By Katherine Drovdahl MH CA CR DipHIr CEIT QTP
It’s freezing! Goats get cold, too. But when do they need extra winter protection from predators and the elements?
Q- Do I need to blanket my goats for winter?
A- Usually not. A goat that is healthy and proper weight with good feed and good shelter should not need blanketing during the winter. There are some exceptions, of course. Goats that are underweight (watch your bucks!), that are ill and during times of exceptionally cold weather may need a “goat coat” to help protect them. Also, very young kids or very old animals may need the additional support. Goats also need protection if they need to be transported during the winter. I tried transporting bucks to a buck collection about 15 years ago and had to turn back home because of freezing goats. Even with deep bedding and double blankets and a nice trailer, 17°F was just too cold to transport them safely.
Q- How do you define “good shelter?”
A- A good goat shelter does not have to be a fancy shelter. I’ve even seen some nice shelters made from pallets. The shelter needs to be able to protect your goats from wind, rain, snow and sun, but yet be open enough on the sides above goat level to allow fresh air to move overhead. This fresh air whisks away urine smells and prevents the air in the barn from becoming stale and lung-challenging.
Q- What is proper weight for a dairy goat?
A- How many of us have had someone look at our dairy goat and comment on how fat they were because they were looking at their belly and rumen areas? That is not where we want to assess weight. I will firmly but gently pinch their skin layer behind their elbow on their barrel. Look at your goat’s front leg from the side view. On the rearward side of that front leg, near the top of the leg, you will find a bony protrusion next to the side of the body. That is their elbow. Just rear of that and a bit above is where I pinch. Going into winter or in winter, I like to pinch an easy half-inch. I also should be able to put my hand flat on their ribs and rub back and forth. The skin should move freely under my hand, indicating a fat layer. I should still be able to feel the ribs but they should not be “sharp” feeling. I also like to look at their backbone along their spine. I should not be able to see individual vertebrae and the tissue angle below the withers should be approximately 45% from the spine to the body side. A goat that is flatter through there is probably overweight and a goat that is steeper there is underweight.
Q- Is it OK if I check my waters just once a day when it’s cold out?
A- In my opinion, it’s never OK to just check water tanks/buckets just once per day! A lot can happen in a 24-hour period. Automatic waters may break or freeze, water may freeze, become soiled or get spilled. A container can also break from ice pressure when it’s freezing; goats then have no water. Heated waterers and water heaters need to be checked to be sure they are functioning and that the cords are always out of harm’s way. We also need to be sure the goats are drinking the water and that all of them are drinking enough. Firmly pinching the skin on the side of the neck and watching for it to snap back quickly is a good way to check their hydration levels. If a goat is underweight, this is not a good test, as their skin may already be too tight. If water is too cold, they will not drink enough to thrive. Also, an animal with a damaged tooth will not drink enough water if it’s cold, due to the pain of cold touching the offending tooth. This can be a problem, especially in some older animals. Animals that don’t drink enough water are at a greater risk of suffering colic (impacted intestine) or urinary calculi. Please check waters and goats at least twice per day. One day, you may be glad you did.
Q- How can I keep my goats warm?
A- Proper shelter was already mentioned above. Besides shelter, keeping them in good weight, and deep and dry bedding, we want to consider their hay. A ruminant generates a lot of body heat as they digest roughage. Roughage would be long-stemmed fiber of 2 inches or greater length. This is not available in a hay cube but in hay and edible brush. I keep a combination of grass hay and alfalfa hay in front of my goats all the time so that they can generate their much-needed body heat in winter.
Q- Is winter the worst time of year for predators?
A- Predators are a problem all year long. Winter presents some challenges in that, as it progresses, creatures such as coyotes, bobcats and cougar may have reduced populations of easier-to-find rodents, rabbits and deer. This makes livestock more of a potential target as predators’ hunger increases their bravery when it’s freezing. Goats offer tempting meals. It also tends to be a time of year when fencing may take a larger beating from snow, ice or wind storms, branch or tree falls or animals working at pushing through damaged or old fencing. It’s imperative to know the condition of your fencing on a daily basis, if at all possible. We find we also have to watch out for eagles when we have young kids during the later winter and spring months. Keeping livestock guardian dogs with our goats hugely reduces our concern about predator issues year-round.
Q- What animal is responsible for the most damage and losses in goat herds?
A- So, what animal came to mind when you read this question? Bear? Yes, bear can and do kill goats. Wolves? Certainly they can be a problem and will become a greater one as their populations increase. Coyotes are a common problem nearly everywhere. (We listen to three separate packs “sing” every night where we live.) Unfortunately, theft by humans can be a problem, too. But the most common animal to cause loss? Did you guess domestic dog? It may be one or more from just down the road, your neighbor’s dog or even your own dog. I’ve heard stories on every one of these situations. Because of this, we do not allow people to bring dogs to our farm. Also, as I’ve mentioned in the past, good fencing and a good-quality livestock guardian dog will go a long way to reducing this problem.
Q- How do I feed a 3rd trimester dairy goat?
A- A goat pregnancy is approximately 21 to 22 weeks so I consider 3rd trimester to start at week 15 of their gestation. Third trimester is important to note because this is when your kid(s) will begin to rapidly grow within their “bedwomb,” putting much larger caloric and nutritional demands on your doe. I will begin to change their dry-period hay from 1/3 alfalfa and 2/3 grass hay to increasing amounts of alfalfa each week until I have them close to all alfalfa at kidding. I will also start them on grain at week 16. I like to start standard-sized goats at ¼ cup of grain and each week I increase that by another ¼ cup until I have them at the amount of grain that I believe they will need to maintain body condition once fresh. I also pinch-test (explained above) each doe 2 or 3 times each week to be sure they are not losing weight during this time or getting too fat. I will adjust their individual grain, up or down, based on that information. I keep my herd on herbal supplements and kelp year-round to make sure their mineral needs are well covered.
When it’s freezing, goats are pregnant, or predators are hungry, how do you prevent winter problems? Let us know in the comments below.
Katherine and her beloved husband reside with their LaManchas, horses and other livestock and gardens. Her lifelong livestock experience and in depth alternative education gives her a unique perspective when she teaches. She also owns, offers creature & human wellness consultations and has herb products & services available at firmeadowllc.com.
Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.