Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Rotational grazing can reduce the parasite load of goats, but this is difficult to accomplish with a dairy herd which needs to return to the same location every day for milking. Most dairy setups assume that the goats remain in a permanent shelter or barn overnight, adjacent to the milking area, and are only put out to pasture after milking and returned by evening. This means the goats are spending about half of their time in the same location and bedding, allowing problematic parasites to complete their life cycles and infect the herd.
On our homestead, we developed a pasture-based rotational management system that allowed us to keep the herd on pasture 24/7 during the warm season, significantly reducing our reliance on chemical de-wormers.
The core challenge in reducing many goat parasite loads is breaking the 28-day lifecycle of the parasites (at least the ones we’ve dealt with). As summarized in a useful article at GoatBiology.com, “With few exceptions, the egg once laid, exits the host, hatches in the often hostile environment, then the juvenile larvae must find a way to get inside another host to develop to the adult stage.”
Loosely speaking, if goats are still living or eating in the same location after a month, they risk being re-infected by parasites. If the herd has moved on, the juvenile larvae will find no hosts.
Keeping the herd moving mimics the natural behavior of their wild relatives (such as mountain goats or deer), which do not confine themselves to feeding or sleeping in the same location year-round. As stated on the same site linked above, “in natural conditions the odds are against larvae surviving long enough to find the correct host.”
Portable Electric Fences
How can we simulate these natural and beneficial behaviors in a home dairy herd which, unlike wild caprines, must be milked once or twice daily, protected from predators, and otherwise managed in a human-practical way?
Our approach relied on moveable herd shelters which can be shifted to a completely new location every month, while a combination of permanent and portable electric fences allowed for rotational grazing in a radius surrounding the shelter location. We briefly described the evolution of our shelter approach here, settling on chain-link panel walls with a pop-up tent as an excellent solution that was both moveable and secure. One person could disassemble, relocate, and reassemble this shelter in 1-2 hours depending on the distance to be moved, a reasonable monthly workload even on our busy farm.
As for daily milking, we simply reversed the normal dairy procedure (milk, take herd to pasture, return by evening). Each morning, the adult does were led to our central milking barn, where they waited in a staging area just like a normal herd, each individual returning to the staging area after milking. When finished, the does were returned to their pasture location. We only milked in the morning, but the same procedure could be used for an evening milking.
One downside to this approach was the need to move goats to and from the milking barn even during inclement conditions, but we found that this was rarely a significant problem even in Missouri’s highly variable weather. Technically, this method still meant the goats were returning to a similar location every day, but as we didn’t feed them in the indoor staging area, there was little opportunity for them to pick up parasites during their brief time there.
Keeping a Milking Stand in a Portable Pasture Shelter
Another approach would be to keep the milking infrastructure with the pasture shelter, dedicating a small area for a milking stand. This eliminates the daily herd move and the weather issues, but increases the footprint and complication of shelter movement while ensuring more primitive facilities.
Personally, we preferred having a nice solid milking stand with a sink and plenty of room to work within a solid building, but either approach achieves the fundamental goal of keeping the herd on pasture.
Maintaining a moveable pasture shelter for the dairy herd produced another significant benefit to our homestead farm: a regular source of compost material. We used straw as bedding within the shelter, adding a little bit each day, and after a month a nice mat of fertile bedding had built up.
Once the shelter was moved, we built a compost pile using the bedding and whatever weeds and other greenery had accumulated around our fields in the past month. These monthly piles were much easier to turn and maintain than a giant annual barn muck-out. We managed these to organic standards, turning them five times within 15 days and ensuring they reached at least 131 degrees Fahrenheit during each turn. Once each pile was finished, we transported it to a central location for aging and later use.
Once the grazing season was mostly over (usually around Thanksgiving in Missouri), we moved the herd back to the permanent barn for the winter, basing them there until kidding was over, usually March or early April. They still had plenty of access to nearby pasture, but returned to the barn at night throughout this time. This does give an opportunity for parasites to start building up again, but they aren’t as active during cold winter weather.
We monitored worm load through eye color and samples taken to our vet, who was impressed by our low worm count despite no routine use of deworming agents. Once the herd left in spring, we built one big compost pile from the winter bedding, which reinforced our preference for the smaller monthly piles produced during the grazing season.
This approach is not 100% effective against all kinds of internal goat parasites. We still ended up having elevated counts at times, such as during especially wet periods or when new parasites were introduced by our abundant wild deer herd (as diagnosed by our vet). At such times, we still used chemical de-wormers on an as-needed basis. But our approach to pasture-based shelters meant that most of the time, chemical de-wormers did not need to be part of our herd management, which made us feel better about the quality of our milk and our soils.
Eric Reuter and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem, at various times managing vegetable & grain crops, perennial fruits, dairy/meat goats, poultry, timber resources, and natural habitats. Read all of Eric's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.