Notes from Windward: #55

The Summer Birthing

I was wandering around, looking for good chances to try out the new digital camera, and stumbled onto something very special. Bob2 and Cindy had known that a birth was imminent, but no one had clued me in on the fact that the birth was "highly likely" today. By learning the signs and paying attention, they've become pretty sharp at spotting when a doe is going to birth. Mostly this is so that they can get the kids dried off before they get a chance to become chilled, and to make sure that the kid gets a quick shot of the colostrum. It's loaded in energy and antibodies, and the odd in favor of a kid surviving are greatly increased by quick and frequent access to colostrum. Since this birth was taking place in sultry July, instead of frigid January, they weren't paying very close attention, especially since this was Angelique's third birthing. [Cindy - Indeed, it was her second birthing just this year!]

Angelique is a special doe for me because of her sire. We sell our surplus goats at the great goat sale in Sunnyside, WA. Where other auction sales handle goats as part of a general livestock program, Sunnyside is special in that goats aren't treated as just another critter. While the cattle sale is underway in the main barn, the goat sale is underway in it's own, somewhat smaller, barn. A slow day for goats at Sunnyside is a hundred or so, and in June of each year, they'll sell upwards of 500 goats every Saturday.

After delivering goats to the sale, what real goatherd could resist climbing into the holding pens and checking out the other goats? At a sale about four years ago, I was very surprised to find one of the pens contained a first quality La Mancha doe. She was six years old, but still had one of the finest udders I've ever seen. When a doe has problems with mastitis, and most of them do from time to time, it causes damage to the udder. Also, the bigger the udder, the greater the likelihood that it will suffer external damage. If you take a look at Angelique's udder, you'll get an appreciation for just how vulnerable she is in this regard.

A little checking revealed that the dame was from a registered herd in Moxie, WA and that she was being culled to make way for a daughter. That's the way it is in the goat business; there's only so many positions on the milking string, and for somebody to be added, somebody has to go. Since each doe averages two plus kids a year, goatherds have to continually deal with the dreaded impact of "goatflation." If you kept them all, then the herd would triple in size each year, and in hardly any time at all, they'd overwhelm you. One reason that goatherds can find the mettle to send their kids to sale is that they quickly learn that "it's either me or you kid, and one of us has to go."

On average, one of the kids is a boy and he's generally going to the sale since only one in fifty or so is selected to breed, and indeed, that buckling is usually "selected" long before he's even conceived since goatherds spend lots of time and thought figuring out just which crossings will be needed to improve their string. Some of the doelings will be sold and some will be raised up to take their place on the milk string. Five years is a long time for a doe to work and usually by then, they've passed the milk pail along to one of their daughters, so for this doe to be heading to sale in her sixth year said good things about her and her line.

The average price for a large doe in milk was running between $90 and $140 at that time, but this doe was so remarkable that the bidding didn't stop until it reached $240, an unheard of price for the auction barn. I was impressed more than I can tell you. While I couldn't afford to take the doe home, I leapt at the chance to purchase her newborn son for $17.50.

In another year, little Alonzo was ready to start his role as a sire. The hope was that he would be able to bring some of his mother's qualities to our herd, and you can see from these shots of Angelique, that we feel that our hopes were well realized. In fairness I should add that Angel, Angelique's mother, wasn't any slouch herself. She came from a well recognized herd in Port Angeles, WA and was one of our herd's anchor does. The art of breeding is to mix a little of this with some of that and keep working toward that combination which will be ideal for what you're trying to achieve.

Meanwhile, back to the birthing. Angelique went through another fifteen minutes or so of labor that was made a bit more difficult because her water hadn't broken. I was tempted to break the sack for her, but decided that without Cindy or Bob2 at hand to confer with, I'd best leave well enough alone.

A few more pushes, and out came her first born. In honor of the strangeness of birthing in July, we named the little girl "Summer".

The babe hit the ground with a wet "plop" sound, and Angelique turned around to welcome it into the world. For a moment or two, the kid seemed to have a bit of a problem getting clear of the sack, but a quick shake or two of the head, and the kid was breathing on its own. In the wild, kids have to be able to keep up with herd almost right away, and after ten minutes or so of rest, Summer started getting to her feet. About the time she was up on all fours, Angelique was having to deal with the arrival of her second kid. Since goats often have triplets, quads and even quints happen, there wasn't anything to say that there was only one more kid coming, but this time, that's all there was. Once the first kid has been born, the rest of the birthing generally goes fairly easily. Part of that comes from the stretching that the birth canal goes through during the first birth, but another important part has to do with the sudden easing of crowding in the womb. The kids have to orient themselves just so for the birth to proceed smoothly, and having one less kid in there frees everything else up nicely.

After a couple of hours, I brought the camera back up to check on how Angelique and her kids were doing. By then, her second kid, a brown boy with Bubba's Nubian ears, had been born. We hadn't planned on keeping any kids from this birthing, but given Summer's lineage, I'm lobbying for keeping her. It isn't that Cindy and Bob2 don't want to keep her; in fact, the barn crew would keep all of them if they could, but that isn't in the order of things. Most of the kids have to go, and we understand that, but every now and then, someone special comes along and it's time to make an exception. I'm hoping that Summer will prove to be that special kid.

One quick word on Angelique and her ears, or rather her lack of ears. This is caused by a genetic defect that cropped up in a herd in southern Oregon some twenty years ago. Since it didn't adversely affect any modern goat qualities, it became a marker for an especially rugged and productive line of Saanens. Today, they're recognized as a distinct class of dairy goat, and most shows and fairs have special divisions for Saanens. You can see that Summer inherited her mother's La Mancha ears.

This lack of ears is a striking feature that takes some getting used to. Some people say that LaManchan goats look like big, four-legged lizards, and some of them certainly do. When people new to goats first encounter La Manchans, they can't help but ask "What happened to that goat's ears?" Over the years I've heard some hilarious responses that range from the ingenious to the bizarre. For example, some people will tell you that the breed originated in Minnesota, and that the goats were bred this way so that they could wear ear muffs to protect them from the intense cold. While LaManchans are some of the strangest looking goats you'll ever see, they're also some of the very best.

Signs of an impending birth.

There are some general signs to look for, such as watching for the udder to fill out or a general shifting of the bulge to a lower, more rearward position, but the key sign involves the hip ligaments. The pelvis is held together at the top, right alongside the backbone, by a pair of ligaments. These are normally bone hard and unbending, but that changes right before the start of labor and it's these changes that are the surest sign of impending labor.

Around Birth minus 24 hours, the ligaments start to soften and stretch, and by Birth minus 12 hours, they've noticably lengthened. When they become pliable enough that you can move them back and forth with a gentle pressure from your thumb, you can expect labor to commence within the next few hours. From then on the process of preparing the birth canal for delivery proceeds quickly, assuming that everything else is "go!"

One problem that's serious and chronic in this part of the Pacific Northwest involves the condition known as "ring-womb." Because of the geological history of this region, much of the interior basin of Oregon and Washington is almost devoid of the element known as selenium. A host of problems are caused by a shortage of selenium, and only a very small amount of the mineraal makes a substantial difference. The most commonly seen disorder is called "white muscle disease". Selenium doesn't pass easily through the placental barrier, so if the mother is short on selenium, then the kid will be even more deficient. The result will be a lethargic kid who is often unable to stand up. If the condition is really severe, the kid won't even be able to close its mouth and keep its tongue inside.

If the selenium shortage is even more severe, then the kid won't be able to escape the uterus, and both kid and mother will die. At "Birth minus 2 hours" the cervix (the opening in the uterus through which the kid has to pass) starts to dilate; when it has expanded sufficiently, the birth happens, assuming of course that the kid can get properly alligned in order to pass through the dilated cervix - this is a process fraught with many potential problems.The enzyme which causes the cervix to dilate is selenium based, and without enough of that element in the mother's diet, dilation won't happen.

There are lots of health problems that are difficult to solve, but this isn't one of them. Once the problem is understood, it's easily corrected and/or prevented. The salt blocks we use have selenium incorporated into them since we want the entire herd to have adequate amounts. It's not just the girls who need to have enough, since selenium has also been shown to have an important impact on semen vitality. Since we free range our animals, we supplement to insure that they get adequate amounts of selenium and other minerals.

In the case of selenium, we supplement selenium even further with injections in the last trimester of pregancy for the does and ewes, and a month before breeding season for the ram and bucks. This is done with a solution which we purchase from our local vet. Since the body requires vitamin E in order to utilize selenium, Bo-Se and is a combination of the two. In some cases, such as the "white muscle disease" that afflicts newborns, the results of selenium injection can be quite dramatic. At the livestock auction, we've purchased calves who were so weak that they couldn't stand up or even work their tongue well enough to be able to suckle. One shot of Bo-Se and within an hour they'd be standing on their own four feet and greedily sucking down the milk. It's experiences like that which really make you believe.

Before I leave the subject of selenium, I want to touch on the impact that selenium deficiency has had on the history of the Pacific Northwest. Much of central Oregon is a vacant, highland desert. Oregon has five Congressional districts; one of them comprises the eastern two-thirds of the state (everything east of the Cascade mountains) plus two counties west of the mountains - it takes all of that to add up to twenty percent of the state's population. When you drive through all that vast and empty expanse, you can't help but wonder why it has proven so resistent to settlement. A key component to the answer of that riddle lies in the area's lack of selenium.

No matter how many men wander through and inhabit an area, it isn't settled until women and children come to live there. But when women and livestock die in childbirth time and again, it's easy to see why people would conclude that the region was acursed, and move on.

It wasn't until the 1930's that selenium was recognized as a mineral that was nutritionally relevant and necessary, and now that we have daily vitamin and mineral supplements, there's no reason for these problems to continue. Sadly though, there's a great gulf between what is known in the scientific sense, and what is put into daily practice. One reason that animal husbandry is an important part of our life here at Windward is the way it forces us to understand such problems and implement reasonable solutions. What we learn working with and caring for the four-legged crew often is often substantially relevant to the two-legged crew. Humans like to think that there's a profound distinctions between themselves and the rest of nature, but in some ways, that's little more than human vanity and foolishness; people too are biological constructs, and, like it or not, we're subject to many of the same woes and limitations that affect the "other" animals.

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