Over the past year or two, I’ve noticed an increasing amount of advice directing goat breeders to routinely intervene in the births of every goat. Not only is this unwarranted, but the risks far outweigh the benefits because it can result in infection or a ruptured uterus or even hurting the kid.
A friend recently told me that a goat magazine had an article advising goat breeders to do a vaginal check on every doe when she goes into labor to assess the position of the kid. This is terrible advice for many reasons. First of all, someone who is new to goats has no clue when a doe is in early labor. I had to see at least a hundred does give birth — that equals more than 200 kids born — before I consistently had a fairly good idea of when a doe was within a few hours of giving birth. New breeders often think a doe is in labor when she is not.
There were many times in my first few years with goats when we thought a doe was in early labor, and she did not kid for several days. Obviously, she was not in labor. My favorite memory came from my second or third year on the farm. I had a friend who had purchased two pregnant does, and she spent several nights in the barn with them because she was sure they would give birth at any moment. When the does were past 155 days pregnant, she called the vet out to the farm, only to learn that the does were not pregnant! That is not the last time I’ve heard of such an experience. People often want their goats to give birth so badly that they wish them into labor and see things that are not happening or misinterpret what they see.
Let’s assume that you do have an accurate idea of when a doe in labor and do a vaginal check. If she is in early labor, odds are good that the kid will not be in the perfect position for kidding. You will then panic and think that you have to reposition the kid — and then assume that you saved everyone from certain death, or at least tried to. In reality, kids are not in position to be born until they are ready to be born. A good part of early labor is spent with kids getting themselves into position.
|Carmen gave birth to a kid presenting head first with no feet.|
I’m sure some people think that birth position is just random, but if it were random, you would have kids regularly presenting with all sorts of different body parts. However, the vast majority of kids are born head first, with or without a front foot or two. In 450 births, we have had one ribs-first presentation, and that was a kid that had been dead for days already. But if someone is routinely checking kid position on does in labor, no doubt they discover kids in all sorts of difficult positions. Had they only waited, most of those kids would have put themselves into the perfect “diving” position to be born.
Someone recently posted on Facebook that she attended a sheep and goat seminar where they told everyone that they should stick their hand into a doe’s or ewe’s uterus to check for more kids or lambs after they think the last one has been born. Again, this is completely unnecessary and dangerous. In 450 goat births (600 as of 2018) and more than 200 lamb births (250 as of 2018), we have never had a doe or ewe retain a baby. Even if it happened tomorrow, that would be less than 0.5% — less than half of 1% — of births, and there is no point in subjecting your does (or ewes) to a painful and invasive procedure that could cause an infection or uterine tear because you are worried about something that happens so rarely. Plus, most does and ewes only have twins. Once two kids or lambs are born, they are probably done. Even if you have a breed that tends to have multiples, like Nigerian dwarf goats, the risks far outweigh the benefits of doing a routine uterine check, assuming your goats are healthy and well-nourished.
If you think it’s a good idea to give every doe a shot of antibiotics after birth to prevent an infection following a routine uterine check, then you will find yourself with a dead goat at some point when that antibiotic no longer works — and you might even find yourself with an incurable infection. Someone posted on Facebook last week about a doe dying from an infection following a birth where she intervened, and she thought that she should have given her a higher dose of antibiotics. Sadly, if she was using the same dose she had always used, a higher dose would not have worked. The organisms were simply resistant to that antibiotic. Antibiotic resistance is real, and human beings are dying from infections that used to be cured by antibiotics. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 2 million people get antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and 23,000 people die from them. I have a friend whose fiancé died from MRSA. Russ Kremer is a hog farmer in Missouri who almost died from an infection that he got from his pigs that were being given antibiotics regularly. Today he is an organic farmer.
Someone recently lamented online that she “had to pull kids” from every doe that has given birth on her farm except for one doe who kidded in the pasture. Unfortunately, she did not see the correlation between her attending births and the perceived level of difficulty. When she wasn’t there, the doe kidded on her own. The person never questioned her involvement in the births. She assumes that her does all have problems. If indeed, her does all have problems, then she has a nutritional deficiency on her farm, probably either calcium or selenium, which would account for poor uterine contractions. She said her does all have narrow hips, yet if that were the case, they would have all required c-sections. With strong uterine contractions, if the pelvis is big enough, does can push out big kids. It is impossible to pull kids out of a doe if the pelvis is not big enough. Also, if the does all have narrow hips, and they are not all related, then there is a nutritional deficiency that caused improper bone development. The bottom line is that pulling kids does not solve a herd-wide problem, and if you are pulling all kids whether you need to or not, then you have no idea if your does have adequate nutrition or if you need to be culling for poor birthing ability. If does truly cannot give birth on their own, then there is a big problem that needs to be fixed, and continuing to pull kids is just exacerbating and prolonging a no-win situation.
I am NOT saying that we should just ignore our does in labor. Of course, there are times when something doesn’t go quite right, and we need to intervene. However, there is an assumption that we can have 100% live births, and that is simply not possible. Most of the time when a kid is not presenting in either a nose first or breech position, it has already been dead for days or longer. You’ll know it’s been dead because the skin is very thin and easily tears, or the hair is easy to pull out. Unfortunately, when a dead kid is born, most people think it was alive only minutes earlier, and they could have “saved” it if only they’d intervened. Unfortunately, this simply is not true. Seconds or even minutes are not that important. A kid does not die in an instant while inside the doe. It dies after a doe has been in active labor for many hours and the placenta starts to separate, cutting off its lifeline.
If you are able to save a kid that was within seconds of dying, it will often be blind or deaf or have other problems. One situation where seconds do count is if a breech kid’s body is out and the head is still inside. If the cord has broken, and the head is not out, the kid can’t breathe and get oxygen. This happened once on our farm. My daughter saw a doe standing in the pasture with a kid’s body hanging out of her. My daughter jumped the fence, ran over there and pulled the kid’s head out. She thought it was dead at first but cleaned off its nose and began rubbing its body briskly. Although she saved it, it turned out to be blind because of the oxygen deprivation.
I frequently say that if you have a health problem with your herd, there is a nutritional or management problem that is contributing to that. People who say you should intervene in every birth are not being pro-active, as they claim. They are being reactive to the assumption that their goats are incapable of giving birth. But there is no reason to assume that goats will have problems. If people offering such advice claim that they have saved X number of kids since instituting that practice, then they are covering up a much bigger problem, such as a nutritional deficiency or genetic problems. Nutritional deficiencies should be fixed, and goats with genetic problems should be culled. Otherwise, you will have does dying at some point. If the does are healthy and genetically sound, and you’re intervening in all of the births, then you’re doing so without cause in the vast majority of cases. A study cited in Goat Medicine, 2nd Edition showed that only 5% of births require intervention, so if you are intervening in more than 1 out of every 20 births, you need to be re-examining your practices.
The biggest problem with telling people to intervene routinely or too quickly in a birth is that the doe is the one with everything to lose. You are thinking only of the kids when you do that — and it’s not even realistic to assume that you will save a kid by intervening. My ultimate loyalty is to my does, and my actions in a birth are guided by that principle. I am not going to intervene unless she really needs me to do so. Of course, it’s sad when a kid is born dead, but imagine how you’d feel if the doe died. I personally have become even more respectful of the birth process after one of my favorite does died of a 7 cm uterine tear following a difficult birth in which the vet pulled kids.
New goat owners want to do everything right. They love their animals! Unfortunately, they are the ones who are most susceptible to advice from people online predicting doom and gloom if you don’t follow their advice. My advice has always been to listen to your goats. Since none of us was born understanding caprine, this takes years. My mantra is, “If the goat’s happy, I’m happy!” And that works. A happy, healthy goat does not just drop dead with no warning. A doe unable to birth kids would die several days later when sepsis sets in, so there is plenty of time for patiently watching and waiting and to think about your options if there appears to be a problem.
I certainly do not mean that you should wait days if there is a kid’s nose or hoof sticking out of your doe, but you certainly have 30 minutes or even a couple of hours to take action. We live two hours from a vet hospital, and in the three cases where I’ve taken goats there in labor, seven of the eleven kids were born alive — after a lot of pushing and us trying to pull kids and then a two-hour drive. Kids are far more resilient than most people give them credit for. I will never forget a lamb that we named Miracle because she survived 45 minutes with her head sticking out of her dam who ran around the pasture as we tried to catch her so we could help deliver the lamb. Ten years later, I know that it wasn’t such a miracle that the lamb was born alive and healthy after such an ordeal.
I could talk about this for hours, which is one reason I decided to write an ebook on the subject. Because people who are new to goats don’t know what to expect, I pulled together 17 birth stories from our farm and put them into a 45-page e-book called Just Kidding: Stories and Reflections on Goats Giving Birth. I include the stories of the births as I wrote them within a day or so of when they happened. Some of these births happened eight or nine years ago when we were still quite new and didn’t know much about goat birthing, so I added my reflections on the births as I see them today. Some of these births included hard lessons. Sometimes we should have done something differently. Other times, we did everything we could do and still had an unfavorable outcome. When I was a new goat owner, I always wondered how I’d know if a goat needed a caesarean, so the ebook also includes the stories of our two c-sections to give readers an idea of how that can happen.
The ebook is available in most e-reader formats, but if you don’t have a Kindle, Nook, Kobo, or another e-reader, you can download the book as a PDF or get the free Kindle reading app for your computer or iPad and read it on there. The book starts with four normal births, and you can download that section for free to get a better idea of how different a normal birth can be from one goat to another.