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.
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. These 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.