For any livestock owner, the birthing season can bring its fair share of stress. While most births go off without a hitch, the fact remains that birth is the most physically stressful and dangerous part of a healthy animal’s life. On our dairy farm, we find that stress level magnified. Our entire livelihood depends on successful kidding and healthy mama goats. It follows that we are very proactive during our kidding season, so in addition to keeping very detailed records of breeding and due dates, we have developed a set of protocols and plans that help us feel a little more in control during our kidding season. I hope that sharing some of these will help your birthing season feel a little less chaotic.
Before we get to the tips, I should note that as a dairy, our standard is to be present at every birth and to actively assist in drying off kids. Every time. We also bottle-feed all of our kids. While some of these tips may seem geared to that, and you may think that makes them irrelevant to your pet/meat/other non-dairy situation, if you have had livestock long enough, you will know that eventually you will need to assist in a birth or risk losing animals. And despite your wishes not to, you may end up bottle-feeding, as well. It is far better to be prepared for this possibility than not.
Most of these tips take just a little bit of time and effort, but pay off huge dividends when needed. Note that I will refer to goats and kidding, but these tips can be applied to sheep and lambs or other small-breed animals.
1. Start Saving Feed Sacks
Clean feed sacks are a great place to plop a newborn. You can allow mama to clean up the baby here, or if you’re inclined to help, you can towel down the kids yourself. When the kid is fairly clean and dry, you can move it to an entirely new sack or just place next to mama in the bedding in your kidding stall. And then grab a new sack to catch the next one. The used bags can be rolled up and stuffed into the trash—or even into another feed sack for easy disposal.
By the start of our kidding season, we have a giant stack of empty feed sacks, ready to be deployed. We bring six or more per birth into the stall with us, anticipating using two per kid. We generally leave them on one for a while, to prevent the umbilical cord from dragging in the dirt and possibly wicking up bacteria before we have a chance to treat with iodine.
2. Hit Up Friends And Family For Old Towels
Generally, our goats do a pretty good job of cleaning up their kids as they are born, but sometimes we get a rapid fire set of triplets and need to help out in a hurry. If you’re kidding while it is still cold in your area, getting them dry before they get too cold and slip away is a very real need. Having a supply of old towels is super helpful.
We use towels until they fall apart, but we still seem to need more about every other year. When this is the case, I usually take to Facebook and ask people for their old bath and beach towels. I tell them we will take their 1970s harvest-gold monstrosities, the towels ruined by bleach or hair dye—anything. We often get quite a few hand towels in the mix, and put them to use, too, but I like a towel that can be wrapped around the kid and used as a squeegee, more or less.
In the off season, we get the storage bags that let you vacuum out the air to compress them and stick them in a closet or armoire.
3. Keep Coveralls And Boots Near The Door
Even where we farm in the Brazos Valley of Texas, nights can be pretty cold at the beginning of our kidding season. Despite our wishes, kids can and sometimes do come before dawn. Keeping an insulated pair of coveralls by the door—which we lovingly refer to in our house as a “puffy suit”—can make middle-of-the-night births a whole lot more comfortable. You just zip the suit on over your PJs, pull on some muck boots and you’re ready to go in less than 60 seconds. Do not underestimate the benefit of this at 2 a.m., especially if you have a doe that’s already pushing.
In our house, we have a barn cam (see next entry on the list), so we don’t have to make frequent overnight checks on does to see if labor has started, but if you’re not employing technology, you may well be up and checking your does several times a night. The puffy suit and lace-free boots are a godsend.
4. Set Up A Barn Cam
As I mentioned above, we now use a barn cam to monitor our due does in the kidding stall. The technology for this gets better and cheaper every year, and the amount of sleep it saves us more than makes up for the cost. If you only have a couple animals, this expense might not be worth it to you, but because we have 25 to 30 does kidding each season, it is by far our best investment.
We’ve tried a few methods over the years, from baby monitors to programs that turn an old Android phone into a security camera to actual security cameras, but our current model—a Samsung SmartCam HD Pro, which retails for about $160—works via WiFi, and we can just look at a smartphone or tablet from our bed and know whether a doe is starting labor.
The barn cam saves so many cold trips to the barn. Your options for a camera or monitoring system may be limited, depending how far your barn is from your home and Internet connectivity, but get online and check out pet and security cams to get an idea of whether one might work for you.
5. Assemble A Birthing Tub
We use a large plastic storage tub as our “birthing kit.” We keep a stack of old towels in it, plus a few basics, like OB lubricant (in case we have a situation that requires intervention) and a nasal aspirator for helping clear kids’ airways. When we first started keeping goats, we included things like leg snares in the kit, but these days we keep it simple. We keep things like iodine, dental floss for tying off navels, bottles and nipples in the house, as we bring all babies in for at least their first night. Once we empty the tub of all the towels, we can tote the kids to the house in it.
If your farm plan includes leaving babies with mamas, then you should put all of the things you might need in your tub. Alternatively, you can keep the emergency supplies in a separate, lidded tub in your kidding stall and only transport the fresh towels. We keep the tub full of towels in the mudroom, next to our puffy suits.
6. Drink A Six-Pack
This tip might sound silly, but it can be a huge help:
A. It will help you relax. Animals have been having babies for millennia. Everything usually works out just fine if you just stay calm.
B. This is going to prepare you to bottle feed. Even if you don’t bottle feed as a matter of course, there will come a time when it’s necessary, and glass beer bottles make excellent feeding bottles: They’re reusable, easy to clean and don’t take up much room in your kitchen.
Of course, the bottles alone get you nowhere, so be sure you have a couple nipples on hand, too. We use the lambar nipples from Caprine Supply because they slip easily onto a bottle and then can later be used in a bucket feeding system with no adjustment. Use whatever you like and your babies can use comfortably, but do have them on hand. If you have a problem, you need to get colostrum into the kids within the first 12 hours to ensure they’ll thrive. Don’t turn an emergency into a tragedy by not being prepared.
As the title suggests, do these things now—or at the very least, two weeks before your first due date. Being prepared grants so much peace of mind and reduces the inevitable rush of adrenaline when you see the first set of hooves poking out. Whether you’re new to this or have been doing it for years, this is always an amazing, scary and wonderful time of year. Do your best to enjoy it and make it easy on yourself.