Strategic Diet in Late Pregnancy and Lactation
is key in preventing metabolic issues
Reading Time: 4 minutes
A doe’s journey through pregnancy, kidding, and then lactation is a biological marathon. While all perfectly natural segments of the lifecycle, these processes require nutrition to be at its peak for the doe to recuperate successfully.
Many of today’s livestock, being bred for production purposes, are at risk for a number of metabolic diseases at these times. Illnesses falling into this category directly impact an animal’s metabolism or series of intricate chemical life processes. The biggest culprit behind most metabolic issues can usually be traced back to nutritional mismanagement before and during pregnancy or lactation.
While many of these have been studied in great detail for cattle, specifics about goats are not nearly as well documented or understood. With caprine-specific treatments in lesser supply, conscious nutritional management is the best approach goat owners can take.
This disease gets its name from symptoms that closely resemble tetanus, involving staggers, foaming at the mouth, and other muscular dysfunctions. Instead of a pathogen, grass tetany is caused by a complicated metabolic disruption due to lack of or rapid magnesium reduction.
This is typically due to decreased magnesium absorption caused by imbalanced potassium or calcium levels. While not technically related to kidding, it tends to strike metabolically high-risk animals like lactating does. Additional risk depends highly on forages in the diet and nutritional content of the region being grazed.
Grass tetany is usually brought on when goats are left to graze lush grass high in potassium or nitrogen. By the time symptoms present themselves, treatment must be incredibly fast. In most cases, this involves intravenous therapy and veterinary assistance.
The best way to safeguard your herd is to know the quality of your pasture grass, especially in the peak, lush season close to kidding. Most university extension offices can assist with taking and submitting samples for nutritional analysis.
If potassium and calcium are excessive in your area, it may be necessary to limit pasture access during the peak season. Supplements or trace minerals high in magnesium fed beforehand can also reduce risk.
This condition affects the microflora (good “bugs”) in the rumen rather than the doe herself. When too much grain is introduced to the diet too quickly, excessive lactic acid is produced in the gut, lowering the rumen pH. When below 5.5, the good microflora can die, causing serious indigestion, which results in a complex of other issues including diarrhea and laminitis.
This is commonly caused when trying to quickly get a doe in condition prior to breeding or kidding. Symptoms are going off feed, bad diarrhea, depression, and lack of rumination or cud-chewing. Severe cases may require veterinary assistance, but mild ones may be remedied with probiotics, IV fluids, and a diet change.
Proper introduction and management of grain in the diet can avoid acidosis entirely. When feeding grain, be sure to offer free-choice hay. This will prevent overindulging at mealtimes.
All grain increases should be made very gradually, with small portions at each feeding. Likewise, changing grains or diet should also be made gradually.
Retained placentas are rare in goats compared to cattle. When it does strike, it is usually the result of a difficult delivery, metritis, or, in a metabolic case, selenium deficiency.
While this can be treated fairly easily with a vet’s recommended oxytocin or other hormonal injection, prevention starts with mineral nutrition. Selenium, a trace mineral found in dirt, levels vary by region. If you are in a region with sufficient levels, feeding a good quality, local hay or pasture may be adequate. Otherwise, you will need to supplement.
Because it is extremely easy to overdose on selenium under lethal conditions, how deficient your area regulates the amount you need to give. For example, a single BoSe injection prior to kidding might suffice, but some regions may need multiple shots a year. There are also selenium gels and certain trace minerals on the market — your veterinarian can consult you on what’s best for your region.
Hypocalcemia (Milk Fever)
In the simplest terms, hypocalcemia or milk fever is low calcium levels in the blood. It is not unusual for goats, and it is likely to strike when the body’s demand for calcium is higher than normal such as late pregnancy or lactation.
Depending on the severity, treatment usually involves administering calcium gluconate directly into the bloodstream.
Feeding calcium-rich forages, especially high-quality alfalfa, during pregnancy and lactation greatly reduces this risk. Overall, the diet should have a calcium to phosphorus ratio no later than 1.5:1. Much of this comes from calcium-rich forages, as grains don’t tend to be very high. If access to alfalfa and high-quality forages lacks in your area, there are also calcium supplements available.
Pregnancy Toxemia (Ketosis)
Like hypocalcemia, pregnancy toxemia or ketosis is the result of poor nutrition in late pregnancy. Does most at risk are those who are overly thin or overly fat at this time. Having multiple kids and stressful environments or situations are also known to increase risk.
Specifically, ketosis is caused by improper fat metabolism creating what’s known as “fatty liver.”
Decreased feed consumption and depression are some common signs of the disease, and there may also be a distinct sweet smell in urine or breath from ketones built up in the liver. The surefire way of knowing is blood and urine tests. Treatment response needs to be quick; oral dosages of propylene glycol over three days is usually the go-to method. Depending on the severity, dehydration may need to be addressed as well.
With a lack of more goat-specific research, the known specifics of dietary prevention aren’t as detailed. However, keeping animals within a body condition score of 2 and 4 throughout pregnancy is extremely important, along with keeping a consistent, low-stress feeding schedule and environment.
In late pregnancy, grain is an important source of carbohydrates to keep energy and protein levels where they should be. The diet should be balanced with ample quality forages with adequate protein. If you have an incidence of ketosis in your herd, it may be a good idea to have your vet evaluate your nutrition program — one case often indicates an issue in overall herd diet.
Originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.