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What are the animal welfare issues with dairy goat farming?

Goats, particularly young goats, are inquisitive and playful and their housing system must be able to satisfy natural behaviours that are important to them. Goats are susceptible to stress but good management can minimise the factors which may cause stress. A number of husbandry and management practices may cause pain and/or distress in dairy goats, including weaning, horn removal and lack of ability to express highly-motivated behaviours.

Early weaning

Weaning (removing milk) is stressful for does and kids (baby goats). On average, kids are weaned naturally at 3 months when they are eating grass and other solid feeds. In some commercial goat dairies, kids may be removed from their mothers at 2 months of age. However, particularly where Johne’s Disease or CAE (caprine arthritis and encephalitis) is a concern, the kid is usually separated from their mother at birth and prevented from suckling to avoid disease transmission. Kids must be able to express suckling behaviour, for example, by using teat feeders to provide milk rather than bucket feeding. Ensuring that solid feed is introduced slowly before 2 months of age, can help reduce the stress associated with full weaning at 2-3 months of age when milk is no longer provided.

Horn removal

Most dairy goats will develop horns as they grow. Female kids (baby goats) are usually subjected to painful disbudding (removal of the horn bud before it attaches to the skull) at 3-7 days of age. Disbudding is carried out in commercial goat dairies to reduce the risk of injury to other goats and stockpeople, and to reduce the risk of goats getting caught in fences or other farm infrastructure [1].

While breeding dairy goats without horns (known as polled) is possible, it is not currently commercially feasible as the trait is linked to an undesirable intersex gene [1].

Leaving goat horns intact is a viable option in some circumstances [2]. This avoids all the pain and stress associated with the disbudding procedure. Care must be taken to minimise the risk of injury and entanglement when horned goats are kept [2]. Infrastructure may need to be modified in order to accommodate horned goats [2].

Where horns need to be removed, disbudding by a competent operator using a hot disbudding iron is the preferred option [1,2]. As this is a painful procedure, an anaesthetic must be given prior to disbudding, and analgesia (pain relief) must be administered to minimise post-operative pain.

Lack of ability to express natural behaviours

Certain management practices can limit opportunities for goats to express social behaviours. Insufficient space, mixing with unfamiliar animals, early weaning or separation from their mothers, for example, can prevent animals from expressing their natural behaviour, which can in turn cause frustration and distress. Environmental enrichment (objects, structures and other items with which the goat can interact in order to allow expression of natural behaviours) can help. For goats housed indoors, toys such as very durable balls provide stimulation and exercise. Sufficient room to play is essential. Hay racks can be mounted at various heights on walls to add novelty, with some containing fresh branches with leaves. Goats like to climb and providing sturdy crates and non-slip tables would allow them to express this natural behaviour. In outdoor areas, environmental enrichment can be provided through toys, such as balls, thick polypipe and sticks; logs of varying sizes crossing each other giving goats a choice of heights; non-slip tables to jump on; trees of varying heights to browse and climb; feeders and water troughs at varying heights; and regular positive contact with people.

Animal management

Goats are susceptible to stress from a range of factors, including temperature extremes, lack of exercise, insufficient and/or poor quality food and/or water, being mixed with unfamiliar goats, and not having sufficient rest. A thorough understanding of what an animal needs will help farmers reduce the stress experienced by the animals in their care. The role of the stockperson is extremely important in order to detect early changes in behaviour that might indicate poor welfare.

High levels of aggression or low levels of activity synchronisation are indicators of poor welfare in goats. Goats that are subject to aggression by more dominant goats may lack social relationships, have insufficient access to food, or be unable to access a resting place. Dominant goats may be anxious when on their own but subordinate animals may be less anxious, preferring to be away from dominant animals. Goats should not have to compete for resources (including food) and should be allowed to live in stable social structures.

Fear of humans could indicate lack of socialisation with humans and/or poor handling. Goats become sensitive to subtle human cues. Factors such as previous experience (good and bad) with humans likely have a crucial role in development of an individual goat’s behaviour towards humans. Knowledgeable, caring and low-stress stockpersonship and animal management, when practised consistently, is the key to good goat welfare.


[1] Matthews J, Dustan B (2019) Disbudding of goat kids. In Pract 41:433–44

[2] Hempstead M, Waas J, Stewart M, Sutherland M (2020) Goat kids are not small calves: Species comparisons in relation to disbudding. Anim Welfare 29:293–312

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Updated on November 8, 2023
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