Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
In the summer of 2000, my new farm in Colorado was refurbished, restored and otherwise brought back into working order. Before buying expensive Dexter cattle, I wanted a little more cow knowledge. I saw in an ad in a local penny-wise type of circular advertising that a very young Gelbvieh steer was for sale for a mere $200. A bargain!
The down side was that he still needed to be bottle fed and had a bad hip. Also, because we had only horses at the time, who would be a companion to the little guy? Another ad in the same paper advertised free Nubian baby goats, also needing to be bottle fed. Well, if you’re warming up formula for one animal, why not for more, I reasoned. They can hopefully keep the steer a bit of company.
About a week later, a steer and two black and white baby goats (twin brother and sister) came to our place. Sadly, the steer did not make it, but the baby goats did. Even though I was sad about the little steer, the baby goats made the whole adventure worth it.
From the minute I saw them in their nursery box jump up on their hind legs to greet a perfect stranger, with those long ears flying about, I was hooked. I have never looked back on those days when an unexpected goat herd decidedly grew and grew and other livestock went by the wayside. But as I grew more involved in breeding, a question arose that faces all breeders of dairy animals: what to do with the males?
Before I even knew much about the goat packing community, I saw a goat pack saddle with panniers on Ebay for $75. I ran across this listing by accident but I was intrigued. I got the pack saddle and started researching pack goat training. Huzzah!
The neutered baby boys (called wethers) began training at about 1 year of age. Once again, I dived in and never looked back.
I found it, therefore, sort of poignant when a WWOOFer (farm intern) at our place here in Utah with previous experience with goats expressed distress concerning the euthanasia of males at birth at a commercial organic goat dairy. Aren’t there other alternatives? I tried to explain in typical professor style, well yes, and no.
If you are a large outfit with a tight bottom line, then their approach is the most practical. Alternatively, many farms and ranches will raise the wethers to a certain age and weight and then sell them cheap as meat goats or as goat roping subjects.
Now don’t get me wrong, goat meat is excellent and goat roping seldom results in injury to the animals. Selling baby goats for this purpose just isn’t my style. So about a week after birth, all kids are assessed for their confirmation and markings. If they are registered, they are sold as bucks. If they are not registered and not particularly large, I find good homes at a great price for the buyer as pets. The other unregistered boys are kept and trained as pack goats from an early age.
Early training begins with name recognition, lead and tie training, and basic commands. After those basic skills are down, off we go into the wilderness for trail experience. After the age of 2-1/2 years, a wether can carry almost one third of his weight.
Trained pack goats can sell for up to $400 when they are that age. Is that a fortune after putting all of that care and training into an animal for that long? Well let’s just say don’t give up your day job.
Training extra wethers (and females) for this job has added perks that may not be readily apparent at first. If you can use them as ambassadors for your operation, you will find that their training affects their personalities such that they are great with people and you seldom have to worry about safety.
If you can use pack goats as assets for community work, such as weed clearing, put their packs on full of snacks and drinks for volunteers who are doing the labor, and watch the crowds turn out to the event (at which you also promote your farm, ranch, garden, locavore restaurant, etc.).
And then there is the added benefit of using them for your own recreation. Instead of granola bars and top ramen at the end of a long hike, you can have steaks and champagne, chairs and table, tents and soft bedding all carried by the goats. We like a bit of luxury these days, so on a long trek, we take six goats, five of whom that carry gear daily and an extra we refer to as the “spare tire.” But even one or two large pack goats can make hiking with small children a lot more fun and is cheaper than pack horses by far.
So, as I told this earnest young woman, yes there are options, but it all depends on a farm’s mission, philosophy, budget, acreage, and so forth. For us, it works beautifully, and so I feel it would be nice if more folks understood that it is a wonderful option for many operations.
Lauren Hall Ruddell operates Planet Goat in the Utah high desert, one hour west of Salt Lake City. As the name of the operation suggests, goats are the consuming passion. Nubian dairy goats provide milk and adorable baby goats yearly, while the wethers occasionally, and vigorously, earn their keep in the back country. Find Lauren online at Planet Goat.
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