Dry does an important part of the herd

Goat management, nutrition essential to successful lactation

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FENNIMORE, Wis. — When it comes to the commercial dairy goat industry, Sarah Varney sees dry doe management as a bottleneck. As a dairy goat nutritionist for Vita Plus, Varney helps dairy goat producers manage their herds effectively. She shared best practices at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College’s annual Goat Management Academy Nov. 3, 2023, in Fennimore. 

“I know it’s easy to think that dry does are not giving milk and not making money, but we cannot think of them as freeloaders,” Varney said. “She is doing two things. Her udder is rebuilding all those cells and getting ready for that next lactation, and she is growing your next generation of kids.”

Besides working with farms through her position, Varney also works alongside her father on their 240-goat dairy near Milton. Between her experience on her own farm and working with others across multiple states, Varney sees people transition their does in various ways.

Some farms simply dry does up as soon as their production drops to 8 pounds per day and are 60 days from kidding date. They are moved to the dry doe pen and are not milked again until after they kid, regardless of whether their udders are full of milk or not.

Varney and her father take a more gradual approach to dry off by reducing the milking times to once per day for does ready for dry off. Then, they will milk a doe 2-3 times a week if she needs to be milked and eventually end the lactation.

If the goat is not dried off by 30 days out, Varney returns to the protocol of milking twice a day and skips the dry period.

“We have found that if we give her too short of a dry period, she’s going to have a worse lactation than if I just continue to milk her and not give her a dry period at all,” Varney said.

The length of the dry period is important because there are three stages through which the goat must transition. The first stage is the active stage, which is simply going from lactating to non-lactating. More specifically, the active stage refers to the first 24 hours after the last time the goat was milked. The active stage typically lasts for 2-3 weeks.

The second stage — the steady stage — is when the cells are starting to rejuvenate and the creatine plug is being built. The chances of developing mastitis decrease the longer this stage lasts. The length of the steady stage depends on the length of the dry period.

The last stage is redevelopment and colostrum production. This stage starts two weeks prior to kidding and ends with the birth.

Varney said that while most producers assume that a 40- to 60-day dry period is sufficient, it needs to be closer to 60 days. If the active stage and colostrum production stage take a total of 35 days, then a 40-day dry period only allows five days for the steady stage.

“If we shoot for 60 days and we get 50, that’s great,” Varney said. “If we shoot for 50 and get 40, OK. But if we shoot for 40 and we’re only getting 30, you’re really going to do more damage to that mammary system than good.”

To get a more effective dry period for a doe, Varney suggested using a few tools to be more precise when drying goats off. One, utilize ultrasound technology to confirm a doe’s due date. An additional benefit of an ultrasound is the ability to determine when a doe is pregnant with multiple kids. Ultrasounds also help detect false pregnancies, which can end up costing money when a goat goes dry and then does not kid.

Varney also encourages hand breeding to achieve a more accurate due date for does. She manages this at her farm by keeping a buck penned in the corner of her low-producing and yearling pens. Every day when does are fetched for milking, they are observed for heats. If one is flagging, they check the DHIA records to make sure the doe eligible for breeding. Then, the doe is placed with the buck for a few hours after milking.

For producers that pen breed, the due date is harder to determine because a buck often stays in a pen with the does for an entire month. If a doe is bred on the last day the buck is in the pen, she will end up with a much longer dry period than necessary, which inevitably costs money. If a doe is bred on the first day the buck is in the pen, the doe might end up with too short of a dry period.

Varney endorses hand breeding whenever possible.

“It really doesn’t take as much time as you think,” Varney said. “You just have to be diligent when you’re in your barn that you’re watching.”

In addition to precise timing, nutrition has an impact on the health of dry does. Because their rumen capacity is inhibited by the growth of the kids, Varney stressed the importance of dry doe rations that include a fortified pellet. Because she will not be able to consume as much volume, the dry goat needs denser feed.

Forages play a huge role in dry goat nutrition as well, Varney said. She has seen the best results with lower potassium forages, which aid in the prevention of pregnancy toxemia. If a producer must resort to low-quality forages, it is best to mix them with high-quality forages.

“I am a huge believer in forages,” Varney said. “As a nutritionist, I will tell you there is nothing I can do in your grain ration that can duplicate good forage. Low-quality forages aren’t going to cut it.”

Fresh water intake complements the nutritional needs of dry does as well.

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