Introducing New Goats: How to Minimize Stress
Introducing a New Goat to a Single Goat or an Established Herd
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Relationships between goats are crucial for maintaining a harmonious, easy-to-manage herd. Constant hostility can make life miserable for you and your goats. Introducing unfamiliar goats can be traumatic and have long-term implications. It is important for your herd of goats to start off on the right hoof!
Goat Companionship Needs
As herd animals, goats do not feel safe living alone: they need other goats as companions. However, they are fussy. They bond with relatives and long-term companions. But they reject newcomers and view them as competitors.
This occurs due to goats’ natural social strategy. Wild and feral goats stick together in all-female groups of relatives, while bucklings disperse in bachelor groups as they approach maturity. Males and females only normally mix during the breeding season. Within each group, a hierarchy is established so that goats do not fight constantly over resources.
In a domestic setting, aggression arises when unfamiliar goats are introduced and have limited space to escape. Small herds are common among homesteaders. However, they also tend to be more volatile: each goat has the full attention of the herd and will need to find her place in the ranking before she can integrate peacefully. Goats take a more passive strategy in a large herd, minimizing social contact and avoiding fights.
Buck, Kid, Wether, Doe: What Kind of Companion Should I Get?
When starting your herd, I would thoroughly recommend getting goats who are already long-term companions: female relatives (sisters or mother and daughters); wethers from the same nursery group; a buck with wethers from his nursery group. Goats are naturally more tolerant of their close relatives and goats they grew up with. Get at least three companion goats if you can, so you don’t have to go through the difficulties of introducing unfamiliar goats if one dies.
Trying to introduce two lone goats is really hit and miss. They may accept each other due to loneliness or one may bully the other mercilessly. Experiences vary widely, depending on the personality of the goats introduced, their age, sex, past experience, and the unique dynamics of the herd.
Goats of similar breed or appearance may tolerate one another more easily, and the gentler breeds, such as Boer and Guernsey goats, tend to be more accommodating than goats highly bred for production, such as Alpine and Saanen. Whereas kids readily befriend each other, adults are more hostile, and an adult female may viciously reject an unknown kid. Bucks and wethers are normally tolerant of new kids. A wether may welcome a female, but she may not be keen on him. Does normally welcome new bucks if they are in season, and bucks are always happy to have new does! Goats used to lower ranks can find it easier to slip into a low-profile position. On the other hand, I have seen how bullied goats can turn into bullies when they get the chance to dominate.
What Are the Issues When Introducing New Goats?
Various scientific studies have noted the difficulties of introduction as fighting and stress, leading to health risks and a drop in productivity. To find the least stressful solution, a team at Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon Research Station, Switzerland, studied the effects of introducing a new goat to established groups of six does. The goats had some previous familiarity by sight and sound across the barn, but this was the first time they had contact.
The residents gathered around the newcomer and sniffed her. As goats are sensitive to personal information conveyed by odor, this inspection may help them decide whether they knew her in the past, whether she is related, in season, and even perhaps how she is feeling. Shortly after sniffing they started chasing and butting her, aiming to expel her from the area. As they were within a pen (15.3 m²; around 165 square feet), this was not possible, so the newbie quickly sought the refuge of a platform or hiding place.
Researchers tested both horned and hornless groups with newcomers of the same horn status. Results clearly showed that horned outsiders were the quickest to hide and stayed in hiding longest. In fact, horned newbies spent most of the experiment (lasting five days) hiding and hardly ate at all. When they did emerge, residents directed butts or threats in their direction. There was little attempt to establish a ranking through goats butting heads at this stage.
Stress, Injury, and Reduced Feeding
All newcomers avoided contact, but the behavior of hornless goats was more varied. Some were more active, although their feeding time was lower than normal. As a result, they received more injuries, but these were generally light bruises and scratches to the head area. Newcomers’ stress hormone (cortisol) level was higher during the whole five days, although more so in horned goats. Formerly dominant horned goats suffered the most, probably due to their lack of experience of avoiding conflict.
As most of the fighting happened on the first day, on the surface it looked as if peace had resumed. But by monitoring feed intake, resting time, and cortisol levels, scientists had evidence that the introduced goats were still suffering stress and insufficient nutrition by day five. The lack of feed could consequently have led to metabolic disorders, such as ketosis, especially if the goats had been lactating.
Other risks to the new goat are injuries and additional stress from the loss of their long-term companions. Continuing stress can lower immune function. However, in this case, the goats returned to their familiar groups after five days, so no long-term adverse effects were apparent. The established herd appeared to suffer no stress or other issues over the experiment.
Introducing New Goats with Companions
In a larger neutral pen familiar to both established herds and outsiders, scientists compared behavior and stress levels when horned goats were introduced singly or in groups of three to established herds of six goats. When introduced in groups, the new goats received about a third fewer attacks, with less body contact, than singletons. Newbies tended to stick together, keeping to the perimeter or escaping to raised areas. Although they lost more fights as a group, they appear to have benefited from mutual support. The lower cortisol levels in trios compared to the singletons suggest they suffered less stress.
Introducing Yearlings after Kidding
When groups of four yearlings joined herds of 36 adult females, those introduced after kidding experienced less conflict than those introduced when all goats were pregnant and dry. Adults and yearlings had been apart since weaning, so for at least a year. They had far more space (4–5 m² per head; about 48 square feet each) and suffered only three injuries (two of which occurred in a more confined space) even among horned goats. Nursing mothers directed less aggression towards newcomers than dry, pregnant does. Interactions were mainly non-contact threats, while yearlings kept out of the way of the older does. Mothers tended to be more occupied with their young, and suckling possibly had a calming effect. Although yearlings tended to stick together, they integrated more when introduced after kidding. The rise in cortisol levels was much less for those introduced after kidding.
Even after a short separation, goats will fight to re-establish hierarchy. Combat is normally brief and causes some stress, but considerably less than the separation itself. In my experience, even after longer separations (e.g., more than a year), rather than rejection, goats immediately engaged in hierarchical combat (goats butting heads), which they quickly resolved.
Introductions at Pasture
If possible, introduce new goats in a large space, providing facilities to hide and escape, especially for horned goats. Partitions and platforms provide areas where goats can escape and hide. Pasture is the ideal meeting venue, as new goats can still access feed without confronting residents. If you have separate pastures, you can allow the goats to familiarize themselves through a fence beforehand. If goats overnight in pens, you might find it useful initially to house new goats in a separate stall, giving visual access while providing a hidden area for refuge. Hopefully, in time, the new goats will negotiate their place in the hierarchy and integrate into the herd.
Top Tips for Introducing New Goats with Minimum Stress
To save yourself and your new goat stress and health worries, try the following methods to introduce new goats:
- Introduce newcomers in groups of companions;
- Introduce after kidding;
- First familiarize across a barrier;
- Introduce at pasture;
- Provide raised areas and hiding places;
- Allow space to escape conflict;
- Spread out food, water, and beds;
Keep monitoring the new goat’s behavior and rumen to ensure she is coping.
- Patt, A., Gygax, L., Wechsler, B., Hillmann, E., Palme, R., Keil, N.M., 2013. Behavioural and physiological reactions of goats confronted with an unfamiliar group either when alone or with two peers. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 146, 56–65.
- Patt, A., Gygax, L., Wechsler, B., Hillmann, E., Palme, R., Keil, N.M., 2012. The introduction of individual goats into small established groups has serious negative effects on the introduced goat but not on resident goats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 138, 47–59.
- Szabò, S., Barth, K., Graml, C., Futschik, A., Palme, R., Waiblinger, S., 2013. Introducing young dairy goats into the adult herd after parturition reduces social stress. Journal of Dairy Science 96, 5644–5655.
Originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.