Dairy goats are better equipped to handle the cold better than their caretakers. They prefer the cold to the heat because they naturally grow a thick hair coat, according to Linda Coffey, an Agriculture Specialist for the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT).
Coffey has raised goats for 20 years and has had Saanens and Alpine dairy goats. The bigger problem, Coffey says, is when there is a sudden change in weather.
“If we get a gradual normal winter, the goats get a thick coat and it’s not bad,” she said. “Here in Arkansas it can drop 50 degrees in a day and that can be a problem.”
Goats suffering from cold stress are more susceptible to pneumonia, but that’s not the only challenge. Researchers in Spain also published the 2017 study, “Physiological and lactational responses of dairy goats to cold stress,” which found additional consequences for lactating dairy goats.
The researchers found that dairy goats suffering from cold stress had, “decreased milk production, increased milk fat and protein contents, and incremented blood NEFA and glucose levels despite similar insulin values.”
Coffey encourages farmers to think about their goat’s winter production stage. In the winter, her does are usually dry because they are pregnant. In late pregnancy, the nutritional needs jump dramatically, and growing kids take up the room available inside the goat.
“The best, most digestible hay needs to be fed early so the does have a chance to eat enough,” she said. “This is a critical time to set her up for having strong, healthy kids, great quality and quantity of colostrum, and a strong lactation and to avoid pregnancy toxemia, too.”
Here are three tips for reducing cold stress in your dairy goat herd.
Head Into Winter With a Good Body Condition
The healthier an animal is before winter, the better chances they will have for handling cold stress. The body condition score, or fat cover, offers clues to the animal’s energy. In goats, body condition scores are measured on a scale of 1.0 to 5.0 and use .5 increments. According to Michigan State University experts, “healthy goats should have a body condition scoring between 2.5 to 4.0.”
Michigan State University uses the following scores and descriptions as guidance.
Body Condition Score (BCS) Ratings
- BCS 1.0: The goat is visually emaciated and weak. The backbone is highly visible and forms a continuous ridge. The flank is hollow and ribs are clearly visible. There is no fat cover, and fingers can easily penetrate into the intercostal spaces.
- BCS 2.0: The goat’s backbone is still visible with a continuous ridge. Some ribs can be seen, and there is a small amount of fat cover. Ribs are still felt, and intercostal spaces are smooth but can still be penetrated.
- BCS 3.0: The backbone is not prominent, ribs are barely discernible and an even layer of fat covers the ribs. Intercostal spaces are felt using pressure.
- BCS 4.0: The backbone and ribs cannot be seen. The side of the animal is sleek in appearance.
- BCS 5.0: The backbone is buried in fat and the ribs are not visible. The rib cage is covered with excessive fat.
“For dairy goats, the main thing is to be sure internal parasites are under control and that you are continuing to offer ample quantities of forage and enough energy to keep them in good condition,” Coffey said.
Provide Good Nutrition
As ruminants, dairy goats rely on the digestion of forage to warm them from the inside out. Increasing their forage rations is key to ensuring they are getting enough nutrition to stay healthy when the temperature drops.
Generally, Coffey’s goats aren’t lactating in the winter because they are pregnant. However, she still increases their ration to ensure they are getting enough high-quality forage.
“Dairy goats don’t have fat like other animals, and they need good quality and enough nutrition to generate heat from processing the forage,” she said. “Dairy goats need to eat 5 percent of their body weight every day. Unfortunately, they can be picky.”
Coffey offers her goats a mixed-grass hay with some legumes, and she top dresses it with a small amount of alfalfa to boost intake.
“Never try to ‘make them clean it up.’ It’s nice if you have other animals that are not as picky and will eat what the goats won’t,” she said.
Provide Relief From the Elements
All animals need refuge from driving rains and winds. Dairy goats are leaner than other livestock, so it’s critical they have space to escape inclement weather.
Bringing them into a barn works for farms with space to do so. But for others, a three-sided shelter or windbreak made from trees, stacked bales, etc. can suffice.
“I prefer three-sided shelters that are open to the east in my location,” she said. “Everyone needs to see what the prevailing winds are like in their own location. Beware of buildings with a narrow door. That allows a bossy goat to guard the entrance and keep others out in the cold.”
She also recommends a dirt floor, which drains and stays drier than a bedded floor, keeping the animals clean and dry. If you’re unsure what your dairy herd needs in advance of this winter season, Coffey encourages farmers to call the NCAT help line at 800-346-9140. Staffers answer the line Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST.
“It is answered by specialists, most of whom are farmers who love to help other farmers solve problems,” she said.