This year was the first go at mothering for our newest breeding doe Dora. She was purchased last year from a local family farm in Klickitat County to replace a mature doe, Alison, who died mysteriously from severe health complications in the early stages of lactation. Loosing Alison was a tremendous hit to the breeding program and the overall resiliency of our herd. With only one doe, we were very vulnerable to loosing the last remaining remnants of a very good line of dairy goats. So we made the quick decision to replace Alison with Dora.
Bringing in Dora was a gamble in that she was too young to have proven out her milking and mothering potential. As of yet I am not certain we are on the winning side of that bet, as Dora's birthing and early lactation (after giving birth to three females kids) was marked by child abandonment and a case of low-grade mastitis. The abandonment of a kid, and not standing to let the other ones nurse, are all potentially due to her first time mothering, and are not grounds for culling in our herd for a first time mom. However, there are some first time moms who birth easily and care for their kids well right from the start.
How much of Dora's stumbling motherhood is due to acculturation, and how much of it is genetic determination, is a big unknown. What is certain is that Dora had the opportunity to watch her mother raise kids, and so the process was not entirely new to her.
The cause of the mastitis was not obvious. In my assessment, she had clean dry bedding and a relatively dry and warm April environment when the mastitis set on. There are common cases of gene-based malformations of the udders which can result in high susceptibility to chronic mastitis.
Their are a couple easy ways to determine an infection. Discomfort in the doe as she lies down, hardness hotness or redness of the udder, or a stringy or coagulated milk that settles in the teat and comes out at the first squeezes. I was feeling Dora's udders everyday as they filled, and there was no sign of hardness, redness, or hotness at that time. There was some general discomfort I sensed in Dora, but I attributed it to her being very pregnant.
Another potential is that the infection was the cause of a malformation of the udder. I bring this up because even before the observable symptoms of mastitis began to show, as Dora's udders began to fill up with milk in the last week or so before birthing, her udders had an odd shape to them. The teats were (and still are) rather recessed into the udder. It could be that as her udders began to fill, her udders become infected in such a way as to not be noticeable but that could still cause damage to the mammary tissue.
The first milking occurred when I took some colostrum to tube feed her abandoned child in the first few days of life. At that time there was no obvious sign of coagulation, nor of hardness or hotness of the udder.
As of today Dora's maximum production when her kids are taken away from her for a period of ~12 hours is about 1 quart. That is very low compared to other goats I have had experience with. In my estimation it is impossible to know whether the low production is a result of the early onset of mastitis, or is a more basic genetically determined trait. It is also hard to tell if the odd shape of the udders is due to the mastitis causing damage to her still developing udder, or if it is genetically determined.
The complexity of the situation is an example of how uncertain much of husbandry can be, and how the wisdom and intuition of an experienced Herdsman is so valuable. It is guess work and intuition on most days, particular out here in deep country where a trip to the vet is an hours drive and a substantial bill.
The inability to pin down a determinable factor leading to low milk production and udder deformities is a real challenge when decided whether or not we should cut our losses and search for another doe, or continue to invest in Dora for another year.
So how do we make such a decision?
At the heart of the decision for me is money. It pains me to have to perform this kind of cold accounting, because I love Dora and have a real connection with her. Without respect to her milking and mothering, she is a good goat; docile, friendly and gentle. But her demeanor is not grounds for us to keep her in the flock, for we are running on a margin that does not allow for keeping her on as a “pet”. And because of the uncertainty of her genetics, I am not comfortable breeding her line into the future.
Regardless of how I feel about it, the decision must be made whether to keep her on and invest another years worth of feed and work to try her out again, or if we should cut our losses.
To give some rough numbers, we paid $100 for Dora, and have invested about ~200 dollars in her in terms of food and medical care (her mastitis treatment primarily). To keep her on another year to see how she fairs with kidding and milking would cost us about $150 in feed cost.
Is the potential benefit worth losing $150? Maybe, if other options do not pan out it is perhaps better to preserve the option of Dora. Can we purchase a proven doe for $150? maybe, but we would have to find a good deal. Given the current prices, we can realistically expect to pay around $250 for a proven Doe of the caliber we are looking for. So in terms of rough accounting it seems the math is on the side for keeping Dora for another year.
Regardless of such numbers, a decision will have to be made at the latest, before the breeding season begins in the fall. For now I will continue to ponder this situation, continue to milk Dora, and look for opportunities to purchase another good doe for a reasonable price so that our options are kept open.