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Dairy goats - disbudding, castration, identification and euthanasia

No matter how much we love our goats, we have to subject them to some unpleasant procedures from time to time, like disbudding, castration and ear-tagging.  These are inevitably painful and should only be performed when there are no other practical, economically viable, effective or less noxious alternatives. Ideally you should get your vet to do the castration and disbudding so that local anaesthetic can be used can be used for pain relief and from the animal welfare point of view this is the kindest option.

When these early nasty experiences are over, the goats can then usually enjoy years of relatively stress-free life on the farm.  But there is one more potentially stressful procedure to consider, and that can be the last act of kindness we can do for our goats - their euthanasia.

Disbudding

Kids of the dairy goat breeds are usually disbudded as soon as the developing horns can be felt on the head as tiny hard buttons between the ears.  This is usually within 4 days of birth.  Sometimes in big male kids the buttons are present on the day of birth and then disbudding must be carried out the next day.

If disbudding is left too late, small distorted scurs will grow.  Scurs are easily damaged and often cause pain and infections throughout the life of the goat.

Disbudding is a painful procedure, and pain relief should be provided when disbudding. Regardless of the method that you choose, the buds should be removed at the youngest age possible that is compatible with minimising negative health and welfare consequences for the kid. My expert friends tell me that the irons for goat kids should be slightly larger (at least 16 mm diameter) than calf disbudding irons, or else calf irons can be used in two over-lapping applications (in a figure of eight pattern).

If it's not done well, it's a very painful procedure, and overzealous restraint can cause injuries.  There is a real risk that heavy-handed application of the irons will damage the skull or brain.  The skull of a kid is a lot thinner than a calf's skull and there have been instances of fractured skulls in kids after disbudding, and even heat-damaged brains!

There are caustic chemicals on the market for disbudding, but don't use them.  They act by causing chemical burns to the horn-producing area, but they are easily rubbed off onto sensitive skin elsewhere on the goat or onto other animals, and in wet conditions they can be washed down the face, causing painful burns.

Castration

Castration is another painful procedure necessary for all but the few male kids kept for breeding.  It really is wise to get it done, otherwise sweet little male kids become smelly bucks that can be aggressive, especially during the breeding season in autumn.

The rubber ring method is best, and preferably while the kid is only about a week or two old.  The older the kid the more painful the procedure is. It is best practice to use pain relief for castration of goats at any age. If the goat is more than 6 weeks old get a vet to do the job using pain-killers, and if the goat is more than 6 months old it is a minimum legal standard to use pain relief.

A word of caution.  Castrating goat kids very early has one unfortunate side-effect - the long bones in their legs keep on growing because the growth plates that normally close at puberty stay open.  Early-castrated wether goats can become very leggy.  Their long spindly legs and heavy body can make it difficult for them to move about freely, and they may be prone to arthritis.

Get the vet in!

Please do consider getting a vet to do the castrations and disbudding for you.  It might be costly but the use of pain killers makes it much less stressful for your kids…..and for you!

Ear tagging

The permanent identification of goats can be by ear tag, tattoo or microchip.  Whatever method is used to apply these, it will cause pain, as the ears are extremely sensitive.

Ear tags are the most common choice for most lifestyle farms.  Inserting them should be done quickly and cleanly, avoiding blood vessels and cartilage ridges in the ear.  Use the minimum number and the lightest possible tags.

Tattooing or micro-chipping is carried out in line with the appropriate Breed Society's requirements and it's best carried out by a veterinarian or other competent operator.  Tattooing of both ears is usually required.  Microchips are inserted at the end of the web that runs down alongside the base of the tail, at about the level of the anus.

When goats are vaccinated against Johne's disease there is a requirement to notch the ear, using a specific triangular ear punch tool according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Euthanasia

Some of us keep our old goats as pets until they are 10 years old or more, but with plenty of special care they can live for up to 20 years.

There comes a time when the quality of life for old goats is so low that euthanasia is best.  Although it's a very unpleasant job for us especially when we have become fond of them, it's far better to euthanase them humanely at home than have them suffer the trauma of a truck journey then the meat works experience. The most important thing to consider when selecting a method of humane destruction is to prevent the animal from suffering further pain or distress.

Barbiturate injection by a vet is best, but shooting is humane too if it's done properly. To do so properly requires rapidly inducing failure of brain function, by causing brain damage that will render the goat insensible.

If you decide to shoot at home it requires the services of a competent licensed firearms owner with enough skill to make sure the shot goes through the brain, and it's important of course to make sure safety concerns are met.

For horned goats the best site for the shot is behind the poll aiming towards the angle of the jaw.  For hornless goats the shot should be aimed at the midline just above the eyes directing the shot down the line of the spinal cord.  Free-bullet firearms should be held at least 10 cm away from the head in case of back blast.

It is recommended best practice that humane euthanasia be undertaken discreetly and away from areas that other goats can see or hear to reduce their anxiety.

For newborn kids, a heavy blow to the head is a common method of culling.  It sounds brutal but it's quick and if done properly it's effective.  Shooting is the other option to consider.

Euthanasia is an uncomfortable topic, but it's worth some forward planning.  We owe it to our goats to make sure their death is as stress-free as possible.

For further information on emergency humane destruction see Code of Welfare for Goats at www.mpi.govt.nz/animal-welfare

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