When and How to Wean Your Goats

It’s funny how the circle of life is pretty much the same for all mammals. You were born, you spend some time as a baby, then become an adolescent and eventually move off away from your parents to live on your own and do your own thing. Believe it or not, it’s pretty much identical for goats.

two alpine baby goats suckling milk from mom
two alpine baby goats suckling milk from mom

Young goats, or kids, are dependent on their mother’s milk during the first phase of their lives just like all other mammals. In time, a transition occurs where milk is left behind for solid food. This is the way that things are supposed to go. However, sometimes this process doesn’t go down the right way.

Sometimes you’ve got to raise a bottle baby, or you have a very permissive mother or an extremely persistent kid. Whatever the case, it might be up to you to actually get the kid off of milk and on to solid food: wean them, in other words.

Weaning goats can be really stressful for you and for the kid if you don’t know what you’re doing. To prevent that, I’m bringing you a step-by-step guide with all of the info you need to do a good job of it.

It's time to Wean our baby Goats (Nigerian Dwarf Goats)

What is Weaning, Exactly?

Weaning is nothing more than the process of reducing or ending the consumption of milk by a young animal in preference for solid food. That’s it.

The process can be done decisively and all at once, or done gradually. It doesn’t matter; they are both considered weaning, just different techniques or approaches.

Can You Let a Doe Wean Her Own Kids?

Yes, you can. In fact, this is what usually happens if you leave kids and does to their own devices. In time, once the mother perceives that her kids are old enough and strong enough, she will start “kicking them off of the teat”, so to speak.

To move away from them, block them, kick them, and if necessary, head butt them to back them off and encourage them to eat normal, solid food like the rest of the herd.

However, in many domestic species, this can be a little perilous. Sometimes mothers are too indulgent or kids get too big and strong and can insist on getting milk. In any case, they can’t live on milk forever and need to eat solid food.

In these cases, you must be prepared to step in and implement weaning procedures.

First Things First: Weighing, Vaccinations, Etc.

Before you do anything else, there are a couple of items you must check off before you even think about starting the weaning process.

The first is a simple bit of administration. You must record the birth weight of the kid. This isn’t just for good records, although that helps, but you have to know that so you can make a good determination on a target weight.

You should never start weaning a kid that hasn’t reached 2 ½ times its birth weight, and 3 times its birth weight is better. We’ll talk about why later.

The next thing you must do is make sure all necessary vaccinations and medications have been administered for various diseases and parasites.

You don’t want to administer in the middle of weaning, and many of these should be given very early in a goat’s life anyway, so don’t put them off.

Once you’ve got the target weight and all the medical and check-up stuff done, you’ll be prepared to wean when the time comes.

Kids Should Have a Weaning Pen

The next thing you must set up, while you have time and if you haven’t done so already, is a weaning pen. A weaning pen is where you’ll put kids to wean them. This is a pen where they are safe, secure, and relatively calm, a place where they have access to food and water and won’t have to worry about competing with older, bigger, and stronger goats in the herd to get it.

Aside from being a major stressor for the kids, this is also a huge impediment to actually getting them on solid food.

The weaning pen can be indoors, outdoors, or partially open-air at your discretion as long as it is large enough to let the kids move around comfortably and will keep the adults from getting to them.

I like using an indoor weaning pen myself because it can be a good thing to keep a kid from seeing its mother during this process. More on that later, too.

What Age Should You Start Weaning Kids?

A rule of thumb you should stick to is that you never, ever start weaning a kid that is not yet 2 months old. The guideline is between 2 months and 3 months of age, dependent on the breed of the goat and how much weight they have gained.

Remember, this is in conjunction with that weight target we talked about: if a kid is 9 weeks old but underweight, you don’t want to start weaning. If the kid seems healthy, is at the appropriate weight, and is old enough, but they still just seem a bit “off” or weak, give them more time.

Rushing this process can endanger the health, or even the life, of the little thing.

Should You Wean Early? Is There a Benefit?

No. Time after time I’ve heard countless stories of people trying to wean goats early for various reasons, usually to get a jump on growth or productivity, but more often just to avoid having a “bottle baby.” The sooner that a goat can eat and fend for itself, the less nursing you’ll have to do, right?

I understand both motivations, but they are misguided. Early weaning will lead to goats that tend to be smaller, get sick more often, and might even die due to stress and subsequent complications

Do not risk it. Stick to the guidelines I gave you in the previous section on age and weight.

Weaning Basics: Reduce Milk Intake, Make Food Available

The basics of weaning are quite simple: when the time comes you want to start reducing the amount of milk that the kids get, or have available, and start introducing solid foods, preferably an early life feed along with fresh foods that they should be eating.

Ideally, a kid will take a few nibbles of real food here and there while they are still nursing, and at least be normalized to the idea of eating solid food, but now is the time when they should start switching to it.

If they are still nursing with their mother, it’s time to separate them for prescribed feeding times and put them in the weaning pen for a stretch. These intervals should get longer and longer as weaning goes on. If you’ve been bottle-feeding them, start giving them less milk in each serving or fewer servings of milk entirely.

bottle feeding baby goat

Always make sure they have unlimited fresh water available and food available at this time.

Kids Should Be Separated from Their Moms When Weaning

Whatever the circumstances with your kid or kids, whether you are taking them away from their mom temporarily, mom totally rejected them, or they were an orphan bottle baby to begin with, you want to separate them entirely: Don’t let the kid get to mom during weaning.

Always put them in the weaning pen once you begin the process.

Option: Keep Mom in Sight or Out of Sight

Time for your first major choice, and this is largely preferential. You can either let mom and kid see each other or not during weaning. This might be from across a fence or a few pens over if in sight, or you could completely block access and sight.

I recommend you don’t even let the kids see their mom, which is why I like setting up the weaning pen indoors.

This will increase stress at first, typically, but hunger will be working on the kid the whole time, and if they don’t have the influence of their mother around they will take to your program that much easier.

Again, expect the kid to get very upset at this time, at least for a little while. However, kids are also individuals to a degree, and some of them might do better if they can see or smell their mom. This takes experience to learn which is which, but what you don’t want to do is go back and forth on your choice. Make the determination and stick with it.

Should You Stop Giving Kids Milk “Cold Turkey?”

Yes, you can, and this is what some people prefer to do. When the kid is old enough to be done with milk you just take them off of milk, stick them in a pen with fresh food and this is their life now. No more contact with mom. No more bottles. Eventually, they’ll come around to the idea and eat to avoid starvation.

It does work, but is definitely not my preferred way to do it. This leads to dramatically higher stress and often illness in my experience which will only complicate things. Plus, a goat’s rumen should be allowed to gradually adapt to differing diets, and that includes the cessation of certain foods, in order for a goat to stay healthy.

Cutting milk entirely and then putting them on a brand-new diet of solid food will set the stage for digestive trouble.

How Long Should Weaning Take?

Weaning doesn’t take too long, usually only a week or two assuming everything goes smoothly. And “smoothly” is a nominal term here!

How Will Kids React During Weaning?

As a rule, pretty poorly. They will whine and bleat continually, desperately trying to find their mother and they will do anything, and I mean anything to get back at that nipple, be it on a bottle or on mom.

This, of course, is nothing more than psychological warfare trying to get mom to comply or you to give in to their desires.

However, the stress they are feeling is very, very real and it can affect their health in serious ways if things don’t go according to plan.

Weight Loss is Common When Beginning Weaning

One thing to watch out for when you start weaning a kid is weight loss. It’s going to happen: They want milk, they love milk and they get milk all the time. Milk is also highly nutritious and very caloric. Accordingly, when they don’t get it anymore and they aren’t eating a regular diet of solid food, they’re going to lose weight.

This is why I emphasize that you must allow a kid to reach an appropriate target weight before you even think about trying to wean them. If they are underweight and start weaning, and then their nutrition is bottoming out and they’re losing weight and under stress, this can lead to a vicious cycle of illness and disease that can seriously impair their development or even kill them.

Accordingly, you must still be prepared for this initial weight dip and wait and be ready to ride it out. You cannot give in and go back to milk full-time once you’ve started, or the next time you try it’s going to be 10 times harder.

Always Monitor a Kid’s Health and Condition During Weaning

Now, I don’t want to paint too grim a picture. Weaning is entirely natural and something that every goat and indeed every mammal must go through.

That said, it’s also critical that you use your reason and remain attentive at all times during the process. Seeing a kid that’s losing weight, stressed out, and down in the dumps can tug on your heartstrings, but you have to know when the kid is actually in trouble.

If they get sick or refuse to eat anything for a couple of days, you’ve got to be prepared for an intervention. You’d be wise to have your vet on standby or a mentor that you know and trust on speed dial in case you have questions and need advice on how bad is too bad.

The obvious warning signs here are weakness or lethargy, a kid suddenly getting quiet, or a low body temperature. If you stick your thumb in their mouth and it feels cool or clammy, their metabolism starts to plummet and that’s not good. Get help straight away.

Tips to Reduce Weaning Stress

If you’ve never weaned a kid before, this is going to be a rough time. It’ll be full of uncertainty and stress, for you and the poor goat! Remember these following tips and you’ll be fine.

Be Patient, Be Gentle, Be Kind. Tempers flare during weaning. Remember, the kid doesn’t know what’s happening to it. Talk sweetly to them, pet them, and let them know that they can trust you and all will be well.

Keep the Weaning Area Clean, Dry, and Safe. Environmental stress is the last thing a kid should be dealing with during weaning. Keep the weaning pen and the surrounding area picked up, dry and safe. Do whatever you have to do to remove or block stressors.

Stick to a Schedule. Maintaining a regular feeding routine during weaning will help curb at least a little bit of anxiety that the kid is feeling. If you are tapering them off of milk, stick to the established schedule they’re already used to, and just reduce the quantity that they are getting.

Wean Multiple Kids Together. One smart thing to do when weaning is to put a batch of kids together so they have some companionship but don’t have to deal with adult goats.

If you have food for them to eat free choice, make sure there is plenty for all of them and monitor to make sure each kid is getting enough.

Don’t Reunite Mom and Kid Too Quick. A huge mistake you can make is reuniting a freshly weaned kid and its mother too quickly, whether they are with the rest of the herd or not.

Those old instincts to suckle can come back pretty hard, and you might be back to square one if you aren’t careful! Once you’re sure that the kid is doing just fine on solid food, keep them away from their mom for at least another week.

weaning goats pin image

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