Recent goat miscarriage: possible causes & implications

In the background of all else going on this winter, we’ve been quietly considering and addressing some concerns with the goats, which came to a head on Thursday night with a miscarriage of three kids. We’re writing up a long description and discussion of these events and our analysis of them for multiple reasons: for our own records and use, for the openness about our successes and problems that is quite important to us, and for the use and reference of other small farmers seeking the same answers online that we so often do. We know that such openness has the potential to make us look like bad managers, but the reality is that sometimes bad things happen in farming. Analyzing the situation and reflecting on things we might have done differently is one of the ways we learn to do better in the future. And if this is helpful to others in a similar situation, then we deem it to be information worth sharing.

For about 4 years, our goats were quite problem free. We hadn’t had major parasite problems since we implemented our rotational grazing program, in which they are kept on pasture for good from roughly May-December. We’ve had mild recurring issues with goat-specific lice (very common in goats). And we’ve had only one very brief mastitis problem (about 3 years ago) during the entire period we’ve milked goats. Otherwise, goat health has been a breeze.

The severe drought of 2012 stressed our pastures and forced us to graze them more heavily than desired. This meant there was very little remaining forage stockpiled for winter grazing. We decided only to breed two does that fall, to reduce the herd size for 2013 and thus reduce pressure on pastures which need time to recover even if we don’t have a second drought year. Quartz & Calcite are sisters from good stock whose first breeding last year went perfectly, hopefully representing  the long-term future of our milk supply here, so we wanted to keep them going and thus gave the older does a break.

Our records say they bred a day apart, on November 11 & 12, 2012, which gave them a due date in early April. We’ve been mildly concerned all winter, given the scarcity and expense of hay, but they seemed to be doing well going into January. Quartz in particular was bulking up fast; we were unsure of Calcite as she stayed relatively thinner (Joanna thought she was pregnant; Eric wasn’t sure). The warm winter was also concerning us, because we house the goats in a barn (with pasture access) for the winter months and count on cold weather to keep parasite activity in check; a multitude of warm winter days were not helping here.

When we returned home from our 2-week trip in late January (during which we’d arranged for others to watch the farm & do basic daily chores), we saw a noticeable difference in Calcite’s condition. She was much thinner, and had developed a strong cough. We narrowed the coughing issue down to a likely case of lungworm, which she had probably picked up from grazing extra-close to the ground given the poor pasture conditions. One type of lungworm spends part of its life cycle in a snail, while another does not require an intermediate host. If the former, eating close to the ground could also have made an accidental munch of a snail more likely.

Confirmation & identification of lungworm is a difficult/expensive test; they won’t show up in a regular fecal sample done by the floatation method. But lungworm is serious enough to require treatment, both for the health of the animal and to limit further spread of the parasite. Given how well the symptoms matched the condition, we opted to treat for lungworm and find out if she responded. After several years without any chemical wormers, we began a course of Ivermectin, a relatively benign worming agent that is the most common recommendation for lungworm (though there’s some uncertainty about its effectiveness in goats). Our goats aren’t certified organic, but we were slightly comforted to learn that Ivermectin is allowed in emergency treatment of organic dairy stock when the normal management practices fail to prevent infection. Calcite has recovered some weight since then, but is clearly not pregnant now. The others appeared healthy and active, Quartz growing quite large.

With mild concern over their diet and overall body condition, we hunted down some extra (and quite expensive) local grass hay in early February, a very good move as shortly thereafter,  two major winter storms blew in and effectively confined all the goats to their barn for over a week.

Thursday evening, everything changed. Eric went out to do evening animal chores, and found Quartz showing every sign of preliminary kidding, at least 5 weeks early. We talked to our vet, who agreed she was probably miscarrying, and recommended just giving her time to work through it, with observation. So we isolated her in a separate area of the barn, and spent the evening and overnight hours checking on her regularly to ensure comfort and stability. Friday morning she began delivering stillborn kids, 3 in all. By Friday evening she was still struggling to finish passing her afterbirth, so we called in our vet, whose services were clearly needed to properly clean her out and ensure no following infections or injuries.

The vet administered a course of antibiotics and medications that in a certified organic herd would require that the animal be culled from production (though even organic producers would be required to administer medications that are deemed necessary for the animal’s health). One of the reasons that we do not certify our animals is that we want freedom to make our own decisions on treatment & culling; we will still be able to retain Quartz in our herd, which we could not now do if the animals were certified. In the meantime, we took the three dead kids and some fecal samples to the MU Veterinary Diagnostic Lab for testing to seek more data on why this happened (those results won’t be available for a while).

Along with obvious questions about the causes of Quartz’s miscarriage, this reopened the question of whether Calcite had bred and then miscarried much earlier, or never bred successfully at all. The obvious weight loss and cough development while we were gone may be related to this, or may have masked an early miscarriage which we might have noticed if we hadn’t been away. Goat miscarriages tend to be rare overall. Two goats miscarrying is more concerning than just one, but either way deserves some effort in finding an explanation.

In trying to find an answer to a problem like this, we tend to develop a set of multiple working hypotheses, researching and considering as many explanations as possible, and considering how well the possibilities fit the evidence. Sometimes multiple factors may be working together, and in some cases the definitive cause may never be known. Here are some factors we’ve considered:

1) Nutritional deficiencies from poor pastures, nutritionally imperfect hay, and/or insufficient feeding. We’ve been using two batches of alfalfa hay from the same local grower, from whom we’ve purchased for years, and whose hay is always tested. The second batch wasn’t as good as the first, but both were quite acceptable. Our grass hay hasn’t been tested and isn’t of particularly good quality. Goats also have free access to a fully balanced goat mineral, which they partake in regularly. They’ve also always had free access to rotated pasture areas (such as they are) until the snows came.

We did make a management choice this fall to wean all the goats off the small amounts of organic grain we were still feeding, with the long-term goal of increasing their health (grain isn’t good for ruminants) and lowering our feed costs. It’s possible this was a poorly timed choice, as the other nutritional stresses from poor pasturage and difficult winter weather could have been balanced by the formulated goat ration we’d been feeding in small amounts. There’s no way to judge this for sure, but as of Friday our vet thought the rest of the herd looked healthy and properly conditioned, and didn’t think grain was necessary previously or now.

2) Low-level chronic nitrate poisoning. Nitrates build up in some plants under certain conditions, particularly drought, and can initiate poisoning of livestock when ingested. Severe nitrate poisoning can cause near-instant death, but low levels can slowly build up and cause background issues like weight loss and abortion. Pregnant animals are especially susceptible. Nitrates commonly accumulate under drought conditions which stress plants, and thus could be present in elevated quantities in purchased hay and/or pasture plants. Our alfalfa was grown in an irrigated field, lowering the risk of nitrate accumulation, but not eliminating it. Again, the direct role here is difficult to determine, but even low-level nitrate poisoning could easily be a contributing factor among other issues. Online research suggests, ironically, that grain-feeding can help absorb excess nitrates, so there could be a possible correlation with item #1. We hope the lab results will help settle this question.

3) General stress from recent weather. Goats do not like to be confined, but the foot+ of snow on the ground has effectively removed all access to pastures for them. They have access to outdoors and fresh air through a small covered area that kept off snow (image below), but that’s not the same as true pasture and exercise. Temporary snow confinement is bound to happen in most winters, and it’s never caused health problems before for us, but it could be a compounding factor in this extra-stressful season, especially given #5 below.goats_march_1

4) Rough-housing. Goats have a strong sense of social order, and enforce it physically. Our top goat, Garlic, can be quite rough in putting others in their place, charging, head-butting, and otherwise pushing around her underlings. This is considered one of the primary causes of miscarriage in goats, and especially bad roughhousing initiated by a since-culled doe likely contributed to a malformed kid delivered by Frankie (the bottom goat) a few years ago. Quartz in particular is high in the social order and rarely mistreated. So this seems unlikely, but one never knows just what physical interactions could damage a delicate pregnancy. Calcite does get pushed around some, so this is a possibility for her possible early miscarriage.

5) Perfectly terrible timing. Quartz’s miscarriage happened right during the most critical time in goat’s pregnancy, 90-110 days in, when the kids are growing especially fast; the snow cut off all access to pasture right in the middle of this time window. This is when all sorts of things have to go right and when many online references suggest things are most likely to go wrong. Certainly, a combination of the above factors, combined with the extra bodily & nutritional stresses of carrying triplets, could have worked together to produce a miscarriage at this moment. In Calcite’s case, it will be forever unclear because it happened (if it did) so much earlier and while we were away and unable to observe the animals closely, as we usually do.

6) Poisonous plant in the grass hay? Some poisonous plants can cause goats to miscarry. We’ve found a couple of broadleaf plants in the grass hay that we haven’t yet identified; we’re pretty good at plant ID, but crinkly dried leaves without flowers can be challenging. Is it possible that a bale of grass hay contained a poisonous weed that contributed to the problem? This could only explain Quartz’s miscarriage, but could not be a contributing factor to Calcite’s health issues/possible miscarriage in late January because we did not yet have that hay on hand.

7) Weakened immune system/unknown pathogen? Having recently read David Quammen’s excellent & highly recommended book Spillover, the possibility that some infectious agent is involved is on our minds. One of the disease outbreaks he discusses even revolves around aborting goats, though in that case it is large-scale confinement goats—not those on pasture—that get sick.  None of the infectious diseases that we have read about remotely matches the symptoms that we’ve observed. Though we currently think involvement of an infectious agent is unlikely, the potential seriousness is a reason that we are paying for tests at the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab.

8) Parasites. Other than Calcite’s suspected lungworm, the goats are not showing any more outward sign of parasite load than is typical; the inside of their eyelids are all pretty pink, which is a rough way of saying they’re not anemic and the parasite load isn’t bad, and our vet agrees their body condition looks healthy. Some low-level background presence of parasites is pretty much always a given in goats. In any case, we’re running fecal samples of both Quartz & Calcite to see what’s there.

At this point, we have hypotheses but not conclusions. We lean towards the explanation that extreme weather is a root cause: exceptional drought stressed the pastures which maybe caused plants to take up nutrients differently/less effectively which led to poorer animal nutrition and problems with animal health, followed by especially warm & parasite friendly winter conditions, followed by more extreme weather in the form of snow that cooped up the goats in the barn and prevented any pasture access for a week leading up to Quartz’s miscarriage. It’s also worth noting that miscarriages are a fact of biology; our vet was certainly of the opinion that shit happens at a certain rate in any herd, and there isn’t always a cause one can point to. She’s seen an increase in various animal health problems elsewhere this winter due to drought and associated factors, and our farm has certainly felt all the same influences.

In any case, Quartz appears to be recovering normally from what has been a very difficult few days for her, and we’ve been spending a lot of time monitoring her condition (below, at left with sister Calcite). She’s clearly showing some distress, and we think she’s feeling the loss of her kids. Last year she was our most dedicated mother, and complained the loudest when her kids were removed for mid-summer butchering (due to drought conditions), so it’s not surprising she’s feeling this loss, too, as well as normal discomfort from both the miscarriage and subsequent cocktail of medications. She’s young and otherwise healthy, though, and we have full expectations that she’ll be with us for many years to come. goats_march_2These events certainly have long-term implications for us, balancing the loss of a year’s milk & (goat) meat supply with a significant amount of time & work freed up to focus elsewhere on the farm. The combination of vet services and lab tests will also be a significant budget-buster, but like most health care it’s something you have to do regardless of cost.  It’s likely these events will soak up most of the profit from last year’s milk sales, with no more income from goats for another year. Now we’ve also treated both of our younger goats with medications that we wish we hadn’t needed to. Quartz will probably be able to breed again, but the pregnancy will be higher risk. We’ll be changing our own diet significantly, as we can’t and won’t buy our typical high consumption of dairy products  (2-4 gallons of milk a week, typically, and all that we make from it) from off-farm sources, something we’ll write more about soon. Coming on the heels of personal cold/flu & damaging winter storm #2, it’s been quite a one-two punch lately.

8 thoughts on “Recent goat miscarriage: possible causes & implications

  1. I’m very sorry about the loss of the kids, both for Quartz’s sake and for the stresses it puts on your food production for the next year. Hope both goat ladies make full recoveries!

  2. Having farmed for 50 years, I would tend to agree with the vet’s prognosis. (S**T Happens)

  3. Sorry for your losses. Fortunately – as you said – the incidence of abortions is goats is relatively rare. I’ve been raising dairy goats since 1995 and have only seen 3 (knock wood – my ladies are due mid April). You may never know the reason. I highly recommend the book Goat Medicine by Mary Smith and David Sherman as a resource. A goat’s body will sacrifice the kids to save itself. If Calcite was bred – she more than likely reabsorbed the fetus. 2012 presented us with the perfect storm for nutritional issues. The goat’s body became stressed which allowed opportunities for other illnesses to set in.

    Some additional ideas to consider: 1. CAE virus. I won’t go into a discussion regarding this as it usually starts a flame war which makes any meaningful exchange of information virtually impossible. There is a plethora of information available on the internet if you wish to investigate further. It is up to each person to decide how this virus will be managed in their own herd. I only offer it as a possible suggestion. Being stressed nutritionally may cause an otherwise healthy animal to succumb to the effects of the virus.
    2. Infectious agent as you said: Specifically toxoplasmosis. Exposure to the urine and feces of infected animals such as cats & raccoons can cause abortion. The good news is that a toxo infection usually confers immunity to the goat and the goat shouldn’t abort again for this reason. Also chlamydia will cause abortion. This infection could have been acquired during breeding. Again – chlamydial infection will usually confer immunity to the goat.

    I’m not organic but I do try to grow as naturally as possible. Everyone has to judge for themselves on what is effective and practical for their particular circumstance. Over the years – I have developed the following management practices for the goats: I alternate Valbazen and Cydectin as wormers (I tried the FAMACHA eyelid check – just didn’t work for me) and worm at least quarterly. I do try to time a worming 1 month prior to kidding and shortly after a kidding (along with a hoof trim because the doe doesn’t kick as vigorously when they are still sore after a kidding).

  4. I also wanted to add that approximately 1 month prior to kidding I add a protein block. Particulary helpful in a year where the nutritiona content of the hay is poor. Routinely my goats get fescue round bales because that is what readily availble from our farm. I try bring in squares of either alfafa or clover during milking because it enhances the milk flavor. Dry does do not need a grain ration but I give a litte as a treat. One month prior to kidding – I starting increasing grain ration to achieve 1 pound per day by the time of kidding. Milking does get a ration based upon how much milk they are producing. Weaned kids get 1 pound of grain per day each

  5. Katie,

    Thanks for the input. Preliminary lab tests suggest BVD virus, which in some ways raises more questions than answers as the vector for how that got on our isolated farm is far from clear. We’re going to write up more when we’ve been able to discuss thus further with our vet and possibly do more tests; this is already soaking up time we can’t easily spare from the beginning of vegetable season, though we have to figure it out because this is something we can’t ignore.

  6. I hadn’t heard of that one before. ? deer as a vector. Thank you for a heads up on what to expect on this side of the State. From what info I’ve managed to find – looks like there is hope that infected animals will develop immunity. Perhaps the non-bred ones have been exposed as well and are now immune. I didn’t find a source which indicates it is zoonotic. I would think you have plenty of time to make decisions regarding herd management prior to next breeding time without worrying about whether or not you could pick up an illness from your animals. I commiserate with the loss of your kid crop. I once didn’t realize my buck was shooting blanks and ended up managing dry does for a year without kid sales to offset the expenses. Such is life on a farm. Que sera sera!

  7. I fell upon your post by accident, as I am doing searches to learn potential causes why my 7 year old dwarf alpine Kena went into premature delivery (possibly 10 days early), last week.
    You appear to take this to as much heart, as I do over the loss.

    I too admit, that by posting my mistakes to others, maybe one pregnancy can be saved.

    I thank you for posting, as I am on the search for my cause, as well. You brought up MANY good points for me to consider.

    You are not alone in losing precious kids this year.

    It’s only rare when it doesn’t happen to you.

  8. We keep a few dairy cattle for home use, and have been gradually embracing the learning curve of using herbs & homeopathy for their health needs, in tandem with a continual eye on nutrition. This has been a lifetime (about 30 years). That time frame does not indicate expertise, just interest. I doubt that with market farming you can ‘afford’ to invest time heavily to natural veterinary study, but would offer that there are homeopathy books from Acres USA, should you have a passion to check it out some winter. I originally dabbled in homeopathy, set it aside from not being able to make sense of how it could possibly work, and then returned to it, because it did give results that nothing else would. This past winter I was introduced though books to a two pronged approach (labeled truly holistic veterinary care) of homeopathy for the ‘energy’ side of the illness, with a small amount of corresponding plant material to address immediate health needs/alleviate symptoms/support the actual physical process of needful repair to the body. I write to encourage and support your efforts to be transparent, and know first hand how ‘failure’ can push us onward to find a lasting solution, rather then patching up a failed approach. That said, I would share that I once used lobelia tincture to intervene with what threatened to be a miscarriage–(slight discharge, obvious discomfort/initial uterine spasm). I was amazed at the turn around. Literature indicates that lobelia/false unicorn is ‘intelligent’ knowing whether to hasten the process from necessity or to retain the life for the present. Such may be something you would keep on hand and experiment with for yourself. The world about us is so amazing, the path less traveled can bring such abundant rewards. I applaud your ongoing effort to keep an open mind as to the truths these tradgedies can point us to.