Fall means it’s time to breed goats and sheep. Although it’s a totally natural process, there are usually some surprises for new owners experiencing their first breeding season. So, here are five tips for breeding goats and sheep with success.
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Breeding practices are different for meat and dairy goats and sheep
People usually pen breed sheep and meat goats, while dairy goats are usually hand bred. Unless you will be lambing in the dead of winter, you don’t really need to be there when sheep lamb because they do just fine with pasture lambing. Lambs have wool, which keeps them warmer than goats at birth, even though their wool is wet.
Because many people with dairy goats take babies away from mom at birth and bottle-feed, they want to be there when the kids are born, so they want an exact due date. If temperatures are below 40 degrees, baby goats can die of hypothermia if they are not dried off quickly enough following birth, especially tiny little Nigerians or pygmies.
Pen breeding means you put does or ewes into a pasture with a buck or ram for breeding. You want only one male in the pen so that you know who daddy is, plus if you have two males in there, they will fight. Hand breeding simply means that you wait for the doe to go into heat, then you set her up on a date with a buck of your choosing.
Remember that most sheep and goats are seasonal breeders, which means they get pregnant in the fall and give birth in the spring. Although off-season breeding is possible with some breeds, the females are not usually as fertile as in the fall. For example, my Nigerian dwarf does and Shetland sheep that get bred in spring and give birth in fall do not have as many babies as those bred during the normal breeding season.
1. Know the signs of heat
If you are going to hand breed, you need to be able to recognize when the doe is in heat, which happens about every 21 days from late summer to early winter.
Most does will flag, which is goat-speak for wagging her tail really fast. In fact, when we are milking a doe in heat, it can feel like a fan is blowing on our face when she’s flagging.
Some does will be rather vocal, although this can vary. There have been times when I thought a coyote was attacking a doe because of the ruckus. However, when I went out there, I quickly saw that it was just a doe in heat. I have also heard of neighbors calling the police because they thought they heard a woman screaming. Goats can sound eerily like humans.
Does mounting each other
Does will also mount each other when one is in heat. But how do you know which one is in heat? If one stands and lets another doe mount her, the doe being mounted is in “standing heat.” If you happen to have a wether with your does, he will let you know when a doe is in heat because he doesn’t know he’s not a real buck, and he will mount does in heat and sometimes do a very convincing job of making you think he is actually breeding a doe.
Does are only in “standing heat” for a few hours, and that’s the only time they can get pregnant. Way too many newbies who don’t own a buck think they can take the doe to another farm to be bred tomorrow, but then it’s too late. Even if the buck gets lucky, the eggs are past their prime, and the doe doesn’t settle (get pregnant).
Someone once contacted me because she was worried that her doe had not given birth yet, and she was bred more than five months ago. When she told me the doe didn’t have an udder, I suggested that the doe was probably not pregnant. She responded, “But I know she got bred because we held her.” That’s definitely a problem.
A doe will only get pregnant if she is in “standing heat,” which means she will stand for a buck. If she runs away when a buck tries to mount her, she’s not in standing heat. Maybe she will be in a couple of hours, or maybe she was a few hours ago, but she isn’t right now. I’ve heard some people say that a doe would not get pregnant unless they held them, and that is just not true. Bucks are incredibly tenacious and know how to do their job when a doe is in standing heat.
Does may have a clear or white discharge from the vulva when they are in heat, but I would not assume that a doe is or is not in heat based entirely on the presence or absence of discharge. If she has other signs of being in heat and has discharge, that’s a nice verification.
Once in a while, you might have a doe with silent heats, so noticing discharge might be a sign to see if she will stand for a buck.
2. Breeding goats and sheep only takes a few seconds
Yes, you read that correctly. It is not a typo. Years ago a new goat owner kept emailing me complaining that the does I sold her were not coming into heat. Then a few months later, I received a panicked phone call from her because both of them were in labor! That’s when I learned that she had left the does with a buck and went into the house for 15 minutes five months earlier.
Since we pen breed our sheep, I have almost never seen sheep breed, yet we usually have 100% ewes lambing every spring.
3. Provide free-choice, loose minerals
Genetic causes of infertility in sheep and goats are extremely rare. We’ve had about 750 kids and 250 lambs on our farm, and I’ve only had one doe that never got pregnant. This does not mean, however, that every goat gets pregnant every time.
Copper deficiency causes fertility problems in bucks and does. Bucks can have a low sperm count. Does may not come into heat or have silent heats. They may not get pregnant, or they may miscarry at various stages of pregnancy.
All goats should have free choice, loose minerals available that are specifically for goats. Do NOT use “sheep and goat” minerals, which have no copper. However, if you have sulfur or iron in your well water, you may also need to supplement with copper oxide wire particles, even if your mixed mineral has plenty of copper in it. Sulfur and iron are copper antagonists, so if goats get too much of them in their diet, those minerals inhibit the goat’s ability to absorb copper, so they need more than a goat whose diet does not include excess sulfur and iron.
Learn more about goat minerals here.
4. Keep breeding records
For years, my goat breeding records were kept in a Word document on my computer. It was simply a chart that listed each doe, the buck to whom she was bred, the date bred, and the due date.
I always calculate due dates at 145 days, although Nigerian dwarf goats usually kid between 145 and 150 days. I don’t like to get surprised. Larger breeds can go as much as 155 days before kidding.
You can use my due date calculator here, which calculates 145 days from the date of breeding. Do not be tempted to add 5 or 10 days and put that date on your calendar because you will get surprised. Any goat of any breed can give birth at day 145 or later, and I want to be keeping a close eye on my pregnant does from day 145 onward.
Our sheep are pen bred, so I have a piece of notebook paper in my sheep binder. I listed each ewe under the name of the ram she was bred to. I put “Sheep Due” on my calendar 145 days after putting the ram with the ewes so that I know when to start watching for lambs.
Then I created spreadsheets in Excel. If you opt for this, be sure that you have a backup of your hard drive. One time when I went to open my spreadsheet, it showed a saved version from several months earlier — and that was after many additions due to does having already kidded. I was in quite a panic until I remembered that I have a cloud backup service. Luckily I was able to download the most recent version.
Today I use GoogleSheets, which are stored in the cloud. This is definitely my preferred method of keeping track because I can access it from any computer or other electronic device.
5. Wait 5 months
Once your does or ewes are bred, you have to wait about five months to see those adorable lambs and kids bouncing around the barn or pasture. If your goat comes back into heat, there is a 99% chance that she is not bred. Just because you saw what looked like a successful breeding does not mean she got pregnant.
FAQs about breeding goats
How do I know if a doe is pregnant?
Not sure if your goat is pregnant? Check out my post on exactly how to figure that out. If you’re wondering what kidding season will be like, be sure to check out my beginner’s guide to goat birthing.
How old does a female goat need to be before breeding?
Size is more important than age because a doe needs to be big enough to safely give birth, and growth can vary. A female goat should be about 2/3 of her adult weight before being bred. For my Nigerian dwarf does, that means I don’t breed them until they weigh 40 pounds, whereas you might not breed a standard size doe until she is closer to 100 pounds if her expected mature weight is 150 pounds.
Do I need to dry up my milk goat before breeding her?
No. The standard lactation for a dairy goat (or cow) is 10 months, which means they continue milking through most of their pregnancy and are dried off only two months before giving birth again. This is not even a question for those with sheep because they have much shorter lactations and have already dried up long before breeding season begins.
Do I need to “flush” my does or ewes before breeding?
Flushing is the practice of feeding highly nutritious feed prior to and during breeding season with the idea that it will improve fertility and pregnancy rates. The idea is not a bad one, but ideally, your animals are always fed a highly nutritious diet. If an animal is undernourished, it will have fertility problems. Some people believe that flushing will result in more multiple births, but overfeeding an animal won’t trump its genetics, which is what ultimately dictates how many eggs are released.
Can I breed a goat to its mother, father, brother, or sister?
Yes, you can, but you may not get the best results. There is a saying that, “You get trash or treasure when inbreeding,” because it concentrates genes, and you have no control over whether it concentrates the best or worst genes. Click here for a detailed discussion on inbreeding.
Can I just let my buck or ram run with the females during this time of year?
It depends on whether you want a more precise due date. Goats and sheep tend to be quite prompt about giving birth around 147 to 150 days, plus or minus two or three, so if you know when they were bred, odds are much better that you will be able to be around when they give birth.
If you have milk goats, you probably don’t want a buck near your does any more than absolutely necessary because they can make the milk stinky if they rub their head on a doe’s udder, which I have seen. When that happens, that doe gets milked last because it also means my hands are going to stink after handling the udder. (It is a myth that having a buck on your farm makes the milk stink. The buck needs to be in physical contact with a doe to affect her milk.)
Depending upon how much time you spend with your sheep or goats, it may be more or less challenging to know when the females are in heat and take them to the male to be bred at that time. Because milk goats are handled daily, it tends to be much easier to spot a doe in heat. Pen breeding is more common with shepherds than goatherds but is ultimately a matter of personal preference.
For more information about breeding goats and sheep, check out my podcast on Goat Breeding Season.
This post was originally published on October 20, 2016.