In my area, days are getting shorter. The humidity that made summer unbearable is giving way to cool evenings that invite lingering by our fire pit. With my glass of wine in hand and the fire roaring, I nestle into a big comfy outdoor chair. Just as I start to relax…
Strangled yelps of desperation ripple across our holler. Fancy, my normally calm blue-eyed doe, starts belting out bleats that can only mean one thing. She's in heat! She's sending out her mating call across an open field to our strapping buck Pythagoras.
As temperatures cool outside, things start to heat up in the goat world. That's because for most goats fall and early winter are breeding time. As ear-shattering as it is to hear a doe's mating call in the middle of an otherwise perfect evening, the sound means goat babies are around the corner.
For me, the start of the breeding season is something to celebrate. So, grab your favorite beverage – coffee, tea or a glass of wine – and read on to learn all about goat breeding!
A Few Terms Related to Goat Breeding
If you want to use goats for milk production, or as a meat source, or to grow your fiber herd, there's a lot more to good breeding practices than just doing the deed. For starters, understanding the stages of goat maturity and using accurate terminology will help you in your research.
Really young goats are referred to as “kids.” As kids, male and female goats can spend time together without risk of them breeding. However, when they start to near sexual maturity, goat keepers must separate males and females to ensure females don't breed too early.
Doelings and Bucklings
Sexually mature but not yet bred male goats are called bucklings and females are called doelings. Female goats can reach reproductive maturity as early as 3-4 months of age. However, waiting until they are at least 80% of their adult size (or more) and at least 1-year-old is vital to their long-term health.
Doelings that are 1-year-old and ready for breeding are often called yearlings.
Male kids that aren't going to be used to breed are castrated at about eight weeks of age. These castrated males are called wethers. They make great pets and landscapers.
Most males end up being wethered or used as a meat source. Uncastrated males don't make great pets and it only takes one 2-year-old buck to service a herd of 25 does successfully.
Does and Bucks
Once you start breeding your doelings and bucklings, they become does and bucks. In some areas, they may also be referred to as nannies and billies.
Bucklings can become bucks and service 2-3 does, at about six months of age. At one year of age, you can increase that number to 10 does, and then go up to 25 when they are 2-years-old.
Understanding and using accurate terminology to describe the reproductive status of your herd is the starting point of a good breeding program. However, there's a lot more that goes into getting breeding right.
Just because goats have attained the age and size appropriate for breeding, does not make them good breeders. Depending on your purposes for breeding, here are some factors to research before breeding.
Purebred and Registered Goats
If you are planning to breed and sell “purebred” or registered goats at a premium price, then you need to ensure that your sire goats are registered. Registration, though, is a voluntary process and is not a guarantee that the goat you are buying is a true representative of the breed.
Each breed has different standards of perfection. These standards dictate the size range, coat colors and quality, the conformation of the body, and other features that are required for your goat to be registered as purebred.
You can find general information on breed standards from goat associations, such as the American Dairy Goat Association (AGDA) or the American Goat Society (AGS). You can also get more detailed information from associations specific to your breed such as the American Nigerian Dwarf Dairy Association (ANDDA).
I have come across advertisements for registered goats that don't meet the breed standards. So, as a breeder and a buyer of goats, if this is important to you, make sure you know what the standards are. Then, buy and breed only goats that comply with those standards.
No Visible Defects
Regardless of breed, making sure that goats have no visible defects before breeding is quite important. Physical defects, even in perfectly healthy goats, can signal the potential for problems later.
For example, an overbite or underbite can make browsing for food more difficult for goats. It can lead to mal-nourished goats with more propensity towards health problems.
Overly large heads in parents can be a genetic quality that transfers to kids and can make birthing more difficult for does. Likewise, excessively narrow hip bones (rump area) can make birthing difficult as well. Weak ankles in your breeders can lead to kids that are at greater risk for injury from falling.
Slumped backs, a history of difficult births, testicular problems, and more may be genetic and may be passed along to kids. When possible, asking about and seeing the parents and grandparents of your potential breeding goats can also give you clues as to whether they are fit for breeding.
A healthy goat has a shiny, full coat in fall that is often beginning to thicken in preparation for winter. They have bushy tails, vibrant eyes with no excessive watering, and clean teeth. Any deficiency in these areas is usually an indication of either a mineral problem, a problem in the environment, or an underlying health issue.
For example, poor coat quality might indicate a deficiency in copper. Without sufficient copper, goats may have fertility problems or birthing complications. It could also point to poor nutrition or parasite problems, both of which could lead to unsuccessful breeding or kidding.
Excessively watery eyes could mean there are hazards in the environment or be the result of an injury. However, it could also be an early sign of Chlamydia psittaci, a disease that is transmissible to humans, and a frequent cause of abortion among does.
Accurately diagnosing and addressing health problems before breeding improves chances for healthy kids and problem free deliveries.
Preparing to Breed Your Goats
Now that you've checked your breeders and determined they are fit for breeding, the next step is to get them in condition to breed.
1. Fatten Your Goats
Generally, goats with a little more fat on their bones tend to have higher fertility rates. They also fare better throughout their pregnancies if they have some extra resources to draw on.
Goat owners use the Body Condition Scoring (BCS) method to determine if goats are in good form for breeding. The BCS is a rating system that starts at 1 for severely mal-nourished goats and goes to 5 for overly nourished goats. For reproduction, body scores of 3 to 5 are preferable for does.
For bucks, you also want them to start the breeding season a little on the heavy side. When bucks get into their “ruts” – as in the time when they are incredibly motivated to reproduce – they don't focus on food.
So, just like the does, starting with your bucks a bit overweight will help maintain their health over the breeding season.
2. Consider Mineral Supplements
You'll want to do more research before deciding on goat mineral supplements because the necessity and benefits of using them will vary based on breed, diet, and your soil and water quality. However, many goat owners do find the need to give does supplements before breeding.
The most common supplements to consider are a copper bolus and a shot of vitamin E and selenium.
The copper bolus is a pill full of copper filaments that work as a slow release copper supplement during the gestation period. The vitamin E and selenium shot increases fertility and protects against muscle disease in kids.
Supplements in the right doses can ensure fertility, easy birthing, and healthy kids. In the wrong doses, though, they can be lethal. Make sure you are fully educated and have discussed minerals with your veterinarian before making your choices.
3. Consider Treating for Parasites
There are two schools of thought on goat worming. One is to do it regularly as a preventative measure. The other is to carefully manage the health of your herd closely and only worm your goats when necessary. There are good reasons on both sides of the argument.
Regardless of your view on this though, before breeding your goats, it's a good idea to get a sense of their parasite load and make preemptive decisions about worming.
If you are in the habit of performing fecal tests, do them before breeding. Alternatively, talk to your veterinarian or agricultural extension office about having them check samples for you.
Also, check your does for anemia using the FAMACHA rating scale (a simple tool all goat owners can benefit from using).
If your does are at risk for parasite overload before pregnancy, consider de-worming to avoid unnecessary complications later.
Ways to Breed
Depending on how you manage your herd, breeding may take many forms.
Some goat keepers use artificial insemination (AI) which involves injecting the semen of a sire goat into your doe when they are in heat. For this, you need to have your injection on hand and spot the signs of heat to know when to use it.
Goat associations can direct you to reputable AI services. Goat forums can offer good leads as well. Your local agricultural office may also be able to provide you with a list of AI services for goats.
Other goat keepers use a stud or sire service. In this case, you either hire a goat to spend time with your herd. Or, you load your goat up in your vehicle and transport them to the buck when the time comes.
Good stud services must do rigorous testing of their entire herd to be able to certify that their bucks are not carriers of physically or genetically transmissible diseases. They also have to maintain extra infrastructure and spend extra time managing bucks all year long.
You should expect to pay a pretty significant fee for this service. You will likely also be required to test your goat for diseases before an encounter.
The Old-Fashioned Way
If those two methods aren't for you, then there's the old-fashioned way. In other words, you keep your own buck to service your does.
Personally, I keep a buck on my homestead. My buck has his own pasture and shelter. I keep a wether with him throughout the year so he doesn't ever get lonely. (Goats are herd animals).
I breed my does intermittently. So, when it comes time to breed, I take the does to stay in his pasture for a month.
If you plan to breed your whole herd at once, you can take your buck to your does in fall. Once your does start to kid (have babies), you'll want to move your buck back out.
Now for the big question. How do you know when your doe is in heat?
The process of being in and out of heat is called estrous. Most breeds of goats only experience this pattern in fall and early winter. They will go into heat, called estrus, every 17-24 days. That estrus may last for 12-48 hours. After that, they'll repeat the cycle for several months in fall and part of winter.
It's pretty easy to spot estrus in does, but not as easy to see in doelings or yearlings. Similar to human reproduction cycles, though, there are physical and hormonal changes during heat that can be discerned.
For example, goats often talk more – calling for a buck – when they are in heat. They also do more tail wagging (to waft their scent out for males to notice). My does like to stand at the fence nearest to my buck pasture and yell at the top of their lungs while wagging their tales profusely.
Females may exhibit domination or submission behavior. Mounting or being mounted, smelling or allowing others to smell urine, and biting or abnormal competitive behavior are all signs of estrus. They may also be more or less social, opposing their normal disposition.
Additionally, you may notice discharge at the vulva. Swelling or reddening of the vulva is also sometimes observable.
Note, Nigerian Dwarf goats are the exception. They are in heat, or estrus, about every 21-23 days for their entire reproductive lives.
Planning When to Breed
Now that you have your goats in condition for breeding, have a plan for how you'll do it, and can recognize the signs of estrus, the next step is to decide when to do it.
Here are two things to consider on that subject.
After breeding, it takes about 150 days for full-size goats to kid. Miniature goats have a more extended gestation period of about 155 days.
Hypothermia is a significant risk for kids born in winter in cold climates. Setting a “do not breed before” date based on your climate, is a good idea. Once you pass that date, then you can breed goats whenever they are in estrus.
In North Carolina, I never breed before October 15th to ensure births don't occur before mid-March. Though, I also provide a heat source and help dry kids born on cold spring days.
If you have limited space, you may want to consider staggering your breeding to space out your births. I only have one birthing and bonding room. So I only breed one goat every couple weeks to ensure I don't have multiple does giving birth at the same time.
‘Doing the Deed' for Breeding Goats
The actual breeding part is easy. Does in estrus happily stand still and let the bucks mate them several times before they start getting agitated.
The buck, who starts peeing on his face and beard around the time does start estrous, will apply a fresh coat of pee to impress the doe in question. He'll likely rub her rump with his cheeks and beard as a sign of affection (and ownership). Then he'll rear up like a stallion and land on that rump with incredible speed.
A few seconds later, it's over. The buck will regroup and start the process again. When the lady has had enough, she'll thwart his attempts to mount her by running out of range. Eventually, he exhausts and gives the doe a break.
Once she's out of estrus, he may still mount her occasionally. However, his attempts will be less valiant.
How to Tell If Your Goat is Pregnant
Now for the next big question. How do you know if your goat is pregnant?
The only reliable way to know if your goat is pregnant is to do a blood test or have your veterinarian perform an ultrasound. However, observant goat keepers who spend a lot of time with their goats can also tell based on estrous.
Remember, estrous is the 17-24 day cycle of heat. So, once a doe is pregnant, she won't go into heat anymore. I've heard of freak cases of pregnant does having false estrus. But it seems rare. Keep in mind though, if you are breeding late in the season, a lack of estrus may signal the end of estrous, not pregnancy.
After about three months into the pregnancy, goats will show noticeable physical signs such as weight gain and hardening of the stomach. It's hard to tell before this because kid growth is slow at first and goats also get their winter coats, making them look heavier.
In my experience, if your buck and doe are in good condition, and you are sure your doe was in estrus when she was bred, then pregnancy is extremely likely.
Breeding is just part one of this process. Next comes prenatal care, birthing, kid-raising, and more. So, as a last piece of advice, I highly recommend that you plug the date your goat was bred into our gestation calculator, pick the right number of days for your breed, and calculate your likely due date.
In the interim before that due date, plan to read up on the phases of goat gestation, signs of labor, kid care, and all that other good stuff as you wait excitedly for the big day!