Heat Detection for Hand Breeding
Maxine Kinne

Do you get your does bred about when you want to? If not, maybe you need a refresher in heat detection so you can mate the doe when she is most likely to settle. Many different factors can affect your ability to spot does in estrus. Sometimes the signs are weak, or maybe you just aren't paying close enough attention. 

Hand breeding involves finding a doe in heat, then putting her with a buck while he does his job. You hover over the romatic pair until he successfully mates with her once or twice (5 minutes or less), then put them both back where they belong. This breeding method has the added advantage of seeing that the buck is working correctly and that the doe is properly receptive. Each one needs do their part to make conception a reality.

For the best chance of conception, breeding animals must be in good physical condition. Trim the hooves for sound footing. A good deworming beforehand averts the need for it during early pregnancy. Vaccinations should be current. And it is very important that selenium supplementation, if it is necessary in your area, be done several weeks before breeding. Selenium plays a very important role in reproductive success in bucks and does. (Work with your veterinarian to develop a herd health program, including vaccinations, mineral supplementation and a deworming protocol.)

Pygmies are polyestrous - they cycle all year long or nearly so. Very hot summer weather may be anestrus (without estrus). Summer heat cycles may be weaker than normal, if they occur. Nubian dairy goats can cycle for slightly longer than other dairy breeds. Dairy breeds usually only cycle from October to February or March. Cooler fall weather and decreasing daylight (photoperiod) are both factors that tell the body to begin the cycle of reproduction.

The length of the heat cycle can vary from 12-72 hours. Sperm must be inside the doe for several hours to undergo changes that allow it to mature and travel through the uterus and into the fallopian tubes to meet and fertilize the egg(s). After insemination in a live service, as opposed to artificial insemination, sperm live up to 30 hours.

Heat cycles normally occur every 16-24 days, but most are between 19-21 days apart. Record each doe's cycles on a calendar to get an idea of what is normal timing for each one. This helps you plan breedings more effectively, and enables you to spot irregularities that may signal reproductive abnormalities. Charting heat cycles is especially important for artificial insemination.

Some does have a short cycle 5-7 days after the normal cycle. These 5-day heats are entirely normal if they are followed by a 12- 24-day period. A doe who has only 5-day heats without a longer period between them probably has cystic ovaries (follicular or luteal cysts). Certain hormones can be given to correct cystic ovaries, especially early in the course of the condition. Does will not conceive when they are cystic because eggs do not ovulate. Talk to your veterinarian about it. (See Reproductive Hormones: Blessing or Curse? for my view on trying to correct this problem.)

Estrus Signs

Tail flagging
Vocalizing - yelling and moaning
Vulva - discharge, swollen, red
Frequent urination
Reduced milk production
General attitude change
May mount or fight others
Increased activity rate
Reduced appetite

Tail flagging has its own characteristics. The tail quickly waggles back and forth while it is held at about a 45-degree angle. Flagging can usually be stimulated by placing your hand on the loin and pressing down slightly. This only works when the doe is in heat, because it mimics the pressure of the buck during mounting.

Most does in estrus have a mucus discharge from the vulva. Mucus is an important part of sperm transport to the uterus. At the beginning of the cycle the discharge is clear and stringy, a lot like raw egg white. The color and consistency change gradually throughout estrus to become thick and white at the end. Mucus usually gets stuck to the underside of the tail When you can't catch a doe discharging from the vulva, telltale signs are often stuck to the tail.

Estrogen causes a generalized swelling in the vulval lips. The vulva may also appear to be from pink to a reddish color due to an increased blood supply and the swelling. There should be no blood. A number of people have phoned me to schedule buck service said, "My doe is bleeding." I always asked for a description. Sometimes they meant bleating. Once, a woman actually meant bleeding, and I thought she was mistaken. When the doe arrived, sure enough, the doe had a small discharge of bright red blood. This is very abnormal during estrus. (In this particular case, it was a vaginal infection.)

With a buck in an adjacent pen, it is usually very easy to spot a doe in heat. She is the one seeking his attention. And about the kindest that can be said of him is that he has, well, a one-track mind. Fine. That's his reason for being.

The best time to detect heats is during or just after feeding when normal patterns may be disrupted. Check vulvas while the does are lined up eating hay or see who declines dinner in favor of a hot date. Don't hesitate to lift a tail to see the vulva and underside of the tail. Check daily for signs of estrus.

It is thought that strong estrus signs are due to higher amounts of estrogen which may indicate multiple follicles. To take advantage of a potentially higher ovulation rate, I always try to breed when does have very obvious estrus signs.

Some does display weak signs of estrus until they are exposed to the scent of a buck - this is called the buck effect. If you do not keep a buck, your does may show stronger signs if they smell his odor. A buck rag is one that was rubbed on a nice, stinky buck and is kept in a sealed container. Remove the lid and give your does a daily whiff. There will be no doubt at all when she comes into heat.

Related Reading

Heat Detection in Meat Goats
Maximize Litter Size
One + One Shouldn't = One
Reproductive Hormones: Blessing or Curse?

The Plight of Adolescent Bucks
Ready to Serve
Fall Buck Care

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