Tough Choices When Raising Goats: Disbudding, Tattooing and Meat Animals

Reader Contribution by Alexia Allen and Hawthorn Farm
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Bouncing baby goats! There’s no more joyful sight on the spring homestead. We stand around watching them for hours. They are full of vitality and energy, the best advertisement possible for drinking lots of goat milk. But before you rush out and breed goats — or buy some new ones — I want to tell you about the less delightful kid-rearing tasks. Some may not apply to your goat-keeping situation, but they are all worth knowing. I have a 4-doe home dairy herd, so that’s my perspective.

Disbudding Goat Kids

When kids are a week old or so, there are horns to consider. Most goats, male and female, are born with patches of fast-growing cells on their skulls that turn into horns. These cells can be felt as small bumps well before they are visible through the hair on the goats’ sweet little heads. This is the one time in the goat’s life it’s easy to prevent horns from growing. Full-grown horns are actually part of the skull and are sheathed in blood vessels — not something you can just chop off. But taking off this little patch of cells now means no horns for the rest of the goat’s life.

Another consideration: Most goat shows only accept hornless goats. If you plan to show, or sell goats to people who do, research your breed and decide whether or not to take off horns.

Many goats do just fine with horns. Pack goats, for instance, or fiber goats who are going to need some convenient handles when they are shorn. But a dairy goat that is going to be waving her head near my face twice a day for years — well, I had enough casual near-eyeball-misses when I had a horned goat to make me grit my teeth and take off their horns at a young age.

“Disbudding” is the term for taking off these little bumps. I use a cauterizing tool that gets red hot, which I consider the safest and surest method. Some people use a caustic paste, but I don’t like the risk of that goop running into a goat’s eye. I would rather put on my leather glove and be careful for four seconds while I press the iron to the horn bud.

There is much singed hair and yelling, but the kids go right back to their moms after a few minutes of being comforted with an ice pack or frozen cube of comfrey pulp on their heads. The kids stay with their moms (or we have a bottle of milk ready for them if they are used to the bottle) so that they can recover quickly. Only one stressful thing at a time when you’re raising goats!

Tattooing Goat Ears

After waiting two days for the goats to recover from disbudding, the next stressful thing I do is tattoo anyone who needs it. That is for any young animals destined for registration and breeding. I register through the American Dairy Goat Association, and each goat that leaves my farm should have a clear tattoo in each ear. The right ear has my unique herd tattoo (HF17) and the left ear has a letter to indicate the year (2020 is M) and the birth order of the goat.

For example, the fourth goat born on my farm this year has the tattoo M4 in her left ear. If you are buying a new registered goat, check her ears for legible tattoos! Goats can get turned away from shows and appraisals if their tattoos aren’t clear. Re-tattooing an adult goat can be an unpleasant rodeo with everyone getting way more ink all over them than they should, so you might as well check the tattoos on the goat before you buy.

Remembering when they got disbudded, the kids aren’t eager to get back in the kid-holding box for tattooing. I wear green rain pants and rubber gloves to cope with the abundant tattoo ink that’s going to get smeared everywhere. Tattoo kits are available for sale from livestock supply companies. Get ones appropriate for the size of animal you are tattooing.  LaMancha goats, lacking big ear flaps, get tattooed in the tail web, which I am happy to say I haven’t had to do yet.

Double-check your letters and numbers to make sure you have a full set. When the J year rolled around, I discovered I had a set of letters with two Ls but no J. ADGA is pretty particular when it comes to tattoos and I wasn’t going to fudge it by turning an L upside down, but the tattoo kit company was kind enough to send me a solitary J. Disbudding has a limited window of time that it will work, but the window is much longer for tattooing. Even adult goats can be tattooed, but trust me, no one will like it. Secret tool for tattooing? A child’s toothbrush to scrub green ink over the puncture wounds left by the letters and numbers. Ouch! But getting that ink way down in there means that the tattoo will last for life.

While disbudding has a safety justification (why leave the brass knuckles on the goat?), tattooing is only necessary if you are going to register the goats or otherwise need them to be identifiable. Registering a goat in and of itself does not make her more productive, of course — she doesn’t care! — but certain shows and programs are open to registered animals only. When I’ve shopped for a new goat, I like to see the performance records of her ancestors. If her mom and grandmother were star producers, chances are she will be as well. These official records are typically only available to registered animals.

But what about the bucklings?  Many of them won’t get tattooed because they are headed to pet homes or the freezer. ADGA doesn’t register wethers (castrated male goats), so I don’t tattoo mine. They get castrated at around two months old or whenever they have adjusted to weaning. Doing it this late means their urethras have developed enough to lower their risk of urinary tract stones later in life. Those stones can be lethal, so for a goat who is going to be a long-term pet, we give him the best chance of avoiding them.

Male goats raised for meat usually don’t get castrated here, especially so they can be sold at a premium for the Islamic market around the Eid holy day. Goat is the most common meat eaten around the world, so enjoy the international and cultural heritage of this incredible generous animal!

Determining When to Process Goats for Meat

I have a “breed the best and eat the rest” approach. My suburban farm has a ready market for young males as pets, but we also eat any extras. I need to know this when I’m delivering the kids, so I don’t get too attached! And I need to realistic enough about the quality of my does to know that they are not going to produce a champion buck every time, or even at all.

No matter how cute a male goat may be, at some point, he is going to be an obnoxious teenager. We’ve always been glad to get six-month-old bucklings into the freezer. Mentally prepare yourself for the possibility of eating those guys, and don’t put it off, especially if they have access to any females. Some goat-raising friends had a young female get bred by her brother when she was only five months old, which wasn’t optimal for her long-term health. So don’t delay on separating those goats, and if you have the ability to raise them for cheap or free meat, go for it.

I have tried a wide variety of weaning strategies, which also change every year depending on who is kidding. Kid-rearing is worth another whole post, but I can say that it works best for us to move moms to a neighboring pen where they can still sniff their kids but not nurse. By providing nutritious food for the youngsters, whether it’s still milk in a bottle or protein-rich browse, we avoid prolonged yelling and stress. The does seem relieved to have their kids nearby but not nursing.

To sum up my list of baby goat responsibilities: Do only one stressful thing at a time, and think ahead about what is going to be necessary for the long-term interests of your goat. In roughly chronological order, you need to consider disbudding to prevent horns from growing, tattooing for identification, weaning, castration, and butchering. I love sharing my life with goats, and tending these needs is part of the domestication relationship humans have with them.  This is what works for me and my herd, and I encourage you to sit with your animals and find out what works for you!

Alexia Allen is a farmer, teacher, and homestead orchestrator at Hawthorn Farm in Western Washington State. She taught at Wilderness Awareness School for 12 years before moving into farming full-time and enjoys a Renaissance woman life with something new every day of every season. Read all of Alexia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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