Finally, Part Three of Goat Keeping 101, Shelter and Bedding. As always, life on the farm is never dull and getting side tracked is just part of being a farmer. We just attended our first farmers market after a three month break over the summer and now breeding season has started. It’s a bit later this year, but all our does are waiting for cooler temperature to come into heat. Now that the humidity has gone down and the temperatures have moved from the mid-nineties to the mid-eighties, I am expecting the does to all come into heat at once. Of course.
We have learned in our years of goats keeping us, that a few, simple things are just important to keeping your goat herd healthy and safe. Fencing was one, and shelter and bedding are another. Simple to install, simple to keep up and clean, but oh so important in your operation.
Oh, too many times have I heard “what do you need housing for? They are goats, they can be outside!” Ok, they are goats, but wrong, they need a decent shelter from the elements, especially rain, wind, and heat. It also serves as a protection from predators.
Like us humans, goats can get sick from exposure to extreme weather like rain, snow, strong winds and heat. Goats have hollow hair shafts that function as an insulator and help them to withstand moderate heat and cold. Their coat does not provide protection from severe cold or soaking wet or heat and so they will need shelter to help them stay dry and warm. It is also important to note that the more energy the goat uses to stay warm or dry, the less energy is available to make milk.
Housing does not need to be elaborate or expensive. In more temperate climates like ours, a three sided shelter, closed to the prevailing wind and rain direction, with a roof to provide a dry space is sufficient. Most of our shelters have 5-foot high partial walls, allowing room for air circulation over the top of the wall, which we call the summer gap. In a cold climate with snow, an all enclosed barn is appropriate. For our winter, we close the summer gap in the moms’ or birthing pens with plastic sheeting to provide a draft and rain free environment for the pregnant and lactating does and their newborn and young kids.
Before you start construction, take a moment to think about a couple of things:
1. Location, where you will put the shelter, especially if it is a permanent one to make sure it doesn’t sit in the way of rain run-off during or after a down pour and to consider the ease of accessing it for feeding and watering. It is also a good idea to locate a buck’s shelter downwind from your house.
2. Who is it for, is it for your bucks, or is it for does, or for does giving birth and raising babies? Your shelter may have to be designed a little differently for each group. For example, does giving birth like to have and need ample room to give birth, and need some alone time away from the other goats to bond with their kids. With this group you may also have to consider access to electricity for lights, heat lamps or a camera system to monitor your goats.
3. How many animals will use the shelter? Overcrowding causes stress and the goats on the bottom of the herd order could be pushed outside if there is not enough room.
Such a shelter can be put up in a weekend with not much expense involved. We use wood as our base material, and metal sheeting for the roof. You can be creative as to building material, just make sure it will stand up to the elements, is well constructed, and is easy to maintain. A friend of mine uses calf-huts, the advantage of those is that they are portable, the downside is that they are quite expensive for their size. The internet is a great source to find building plans for free; both Penn State University's webpage and the Maryland Small Ruminant Page provide plans for free.
Words of caution: whatever materials you use, make sure that nails don’t stick out one end or the other, your goats will find them. Make sure you leave no gaps, no sharp edges, protruding corners, as your goats will find them. A friend of ours erected beautiful three sided shelters out of metal, but left a gap between the lower edge and the ground. Two of her bucklings got their feet stuck in the gap and ended up with very unsightly and deep gashes right above the hoof.
Bedding in my opinion is the personal preference of the goat keeper as long as you achieve the following goal: provide a clean and dry space for your (dairy) goats to lay down and rest. Visit any goat farm and you will find concrete, soil or gravel and sometimes rubber mats. Concrete is easy to clean if sloped to allow for proper drainage, but very expensive; dirt is practical, inexpensive and easy to clean if not overcrowded and properly drained; the same goes for gravel; slotted or wood pallet flooring is cheap, but can become unsanitary very quickly and the gaps between the wood can become traps for legs and feet. Wood is porous and will hold bacteria and fungi, organisms which you want to minimize in your dairy operation at all cost.
We use a dirt floor as a base and cover it with a layer of grass hay and shavings. We clean our pens at least once a day to remove urine spots and manure. Sometimes we have to add a bit more sand to even out holes from digging or removing pee spots. The hay serves to provide a barrier to the dirt, ants and other bugs, adds warmth and helps soak up urine. The shavings help to soak up urine and prevent it from puddling. We use hay because here in the south we have access to hay, but have difficulties finding straw and if we find it, it is way more expensive than grass hay. In states further north, goat farmers are able to use straw instead of hay. Up north, there is also something called deep litter bedding for the winter. I have no experience with it and therefore won’t comment on it. Other people might want to chime in. As with the shelters, what type of flooring you use will depend on your budget and individual situation.
In our experience, most of our goats prefer to sleep in the court yard, on the ground, in the shade of the trees (they all have free access to pasture) during the hot and humid summer. In the winter, the goats move into the pens and sleep huddled in the warm hay bedding.
As we always tell our interns and visitors: any tasty and healthy cheese starts with a clean pen and healthy goats!