Survival of the Fittest. Most of us are familiar with the concept. The strongest, fastest, and smartest animals are the ones who pass on their genes the most in the nature. The dumb doodles who get themselves killed at a younger age are removed from the gene pool early. The sickly ones with poor immune systems catch an illness and don’t recover and are removed from the gene pool early. The weak, slow, or otherwise impaired ones have trouble finding mates and lose fights against their stronger counterparts, and they don’t pass on their genes to as many offspring.
We farmers could stand to learn a thing or two from nature.
Here’s the cold, hard fact: we are not doing our jobs well when it comes to selectively breeding our livestock. And although I’m not speaking of a specific species here, I feel like we do a particularly bad job when it comes to breeding dairy goats. I know these are generalizations, and I know that this isn’t true of every breeder out there. But believe me — this is a very real problem. In general, we are creating a gene pool of weak, needy, hard keeping animals. Doing so serves our soft-hearted idealism and shallow desires in the short run, but it does nothing but harm in the long term.
There are many things we have to consider when we choose our breeding pairs in livestock. Conformation matters, because a sturdy and correct conformation is directly tied to things like longevity, capacity, and ease of giving birth. Function follows form. Production matters, because that is ultimately why we have livestock — they are designed and bred to produce milk, meat, or fiber. Fertility matters, because poor birth rates lower overall profits and can cause other problems as well, like fetus growth being too large due to lack of competition for nutrients in utero. Personality and temperament matter, because we live and work with these animals on a daily basis and need them to be reasonably safe and easy to work with. Color and aesthetics, while fun, do not matter and should only be the icing on an already sound cake.
Poor breeders breed solely for color and cute factor. They don’t care about form and function, they don’t care about practicality. They care about pretty coats and money in their pocket. No good comes from this kind of breeding program. Instead, colorful animals are churned out and sold as breeding animals regardless of how well they exceed or fail in every other way.
Good breeders breed with production, conformation, fertility, and temperament in mind. In a best case scenario, they do this for the benefit of bettering the breed overall and creating useful, productive animals. In a lesser situation, they do so to win show ribbons and production awards and create a name for themselves so they can enjoy prestige and sell animals for more money. The latter can be harmful as greed and pride often lead to unethical behavior. It is possible to breed an animal to extreme production and excellent form at a great detriment to general well being and longevity.
Better breeders are focused on creating the ideal animal. That doesn’t simply mean the best conformation or highest production. That means an animal that embodies good form, good production, good temperament, and good fertility that also boasts other beneficial traits as well — things like parasite resistance, good immunity, longevity, easy keeping, and overall resilience.
We, myself included at times, are so easily blinded by the image of an ideal animal with perfect conformation and bucket-busting milk production (or excellent fiber quality or fast growing meat) that we forget about what is even more important: an animal’s ability to thrive without constant and excessive human intervention.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for a “toss them in the pasture and whoever makes it through winter gets bred again next year” mentality. When we chose to own livestock we are accepting the responsibility of feeding, housing, and providing routine maintenance. Things like hoof trimming and mineral supplementation are part and parcel of the journey. We take previously wild animals and domesticate them, breed them to our specifications, take them out of their natural habitat, and confine them. It would be absurd to expect them to thrive without any help from us. We are meant to be good stewards, not mere observers.
What I mean is that, although any animal may get sick or need to be dewormed, no breeding animal should be a constant battle just to keep alive. I don’t care if it’s a permanent champion, highly awarded animal worth its weight in gold based on its merits in the show ring and production history. The damage done to the overall gene pool by continuing to breed a fragile animal is not worth what may be gained.
We need to be breeding animals that are resilient.
Goats are the hardest livestock to raise in terms of keeping them in prime health. Ask any serious, reputable goat breeder who’s been at it for several years or any good veterinarian with a lot of experience with goats and they will attest to this fact. My local veterinarian actually warns people who don’t own goats yet not to get them in some cases. He told a friend of mine she was too soft-hearted for goats, because “goats just die.” And I’m glad that he warns people, because goats are freaking hard. They are highly prone to parasites — parasites are the number one killer of goats and resistance to dewormers is an ongoing problem. They lose weight quickly and gain it slowly. When they get sick, they get sick fast. They hide their illness and if you miss the subtle changes, it’s usually too late.
I have seen goats go down and not recover when they were fine the day before. I’ve battled parasites in goats only to have them reinfect over and over again even after moving pastures. I’ve seen the crazy fast decline from horrible diseases like listeria and gangrenous mastitis. I’ve seen the slow and steady downfall of goats who could not shake parasite infestation despite having the book thrown at them. I’ve also seen goats make full recoveries. I’ve seen goats hardly ever need to be dewormed. I’ve seen them have a will and desire to fight, and I’ve seen them simply give up.
Sometimes things just happen. I can’t blame something like septic mastitis on poor immunity when it happens to a goat that has never been sick a day in her life before that infection. But sometimes goats — and other livestock — do not have the wherewithal they need.
I have seen one goat die from a parasite infestation despite undergoing multiple treatments from the first sign of infestation to their death, while other goats show signs of infestation and then recover quickly after treatment. So what’s the difference in a situation like that?
I will tell you my personal opinion. The difference lies not in the treatment, the parasites, or the whims of life and death. The difference lies in the goat itself. We have very effectively and efficiently churned out many subpar animals without even realizing it. They look and produce like the others, but their natural constitution is not the same. They lack natural resistance, natural immunity, and a natural ability to fight. We have focused so long on what we think betters a breed — better conformation, more production, more show wins, more awards, more pedigree prestige — that we have completely ignored the things that were of vital important to our ancestors, back before we had the modern medical resources that we have today. Back in a time where livestock were life and death for humans.
If we want our livestock to be sturdy and dependable, then animals that repeatedly get sick, repeatedly get parasite infestation, repeatedly prove hard to keep weight on, repeatedly take too much of a hit when they’re challenged by natural things like rut, milking, etc — those animals should not continue to be bred. There is a very big difference between an animal that gets sick once and recovers, or an animal that needs to occasionally be dewormed, and an animal that gets sick every time the wind blows or constantly struggles with parasite overload. We need to be able to distinguish one from the other.
I’m not saying to pull an animal from the breeding program because it got a cold one time. I’m saying pull the problematic ones, the ones who need constant babying just to survive, out of rotation. Bench them. Let them sit out the game. I can almost promise that your herd, the breed, and the species in general will not suffer drastically from doing so.
I have a goat, for example, who loses her hair each spring. I don’t mean she sheds. I mean she goes completely bald. Then she slowly grows her hair back over the course of the summer. Now, before you suggest things like lice, mites, mineral deficiencies, etc — I promise, we’ve been down that road. Working with my vet and someone who owns her sister, we were able to determine that this is a genetic trait that is carried in her line. This was not disclosed to me before I purchased her by her breeder and previous owner; naturally, I wish it had been. I love her dearly, but spontaneous baldness is not in my list of desirable traits for goats. I didn’t even find out until she was pregnant with her first kids to be born here (but third litter overall) that it’s an issue.
Thankfully she does not appear to pass this to her offspring when outcrossed so I don’t have to retire her, but I would never try linebreeding with her, not even on a very distant relative. The saddest part is that the originator of her lines and other breeders with her lines know this to be an issue and not only do not disclose it to potential buyers (apparently) but also continue breeding in a way that produces this defect. The defense is that the pedigree is worth it. I don’t think that’s worth it. Her pedigree is fantastic, but it’s not worth breeding genetically inferior animals just for a pedigree or a title. We have to do better than this. We have to think ahead to the fact that parasite resistance to dewormer will likely only get worse as people continue to abuse dewormers and use them incorrectly. We have to consider the fact that antibiotics are largely overused and antibiotic resistant bacteria is a real threat.
We need to breeding animals that do not need frequent treatments with medications and dewormers. We need to be breeding animals that thrive on the basics as a normal state of being. With proper housing, good nutrition, and appropriate mineral supplementation, our livestock should only occasionally need higher levels of intervention. It shouldn’t be the “norm” to have to constantly treat, intervene, or otherwise baby livestock.
This is what we need to be breeding for:
In addition to things like conformation, temperment, production, and the like, there are so many other important traits to consider when breeding livestock.
1. Natural parasite resistance.
All animals constantly have some level of internal parasites. They poop on grass and then eat that grass, so it’s a given that they will always have some level of parasites. This is normal and okay. Parasites only become an issue when the number of parasites is greater than what the animal’s immune system can tolerate without beginning to experience symptoms like anemia and weight loss. Some animals can tolerate higher loads than others — this is a trait you want to breed into your animals. The less they need to be dewormed, the better.
Management practices such as rotational grazing, keeping feeders above poop-level, and keeping pasture height above 4″ help as well. Remember each time you use a dewormer you are also selectively breeding parasites with higher and higher resistance to that dewormer. Deworming is inevitable, especially with goats, but it shouldn’t need to be done constantly. If an animal frequently needs to be dewormed, stop breeding that animal.
2. Good natural immunity and fortitude.
Similarly to natural resistance to parasites, natural resistance to other various ailments and illnesses is important as well. An animal with a poor immunity is likely to be sick more often and to be more sensitive to environmental factors that can effect the wellness of an animal. This could be anything from damp weather to sudden weather changes to the introduction to new bacteria by a new addition to the herd or a change in feed.
Animals can have poor immunity due to any number of things. Sometimes it can be a genetic trait due to poor breeding practices and sometimes it can be environmental. For example, a goat kid that is infected with coccidiosis and left untreated is going to struggle as an adult. Proper colostrum intake at birth is also supremely important. I also personally believe, just based on things I have seen in my own experience, that animals (specifically goats) that are bottle raised tend to have weaker immunities and grow more slowly than animals that are dam raised. Likewise, animals that are weaned too early suffer a similar stunt in growth. Goats should have milk a minimum of two months (the age intact males must be separated from dams and sisters), but they do much better with three or more months. Some dams will allow kids to continue nursing up to six months of age. This is something I have seen with my own eyes.
3. Natural mothering instincts.
If there’s one thing I hate to deal with, it’s a clueless or inattentive mother. A good maternal influence is so vital to the survival and thriving of the offspring. I want all of my female livestock to be able to care for their young on their own from birth to weaning with appropriate levels of care and nurturing. Mothers that don’t know what they’re doing can easily kill or injure their young (especially animals like pigs) and they don’t teach them the appropriate herd behavior. Offspring follow their mothers lead in all things — what to eat, how to play, proper manners, etc.
I strongly discourage the practice of routinely bottle feeding babies of any species, although the practice is most common in dairy animals. (It is a myth that goats must be bottle fed to be friendly to humans.) This is for two reasons. The first is lack of maternal influence on the young to teach them appropriate behavior. The second is because maternal instincts are simultaneously genetic and learned. It is possible to breed out good mothering instincts by constantly breaking the chain of mothering by bottle feeding. A breed or species or even specific genetic lineage that cannot routinely raise its own offspring on its own is not a sustainable animal.
That said, I also believe in second chances, especially for first time mothers. It’s not unusual for a first time mother to be a little shell shocked and not know what to do right after birth. Usually with a little help and coaxing, they catch on. If on the second time around cluelessness still reins, then there is a problem.
4. Ease of reproduction.
Similarly to the importance of mothering instinct, the ability to successfully reproduce naturally is important as well. I am not against the practice of AI (artificial insemination) and believe it’s a useful tool, but as a general rule it shouldn’t require jumping through hoops and throwing sacrificial lambs into volcanoes for an animal to naturally mate, get pregnant, and give birth without excessive human help. Some selectively bred breeds of poultry cannot even mate naturally. A breed that cannot reproduce itself is not a sustainable breed.
This applies to giving birth as well. While I always try to attend births in case of emergencies, repeat difficulties in delivery are a red flag to stop breeding that animal. The second chance rule applies here as well. Sometimes things just happen — a single kid is too big, a malpresentation occurs, etc. Needing assistance in a single birth is not a reason to stop breeding an animal. However if the animal has trouble again the next time, that signals to me that something about her conformation or internal “wiring” is wrong and she should not be bred again both for her sake and the sake of breeding animals that give birth easily. Major birth interventions (things like C-sections or manually repositioning a kid) should be the exception, not the norm — and you’ll find that in well bred animals that is the case.
Keep in mind that nutrition, proper weight, and mineral supplementation (especially copper and selenium) play very important roles in successful reproduction as well, however, before writing off an individual as a dud. Those things should be addressed first.
5. Longevity and easy keeping.
We humans are so shortsighted. We can barely see past the tips of our noses sometimes. So I’ll pose a scenario for you to think about: You have a beautiful cow who freshens for the first time with a massive udder and good production. She is a bucket-buster from day one. She puts too much of herself into the bucket, so you have to feed a ton of grain and end up drying her up early. But you think, hey — she made so much to begin with, it’s worth it, right? So you repeat the cycle. Each year she wears down a little more. Her udder attachments are poor so by a few years old she’s already kicking her udder if you don’t hoist it up with an udder bra. (Yes, they make those.) She gets chronic mastitis due to her udder being low to the ground. She still needs a ton of grain to maintain her weight, and still has to eventually be dried up earlier than usual because she gets too thin otherwise. Before the cow is middle aged her pasterns are breaking down, her udder is blown, you spend more to feed her than you get back in milk, and she is a constant struggle. Is that cow’s good production worth the hassle?
I would argue that the answer is no. I would much rather have a decent producing cow who, although not a bucket-buster, produces a steady amount of milk for a long period of time on minimal grain and whose udder stands the test of time, remaining well attached and high, and whose conformation is sturdy and holds up for a lifetime. The kind of cow who can produce with consistency and longevity rather than one who is impressive up front but falls apart shortly into her productive lifespan.
6. Joi de vivre.
This one may sound strange, but hear me out. Some animals simply have a spark about them. They have bright, vibrant personalities. They’re spunky. They’re go-getters. When they get sick, they fight hard to get well. They have what some might call a strong life force. Then there are animals who are just there. They eat, they drink, they sleep. They don’t have much personality and just sort of. . . exist. And when they get sick, they don’t rally with the same intensity.
I have seen animals that should have died, and that I expected to die, pull through despite the odds being against them. At the same time, I have also seen animals that should have survived, animals that I expected to live until it became obvious that the end was nigh, pass away despite the human’s best efforts. In some cases the only detectable difference has been in the attitude of the animal.
I’m not saying that animals have a concept of life and death beyond the instinctive fight-or-flight, eat-drink-mate-repeat survival instincts. Animals don’t think about death the way that humans do. So I’m not saying that any animals knowingly give up because they wish to die. Rather, what I’m saying is that some animals have a fighting spirit that helps them pull through when they get down. Other animals just don’t have the same spunk. Other animals seem almost apathetic. I absolutely believe that this difference in personality and attitude can make or break an animal’s chances of getting over an illness, just like it can with people.
I think other people who have owned a lot of different animals can understand what I’m saying when I talk about these differences. To give an example, I once rescued a pair of orphaned kittens from the shelter. They were too young to be weaned, dirty, flea-ridden, emaciated, and generally in a bad way. They both received the same care and treatment. They both were in the same starting condition. One lived, the other died. The only difference I could see between the two was that one had a much stronger personality. He would climb my pants leg at feeding time, meow loudly, and generally be spunky. His sister who passed away was much more demur from the start. Was it a difference in spunk that ultimately influenced the end results? I have no way of proving it, but I suspect that it might have had at least some influence.
The more time you spend with animals, the more you can start to sense things. You can see death coming. You can sense when an animal is off. You can see when an animal is a fighter. You don’t become psychic — God knows animals will always and forever take you by surprise at times — but you can get a better read on them. I think human nurses have similar experiences with their patients as well. Some animals are resilient, and others simply are not. I believe that personality plays a role alongside all the other physical aspects I’ve mentioned as well.
We need to do better, folks. We need to focus on well rounded livestock. Better a healthy, robust animal with good production and conformation than an award winning champion bucket-buster with a weak constitution.
Join with me on this. We can make an important impact on the future of livestock if we work at it. Be choosy about who gets to pass on genes in your herd, please.