brought our first goats home in the summer of 2011. Honey and Cocoa were 3 months old. Every morning for at least the next 3 months, I woke up and said to Steve: “do you think the goats are still alive?” I was terrified of doing this wrong!

This feeling was especially strong because of the bad experiences people seemed to relish sharing with us.

We heard and read about the many health problems we were likely to see – diseases, mineral deficiencies and parasites. Coming from a background of organic farming, I believed that organic and natural management options were possibly the key to avoiding some of the problems, but most goat keepers I talked to disagreed with me. One even told me “if you feed the kids organic grain they’ll likely be dead within weeks.” Thus my obsession those early months with their possible sudden demise. Luckily I did find a few people having great results with natural methods so I didn’t feel completely alone.

Cocoa with her 2014 kids

Six Years of Goatkeeping

Now, six years later, I am happy to report that not only are our goats alive, they have thrived and multiplied! In fact, most of the problems we were braced for still haven’t come to pass.

We have not had problems with: internal parasites, lack of fertility, birthing complications, coccidiosis, mastitis, pneumonia or other infections, or low selenium. The three scariest goat diseases – CAE, CL & Johnnes – haven’t shown up since we were careful to purchase from disease-free herds and test regularly. I do watch them for copper deficiency, as we have seen some signs of that now and then.

They have thick winter coats and shiny summer hair. They behave appropriately, are friendly, curious and active.

The problems we have faced fall more in the first aid category: a dislocated leg, diarrhea after eating a poisonous leaf, a couple of winter lice cases.

At this point, I feel confident in saying that our focus on

Dam-raised kids, eating what nature intended them to

natural rearing has been a success. To be more specific, I think these practices have particularly helped: choosing healthy stock, dam-raising rather than bottle-raising kids, rotational grazing, a varied diet, mineralizing our land, no prophylactic medications, and little to no grain.

From my permaculture training I also remember to observe my animals and learn as much as I can from them about how they should live, what’s working or not.

She has a point, the grass does look greener on the other side! And, no, she’s not stuck!

Still, I do find some normal aspects of goatkeeping challenging: managing breeding including the stinky bucks, birthing worries, harvesting excess animals, and being there every single day to milk. And just generally still worrying about everything that could go wrong. Sometimes I wonder if this is really for me, if I can keep it up. But, when I look at how happy and healthy they are and when we eat the fabulously healthy products we get from them… it seems a shame to stop.

Next… breeding season is almost upon us and I plan to share some of that with you. Even some videos of their behavior. Alas, I can’t capture the buck smell for you – I’ll never be able to describe it adequately!

Smelly, Stinky Bucks!

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Permaculture Approaches: Problems into Solutions, Slugs into Ducks

I last wrote about a very appreciated and loved creature – the honey bee. Next up I want to tell you about a weird, wild, often reviled beastie – the slug!

Leopard Slug (Limax maximus)

Any gardener is going to have a fraught relationship with slugs, especially after a wet spring like we had. But before we get to that, let’s get to know them better.

As with any problem we face, permaculture asks us to observe first, to learn and understand what we can. This enables us to make better choices about how we react, sometimes even allowing us to turn our problems into solutions.

Aside from that, every creature we share this planet with is amazing and worth marveling at just to keep our sense of awe and humility intact.

My Slug Story

When I first noticed slugs, they were not a problem for me. I was living in Dover NH in a house with a tiny fenced in backyard. One summer we noticed that in the right light all the patio bricks sparkled. It looked like fairies had sprinkled their dust… but it was actually the dried slime from the trails of slugs which we were having an outbreak of!  At night they would appear and we started watching them.

Not a Small Slug!

They were big – maybe 3 inches long fully extended, and I couldn’t believe how fast they moved given that they have no legs. I wasn’t trying to garden back then, so could simply watch and admire and not get into any kind of battle with the slimy critters.

Around the same time the movie Microcosmos came out. I saw it on the big screen of The Music Hall in Portsmouth. This artistic documentary about life in meadows and ponds included an amazing mating dance of snails.

A few years later my best friend, Nicole, moved to California. We did some traveling in the state and I loved the northern woods with the huge majestic redwoods, shocking to a New Englander. Those woods held black bears to be wary of, herds of Roosevelt Elk, and banana slugs, which everyone wanted to see with their intense yellow coloring standing out against the browns and greens of the forest.

Slugs Are Cool

Slug in the Garden

Why respect slugs? The role slugs play in the ecosystem is to eat decaying plant, fungi and sometimes even animal matter. They are recyclers who fit well into the No Such Thing As Waste permaculture view.

Slugs and snails (scientifically classified as “gastropods“) have been on this planet since the Cambrian era (497 million years ago!) – clearly they are successful and important. Thousands of species live in all kinds of habitats (sea, forest, desert, pond, ditch,…), with different eating habits (herbivore, carnivore, detritivore), and such a diverse genetic heritage that we know they didn’t all evolve from one ancestor, but arose independently a number of times in different places.

The Problem

However, they can be serious garden pests, and they also can spread some diseases. In our case, the one we most worry about affects goats – meningeal worm.

Young Kale Plant, Vulnerable to Slug Damage

My relationship with slugs became strained when we first started gardening here on our Living Land property. We’d gotten some land cleared, sheet mulched, and I planted garlic in the fall. That spring it came up, and I started planting other crops. I quickly discovered that we had a tremendous slug population. Sure, they were eating my lettuce, kale & broccoli, but also my onions and garlic! I would go into the garden with a quart container and fill it with slugs within about 20 minutes. Yes, I handpicked them, despite the slime factor.

I consulted soil experts. For many pests, it is a soil problem that causes distress in the plant which then attracts predatory insects. But, not with slugs I was told. They weren’t indicative of a deeper problem, but simply liked to eat what humans do too.

Cabbage, A Favorite Food of Slugs

I brought my containers of slugs to our chickens. We had friends whose hens enjoyed these protein rich treats. But, alas, ours had more refined taste, I guess. They looked at the slugs, looked at me, ruffled their feathers and strutted away.

So, we needed other control methods.


The Solution

Indian Runner, From Our First Flock

Of course, permaculturist Bill Mollison‘s famous quote came back to me: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency” which he said to another struggling gardener.

We followed his advice, and got ourselves some ducks. They were not as easy to procure as chicks can be, but we found Indian Runner ducklings locally. There were just a few of them, but, wow, did they love to eat slugs! Before they were big enough to be outside we brought them in for them and they gobbled them up. That first year, we let them spend time in the garden itself. They are not as hard on a garden as chickens are, but they made a bit of a mess of my carefully placed mulch. Since then, we rarely let them in the garden, but they have access to a large area around it. That has been enough to keep the problem in check.


Frogs in Our Pond

We also added elements to our garden and land that support wild predators of slugs: frogs, toads, and snakes.  (If you can’t or don’t want to keep ducks, this is what I’d suggest you focus on.)  We added a pond form in the garden and within weeks it was full of frogs.

Now that we aren’t overrun with them, I can again admire slugs as amazing creatures. In fact, as the slug population has decreased, our duck food bill has gone up… I now look at them as a resource not just a competitor.

We love our ducks. They are extremely entertaining, give us amazing eggs, and a small amount of meat. They have an important place here and we’re grateful to have turned our slug problem into such a great duck solution!

A “Brace” of Ducks

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