Farm Blog

Observations, goings on, thoughts from one woman farmer...that's what you'll find here. Most of these posts were originally published in the Mohawk Valley Living Magazine. For more information, visit http://www.mohawkvalleyliving.com/.

When Moms Reject Their Babies, September 2015

My daughter, Harper, and I recently brought a newborn baby goat to a few area farmers’ markets with us. Little “Chip,” as we call him, was only four days old at the time. We brought him in a small dog harness on a leash, so we wouldn’t lose him, and brought a cat carrier in which he could nap. Customers and passers-by alike all got the chance to pet Chip, hold him, even kiss him. (Chip got an impressive number of kisses that day!) And the pictures—oh, I wish I would have outfitted him with our farm logo or maybe even a hat—he was a virtual celebrity!

It was a lot of fun bringing little Chip to market. The smiles on everyone’s faces and squeals of joy from the children (and some adults…you know who you are!) were well worth the effort of bringing him. But even more worth the effort was talking to people about baby goats in general. People were amazed to learn that baby goats (and lambs and calves) are standing within minutes of their birth. I forget that it is pretty remarkable that these newborn creatures are up and nursing on their mothers fairly quickly, with little to no help from me.

But what perplexed people the most, a fact of life that I’ve simply become accustomed to, is the reason baby Chip was with us there in the first place. Baby Chip needed to be bottle fed multiple times a day because his mother had rejected him. “How could a mother reject such an adorable little creature?!?” was most people’s reaction. True, it sounds terribly cruel and virtually unthinkable from a human point of view. But it is, unfortunately, not at all uncommon. Chip was one of triplets and his mother was taking good care of his siblings, but had rejected him. “Did she know she didn’t have enough milk for all three?” a young woman asked. I had to admit I couldn’t know for sure, but it was more likely that Chip was separated from his mother shortly after birth.

To understand why a mom would reject her baby, it helps to understand how the bonding process takes place normally. Mothers and their babies are bonded first and foremost through sense of smell. A rush of hormones causes the mother to start “talking” to her newborn and a desire to clean him from head to toe by licking him. These same hormones cause her milk to “let down,” filling her udder and intensifying the desire to nurture. All the cleaning and licking and talking from Mom invigorates little baby, giving him a virtual second wind after all that hard work of being born, and most importantly, triggering baby’s critical suckling reflex. Within an hour or so—a relatively short period of time—mother and baby are happily nursing, talking to one another and building a bond that can last a lifetime.

So what happens to cause a mother to “reject” her baby? Something has to interrupt that important boding time. Usually, it’s as simple as the two of them getting separated shortly after birth. As is often the case with multiple births, Mom will plop the first baby in one spot, and then mosey a few yards away, plopping the next baby elsewhere. If she’s not paying attention, if she’s inexperienced, or if there are additional stressors such as other animals interfering, she may forget entirely about that first baby.

Many sheep and goat farmers use “jugs” or temporary bonding pens in which a mother and her newborn(s) spend a couple days’ uninterrupted bonding time. There are plenty of advantages to such a system: Mom and baby get individualized attention from the farmer and relief from competition for food and water, plus the farmer has the chance to de-worm the mother or give vaccinations, ear-tag babies or castrate males, depending on the farmer’s protocol. It is a great system, one which we use religiously during the height of our kidding/lambing season over the winter. But its effect on bonding only works if Mom is jugged during labor or placed with her babies very quickly after giving birth.

It is during the busy summer months, when we have far fewer babies, that I abandon the jug system altogether. Because we’re not feeding hay (they spend their days out on pasture) and because summer is so hectic, I am not doing regular baby checks nor taking the time to put them in a jug. I may not even notice we have new babies out on pasture until the evening check, and by then the critical bonding time has progressed to the point that a mom will not recognize her own baby if they have been separated. It is then that I am reminded how truly cruel life can be—for if I place Mom and all of her babies (including the rejected one) in a jug together, Mom will “butt” the rejected one (sometimes to the point of injuring it) and refuse to allow it to nurse. I then have to tie the mother up, milk out some colostrum for baby or coax baby to suckle—a surprisingly physical and painstaking process. (Colostrum is the first milk that Mother makes—a thick, rich milk that contains critical antibodies and is easy for the newborn to digest. If a baby does not get colostrum, their chances of survival are quite low. Many farmers will keep additional colostrum in their freezer for such an emergency or use a store-bought mix made from powdered colostrum.)

We’ve successfully raised many bottle babies over the years, but it is not a job I relish. Babies simply do better under their mothers’ care and I have more pressing things to do. It has been our two daughters’ job this summer to bottle-fed little Chip several times every day. He has been nibbling and getting more nutrition from grass and will soon be off the bottle altogether. Chip is much too big now to be brought to farmer’s markets and would most certainly help himself to some of my fellow vegetable vendor’s wares. He’s still awful cute though, and still gladly accepts hugs, kisses and the occasional photo!