Getting Started with Goats
Published on Thu, 10/05/2017 - 11:19am
What do you know about goats?
Maybe you know the basics…that goats are ruminant mammals, kept for milk, meat, fiber, as pets, and sometimes as pack animals. They’re herbivores with a reputation for being willing to eat anything. Maybe you know that male goats are called bucks, castrated male goats are called wethers, and female goats are called does.
But maybe you’d like to expand your knowledge of these charming caprines—maybe you’d even like to keep a couple of goats on your farm. If so, read on!
That’s an easy question! Goats are one of the oldest domesticated livestock animals in the world, due in large part to their usefulness. Meat goat breeds are an excellent source of healthy, nutritious meat, and dairy goats produce impressive amounts of milk. And we shouldn’t overlook the fact that goats are talented weed-eaters as well; they can easily clear land that other types of livestock cannot.
But in addition to all of this, goats are charming, smart, affectionate, playful, and entertaining, and until you’ve spent time around them, you really don’t know what you’re missing! As I like to say, if goats could live in the house, people would keep goats instead of dogs. And that’s saying something!
So if you’re looking for a multipurpose type of livestock that will provide you with delicious milk or meat and make you laugh, goats definitely check all the boxes.
Meet a few goat breeds
Dozens upon dozens of goat breeds exist worldwide, and these breeds range widely in size and purpose. Some breeds are quite rare in the United States (six are on The Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List for 2017) while other breeds have thriving populations (over 16,000 Nigerian Dwarf goats were registered with the American Dairy Goat Association in 2016 alone). Here is a quick look at a handful of goat breeds that you might want to consider:
Boer: Boer goats are one of the most popular meat breeds. They have distinctive coloring (usually red-brown and white) and distinctive ears—their ears are long and pendulous instead of erect like most goats’ ears. Like many meat goats, Boers have a more powerful body type than dairy goats.
Kiko: Originally from New Zealand, Kikos were bred to be hardy, fast-maturing goats that thrive in rough environments. Like most meat breeds, Kikos are typically not disbudded, and they grow impressive horns. They’re admired for their hardiness and the fact that they don’t need much assistance with kidding.
Myotonic (Fainting) Goat: Chances are, you’ve seen at least a couple of videos of “fainting” goats; the type of goat that stiffens and falls over when someone startles it. What looks like fainting is actually the result of a genetic condition that causes involuntary muscle cramping. Internet videos aside, Myotonic goats can be an ideal meat breed for small-scale farmers.
Nubian: When you’re first learning about dairy goat breeds, the Nubian will likely be the first one you can identify, thanks to its ears and facial shape—they’re the only dairy goat breed with long, pendulous ears and a broad Roman nose. Nubians are also one of the largest dairy breeds, with does weighing at least 135 pounds.
Alpine: When most people think of dairy goats, they probably think of a goat that looks like an Alpine, because the Alpine is what you might call the quintessential dairy goat. Alpines make an ideal choice for anyone who is interested in keeping goats for milk—the average quantity of milk produced by an Alpine doe in a single lactation is about 2,500 pounds.
Nigerian Dwarf: Not to be confused with Pygmy goats, Nigerian Dwarf goats are a popular breed to keep as pets, thanks to their diminutive size (at the most, the bucks shouldn’t top 23 inches tall, and only 21 inches for does). They’re also becoming increasingly popular as a dairy breed because of the high butterfat in their milk. That means they can make great cheese (with a little help from you, that is!).
A Quick look at the basic needs of goats
The essentials of basic goat care are largely the same as other types of livestock, although there are a few exceptions. Here’s a quick checklist of some of the things your goats will need:
Access to forage: Goats are browsers, not grazers, which means they will do better on brushy pastures and wooded areas than on a grassy lawn.
Food: In addition to providing foraging opportunities, you’ll want to provide supplementary grain for kids and milking does, and free-choice grass hay for all goats.
Fresh water: Your goats will need constant access to fresh, clean water. Opt for warm water in winter to encourage your goats to drink during cold spells.
Free-choice goat minerals: You need to find minerals specifically mixed for goats, not a goat-and-sheep mix, which may not have enough copper in it.
Adequate shelter and fencing: Your goats will need a barn or shelter and a sturdy fenced area for outdoor exercise. Goats can be eager, agile escape artists, and in order to keep them safe, they require tall fences that are not easily climbed, pushed down, or squeezed through.
Annual vaccinations: The most common vaccination is called CD/T, and it protects your goat against tetanus and enterotoxemia (also known as overeating disease). Other vaccinations are also available; consult your veterinarian to find out which ones are necessary for goats in your area.
Hoof care: Your goat’s hooves will need be trimmed regularly, but many people learn to do this task themselves.
Deworming: There are varying opinions as to the frequency and necessity of deworming goats; you’ll want to talk to your veterinarian for the best advice for your specific situation.
A few more considerations: Even if you’re not planning to milk, it’s helpful to have a milking stand so you can safely restrain your goats for hoof trimming and veterinary care. They will need to be trained to stand quietly, but a few treats will help. Goats are natural climbers and prefer to sleep off the ground, so provide them with some sort of sleeping platform in their barn or enclosure. They will also appreciate any kind of platforms/objects to jump on in their outdoor enclosure, too!
Misconceptions about goats
Here are some things you may think you know about goats…but the truth may surprise you!
“Goats will eat anything!”
One of the most common misconceptions about goats has to do with their supposedly iron stomachs—people think that goats can and will consume just about anything they can find. But this isn’t true. While goats might taste[ anything new and strange to them, they’re actually very picky about what they decide to eat. For example, one goat might love animal crackers, while the next goat refuses to eat a single one.
There are also several plants that are poisonous to goats, including lily of the valley, milkweed, and even oak leaves, so do your research before allowing your goats to chow down on anything they please. Just because they may try to eat it doesn’t mean they should.
“Goats smell terrible!”
Okay, it’s true that bucks in rut may not smell the best. (Bucks have certain habits that people find disgusting, but are apparently very attractive to does!) But does and wethers have gotten the same bad-smell reputation without earning it. Does and wethers actually have very little odor, and the odor they have is not necessarily unpleasant. For part of the year, bucks can smell just fine, too—it’s just when breeding season hits that the stench starts. So if you’re afraid that your goats are going to be unbearable to have around, get some does and wethers and let serious breeders keep the bucks—or build your buck pen far away from your house!
“Goat milk tastes bad!”
This is a more complicated myth to bust. When handled properly, goat’s milk should taste pretty much the same as cow’s milk, and it should be hard to tell the difference between the two (although many goat enthusiasts will tell you that goat milk always tastes better). Remember, any milk that is not handled correctly, be it cow or goat milk, is likely to have an “off” flavor. A “goaty” flavor in goat milk can be caused by a number of variables. For example, some say that if your buck lives too close to your does, his malodorous qualities can affect the taste of the milk the does produce.
Are you ready to read more about goats? Stock your home library with the following resources and continue to expand your knowledge of goats.
Holistic Goat Care: A Comprehensive Guide to Raising Healthy Animals, Preventing Common Ailments, and Troubleshooting Problems by Gianaclis Caldwell
The Backyard Goat: An Introductory Guide to Keeping and Enjoying Pet Goats, from Feeding and Housing to Making Your Own Cheese by Sue Weaver
Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats, 4th Edition, by Jerry Belanger and Sara Thomson Bredesen
Storey’s Guide to Raising Meat Goats, 2nd Edition, by Maggie Sayer
How to Raise Goats: Everything You Need to Know, by Carol Amundson
Raising Goats Naturally: The Complete Guide to Milk, Meat, and More, by Deborah Niemann