Getting Started With Goats
At Laughing Dog Farm, the goats are a beloved part of our family. And they are also a vital part of our farm's productivity and home economy, as well.
Goats are said to be the perfect homestead animal because they are so versatile and adaptable to numerous climates and types of food. They fit well into the smaller farmstead and they are perfectly scaled for the backyard permaculturist.
They are also hardy, easy to care for, relatively disease-free and they produce wonderful milk and cheese, not to mention a high quality meat. What's more, their manure is readily usable as an organic, soil amendment and for building rich and valuable compost. To top it off, goats are the most entertaining creatures whose unique and feisty habits keep us chuckling all year long.
***Before you acquire goats and get started with goat keeping, you should attend to the following important preparations!
Goat are very curious animals, perennially hungry, and escape artists as well. They will find a way out of their barn, paddock or pasture if one is left available. One hungry goat escape during the farming season can ruin your week, a lot of valuable plants and trees -- plus, your friendship with your neighbors to boot. We use five foot high, galvanized wire, 2"x 4" fencing, deep nailed to stout locust fence posts. Even so, we still have occasional goat escapes. Almost all of these can be traced to human error rather than poor fencing or hardware breakdown.
Although goats are extremely hardy, they do need at least a three-sided barn or shed to escape the bitter wind and winter weather. Our nine goats survive quite nicely in an enclosed post and beam barn surrounded by a small, fenced paddock. We have nine goats housed in barn space approximately 20' x 15'. Nomatter the space, the pecking order always establishes itself, not without significant brutality. But once dominance is established, they seem to manage well enough, even hunker down by night as a herd, against the cold. Goats need a constant supply of dry bedding to avoid being fouled in their own waste. We use mulch hay or leaves for this purpose which also thoroughly mixes with the manure, cutting the Nitrogen with some Carbon and hastening its path toward usable compost. We try to muck out the stalls as needed, several times a season, forking, turning and piling the waste outside the barn to continue decomposing. The empty stall is then lined with fresh bedding before the goats reoccupy.
Quality feed hay...
Goats are ruminants and can turn low-grade brush, twigs and weeds into high-quality milk and meat. Nonetheless, to keep them in peak health, you should always provide supplemental hay. While you may not need to purchase top-of-the-line horse hay for $7 a bale, hay does come in many qualities and conditions. Purchased hay can sometimes be moldy or dusty, which can be very bad for goats and other livestock. Check your hay carefully and ask if you can buy one or two bales to "try out" on your herd first, before buying a lot of useless, low-grade, moldy or dusty hay. Whether first or second cutting, hay should smell sweet and fresh and show good, pale green color, but not dampness, excessive dust or mold.
Goats, like many critters, love alfalfa, however pure alfalfa is considered too rich to be a good daily goat fodder. Mixed alfalfa hay and/or supplemental alfalfa would be a fine tonic for milking mammas. We'll use leaves and/or spoiled hay as bedding if it isn't too dusty. The animals' pelletized waste is then thoroughly mixed into the bedding hastening its destiny toward usable compost, ready for garden application far sooner than many other manures.
Goats are browsing animals, always on the move, nibbling a little of this and a little of that. We have a one, acre, mixed summer pasture which, although inadequate by itself for more than a half dozen goats, helps to augment their food regimen throughout the summer and fall. If possible, you should rotate their pasture to avoid the chance of goats re-infesting themselves with worm larvae, which are passed as eggs through their waste and then crawl up the pasture plants in search of a new host. Goats that are infested with intestinal parasites may be weak, anemic, have diarrhea and white gums and eyes. Most goat owners resort to injectable wormer or paste to treat affected animals. After worming the milk and meat may not be suitable for human consumption for several weeks. Many people acquire goats for the purpose of brush clearing. This can be problematic because goats do not always eat what you want them to. If you're hoping they will eat the weeds and leave the trees, you may be disappointed. If you simply want a patch of jungly terrain knocked down, without regard to preserving native or otherwise desirable species, goats are your ticket. As permaculturists, they're only as wise as their stewards.
Goat's milk and cheese have been valued for centuries as a healthy and digestible alternative to traditional bovine dairy products. Hippocrates himself spoke of the health-giving affects of goat milk.
Many backyard goat keepers have milk in mind when they acquire their first goats. However, if you are serious about milking your does, even just for home consumption, there is some knowledge and a bit of equipment that will be necessary.
After the newly freshened doe has given her colustrum (first, extra-rich milk full of antibodies, etc.) to her kids, she may or may not begin immediately producing more milk than her kids need.
We allow the newborns to suckle at will, but also make sure the mom is "stripped" dry every day. This keeps her milk flowing and encourages higher production. A quart of mixed goat grain a day, per mom, helps to keep their lactation up.
We consume the extra milk and make weekly cheese for ourselves. Or we feed it back to any weak or needy kids. After a month to six weeks, we start locking up the kids at night to prevent them from suckling. We then milk the swollen moms in the morning before releasing the hungry kids, who spend the rest of the day with them.
After several months, when the kids are happily eating hay, brush and pasture, we may separate them entirely for a week and force the weaning a bit. Goats are generally milked for most of the year and then "dried off" for several months in preparation for the next birthing cycle.
Goats generally breed in the fall or winter and "freshen" (give birth) exactly five months later in the late winter or spring. We bring in young bucks from other herds because we generally don't like to keep a buck around, long term. Also bringing in an outside buck in the fall, even if he's not a champion, builds "hybrid vigor" in the herd. One virile buck can service an entire herd. We started with one pregnant Nubian, the long eared, Roman nosed breed from UK known for excellent, rich milk. From there we bred twice to Boer (South African) bucks, this breed known for their stocky, meaty profile. Then we bred to an Alpine, also known for fine milk. Our 2008 kids came from a Saanen buck, the Saanen's being known for enormous lactation productivity.
Goats have an uncanny ability to give birth to healthy young under the strangest conditions. However, occasionally trouble can develop and it is prudent to be present when the hour is ready. Experienced goat keepers who observe their animals every day will know just when the dam is about to freshen. Some signs to look for are: a redness and/or drippy discharge from the vulva, significant growth of the udder, heightening of the mother's groaning, anomalous diarrhea, and the first contractions of labor. The dam should have a private, dry, clean stall with water and hay available. If she's in distress you can dose her with a tonic of warm water liberally flavored with molasses and cider vinegar.
Usually the mom is able to proceed through the birth without human intervention. There are several circumstances which can complicate the smooth passage of the kids into the world, namely a breech birth and other situations where the fetus gets stuck, tangled, etc, and birth cannot proceed normally. In this case you must be prepared to help matters along. Unfortunately, I had to learn this on the fly, alone, in zero degree weather, when our original Nubian doe, Baby got stuck in birth and went into severe distress. I had no choice but to plunge my hands, then entire arms into the doe's uterus to extract the little kid, Flossy. Five years hence, I had to do it again with her daughter, Cowey's first born, Arjuna, however, this time with clean rubber gloves and vastly more confidence. This year, our old matriarch, Baby, who was crippled by arthritis, became accidentally pregnant, which precipitated our most dramatic and heartstopping goat adventure to date...
In most cases, healthy does give birth to healthy kids without complications. Once born, the kids are licked off and stimulated by an attentive mother. Within five or ten minutes it's not unusual for the newborn kids to be stretching their gangly legs and taking their first incredible steps. Suckling colostrum follows shortly as mom attends to cleaning up the mucous and blood left on the kids bodies. Mom may eat part or all of the placenta. If not you should bury it or otherwise clean up her stall for her.
Aside from being extremely useful and valuable on the farm, goats are enormously entertaining, providing us with endless hours of study, many stories and much laughter. Their stoic, yet whimsically feisty personalities never fail to pique the imagination and bring smiles to the gloomy.
Here are some cute and funny pictures to entertain you. Contact us for more information about goats.
and a new video on goat taming...
Laughing Dog Farm