Fall means it’s breeding season for sheep and goat owners. 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.
Breeding practices are different for sheep and goats
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.
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. Most does will flag, which is goat-speak for wagging her tail really fast. Some will also be rather vocal. There have been times when I thought a doe was being attacked by a coyote because of the ruckus. When I went out there, however, I quickly saw that it was just a doe in heat. 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.”
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).
2. Breeding goats and sheep only takes a few seconds
Yes, you read that correctly. It is not a typo. Several 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 found out that she had left the does with a buck and went into the house for 15 minutes.
3. Provide free-choice, loose minerals
Genetic causes of infertility in sheep and goats are extremely rare. We’ve had about 700 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. If you have sulfur, iron, or calcium in your well water, however, you may also need to supplement with copper oxide wire particles.
4. Keep 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.
Our sheep are pen bred, so I simply had a piece of notebook paper in my sheep binder. I listed each ewe under the name of the ram she was bred to.
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 …
Once your does and ewes are bred, you have to wait about five months to see those adorable lambs and kids bouncing around the barn or pasture.
Love listening to podcasts? Check out Episode #50 Sheep vs Goats on my For the Love of Goats podcast where I talked about how the two species are similar and different and why you might prefer one species over the other.