Anyone who’s looking to raise goats from kids will have to deal with the process of weaning; transitioning your kids (young goats) from milk to solid food. Weaning is the most stressful experience that a kid is likely to experience, often slowing or delaying their growth, potentially even causing the kid to lose weight. So handling this process properly is vital to give your kids a healthy and productive life.
When To Wean Baby Goats
The straightforward answer to this question is very simple. The best practice for when to wean your kids is when they hit 2.5-3x their birth weight. This usually takes 2-3 months but their weaning should be based on this weight gain, not their age, which means you need to make sure to get the birth weight of all of your kids and keep good track of it.
Waiting to 3-4 months of age will reduce the stress of weaning further, if that doesn’t detract from any financial endeavors your goat raising is centered around, however I will note that if you wait much longer than 3 months to wean any bucks, they may start trying to breed with their dams, sisters, or other females they can get access to, including through adjoining fences, so keep that in mind.
If you don’t have a particular plan for the milk from your dams, whether for sale or your own food, the whole question of when and how can generally be ignored by letting the mother take care of it. If you’re keeping your kids with their dam and don’t interfere, she will naturally wean them when she decides it’s appropriate and go dry.
This is without a doubt the lowest stress method of weaning for your kids, so should be taken unless you have a reason to wean artificially, like trying to collect milk. If you do want to collect milk, you will have to wean and separate the kids from their dam before she dries up naturally.
If you are weaning the kids yourself, but are NOT collecting the dams milk, I suggest weaning one kid per week maximum to decrease the chance of discomfort and health risks on the dam, who will be producing far too much milk if her kids are suddenly taken and she isn’t being milked. Make sure to check her udders and milk as needed for her health, even if you have no need for her milk.
How To Wean Baby Goats
The real meat of this topic is in how we minimize the stress to the kid (and their dam), to decrease chances of health problems and set your kid up for a healthy life. Best weaning practices start a couple of weeks or more before the weaning process, and continue for a few weeks afterwards as well.
Getting Ready To Wean Kids
Medical Considerations For Kids
The very first thing to prepare for the weaning process is to ensure your kids have been given any deworming inoculations like CD-T (overeating disease and tetanus). Kids’ immune systems are at their most challenged while weaning, as they lose the direct supply to their mothers antibodies from milk in addition to being weaker from the stress of the weaning itself.
Coccidiosis in particular can kill a kid before they show symptoms, so demands a high level of caution with the immune challenges of weaning. We suggest using preventatives two weeks before and after weaning. Also, while you’re deworming, we like to do random monthly fecal checks to make sure it’s working, instead just assuming it’s working well enough during such an important stage in the kids life.
Moving Prior To Weaning
If you are going to be keeping the kids in a separate weaning pen, you should do this two or more weeks before starting weaning. If you need to move them to another location for this, and it’s more than a short walk, use a trailer to get them there. If you are walking them, and it’s dusty, water the path first to avoid respiratory issues. We also avoid moving them (and any other big changes including weaning itself) on very hot or cold days to avoid that extra stress on their system.
When we do move our kids, we do it first thing in the morning so they have the whole day to get used to their new enclosure, and watch them carefully, as they do like to get into trouble (mostly finding any way to get their head stuck in anything they can). Make sure to check their enclosure for any possible places they can get stuck in, even though they may manage it anyway.
As herd animals, goats don’t do well in isolation and separating a child from their mother is hard across virtually all species. Because of this we like to make sure to never keep our goats in isolation (including the dam). When we separate our kids from their dam, we’ll also watch them carefully because they can easily get stuck or injured while they try to get back to their mother, especially if they can hear her calling for them. When possible, they will be within sight of each other, but not have a way to suckle through fencing.
Getting Ready For Solid Food
Kids who are introduced to small amounts of solid food early in life have a smoother transition in the weaning process. A week or two after birth we like leaving out some fresh hay for free feed and fresh water to encourage eating, and then pick up any leftovers after they’ve had a chance to nibble at it. They won’t eat much, and it won’t give them any real nutrition, but that small introduction makes a big difference in helping the rumen develop and giving them a less stressful weaning process. A 16 to 18% protein creep feed pellet is also a popular choice, and an ounce at a time is plenty, though we always make sure there’s fresh hay as well.
When getting a water trough set up for them, make sure it’s something they can reach, but can’t step into. 6-12” tends to work just fine. Also, don’t forget the free minerals!
Kids make a very easy meal for the enterprising predator, should they be able to get into your goat enclosure. Because of this, many people who raise goats keep some kind of livestock guarding dog, which can be very well worth the investment. If you do have a dog you’ll be keeping around your kids to protect them, you will want to introduce the two before starting the weaning process, ideally while the dam is kidding.
This will let the kids get used to the dog’s presence. Also, no matter how gentle your livestock guardian seems to be, you should watch it’s interactions with the new kids for a bit, just in case. It may still scare the kids and add some stress, as it nudges them back towards the herd and gets acquainted with each of them.
Weaning Your Kids
The general principle of weaning is simple: slowly ease back their milk consumption while supplying solid feed until they are no longer drinking milk. The more gradual the process, the easier it is on the kid. If the dam is present her kids will keep nursing, so will always have to be separated unless you are letting the dam wean her kids naturally or are blocking their access to her udders another way.
As milk supply declines, they will eat more of the solid food, however you will need to keep track of their weight and keep an idea of how much they are eating to make sure they are getting enough nutrition. If their weight drops you may want to hold at the level of milk consumption for a bit before dropping it down further to continue the weaning process. Each kid may be a bit different in the speed of this process, so for the ease of the transition and to support a productive and healthy life, I prefer not being rigidly set on a given time line, if a slower process is necessary.
Weaning Bottle Fed Kids
With a fully bottle fed kid, weaning is very easy; you can simply start cutting down on the amount of milk at each bottle feeding until you’re only doing one smaller feeding, and then none at all, with solid food available throughout the transition. They will also not have the stress of having been taken away from their dam at weaning time, so as long as you check their weight and ensure they’re getting enough nutrition, it’s fairly trouble free. Once they are fully weaned, it’s a fairly simple process to integrate them into the herd, but we’ll talk more about this shortly.
Weaning Dam Nursed Kids
With a dam nursed kid, you will need to fully separate them once you are ready to wean so that they cannot free feed on milk, and while it will lower stress to have the kids and dam next to each other separated by a fence, make sure they cannot nurse through it! Chicken wire or other similar very tight fencing works just fine. If you can’t get fencing that is similar to the tightness of chicken wire, expect the kids WILL manage to suckle, and so you’ll have to keep them farther away from their dam.
As we’ve discussed earlier, the kids should already be in a weaning pen for at least several days, if not weeks before weaning, and the dam will be the one to be moved out so that the kids don’t have to deal with another move. When the dam is separated from her kids, they will cry incessantly for probably around two days. While this is part of the stress of the weaning process, it is normal, and necessary if you are going to wean the kids yourself to collect milk from their dam.
Once weaning your kids is complete, you’re nearly done with the process, but there are still some considerations before your weanlings can just be considered a normal part of the herd.
They Won’t Stop Trying To Nurse!
This first one only applies to dam nursed kids. Some kids will never stop trying to nurse from their dam as long as she is still producing milk. This means that if you intend to collect milk from the dam, she may need to be permanently separated from her kids, as even 6 months after being weaned, they may try to keep nursing as long as milk is available. This is probably the biggest reason to bottle feed your kids from the start, if you are planning to collect milk. If you are letting the dam wean them naturally, it’s no problem as she will dry up and refuse them when she finds it appropriate.
For those who want to collect milk, I’ve seen people successfully approach this problem in one of two ways without giving any of their goats away or keeping them permanently separated.
The first is to keep a barrier strapped on the dam to keep the kids from being able to nurse. Sometimes this is temporary…sometimes it has to be kept up permanently, which is not easy to maintain.
The second is just a matter of scheduling: milking in the morning, letting them all be together during the day, and separating them at night. This assumes you have the separated spaces to work with, but is the easiest to keep up long term if you are milking and keeping the dam and the kids.
Integration To The Herd
So your kids are weaned and ready to join the herd. This is not always as simple as it sounds, however, as newly introduced kids can be mercilessly hazed by the rest of the herd, past the point of exhaustion, while a new social hierarchy is created/confirmed. This can be dangerous, especially right after the stress of weaning, so should be done carefully.
The best way to approach this that I’ve seen is to put 3-5 freshly weaned kids together by themselves for a week or so before introducing them to the herd together. After their week together in isolation, they will do better when brought into the herd.
They will still be hazed and mounted (both does and bucks; though does are less aggressive than bucks, both will haze) until the pecking order is fully established, but with a group of them who have already sorted out their own hierarchy, and not being tossed into the herd one at a time, it will be much less difficult on them.
You should still wait until a mild weather day, with no other significant recent stressors to release them into the herd, and do it in the morning. This will always help lower other factors that can make it a more stressful, and potentially hazardous experience for them.
Weaning is the most stressful and difficult experience in your young kids life, and how it occurs can be pretty easy and smooth, or it can be stressful and potentially dangerous. It’s well worth taking the time and effort to approach it with thought and care to help your goats have a healthy and productive life to follow.