I’m going to publish this in a few sections, not only because it is an ongoing saga, but also because it is a harrowing tale.
I have heard of dairy goat breeders giving up breeding due to the relentless nature of the challenges that breeding dairy goats has a way of throwing at you. Some breeders have bravely fought on in the face of tragedy, while for others the shine has faded over time with burgeoning herds reduced to a handful of animals to reduce the physical and emotional burden.
Over the years I have occasionally paused to wonder what level of disaster would motivate me to give it all up. And while I am not there yet, there is definitely the possibility that I will reach that point at some time in the next year or so.
As it stands the future is uncertain. At least, it is certain for the majority of my goats. But before we get to the details of the story, I want you all to understand why I have made the decisions that I have made.
Before kidding started this year, I had about 23 goats. I never intended to run that many, or to kid as many does as I have been for the last few years. But some things have been going on in the herd that have prevented me from selling more than a couple of kids each year. And so numbers have grown. With animals in quarantine due to CLA (cheesy gland) infection, I couldn’t use my paddocks the way I wanted to. With the majority of milkers living with my goatlings and kids, I couldn’t feed them the way I wanted to. It was reactive, not proactive, management. I kept the ones that lived, buried the ones that didn’t, bred the does that howled when they came in season, and wondered when I would get some answers as to where all these problems were coming from.
Each time it seemed like I was about to have one issue beaten, another would show its head. I don’t like to think about how much money I have spent trying to keep my goats healthy. Every staff member at the vet clinic knows me by name and all the vets know my address. When I think about how four years ago I didn’t have access to a vet who would treat small ruminants I try not to think about what I would have done if these new vets hadn’t moved to town and opened their clinic when they did. I probably would have given up already.
While vaccination and quarantining was getting on top of the CLA infection, more and more other problems were popping up. As my skills and experience with birthing goats and giving newborn kids the best chance at survival grew, I was faced with things I could do nothing about. In 2016 I lost half of my kids due to does aborting or kids being born that did not survive more than a day or two. We never found out the cause of this. In 2017 we were hit with respiratory disease in the kids and antibiotic resistant pneumonia. We managed to save all the infected kids, and with the help of an off-label vaccine we thought we had this beaten. But then six months later my out-of-season quads got sick, and that was when the situation quickly came to a head.
Along with sick kids, I had lame does, eye infections, and a high rate of mastitis. Sometimes treatment worked, but more often than not it didn’t. Milk cultures performed on does with obviously infected udders came back with no infective agent detected. Cell counts at herd recording time were often high with no obvious explanation. Then my raw milk cheeses stopped working. I attributed the lameness in the does to overfeeding, the mastitis to bad luck and maybe the dirty ground, and the problems with the cheese as an error on my part. The eye infections were just a coincidence. But when the vet suggested that the respiratory disease in the kids might be caused by an organism called mycoplasma, all the pieces began to fall into place.
Mycoplasma is incurable. Animals can be asymptomatic while shedding the organism intermittently. Infected animals can test negative. The only way to eradicate it from a group of goats, without wiping out the whole herd, is to snatch kids at birth and dispose of all the adult animals and any youngsters who have been exposed.
To be clear, we have not been able to confirm the presence of mycoplasma in the herd. The doe kid who died, the catalytic event, had many tissue and fluid samples taken for testing. No infectious agent was found. But this kid had lungs that were almost completely solid from infection. Something caused that. Something that did not respond to the sorts of antibiotics that can usually be relied upon to clear up bacterial infections in the lungs. Suspicion is that the antibiotics in this kid’s system prevented any bacteria or other organisms from being cultured in the lab. Her illness was not caused by nothing. The mastitis and the problems with the milk in the does were not caused by nothing. The abortions, the lameness, the eye infections, were not caused by nothing. And whatever ‘it’ is, I don’t want it in my herd and I don’t want to risk passing it on to anyone elses animals.
I was left with a couple of options. I could do nothing. I could just let my animals live out their days, knowing they were infected, not breed or milk any more and never let any of them leave the property. That seemed like a good idea for a while. But I had five does in kid at that time. And doing nothing was probably going to lead to all of their kids getting sick and dying. So I couldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t sit back and watch my kids get sick and die.
I entertained the idea of snatching the kids at birth, milking the does, feeding the kids pasteurised milk and trying to get milk awards for my does. But the sheer workload promised by the process of milking, pasteurising milk and feeding kids was beyond overwhelming. I would be setting myself up to fail. The main flaw in that plan was that by going between the infected milkers and the healthy kids I would be risking transferring infection to the clean animals, which would render the whole exercise a waste of time. It was just not a workable option.
I was very fortunate to be put in contact with a breeder in QLD who had managed to save her herd after a confirmed diagnosis of mycoplasma in all of her milkers. She talked me through her methods and left me in awe at how she kidded her does in the paddock, snatched their kids and managed to salvage her stud all on her own. Her recommendation was to snatch the kids and have all the adults put down and disposed of. She also suggested that if I had a suitable place to isolate them, I could run on a couple of special goatlings for another year in an attempt to get kids from them.
And so, with all this to consider, and the shock and grief of the situation still very near the surface, I gradually formulated a plan.
I have snatched nine kids from four does who all kidded in the past week. Eight are doing well, and the ninth is making slow progress but I am hopeful for her. These kids are made up of six buck kids and three does. They are being raised on milk replacer.
Two goatlings, a buck and a wether will be housed in the small paddocks. These are all apparently healthy animals, but must still be treated as infectious due to the fact that they were born and raised with the main herd. The wether is to keep the buck company. The goatlings are both daughters of 5lt+ milkers, by my foundation buck. Their bloodlines are important, but with only three doe kids this year and one of those not yet out of the woods, they are also a degree of insurance. There is still the possibility that our kid-snatching methods have not been successful and our current babies will still get sick, so those last two young does will give us another chance if our first attempt fails.
Maybe you would have done things differently. Maybe you would have wanted to save as many animals as you could, whatever the cost. Maybe you would have just shot them all and been done with it. But due to the suffering I have seen and endured through the course of these events, my primary motivators are that I don’t want any other breeders to go through this and I don’t want to watch any more of my goats suffer. I want a clean, healthy, small herd.
When you are so hurt and so emotional due to facing the reality of losing not just valuable, productive animals but friends and pets who have given you so much, it is hard to put the welfare of the animal first. But I had to separate not just my pain, but also my ambition, from the needs of my animals. And in this, come up with a plan that would leave me functional for my family, my work and my remaining animals of all varieties. It really is not just about my needs. Gaining milk awards and bringing home show sashes have been big motivators for me in my dairy goat journey, but the goats don’t care about that. They care about having shelter, knowing where their next meal is coming from, and having their family around them. They don’t care how many Q* points they earn, how many Australian Champion points they have, or what their classification score is. They just want to eat and stay dry and hang out with their mothers, sisters and daughters. They don’t like being sick or lame or having sore udders.
At the end of the day, I can live with losing most of my goats if it means that it will mitigate most of the risk of infection for other breeders and for my hopefully clean kids. Maybe my snatched kids will still get sick at 10-14 weeks, at which point I will have to decide whether I try again, whether we look harder for a definitive cause or whether that is my cue to give up goats altogether. Either way, I’ll never show again. If it all goes to plan I’ll breed my does sparingly, and I will source any future bucks under strict biosecurity protocols.
There is still a hard road ahead. But I can see a way forward now, where ten days ago I could not. Nothing is certain, but we can try.