Goats have rapidly become America’s sweetheart of small livestock, and it’s not difficult to see why. Their general disposition can be described as clever, curious, personable and affectionate.
Even among breed and individual goats, their personalities are most comparable to the family dog than any other livestock species.
Most goat keepers will agree that they learn their names quickly and respond when they are called. They become greatly attached to their people—making them ideal companions—while their childlike antics are especially charming in a petting zoo setting.
Aside from companionship, goats can also offer brush clearing, milk, meat, fiber and packing.
Goats Need Other Goats
The No. 1 thing that all goat people want you to know is that goats are herd animals. They create social rankings within their group, which is important to their mental well-being.
Sometimes people translate “herd animal” to mean that goats are found hanging out in groups. What it really means is that goats need other goats in order to be secure, happy and healthy.
Please don’t let someone gift you with a single goat and leave it at that!
Yes, there are stories of goats living just fine on their own or with a pony or sheep companion. But the truth is that they need a companion (or two) of the same species to truly be happy and thrive.
Let your significant other know that, yes, it’s entirely necessary to bring home at least two goats!
The Right Goat for the Job
Are you interested in goats for a specific purpose? Do you desire farm-fresh milk? Do you want to raise your own meat? Are you dreaming of homegrown fiber?
Goats are extremely versatile, and choosing the appropriate breed can easily fill more than one need.
Grazing animals such as sheep and horses are low-foragers, which focus more on tender grasses that are close to the ground. Goats are browsers (like deer) as opposed to grazers and prefer leaves, shrubs, weeds, trees, twigs, your roses, etc.
If not offered their preferred food, a hungry goat will certainly eat whatever is available.
One of the best things about goats is that any breed can be useful for weed abatement on your property. In California where I raise goats, we enjoy this perk immensely as defensible space practices against fires are paramount.
In terms of Angora goats, you must consider the types of weeds and shrubs in your pasture and the potential damage those plants could do to the breed’s fleece.
Recently shorn Angoras do fine in this situation as long as the goats can clear it out quickly. Once the fiber begins to grow, however, it can become snagged, torn, matted or downright ruined by burrs and other seed heads that become entangled in the fleece.
Dairy goats are a tremendously efficient source of milk, cream, buttermilk, cheese, yogurt and sour cream for you and your family.
If you want to keep goats for milking, you should know that your does will have to be bred every year. You should be prepared to either grow your herd or eventually find homes for the kids once they are weaned.
Yes, dairy goats make enough milk for you and her growing kids both. You should also know from the get-go that milking is a commitment and can be time-consuming.
Popular dairy goat breeds include:
- Nigerian Dwarf
When people think of natural animal fiber, wool is usually the first thing that comes to mind.
It might surprise you to know that goats also produce desirable fiber for spinning, weaving and other textile art forms. So desirable, in fact, that the mohair produced by Angora goats is referred to as “the diamond fiber.” Almost every textile is compared to the cashmere goat’s downy undercoat.
Pygora and Nigora breeds were developed by crossing Angora goats with Pygmy goats (Pygora) and Nigerian Dwarfs (Nigoras). Other popular fiber goat breeds include Angora, Pygora and Nigora.
Goats raised for food are obviously bred to have thicker bodies than those of their dairy and fiber brethren. Many raise a purebred goat for their meat production and others keep crossbred animals.
Cultures from all over the world have historically utilized goats as their main protein staple. It’s lower in fat than beef, lamb, chicken and pork and low in cholesterol.
Due to the popularity of chevon (the flesh of older kids and mature goats) or cabrito (a/k/a capretto, the meat from milk-fed kids) among ethnic groups in this country, the demand for the healthier red meat has increased substantially.
Meat goat breeds include:
- Tennessee Fainting (Myotonic)
For those who love hiking and outdoor adventures, there is nothing so fun and useful as bringing along pack goats. Pack goats open up options on what can be taken along on a hiking excursion.
As natural hikers, goats are born for maneuvering narrow paths. They enjoy the trails as much as you do!
While there isn’t a specific pack goat breed, most people train the taller, leaner goats such as large dairy breeds or a dairy cross. Good packing goats can include:
How Much Space Do Goats Need?
The space needed to keep goats is trickier to answer because it’s subjective. Even on pastures that have weeds and shrubs to forage, most people are going to have to supplement their goats’ diet with hay at some point—most certainly during the winter months.
To figure out the space you are going to need, you have to decide if their basic diet needs will come from the land or if you plan on supplying them with all of their food.
For example, it stands to reason that goats kept in a dry lot (barren pasture) where hay is brought to them daily need less room than if you expect the land itself to help keep them fed.
If you expect the land to support their basic diet, an acre of land that’s producing a variety of shrubs and grasses will help support about six goats. Even in this case, you will end up supplementing as the seasons change or the forage doesn’t grow back fast enough.
On the other hand, 1 acre of dry lot (solid dirt—not a plant in sight) will help support exactly zero goats in terms of feed. When you provide their meals 100 percent of the time, the number of goats in that same acre goes up drastically.
You need nothing more than a small, suburban backyard to keep a handful of goats in this case.
For the sake of argument, we’re going to assume that we are not talking about enough acreage to support their basic diet. The space we’re talking about is enough for them to move about comfortably and be happy.
A first-hand example: On our Northern California farm, we keep our Angora goats in separate pastures by sex and sometimes by age. Each pasture-pen is about a quarter of an acre (give or take) and there’s anywhere from six to 10 goats in each pasture.
Come spring, we have a delicious smörgåsbord of forage growing in each pasture. Therefore, we end up supplementing a little less during the spring and early summer months.
However, by the middle of summer when it’s all dry and dead, we’re back up to full feeding mode. In fact, because we supply all of their feed, I could actually add a few more goats to these pastures.
Let me be clear: We have to provide them with purchased feed year-round. In no way would the plants in these pastures support our goats’ dietary needs on their own.
If you have bucks and does, you’ll need separate pastures and shelters for each group. Clever goat keepers will house bucks as far away from the does as they can to prevent unscheduled breeding.
There isn’t a fence strong or tall enough to hold back a buck in rut once he spots the ladies. Wethers (castrated male goats) can be housed with (or next to) either sex.
Housing & Fencing Goats
Goats need a shelter inside their pasture for protection from the elements. At the very least, they’ll need a three-sided “run in” shelter to escape the sun, wind, rain and snow.
It doesn’t have to be fancy or fully enclosed. If you do have a fully enclosed barn, you’re ahead of the game considering they can also be closed in at night for protection against predators, as well.
If you have inherited a barn along with your farm, make sure it has good ventilation. Occasionally barns that come with a property weren’t originally intended for livestock but eventually end up housing them. A barn with poor ventilation can lead to respiratory problems.
Bedding such as straw or shavings during the warm months can be minimal. However, during the winter, you’ll want to add deep straw inside to help keep them warm.
Straw is the general favorite for most livestock, as air becomes trapped in the straw’s hollow center making it the warmest bedding you can get. Shavings or wood chips are other good choices.
When you do use bedding, change it out frequently. Frequency depends upon how much time the herd is hanging around inside urinating on it. The idea is to keep all bedding as dry as possible.
Goats love to spend their days lounging around chewing the cud (literally) with their friends. Anything that provides shade such as a shelter overhang or large trees will be much appreciated.
Fair warning: Any trees growing inside a goat pasture are fair game for bark-stripping. Placing T-posts and fencing surrounding said trees is advisable.
Fence Me In
Fencing is a major topic surrounding goat-keeping. If a goat can get his head through it, he can get his body through it.
On the outset, let me say that many goat enthusiasts will tell you that goats’ obsession with outsmarting fences often has to do with the breed. We’ve raised Nubians, Nigerian Dwarfs and Angoras, and I would say this is this fairly accurate.
Our Nigerian Dwarfs were certainly our best escape artists. That said, goats as a species are intelligent, curious and gluttons for anything on the other side of the fence—especially if you’ve spent lots of time and money planting it.
Any goat of any breed is capable of coveting whatever lies beyond their boundary fence. You’ll need strong fencing material and even stronger supports for that material, such as sunken wood posts, T-posts or wood framing when possible.
Your local farm-supply store has plenty of fencing choices. Some of them will secure your goats.
No-climb, woven wire horse fencing has worked best for us. The rectangles (holes) are 2-by-4 inches, and no goat in the world can get its head through it.
The wire being closer together also adds stability. Other fencing types can be even stronger, such as:
- Wood rail panels (lined no-climb)
- Chain-link fencing
- Stock/hog/cattle panels (stock panels are the most secure)
We have also used general woven-wire field fencing. It worked well for the most part.
It should be erected so that the smaller squares are at the bottom and the larger squares at the top. Otherwise, adult goats will be confined while smaller ones (or kids) may not.
If your goats have horns, keep in mind that if there’s a chance their heads can slip through, their horns can also get caught. A goat with its head caught in a fence is subject to an injury (either by themselves or predators) or a broken neck.
A well-placed hot wire can be a great back up for any type of fencing. Many goatherds add a strand of hot wire (electric wire or fence) along the bottom. This also helps with the notorious fence-leaning.
Barbed wire is never recommended for confining any kind of livestock. I’ve seen my share of disastrous photos involving a variety of animal species. It’s just not worth the risk.
Do your homework and the goats will stay where they should.
A Word About Electric Netting
The good thing about electric netting is that it’s portable and can be set up in various areas at any time.
The goats don’t lean on it, of course, because it’ll give them a zap. They tend to respect that.
However, there is a chance—especially if the goats have horns—that a head will become caught in it. The outcome of this can be tragic.
As the netting continually zaps the entangled goat, it can send it into a frenzy. A freaked-out goat with its head caught is, at the least, an injured goat. At worst, you could end up with a dead goat.
I do know people who use them with great success. I also know people who have had tragedies with them. It’s something to think about.
How to Find Quality Goats
Before you purchase any goats, reach out to local breeders or farmers. The first place you will hear about breeders (good or bad) from will be through these people.
For what it’s worth, public auctions or sale pens are never advantageous for the new goat owner.
This isn’t to say that someone can’t find a healthy, quality animal at these places. Someone probably can. However, the chances that it’ll be someone that’s just beginning to learn the ropes is slim—really slim.
- Look for farming, ranching or homesteading Facebook pages. Look specifically for groups local to you. Farming communities are typically well connected to one another.
- Seek out local clubs in your community. This includes youth programs such as 4-H and FFA. You’ll be amazed at the connections they will have for you.
- Contact national clubs. I guarantee that if you chat with a national club, they will have lists of breeders closest to you.
- Attend shows. Whether it’s fairs or goat shows, go to as many as possible. As a general rule of thumb, the most serious breeders show and compete with their animals and/or their products.
Of course, some great breeders never step inside a show ring, but they’ll simply be a little more difficult to find. Remember that you’re looking for a place to start, and the folks who show up publicly are going to get the attention first.
Try to visit the farm where your potential goats live. This shouldn’t sound like a chore, because it’s crucial that you start off as safe and sane as possible on your goat adventure.
You’ll learn about the people and their animals, and collect so much great information when you plan farm visits. You not only want healthy and quality animals. A reliable mentor is priceless!
Sidebar: Food for Thought
If the goat pasture is to help support your goats nutritionally, the pasture should be woody with plenty of the following:
- Leafy plants
- Wild shrubs
- Textured grasses, such as orchard and ryegrass
Legumes such as vetch and alfalfa make a good meal, as well.
First things first: Don’t make any assumptions that your goats can forage on just any plant in the pasture. Do your due diligence, and identify each plant to be sure that it’s safe and nontoxic to goats.
Many people won’t have the amount of pasture necessary to feed them and certainly not year-round. You’ll need to provide daily hay and perhaps other supplements along with fresh water.
All animals prefer fresh to stagnant water, but this may never be truer than with goats. They love clean water!
Quality hay, trace minerals, along with fresh water usually fills the bill for bucks, wethers and nonlactating does. Of course, this can change if you have pregnant does, does nursing kids, etc.
For example, during the rut season on our farm, we often have bucks that are so focused on breeding that they don’t eat as much and end up losing some weight. That’s when we step in with some weight-boosting supplements such as pelleted hay, rolled oats, barley, corn and calf manna.
The type and amount of supplement is going to be based on the individual animal and perhaps the breed.
For instance, Angoras always have higher nutritional requirements than other goat breeds due to the amount of fiber they produce each month. Thus, it’s important to find local mentors for yourself from the beginning.
It’s wise to keep hay, pelleted feed, grains and other supplements in an area that’s not accessible to your livestock. The most important reason being that if goats get into sweet feed or grain, they won’t stop until they are gorged.
This can be a death sentence for these delicate-stomached animals.
As far as hay is concerned, goats enjoy nothing more than jumping and dancing all over your clean, neatly stacked hay bales. Before you know it, the bales are a shredded, hot mess.
Sidebar: What is a Ruminant?
Goats are ruminants, as are sheep, cows and deer. Ruminates have four compartments in their stomachs.
When sheep eat, the food lands in the first compartment called the rumen. The rumen and the reticulum are fermentation vats where complex carbohydrates are broken down through microbial actions.
The fermented food, which we refer to as “cud,” is regurgitated back into the goat’s mouth where it’s broken down further by chewing and saliva. After that, the omasum (third compartment) receives the now-chewed cud and absorbs the volatile fatty acids and ammonia.
From there, it goes to the abomasum, which is the true stomach.
This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Hobby Farms magazine.