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The pleasures and pitfalls of raising goats

Goats are a popular animal to raise for hobby farmers, commercial farmers, and members of 4-H. (Photo Credit: Kim Carr, courtesy of Voyageur Press)

Goats are popular for both hobby and commercial farms, as well as members of 4-H. (Photo Credit: Kim Carr, courtesy of Voyageur Press)

Goats are quickly becoming the hottest thing on the homestead, as consumers become more aware of the high protein and low cholesterol content of goat milk products. Goat enthusiasts, however, are concerned that the trend might lead inexperienced people to take on more than they bargained for, as witnessed by the growing numbers of backyard chickens now turning up at shelters across North America. Janet Hurst, author of The Whole Goat Handbook, has some wise advice for anyone interested in goat tending.

Goats are the animals most widely used for milk across the world and have been known for centuries as intelligent and utilitarian creatures, with the ability to adapt to many climates and terrains.

Before getting serious about purchasing a goat, keep in mind the commitment and work involved in raising these animals. First, give thought to housing. Goats do not tolerate being cold or wet, so a simple shelter will be a necessity. The shelter does not have to be elaborate, just something to keep the wind and rain off the animals.

Access to fresh water is also important. If a goat does not have enough clean water to drink, it will not produce much milk. Perhaps one of the largest factors to consider with this animal is fencing. If pasture land is available, consider running high-tensile electric wire with a solar charger. On the other hand, if land is limited, electrified netting is a good option. Woven wire would be the fencing of choice for a smaller pen or paddock.

When keeping goats, there is an old adage worth remembering: “If you can throw water through a fence, a goat will get out of it!” Keep this in mind when choosing fencing. Goats are herd-oriented animals, and one goat is a lonely goat, looking for trouble. It is best to have at least two.

City goats

If local bylaws allow it, goats can adapt to urban settings but great care must be exercised to ensure they are properly contained, housed and fed. Neighbours often object, fearing escapees and odours. There is an established prejudice against goats and if the animals are not properly maintained, those fears can become a reality.

But, particular care around housing and fencing are not the only considerations for those keeping ‘urban goats’. Note also that:

  • Goats are meant to eat above their heads. Throwing hay on the ground will lead to ingestion of parasites and other health issues. A hay rack is a necessary piece of equipment.
  • A mature male goat will have a distinct odour that serves as an attractant to females. Close neighbors will almost certainly object to this odour, so keep only females in the city. Find a reputable breeder and take your females to visit, rather than housing a male full-time in the city.
A herd of goats in Prince Edward Island. (Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae via Flickr)

A herd of goats in Prince Edward Island. (Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae via Flickr)

Country goats

Those with a small farm or homestead will appreciate goats for many reasons, including the fact that they are browsers, preferring brambles and brush to grass. If there is a wooded, overgrown area, this is the perfect habitat for them. However, they will eat grass or hay if ‘browse’ is not available. Pasture grass of 15 centimetres (6 inches) or taller is ideal to help control parasites, which are the number one cause of illness.

Goats were once nomadic, leaving their droppings behind as they traversed rocky, desert terrain. However, with domestication, heavy parasite loads became a problem. That’s why the best environment for goats is one where they browse and make their way through a wooded area. If that is not available, parasite management will be an issue and an ongoing concern.

Ask a local veterinarian to assist with fecal testing to establish the initial load and dosing information for dewormers. Educate yourself on this process, then purchase a simple microscope and learn to run the tests yourself, for best overall herd maintenance. Once the limits are established and the proper dosing of dewormer is understood, routine testing will help ensure a healthy herd. If a goat looks ill (downcast spirit, off feed, listless) the first thing to test for is parasites.

To ensure a balanced diet, a total mixed ration (such as ‘goat chow’) will add the needed protein the animals require for proper growth as well as milk output. Remember, we are asking a lot of these animals, to produce milk for an extended period of time. Without proper nutrition, muscle mass and overall body condition will become poor.

Salt and minerals are also important dietary supplements. There are specific products available just for goats, including goat rations and mineral blends.

Pick wisely

When selecting your animals, do your homework on the various breeds of goats available. There are five common breeds: Nubian; Saanen; La Mancha; Oberhasli and Alpine. See our slideshow for more details on each breed.

Nubians are among the best choices for cheesemaking, as their milk has high butterfat content, even though overall milk output is lower. They tend to be quite vocal, however, so are a better bet for a small homestead rather than an urban farm.

Small breeds are also good candidates for smaller homesteads. Chief among those breeds are the Nigerian dwarves and Kinders – a cross between a male pygmy and female Nubian. They are great milk producers, require smaller housing and adapt well to a pen situation. Their small stature makes them good candidates for those who are teaching their children to milk. They also take less feed to produce milk, making them economical to keep. Don’t let the small size fool you – these breeds give a surprising amount of milk!

With a goat in the backyard, fresh milk, cheese and ice cream will be within easy reach, adding to your level of self-sufficiency. Be mindful however, that keeping goats requires time, preparation, breed selection and maintenance. With the right planning, these playful creatures will be welcome additions to your homesteading endeavours.

Janet Hurst is a veteran goat keeper and cheese maker with 25 years of experience. She enjoys writing about her country lifestyle, taking photographs, and sharing life with her small herd of goats.

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