Separation of Dams and Offspring

Did you know that in addition to working on the farm, working off the farm, and wrangling a wild 2 year old, I somehow find the time to go to grad school? (I know, I can’t believe it either.) I am pursuing my Master’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Environment, which is something that I get really excited about! Recently I wrote this brief paper for my Agricultural Advocacy course. The assignment was to develop an advocacy plan based on an animal welfare issue. I wanted to share it here on our blog because it explains why we separate our goat kids from their mothers at birth and raise them as “bottle babies”.

Written Response #2: Separation of Dams and Offspring

     Throughout my career in the dairy industry, one question I’ve often been asked is “why do you take the babies away from their mothers when they’re so young?” When I worked with Holstein cattle, my answer was always that it was to protect the calves from being injured. Cows can be very rough on calves for a variety of reasons. An experiment conducted by California dairyman Mark McAfee revealed that only about 30% of his cows exhibited exceptional mothering ability; the other 70% neglected their calves, allowing them to be stepped on by other cows or attacked by coyotes. (Law, 2018) It is often thought that the selection pressure that has been placed on other attributes, such as milk production and confirmation, have led to maternal instincts being essentially “bred out” of dairy animals. 

Now that I work exclusively with goats, who tend to make excellent mothers, that question has become harder to answer. However, in order to be a good advocate for my industry, I need to be prepared with clear, consistent responses that are backed by science. On my family’s farm, we separate the kids from their mothers at birth. I have three reasons for doing this: to protect the newborn from illness, to ensure that the newborn receives adequate nutrition, and to promote the udder health of the dam.

    When calves (and kids) are born, they have no active immune system. (Nash, 2017) They are fragile and particularly susceptible to any pathogens that may exist in their environment. I believe that the biggest threat to my herd is coccidiosis, or diarrhea caused by an environmental protozoan called coccidia. Coccidia are always present in adult goats and sheep, who pass oocytes through their feces. (Metzger, 2018) On other farms, caprine arthritis encephalitis (CAE), caseous lymphadenitis (CL), and Johne’s disease may be of concern. Contact between kids and infected dams is thought to be the main cause of CAE transmission. (“Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis Part Two”) All three of these major goat diseases have the potential to be passed through milk. The American Dairy Goat Association (ADGA) advises that kids should receive colostrum from does that have been tested free from disease, and that milk should be pasteurized if contamination is possible. (“Johne’s Disease”, 2015) 

The kid’s consumption of adequate amounts of colostrum and milk during its first few days of life are key to its survival. As previously stated, young ruminants are born without an active immune system. They depend upon passive transfer of immune antibodies through colostrum. Timing of colostrum feeding is critical, as the newborn is only able to absorb the immunoglobulins during the first day of life. (Selk, 2020) Kids need to be fed at least 10% of their body weight in colostrum within 24 hours of birth. (Bentley) It is impossible to ascertain that these standards are being met if the kid is left to nurse from the dam. Additionally, weaker kids may find it difficult to nurse if the dam and siblings are active. Rearing youngstock artificially allows for all of their nutritional needs to be met and for their growth to be carefully monitored. 

    While there isn’t an abundance of evidence to support a causal relationship between dam-raising kids and mastitis infection in dairy does, my experience has proven a correlation. Does nursing multiple offspring are among the goats most commonly affected by mastitis. (Schoenian, 2017) Pasteurella haemolytica, a pathogen causing chronic mastitis, may be spread to the teat from the mouth of a kid that has pneumonia. (Metzner, 2008) Kids frequently cause injury to the udder as well. In the words of experienced goat rancher Suzanne Gasparotto, “kids are hard on udders and teats; they bump, hit, and sometimes bite when trying to access milk.” (Gasparotto, 2013) To lower the chances that my does’ udders will be compromised, I prefer to milk them twice daily using sterilized equipment, and then bottle-feed the milk to the kids, rather than allowing the kids to nurse.

    Being truthful and outlining the more compelling reasons behind my position is how I intend to advocate for my industry. As a business owner, I am well aware of the importance of public perception. I make a point of sharing facts about livestock and animal care practices via social media, my farm’s website, and by engaging in discussions with the public at farmer’s markets and other events. In the near future, I plan to host farm tours, so that I can educate people about the issues surrounding animal agriculture and create a positive experience that they will hopefully remember and share with others.

Works Cited

Bentley, J. (2018). Colostrum Management for the Dairy Goat Kid. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis Part Two: Preventing and Controlling CAE. Ontario Goat. (0AD).

Gasparotto, S. W. (2013, April 11). Udders and Teats. Meat Goat Mania.

Johne’s Disease – American Dairy Goat Association. ADGA. (2015, May 17). Law, T. (2018, August 13). Why some dairy cows make bad mothers

Metzger, M. (2018, November 19). Preventing coccidiosis in goats and sheep. MSU Extension.

Metzner, D. M. (2008). Udder diseases.

Nash, J. (2017, September 19). Why are Dairy Calves Separated from their Mothers? Milk Means More.

Schoenian, S. (2017, April 14). Mastitis is Udder Madness. Lancaster Farming.

Selk, G. (2020, December 15). Most Passive Immunity Occurs in the First Six Hours. Drovers.

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