Who do you think you are?

_DSC0126Ivy was born on the 9th August this year, the last of the kids born to the maiden does (first time kidding). She comes from a long line of goats. Her mother is Hoya, borne by Jasmine, who came from Lilac, out of Buddelia. Muse is her great great great grand dame. Ivy’s father’s is Milano (Petra’s son) the grandson of Carlos, one of our foundation bucks. No SBS production needed here, because our joining’s are carefully considered and mapped, and besides, the offspring themselves give their heritage away.

Genetics are an important consideration on our farm. We believe that environment, animal care and nutrition are 90% of the story, genetics the rest. But faulty genetics will never result in a happy, healthy, productive animal. Inbreeding can cause conformation weaknesses, neurological problems and poor milk production. So we work just as hard on improving that 10%.

People think it’s nice or quaint, that we name all our goats. In fact it’s for a very practical reason. Not only can we and our staff remember each and every animal when we look at them, milk them and feed them, but through their name we become aware of every other goat that she is linked to – the whole family ancestry and all that comes with it.

Holy Goat Cheese and Sutton Grange Organic FarmWe have several maternal lines – the famous singers (eg. Piaf, Bonnie, Marlena, etc), the precious metals (eg. Copper, Silver, Pewter, Bronze, etc), the fruit (eg. Guava, Pear, Mulberry, etc). Performers, goddesses, herbs, and of course Ivy, of the climbing plants line (we started with flowering plants but there were two sisters we wanted to breed from so we split them into the climbers and the flowers).

Naming our goats gives us instant recognition of family lines and traits. Traits get carried down through the lines. We notice the quirky things the most – the adventurous ones that strive beyond the regular goat, like Muse who was always breaking out of her paddock, sussing out the wheelbarrow of feed at milking time. Muse had triplets (Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Bette Davis) – all of them escapees as well, but usually only at milking when they’d come and oversee activities, or seek an extra feed. Even grand daughter Lola does the same!

_DSC0129Besides this behavioural tendency, conformation is another major feature – feet, udders, build and milking volume are all highly heritable. Chervil, Chicory, Mint and Parsley are all big milkers with well formed udders and sturdy bodies.

Our breeding plans are put in place well before joining, based on generations of observation – of a goat’s mother, sister, aunt, grand mother, her sire. We don’t mate underperforming does.

We mate our young maiden does in March. But we don’t join these maiden does until they are one and a half years old, which gives us an opportunity to observe their milk production, behaviour, health and how closely they resemble their heritage. We also want the does to have a fully developed rumen before they kid, which takes at least 18 months. This means they are better prepared for the stresses of birth and lactaction at 2 years old. Our three bucks are put in separate paddocks and we introduce small groups of young does who stay there for 6-8 weeks.

Our older dairy does are mated individually when they are 4 years old. Goats cycle, or come into oestrus, every 3 weeks (a bit shorter than humans) and will tell us by their actions – typically tail wagging, flirting with each other, hanging about in small groups, standing up. If a buck is nearby it’s pretty obvious, but some of the quieter goats need closer observation of behavioural or physical signs. We take the doe individually to the buck we have chosen for them and it’s all pretty quick – impregnation only takes a 5 seconds or so.

_DSC0123Sometimes, despite all our intentions and good fences, a doe will decide for herself who she fancies! In most cases that’s okay, but we have to make sure the buck isn’t closely related to them.

Other dairy farmers may increase nutrition at mating – primarily protein levels – but we have no problems with fertility in our herd (this year we have 35 kids from 17 does) so it is not an issue for our farm. But we do alter nutrition during pregnancy, especially in the second trimester, and focus on providing a selection of minerals for pregnant does.

Over time we can see the genetic influence of the bucks because the maternal lines are strong and repeatable. We want to avoid inbreeding. With only 2 to 3 bucks we need to keep alert to it and ideally would introduce a new buck every three years. The reality is that many large goat herds have animal health issues such as Johnnes disease and Caprine arthritis encephalitis (CAE) so even if their genetics are good, they are a risky proposition. Small herds can run into inbreeding problems. So far we have been able to keep a balance between self replacing our bucks using the maternal genetic traits and bringing in new genes through true and trusted breeders. We don’t try to improve our herd through bucks alone – there are enough strong and diverse genes through our maternal lines to ensure we keep our animals strong, healthy and productive.

It gets more complex the more generations are produced. We have a series of spreadsheets to keep track and ensure we are always outbreeding. Over the years of working with the herd we make connections and we are always thinking about heritage, ancestry, progeny. At every milking we look down the line and ask how is this goat performing? How true is she to her heritage? How variable are her traits, compared to her relatives? What could the next branch of this family tree be?

We are already contemplating Ivy’s perfect match…