The Natural Lives of Goats and Their Kids
Despite thousands of years of domestication, goats still retain most of their natural behavior when learning, exploring and socializing.
I expect you’ve noticed how a dam leaves her kids asleep in a safe place while she feeds, then as they grow they follow her around or, if handraised, try to follow you as much as they can. This is because goats are naturally a hider species, which means that the mother leaves them hidden in the undergrowth between feeds until they are old enough to keep up with her. For the first few days of life, kids need rest, warmth, and milk. Mother, on the other hand, needs nutrition. She balances their needs with hers by ensuring that they are hidden before she goes off to browse, returning periodically to suckle them.
How does she find them in the undergrowth? Individual recognition is established by smell at birth, and a strong maternal bond is formed as the mother licks her kids clean. Although goats have a very keen sense of smell, odors don’t travel far, and mother and offspring must quickly learn to identify family voices.
From one week after birth, mothers and kids recognize each other by call, enabling them to pick each other out from the herd and find one another through vegetation. As kids grow, their bleats change. Distinct properties of their calls vary according to age, sex and body size. Still, the mother remembers their individual voices, even if recordings are played back to her a year later.
After a few days, kids spend most of their time by their mother’s side, learning to nibble foliage. Then, after five weeks, they become a little more independent from their mother and like to spend time playing with other kids. They naturally form crèche groups and establish long-lasting friendship bonds. Their calls even develop to closely resemble one another’s so that they can be said to have a group accent.
However, kids gain most of their knowledge about the environment and social skills from their mother. Kids learn to eat what their mother prefers: if she avoids a certain plant, so do they, thus learning to avoid poisoning.
By growing up in an environment of mixed kids and adults, youngsters learn the delicate art of social hierarchy. Constant fights are prevented by each goat knowing her place and submitting to more dominant members. From six months old onwards, a kid first learns her position in the ranking by ritual fighting (locking horns and pushing). She gets plenty of practice earlier on by playing with her brothers and sisters. Of course, she renegotiates for a higher ranking as she grows. But learning her place keeps her safe, and she learns strategies for accessing food without aggression.
The bond between female relations may last a lifetime. Even when daughters have grown up, they retain strong friendship ties with their female relatives. The mother may chase her yearlings away when she has newborns, but reconciliation comes in time. Males normally leave on reaching sexual maturity to find females of their own, and they group loosely outside the breeding season. During the rut, the dominant male will join a female herd over winter.
This information, gleaned from studies all over the world, demonstrates the strength of the personal bonds between individuals. It is easy to forget this when buying and selling livestock. So what can we do to reduce the social stress that our kids and does may feel as a result of our farming methods?
Researchers in Spain and Italy recommend that kids are not separated from their mothers too early, as this leads to high levels of stress, particularly in the infant, which may develop into behavioral problems and affect growth and production. Miranda- de la Lama and Mattiello suggest 6–7 weeks as the earliest time for maternal separation, as kids naturally bond with their crèche mates at this time.
One tactic is to separate the kids into a crèche at night, milk the does first thing in the morning, then let the herd out to pasture with their kids during the day. Several organic dairy farms have successfully adopted this practice.
As milkers don’t dry up as quickly as their ancestors, you may find that you need to enforce weaning by 3–4 months old. Temple Grandin has suggested fence-line methods for the temporary separation of calves, allowing visual and tactile contact, but preventing suckling. I have found that this works well, as long as kids are kept with their familiar crèche mates. Researchers in Switzerland confirm that when it is necessary to isolate a goat, allowing her to see, hear, smell and touch members of the herd keeps stress levels to a minimum.
Introducing new animals always causes stress, but the Swiss research found that the effect can be longer lasting than we suspect, with the new goat’s stress levels still elevated after four days. Their recommendations are to introduce new goats in small groups, which has been found to be less stressful. Since does form strong bonds and alliances, introduction with a friend or relative eases the stress of negotiating their position in the new herd. Loss of personal relationships with family members in the previous herd may also strongly affect the mood of new goats.
Providing platforms and hiding places, the Swiss team discovered, reduces conflict in the goat house by allowing low- and middle-ranking goats to escape from threats. This works well for adult goats in loose housing, but also for kids. Because of their natural tendency to hide, placing a box or platform in the stall and at pasture helps them to find a safe hiding place to rest while their mother is off foraging.
Small, inexpensive changes to housing and social routine can make all the difference to the comfort and well-being of dairy goats and their kids, allowing them to remain healthy, productive and easy to manage.
Glasser, T.A., Ungar, E.D., Landau, S.Y., Perevolotsky, A., Muklada, H., Walker, J.W., 2009. Breed and maternal effects on the intake of tannin-rich browse by juvenile domestic goats (Capra hircus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science 119, 71–77. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2009.02.028 IGN-Geschaftsstelle, Germany: www.ign-nutztierhaltung.ch
Miranda-de la Lama, G.C., Mattiello, S., 2010. The importance of social behaviour for goat welfare in livestock farming.
Small Ruminant Research 90, 1–10. doi:10.1016/j.smallrumres.2010.01.006