Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wild vs Domesticated- goat conformation

The comparison between wild and well bred domesticated animals (or plants or anything else that can be bred, for that matter) is interesting because humans typically set about enacting a breeding program on the premises of improving upon nature. There's more than a little hubris involved in imagining that humans can implement vast improvements, in a few years, over what nature has cruelly, ruthlessly, relentlessly done for millenia. Granted, humans have been working on goats for a long time, since 9,000 BC, but wild goats continued to exist and evolve at the same time, so nature still has the upper hand.

I first began to have doubts about human improvements on wild/native species when some Canada geese flew in near a pair of Toulouse geese I was keeping. The contrast was striking: The wild geese were streamlined, elegant, beautiful, and self sufficient while the Toulouse geese looked dumpy and absurd beside them. Wild animals are often smaller than their tame counterparts (unless humans think that mini versions of the species are cute), and in farm animals, this is said to be more efficient. I bought into this line of thinking for a long time (literally), but it's hard to avoid drawing the unflattering parallel between wild/tame animals and Hummers or SUVs and highly efficient little cars. I'm not certain that bigger is better; it can be a decided disadvantage. Bigger animals take longer to attain their mature size, which means that their total reproductive output will probably be less, or that they risk dying if impregnated during the same time frame in which the wild types would be impregnated. It takes more food and more investment from the mother (in utero and while nursing the offspring) to feed a huge offspring than it does a smaller one, while compounding the risk of birthing difficulties. It is far less risky and more advantageous for the dam to have two smaller offspring than one big one. If one should die for some reason, she won't have lost all of her reproductive investment for that year.

This is one area where I think domestic goat breeders are off the mark. Many respectable, highly esteemed breeders do not breed their doelings to kid at a year old. They wait, holding a dry yearling over the winter, and breed her when she is 1.5 years old, to kid as a yearling. The dry yearlings tend to get fat and to deposit the fat around their internal organs, causing reproductive problems, and if they happen to escape impregnantion during their second fall, they are unlikely to be fertile for the third fall- too fat. The line of reasoning behind this practice is that the doelings are full grown yet and need to mature fully before being bred. My experience has been that if the doelings are adequately fed and protected somewhat from aggression by older does, they do well, kid without complications, and continue to grow. As for size, I hate to wear out the goat-car analogy, but it's true: efficiency is better than brute size. I have seen very large milkers that gave less than 4-5 lbs per day, and smaller does half their size that were producing 6-8 lbs per day as yearlings. The main difference between the two was that the efficient does put their feed into maintenence (which was minimal) and output (which was good thanks to the efficiency), whereas the bigger does had a lot more maintenence and didn't always put that extra food they ate into the milking pail (in the form of milk, I mean). I have seen occasional examples of does that were huge and milked extremely well, but I've seen more that laid their extra food onto their ribs in the form of fat. Let's not get into the nasty, gory sagas of assisting the birth of a 13-14 # kid. Size definitely has its downside.

Feet: This is an area where dairy goats really suffer. Breeders tend to overlook the feet, but if you have 200# of animal being supported by four little goat's a real recipe for trouble, especially when you add the extra weight of milk production, pregnancy, and food. Wild goats don't have this problem. If their feet break down, they don't last long and probably won't reproduce much.

Hardiness and mothering: these are traits which are being actively bred out by breeders, particularly with the advent of the CAEV virus.

Body proportions: Wild goats have a midsection which is proportionate to the rest of the body. Very well bred dairy goats do not. The ideal dairy goat will have a large, deep, well sprung barrel so that she looks as though she is pregnant all the time. Her back, from withers to hips, should be long. All the bones in her body should be long. I have come to prefer this ideal myself, but I wonder whether supporting the weight of a huge, deep belly takes a toll on the longer backs, and of course, how it all relates to the feet.

Shoulders, or the "uphill look": Well bred dairy goats are supposed to be noticably higher in the shoulders, or withers, than the hips. Deer and antelopes are higher in the hips. Some species of wild goats are slightly higher in the hips or level from withers to hips, while a few, including the mountain goat (which is actually an entirely different genus and not really a goat) are higher at the shoulders. It is very hard to acheive the ideal combination of high, tightly connected shoulders (you're not supposed to be able to see the tops of the shoulder blades move when the animal walks) *and* chest width. The rationale behind the uphill look is that the reproductive organs will drain better after birthing. I am calling B.S. on this unless someone can provide me with proof to the contrary. Deer have no trouble draining, and their rumps are quite a bit higher than their shoulders.

Udders: I wrote about foreudders a long time ago here. To recap it all briefly, I'm not sure that a "glued on" (very, very tightly attached) udder is ideal. When the kids butt it to nurse, it can't swing out of the way, so is more likely to get bruised and to develop mastitis. This seems to be more of a problem with close, tight foreudders. I do think that strong rear udders are advantageous as they provide most of the support in the udder suspension system that holds up the weight of all that milk. Which brings me to my last point....

Milk production: Is it really such a hot idea to breed to extreme production? To breed for goats that produce so much milk that they're at risk of developing hypocalcemia? Who milk so heavily that they cannnot consume enough food to replace what they're producing, so that they become thin and emaciated by midsummer?

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