When to Wean a Goat and Tips for Success
Knowing When to Wean Goats Reduces Stress for You and Them
How long do baby goats nurse, and what is the best way to wean them?
Early spring is often when most kidding takes place, but eventually, spring turns to summer and it’s time for weaning. Dairy goats can be weaned in much the same way as any other type of goat, but since milk production of the dam is probably more important than for other types of goats, that is the focus here. It’s important not only to know when to wean a goat but also to do it in a way that minimizes stress and ensures the ongoing health and production of those hard–working milkers.
I’ve been raising goats for milk for about 10 years and I’ve raised my kids several different ways during that time. Some have been exclusively dam–raised, some exclusively bottle-fed goats, and some a combination of the two. Depending on the technique you choose for how to raise goats, the method for how and when to wean a goat will vary.
Weaning dairy goats can be stressful, but you can reduce the amount of stress for yourself, as well as for the dam and kids if you follow these guidelines. First, decide when you want to wean. As a general rule, I like my kids to be on milk for at least three months. Some goat owners feed milk for a shorter or longer length of time, but this has worked well for me. I find that it gives the kids a really good start in life while also giving me access to the mother’s milk for at least six to eight more months before drying them off for the next season.
As you decide specifically when to start weaning, consider what else will be going on in your life, as well as in the life of your goats, around that time. For instance, if your goats are going to a show right as the kids are turning the appropriate age for weaning, you’ll probably want to wait until a few days to a week after you return home to start weaning. This will give them a chance to recover from the stress of the show and transportation, and to be sure no one is getting sick. Likewise, if you have a vacation planned or are anticipating something else disruptive in your own life, you may choose to wean a little earlier or a little later to prevent overlap with these potentially busy times.
Once you’ve decided when to begin weaning dairy goats, decide how to do it. This decision will be based on how your goats are raised. Although there are many hybrid options for raising kids, we’ll discuss dam-raised vs. bottle-fed goats.
Weaning Dam-Raised Kids
Weaning dairy goats that are exclusively raised by their dams is sometimes easier than weaning bottle–raised kids. Those kids are more likely to be taking in other sources of food and water earlier than bottle–raised kids, because they imitate what they see their own mother doing. This means they already know how to supplement their thirst and hunger better than those bottle babies. Secondly, mamas might decide when to wean those babies, and if you’re not planning to use the milk for yourself, this is always the easiest and most natural way to wean. Once those babies start getting bigger and pushier, many does will kick them off the udder. But if you want access to the milk before she weans them herself, you’ll need to find a way to separate them from each other.
One challenge of weaning dam-raised goats is that they are often bonded after spending all that time together. This can cause a lot more stress, especially to that baby who has had unlimited access to its mama and her milk for its entire life. I like mine to be in an area where they can still see each other and maybe even stand next to the fence together, but that fence needs to be secure enough that those wily little babies don’t figure out how to nurse right through it! Sometimes if I have goats that are particularly bonded or very stressed about being separated, I might start by separating just for a few hours, then maybe overnight, and then gradually increase the time until they realize that they can, in fact, survive without each other.
Also be careful that you don’t stop milking the dam too suddenly, as this is a recipe for discomfort, mastitis, or other problems in the doe. If you’re going to take the babies away from their dam, you need to step in and milk her, at least for a while. Depending on whether you want to keep the dam’s milk production up for showing and/or so that you can have all that yummy milk for yourself, you’ll either have to milk more or milk less. When I wean babies from my show goats, I step in and milk at least twice a day, to make sure the dam is both comfortable and maintains her milk production. If I’m weaning kids from a dam that I don’t want to continue milking, I will need to milk for a while but will take my cues from how much she’s producing. I will check her udder about 12 hours after I’ve pulled her kids and if it’s not too hard, wait a little longer. If it’s hard as a rock at 12 hours, I know it’s going to take a while to gradually milk her down. Either way, pay attention to how much and how quickly she is filling up, and gradually spread out the time between milkings to reduce her production.
Weaning Bottle Fed Goats
Weaning bottle fed goats is generally easier than weaning dam-raised kids, at least in my experience. They are already used to being separated from their dams and this means you have also already figured out another plan for the dam, whether you have dried her off or have continued milking her. Now it’s just a matter of gradually reducing the amount of milk and the number of bottles you are giving your babies each day. If you’re at two feedings a day, drop it to one. Then eventually drop that one feeding altogether.
You can also reduce the amount of milk at each feeding before you start reducing the number of feedings, giving them two bottles a day at first, but only filling those bottles with half as much milk. Then drop one feeding, and eventually drop the second feeding. Be sure that you have plenty of fresh water and hay available for them.
I often coincide weaning my babies with when they go out on pasture with their dams. I don’t let my babies out to pasture prior to about three months because we have coyotes in our area, and even though we do have a guard llama with them, I like the kids to be a little bigger. By letting them start on pasture around the same time I’m weaning them, I find that both the distraction of going out on an adventure with the herd, as well as the extra food they’re taking in from the grass and plants, helps to reduce the complaining on their part.
One last word about weaning dairy goats that has as much to do with generally caring for goats as it does with the weaning process itself: Goats are herd animals and should always have at least one friend with them. This means that if you have a single doe and a single kid, weaning is going to be a lot more stressful for both of them if it means they have to be alone during the process. It’s best if they each can have a friend to make life (and weaning) a little more bearable for all.
Originally published in the May/June 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.