Rescues, parasites and the balance of nature…
We have a long history with goats and, I have to say, it is not for the faint of heart. It can be as heartbreaking sometimes as it is rewarding. When it comes down to it—it’s ruthless business and it needs to be. Sadly, I’m not the best with ruthless part. I’m a bit of a “softy” and that has gotten me into trouble. Some serious trouble.
We have been in 4-H with the goats since about 2005 and have been learning the entire time. You never stop learning and coming across new things. In 2012, we discovered VSU and the plethora of learning opportunities available to producers. Between their Small Farm Outreach programs, and their small ruminant program, hands on workshops, field days and farm tours, we have had so many opportunities to pick up tidbits or complete dumps of information. In 2018, Eryn and I were both given scholarships to attend the 2018 National Goat Conference (a tri-annual event) held this time at Tuskegee University in Alabama. We had plans to attend the Master Goat Certification course at Tuskegee this fall, but COVID has put a hold on that for now. We also have some grant development in the works with some of the small ruminant specialists at VSU in which our farm will serve as a testing ground for some of their ideas on using native grasses in a silvopasture setting to feed small ruminants.
COVID has put a damper on a lot of these learning activities and opportunities. The lastest workshops have all been virtual, which has been a plus in some ways as it has allowed us to get on some of the Maryland extension small ruminant programs that we were not able to get to before. The big topic for a while now is parasites—the number one killer of goats and goat businesses. You read that right “KILLER”. Goats die. A lot of things can and do kill them. I have a freind, just today, who posted on Facebook that her kids‘ three pet goats (she raises a big commercial dairy herd) were in the process of dying. They had gotten into some old grain and it shut down their rumens. She was struggling to save them. You have to know, it doesn’t take much. Her kids know farming and know the heartache, like mine do. Yet, they were still heartbroken at the struggle and loss. Some farms have lost many or most of their herds to different diseases. Often, after a bad run or year, producers throw in the towel. Right now, the biggest killer is parasites, and thanks to the advice of vets and the extension agents’ “old school” teachings, they have become unstoppable with chemicals.
One thing we have come to realize over the years is that we need to cull. Cull hard and fast. With chemical resistant parasites, it has now become the best way to deal with this issue. Some goats are naturally resistant to these worms and those are the genetics you want to move forward with. This was even reiterated in a presentation just last week, by the Virginia Extension with Dahlia O’Brien, the Small Ruminant specialist at VSU, entitled “Grass, goats & uninvited guests.” Dr. O’Brien emphasized what we already know—if you want a healthy herd you have to get rid of the animals that won’t stay healthy. The animals that have to keep being dewormed or never seem to have that really nice weight and body score have to go. If they have consistently hard birthing or consistently only birth one, they need to go. If they are sickly or weak in any way, they have to go. Culling is hard, but business is business and these parasites are putting it all in jeopardy. What you never want to do is to start off with someone else’s culls.
But, that’s exactly what we have been doing. Personally, I’m a sucker for a goat story. In 2018, for instance, we acquired a failing to thrive Alpine buckling that never grew. His owner gave him to me because she didn’t know what to do with him. At the time he was a few months old. A year later, he was still the same size—tiny and odd. You could tell by looking at him that something wasn’t right. In the spring of 2019, another friend called with a goat story. They were moving to a suburban neighborhood and needed to re-home their goats. When we picked them up, we noticed their coats were shabby, body score off and one recently died from a parasite infection. These goats had been given a horse mineral block instead of goat minerals, which left them deficient in several important minerals including copper. There are specific symptoms for copper deficiency, which they all exhibited. The mineral issues left them too weak systematically to fend of the worms. We got them home, evaluated them and pulled fecal samples to check under a microscope. They were loaded, two even had lungworm. With this condition, all you can do is give them the minerals and feed they need and throw several heavy, possibly liver injuring dewormers at them and hope for the best. It’s a very long, very slow recovery.
The trouble this gets you in is two fold. First, even with a quarantine pen, which we have and use, you are inviting whatever diseases or resistent parasites they have onto your property. Another issue comes from the climate of extreme animal rights activists that lead animal control raids on your home. Last year, our hoofed animals were removed based on a neighbor’s complaint and an investigation which found a horse that was sick with a tick borne disease and these couple of sick goats in our herd. They took the hair sheep as well, which were fine, but it was their shedding season and they looked horrid. Sadly, the vet thought the shedding hair sheep were just really sickly goats. They didn’t want to hear about the problems or the treatments. There were sick animals here, therefore something was wrong and it had to be fixed. In the end, I was actually charged, tried and found guilty of neglecting the very animals that we had taken in that were ill. The “expert” vet even thought the failing-to-thrive Alpine (one of the largest goat breeds, normally a 200+ lb animal) was a Pygmy goat (the smallest breed of goat).
The lesson learned is to be hard. No adoptions. No saving goats. No helping folks who need help with their animals. Only buy from a reputable, healthy herd. And, if a goat is not in perfect condition, it needs to go. Not only is it better for the family (in the eyes of nosey neighbors who don’t care to ask or know the story) but for the herd as a whole and the business. Goats are easier to take care of and manage when they are healthy, and much less expensive. Those are the genetics that should be passed on.
So, where are we now? Well, interestingly, we are back where we don’t necessarily want to be. A friend donated some goats last fall to help us get re-established after last year’s tragic events. 5 Alpine doelings. They were her cull animals, her stew meat for the dogs, and, they were very young and had already been bred. They were the bottom of the barrel health wise. Maybe it was genetics, or maybe they were the last of the kids born. Smaller and weaker then their older peers, perhaps they just struggled for what they needed. Whatever the reason, they had a rough start. And, I said yes, knowing full well where we would go with this, but with eyes wide open. And, I am grateful. Grateful that she thought of us and that they came into our lives and are here for the students – to regroup and to recover. These critters were given a second chance not just for them but for our students who were also still reeling from the stunning losses of the raid. Slowly, we are working to bring them into health. At the same time, we are also adding healthy, strong stock to the herd. We are now up to 9 does, 3 buckling kids, and one older buckling. Of the five gifted goats, two will most likely be culled because of weakness. The other three may grow into healthy, vibrant adults. We’ll see. For now, they all get to enjoy life, eat as much as they want and be, well, goats.
Meanwhile, this is how we are helping them.
- They have access to free choice minerals specifically formulated for goats in Virginia. This is important, because each area has its own mineral makeup determining what is available in the plants they eat. Here in Virginia, copper is an issue as well as selenium. Both of these are huge factors in goat health. In addition to specific mineral mixes, we give a Selenium/Vit. E supplement to our goats as well as copper wire bolus. Copper bolus also creates an unfriendly environment for some of the worst goat parasites.
- In addition to free choice minerals, there are some other free choice items that we leave out for the goats. These include small bins of DE (Diatomaceous Earth) and baking soda. Goats will self medicate and eat these when needed.
- Providing abundant sources of above ground browse. We have been constantly adding proper field fencing and expanding the areas of grazing/browsing for the animals. The goats now have 12 acres of a huge variety of browse from mixed pasture that is taller than their backs, to abundant woodland browse. This is important as goats are not grazers. The more variety in their diets, the better they do. It’s what they are designed for. It’s also important because the parasite life-cycle happens at the ground level. If the animals aren’t eating closely cropped grasses, this helps break the cycle.
Daily checks. We have always been out checking on the goats multiple times during the day, every day. We visit them where they are or call them up to us. We see how they walk, eat, play, behave. Every. Single. Day. For me and Eryn, this is one of favorite parts of the day. If a goat is acting “off” you have to do something immediately, or you will loose them. No matter how big your herd is, when you spend time with them, you learn their behaviors and patterns and you can tell immediately when one isn’t acting right. This is critical in herd management. During these visits we will also spot check eye membranes (Famacha) and body score and make notes about overall health. When we see issues starting to crop up, we schedule a whole herd maintenance check.
- Whole herd maintenance. These are scheduled on an as needed basis. It is stressful, but necessary. We do this when a handful of goats begin to show signs of parasite issues, when feet obviously need trimming, etc. The goats are locked in their barn which has a chute with gates and a handling area attached. We bring the dewormer meds, the copper bolus, selenium paste, hoof trimmers, iodine, blood stop, etc. The goats enter the chute one at a time and are processed. We check and trim feet, note body and famacha scores, check records and administer what is needed. We’ll collect fecal samples if we are curious about a particular goat’s worm load. All of this information is kept in an electronic cloud manager.
So, now we will continue to re-grow our herd with healthy stock. Meanwhile, we are keeping close tabs on the 5 starters to see if their overall health can be improved. If an animal shows consistent deficiencies, we will cull them. Sadly, this is vital to the business and most of the experts, including Extension, are even pushing pretty hard. At this point, it not only saves your own herd, but the health of goats in Virginia as a whole. With failing chemical methodology, natural alternatives and resistant animals are the only way to successfully move forward.
- VSU Small Ruminant Program
- Extension Event Calendar – worth keeping an eye on. Has all farm related events listed.
- Maryland Extension has a lot to offer goat producers.
- The VSU Small Farm Program has much to offer about farming in general. We have gone to just about every event they have offered from business management, financing, farm tours, specialty workshops, etc.
- VSU’s College of Ag Facebook page shares most of their events.
- If you cannot find a local fecal exam workshop, call your extension office and/or local veterinarian and ask them if they would hold one. In lieu of that, several websites have information, such as Autumn Hill Llamas & Fiber has excellent instructions For running fecal exams and some nice charts.