Kidding in winter
No, I’m not talking about cracking jokes. When they give birth, cows calve, sheep lamb, and goats kid. Because calves are so big and lambs are born with a wool coat, winter birthing doesn’t cause anywhere near the issues that it does for goats, which are smaller and have less insulation. The smaller the goats and the lower the temperature, the more you need to keep an eye on goats that are close to giving birth.
Preparing for goats giving birth in cold temperatures
The most important thing to have is a baby monitor. You can probably buy one at a discount store for about $20 that will work. Nothing in this article will help your baby goats if you are not there when the mama give birth, and it’s easy to miss a birth if you don’t have a monitor.
You also need to have plenty of large bath towels — at least one for every kid you are expecting, plus one or two extras just in case you get a surprise. If temperatures are going to be below freezing, you also need a heat lamp, and the colder it is, the more it is necessary to also have a blow dryer and a heating pad.
The heating pad is as much for me as it is for the kids. I put it on my lap, and put the kids on it while blow drying them. It helps me stay warmer, and it warms up the bottom half of the kid while I’m blow drying the top half.
When a goat gives birth, I usually wind up being in the barn for two hours or more, and even with all of my winter wear, I can wind up way too cold. After one birth in really cold weather, I remember laying in bed with an electric blanket for more than four hours before I was warmed up.
When goats give birth in winter
You need to get kids dried off as quickly as possible when temperatures are below freezing because of the risk of hypothermia. And if it’s windy, and the goat is outside, a kid can get hypothermia at fairly reasonable temperatures.
When we were very new to goats, we almost lost a doeling to hypothermia when her mother gave birth unexpectedly in the pasture on April 1. Although temperatures were in the 40s, it was very windy, and the doe had triplets.
After seeing that doe give birth in many subsequent years, I know that there would only be seconds between the births of the kids, so it would have been impossible for her to get all of them cleaned off before they would get chilled. So, in some cases you need to be there not because a doe might have problems but because she gives birth too easily and too quickly.
A kid can lose the tips of its ears to frostbite in just a few minutes if it’s wet and temperatures are below zero Fahrenheit. It can die from hypothermia fairly quickly at those temperatures when soaking wet. At this point, a lot of people ask, “Doesn’t the mother clean it off?” Well, sure the mother will lick it, but her tongue is small and wet, and I’ve discovered that the definition of “dry” is very different when temperatures are below zero and when they are more reasonable.
The first time kids were born on our farm at below zero temperatures, I was there, as well as both of my daughters. We had a stack of towels, a blow dryer, and a heat lamp. We dried the triplets as much as we could with the towels, and then we turned on the blow dryer. At that temperature, the blow dryer has to be within a couple inches of the kid, or the air will be cold!
After 45 minutes, we thought the kids were dry, so we turned off the blow dryer. A few minutes later, one of my daughters realized that the tips of the kids’ ears were starting to freeze. Rather than being nice and soft and warm, they were feeling hard and crunchy and cold. So, the blow dryer was turned back on! Unfortunately, in spite of our best efforts, one of the kids still lost the tip of one ear to frostbite.
The second time a doe kidded when the mercury fell below zero, we were focusing so much on the ears that their tails started to freeze, so it is important to keep moving the blow dryer across the kids from nose to tail.
A breeder I know in Canada has had kids wind up with frozen feet, in which case the kids may have to be put down because the feet will fall off within about two weeks. A couple of years after I first heard about this, we had a one-day-old kid wind up with frozen feet when the temperature unexpectedly fell to 20 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, even though we did have a heat lamp on them. When it’s that cold, a heat lamp really doesn’t help much. His brother was fine, so our assumption is that rather than sleeping with his hind legs tucked under his body, he was sleeping with them sticking out to the side.
If your temperatures are routinely falling below -10 (yes, 10 below zero) Fahrenheit, you might want to create little warming huts, which are small “caves” that have a hole in the top where a heat lamp shines down. Kids can’t come into contact with the heat lamp. But the lamp is shining down into this area where the heat can build up at least a little bit and make the temperature warmer than the outside air.
Some people do this by cutting a barrel in half and cutting a hole in the top of the barrel. The cut side of the barrel goes on the ground. They cut an opening down there big enough for kids to walk through, so it looks like an igloo.
Once the kids are dry, they don’t seem to be bothered by cold weather much. However, this can vary depending upon the kid’s size. Standard breeds of goat kids don’t usually need anything in the way of additional warmth, but the smallest of pygmy or Nigerian dwarf kids (2 pounds or less) may need a little coat or a heat lamp.
Keep in mind that heat lamps are the number one cause of barn fires, and if you use one, make sure there is no way that a curious goat can knock it down. If the heat lamp winds up in the straw or wood chip bedding, it can easily ignite a fire. I don’t usually use a heat lamp beyond the first day or two unless temperatures are in the teens or lower.
The coat pictured can easily be made from the sleeve of an old sweatshirt. The wristband of the sweatshirt becomes the neck band for the kid. Cut two small holes for the kid’s front feet, and you’re good to go! Remember, if the kid is a buck, you need to be sure the coat doesn’t go under his belly far enough for him to be able to pee on it.
Coats should NOT be routinely used because they are not without their dangers. I only use them for Nigerian dwarf kids that are less than 2 pounds or those that wind up with hypothermia after I’ve warmed them up once already. Some may just need a few hours to figure out how to regulate their body temperature. You should not need to use a coat beyond the first day or two.
Several years ago when I was stuck in bed with a knee injury, my husband put coats on a couple of kids that he was worried about. One morning he went out there to find one of them dead. It was being dragged around by its mother whose leg had somehow gone through the neck opening and out the leg opening.
Getting started with nursing
This is always important, and I don’t leave the barn until I’ve seen all of the kids find the teat and nurse without assistance. When it’s cold out, however, it is even more important!
When kids get chilled, the first thing to go is their sucking instinct. A lot of people are quick to assume that a kid has a selenium deficiency if it can’t figure out how to nurse, but if temperatures are below freezing, the kid could simply have hypothermia. Once the kid is warmed up, it will nurse.
Last winter I got a call from someone who wanted to know how to tube feed a kid. I asked her why she wanted to know, and after she described the situation, it seemed obvious that the kid was simply chilled and that tube feeding would not help. If a kid has hypothermia its digestive system has shut down. It won’t digest anything if its body temperature is less than around 100, so tube feeding is not the answer.
The quickest way to know if a kid has hypothermia is to put your finger in its mouth. It should feel warm. If it’s cool, the kid’s body temperature is below normal. If it feels like ice water, you need to work quickly to get the kid warmed up.
Many year ago my original mentor told me to put a kid in a bucket of warm water to warm it quickly. This does work, but now you have a kid that’s soaking wet again, which puts you back at square one with drying.
Today I prefer to put the kid on a heating pad while moving a blow dryer across the top of its body. The colder the air is, the closer the blow dryer has to be to the kids body. When it’s below zero, it can’t be more than a couple of inches from the kid or the air will be cold. I always have my hand moving across the kid’s body while the blow dryer is on, so I know how warm it is — or not.
Do NOT wrap a kid in a heating pad because you could overheat it — especially if you walk away for a little while. I’ve never heard of anyone making this mistake more than once. If the kid gets overheated it can have a seizure, which can kill it.
As you are trying to warm up the kid, put your finger in its mouth every 10 to 15 minutes. It should start to feel warmer, of course. But you know things have really improved when the kid starts to suck on your finger.
Once the kid’s mouth is warm and it sucks on your finger, you can stick it under the doe’s udder to see if it will nurse. I usually give it a minute or so, and if it hasn’t found the teat, I’ll open its mouth and put the teat in it, then close the mouth and hold the kid there. You may also squirt a little milk in the kid’s mouth before closing it. Some will start to suckle right away.
If it doesn’t start nursing after about 10 minutes of me working with it, I’ll milk the mother and give the kid colostrum in a bottle with a Pritchard teat. For more on this process, check out my post on getting a baby goat started on a bottle, which includes a video. Unlike human babies, which can get nipple confused, goats have a very clear preference for mom, so you don’t need to worry about having a bottle baby forever if you give it this one bottle of mom’s colostrum.
Sometimes kids just need the colostrum — called liquid gold by some — to get them jump started. I prefer the Pritchard teat because you can squeeze the bottle and drip the milk into the kid. Especially if this is a late night kidding, I am not going to leave the barn until I know the kid has 5 to 10 percent of its body weight in colostrum in its belly.
If the kid is finding the teat and nursing on its own, I know this will continue to happen overnight. But if I have to give it a bottle, I want to be sure it has that colostrum before I go to bed.
Why kid in winter?
After reading all of this, you’re probably wondering why anyone would choose to kid in winter. Well, when you have goats, things don’t always go as planned. Many people contact me in this situation because they bought a goat that was bred by someone else for winter kidding. The other common reason is because accidents happen. Somehow a buck managed to find a doe in heat, and now you’re expecting babies.
We chose to kid in the dead of winter in Illinois for many years because it was one of the strategies we used to overcome a problem with dewormer resistance. Because none of the dewormers worked in our herd, we started kidding in winter so that our does would not need a dewormer after giving birth. Because we learned how to prevent parasites, worms are no longer a problem for us, so we now schedule kids for spring.
I’ve never met anyone whose first choice was to have their goats give birth in winter, but sometimes it happens, and you can make the best of it by being prepared and knowing what to expect.
If you would like to know more about caring for your adult goats in cold weather, you can check out our previous post on Goats in Winter.
This article was originally published on January 31, 2014 and was last revised on October 28, 2019.