Fat, Muscle, and Body Condition in Goats
I’ve likely crawled onto this soap box before but here I go again. Learn how to evaluate body condition! Body condition scoring is an incredibly useful tool whether you're just starting out or have raised goats for decades. As many of you already know, goat meat does not marble like beef. Little fat is stored under the skin but this subcutaneous fat is proven to be proportionate to internal fat. Excess internal fat is mostly stored around organs, especially the kidneys, in the pelvic area, and in tissues around the abdomen.
Simply put, evaluating external (under the skin) fat gives you a good idea of internal fat (around the organs).
While you can easily visually identify body condition extremes, accurate body condition scoring of all other scores is a hands-on process. This hands-on evaluation is especially helpful when the goats have thick, long coats or when their structure makes it difficult to assess condition. For example, some dairy does have exceptionally wide pelvises and prominent hip bones that are always visible but a palpation of the body condition scoring areas, especially the transverse process, reveals the doe has adequate fat reserves. What’s so bad about a little extra fat?
If it is a *little* extra fat. A little extra fat can be quite useful as it is used up in times of stress or high energy demand. While not as insulating as muscle, fat does help keep the animal warmer in winter. Too much fat is another story and can cause a myriad of issues.
Extra fat around organs stresses them, making them work harder than necessary. Too much fat in the pelvic region can lead to sluggish labors or dystocia (birthing issues) and give the breeder greatly reduced “room to work” inside a doe that needs kids rearranged. An overweight goat will experience more stress on its limbs and joints and be more prone to lameness. In an effort to breathe easier, overweight animals (or heavily pregnant does) might often “dog sit” and be seen panting from heat or even the slightest exertion. Aside from physical ailments, a too-fat goat can suffer from more metabolic issues. Pregnancy toxemia or ketosis is often noted in does that are one extreme weight or another, as well as in does carrying multiple fetuses.
Bucks also suffer from over-conditioning. Besides reducing libido, “fat deposits in the scrotum interfere with the testicles' normal thermoregulation and has been proven to responsible for a variety of defects in spermatozoa” - The Ins & Outs of Body Condition by Maxine Kinne. Some folks assert an overweight buck is also more likely to deal with urinary calculi.
Aside from health issues, an over-conditioned goat can hide conformation flaws. Extra weight makes the goat appear wider than it actually is. This article by fellow Kinder breeder Kathrin Woodlyn Bateman shows and describes this very well, I think! Note how the same doe is drastically wider when she is overweight. But in an ideal body condition, you can see the animal’s actual structure. https://kindergoatbreeders.com/2021/03/26/lets-talk-about-width/
A too-thin goat can suffer as many condition-caused or exacerbated issues as a too-fat goat. A goat that is less than a BCS of 3 has lost both fat reserves and some muscling and will have little to no “extra” to use in times of environmental stress or in times of high energy demand such as late gestation or peak lactation. As already mentioned, thin does are at a higher risk of illness in general, especially ketosis and parasite issues. Lactation is arguably the most common cause of underweight does. Diseases, illnesses, poor nutrition, tooth issues or hoof issues, or advanced age can also cause poor condition. CAE and Johnes are two particularly important diseases that often cause wasting. Parasite infections can also cause poor gains or a decrease in condition, especially if parasite burdens are chronic or the burdens particularly heavy.
Factors Affecting Body Condition
While it is natural for body condition to fluctuate, the ideal is not too fat or too thin, somewhere between BSC 2.5 and 4. As mentioned throughout this piece, pregnancy, breeding, and lactation are major factors in body condition score. Parasites, pasture or hay quality, exercise levels, disease status, and other factors can also affect body condition scoring.
Goats on forage-based systems pastured on rough ground are likely to expend more energy and not be so easy to over-condition as a goat on flat ground with a 24/7 buffet of quality feed and/or hay. On the flip side, goats dry-lotted with 24/7 hay aren’t expending the energy to go out and forage but if their diet has failed to meet energy and nutritional demands due to say poor quality hay, the goats would most likely be in a lower body condition regardless of their sedentary lifestyle and constant food supply. Genetics play a role in the “keeping” ability – each breeder will likely experience both “hard” and “easy” keepers, animals that have difficulty gaining or losing weight as easily the majority of the herd.
It doesn’t necessarily take many pounds to gain or lose a body condition score. As an example, my Kinder doe Topaz is pictured here dry in the fall at a BCS (body condition score) of about 4-4.5 and then lactating in summer at about a BCS 3. She appears slightly wider when a little pudgy. The extra weight (and coat) smoothed over her topline, especially her slightly dipping chine, and the extra weight made her brisket appear longer than it actually is. Yet Topaz only weighed about 10-12lb more in BCS 4 than in BCS 3.This is in line with most 5-point scoring systems where a 1 point change reflects about 10-13% of body weight gained or lost, depending on what source you read.
Now this is just my preference because of my experiences, but I would rather have a goat a little over-conditioned (BCS 3.5-4) than a little under-conditioned because goats can lose condition quicker than they can gain it. Yet I hate seeing an obese goat as much as I hate seeing a emaciated goat. I think one is easier to correct than the other but neither is healthy. Too many people rely only on visual signs when assessing body condition, especially when it comes to comparing a good condition to an overweight condition. By the time you see fat behind the elbows or fat tailheads, your goat is likely already obese. Kinders are supposed to be a stocky, thick animal but too many folks, in my opinion, mistake a fat Kinder for a muscled Kinder and/or for a structurally wide Kinder. Strive for "just right" goats and get a second or third set of hands and eyes on your animals to judge body condition scoring to avoid bias.
How To Body Condition Score
These sources will help you learn to body condition score! It takes practice!
This link has some excellent photos of internal fat deposits in goats of varying body conditions https://kinne.net/ins&outs.htm