[Note: In March 2009, I sold off my goat herd, but I will leave the practices page up for anyone that might be interested.]
When I got goats three years ago, I got Saanen dairy goats in honor of my grandfather, who had a small herd of them when I was young. During the first year, I discovered that I am not a dairy person. I do not mind milking; I like milking. What I mind is all of the steps there are in the process. I need my tasks to have three steps or less, otherwise I can’t keep my focus or stay interested. By the time I finished prepping the goat, milking, straining, and cleaning the equipment — then not to mention making cheese — I felt like I had been sitting through a boring physics lecture for ten hours. Last year, I milked the goat once a day into a plastic bucket and fed the milk to the pigs. The plan for my goat herd now is to switch from a dairy herd to a meat herd, but to try to keep a bit of milkiness in the herd so that I can milk once a day to have some milk for the pigs. This past winter I bred my dairy does to a young Boer buck (with a Nubian buck as clean up). This summer, I am buying a half Kiko-half Alpine buck to breed the dairy does to.
As you may or may not know, goats are browsers, not grazers. What this means is that they prefer to eat leaves, branches, small shrubs, tall weeds, bark, and all sorts of other things to grass. They will eat grass, but they don’t prefer it. Goats thrive in the woods and in fields that have not been mowed in a few years. Another distinct thing about goats’ browsing habits is that they do not munch along on the ground in a relatively orderly fashion, like sheep or cows do. They browse about the pasture. They nibble here. They move a few steps and nibble there. The trick with browsing goats is to manage their browsing paddocks, especially if they are in a field that hasn’t been mowed in a few years, in such a way that the goats do not convert it from a weedy, brambly field stocked with tasty saplings to an open grassy pasture, which is what naturally happens as the goats put tons of pressure on the browsy stuff and little pressure on the grass that is there beneath the canopy just waiting for some sunshine to take off and crowd out the browsy stuff. This can be accomplished by providing the goats with paddocks that are large relative to the herd size, which keeps the goats from browsing down all of the browse, and/or shifting the goats to a new paddock before they have put too much pressure on the browse.
There is very little browse on our farm. We have mostly open grassy pastures, although there are plenty of weeds like thistle that I would love to get rid of using the goats. We do have a bit of woods on a steep hillside in the back, and I plan to run the goats through them near the top of the hill once all of the kids are born and have a good start. My neighbor across the street has a field of incredible browse — it is on its way to reverting to woods — that I plan to ask if I can run the goats on next year. The field is about eight acres, so it could support quite a few goats.
Feed and Minerals
The slaughter goats are grassfed (browsefed). They eat only milk, browse, and hay until natural weaning, and only browse and hay after that. In addition to the feed the slaughter goats get, the does are fed grain twice a day. I tried this year to have the does be grassfed only, but they lost too much weight as I only have first cutting grass hay, which is not a high enough quality feed for them, especially in the last stages of pregnancy or while milking. This year I will get some good quality second cutting alfalfa hay and try again next year to have all of goats be grassfed.
I feed the goats free choice Fertrell “Grazier’s Choice” minerals, a kelp based mineral supplement with added selenium (45 ppm, which is probably a little low for my area).
De-Worming and Other Management Tasks
In the past, I have used chemical de-wormers, Ivormectrin and Cydectin. This year, however, I am trying to use natural wormers only, concentrated garlic juice, specifically. The garlic juice itself is not produced organically. However, given the fact that it is replacing synthetic chemicals, I am not quibbling over that detail. So far, so good. I have been tracking the goats’ parasite load by evaluating the condition of their coats, their body condition, and by checking the color of their eyelids, which should be nice and pink. If they are pale, or worse, white, this generally means that they are becoming anemic due to the activity of the blood sucking intestinal parasite the Barber Pole worm (Haemonchus Contortus). Sometime within the next week or two, I will also take a fecal sample from each goat to the vet for evaluation. Parasite eggs are passed in the feces. Lots of eggs means lots of worms. In the event of a parasite load that I cannot manage with the garlic juice, I will have to use a synthetic chemical wormer. Intestinal parasites are nothing to mess around with. The Barber Pole worm has killed many goats, and even more sheep.
Every few months, I trim the goats’ hooves. To do so, I generally put them up on the milking stand, which has a head gate to hold them in place if they get squirmy. With a couple of them, however, they mind so little that I am able to do it while they are standing outside the stall door eating grain out of a feed pan on the floor, assuming I am fast enough to finish before they finish eating the grain.
In the Barn
Because I plan to milk the goats once a day in the morning, I bring them into the barn every evening. They have a “suite” in the barn (I opened a wall between two horse stalls) with two hay mangers, a mineral feeder, a five-gallon water bucket, and individual grain buckets for the does (they are “individual” until the grain in the bucket gets low, then it is musical buckets until the fines are all licked up). The stall is bedded with hay. This past winter the goats spent the whole winter in their stall. This coming winter, I hope to work out a system to turn them out during the day, which should not be a problem since they are now used to following me in and out.
Environment and Handling
As with the other animals, I make every effort to provide a calm, comfortable, low-stress environment, and to practice gentle handling. The breeding goats are very tame, so they are very easy to handle. The lone goat kid at the moment is super-tame because I spend ten minutes twice a day playing with him to distract him while the breeding goats eat their grain. When the rest of the kids come, I am going to need to work out a new system for feeding the breeding goats their grain.
I have not yet trailered any goats to the slaughterhouse, but as with the other animals, I will make every effort to load them calmly and quietly, and I will not pack them into the trailer like sardines. The trailer ride to the local slaughterhouse is only about twenty minutes.
If the goats I raise are treated poorly at the slaughterhouse, then I have failed in my effort to raise goats according to the highest welfare standards. The people at the slaughterhouse need to handle the goats in a low-stress manner, both from the trailer to the holding pen and from the holding pen to the kill floor. The slaughterhouse that I use for the goats does so.