Keeping Goats on Your Farm (And Out of Trouble)

Keeping goats contained can be a challenge, but with just a little ingenuity and room in your budget, you can furnish the ideal setup for keeping your herd.
By Laura Childs
July 2, 2010
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Laura Childs’ “The Joy of Keeping Farm Animals” is a practical, thorough guide for anyone interested in having a backyard barnyard.
COVER: SKYHORSE PUBLISHING
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The following is an excerpt from The Joy of Keeping Farm Animals by Laura Childs (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010). In accessible prose accompanied by charming photographs, Childs discusses the basics of raising chickens, goats, sheep, turkeys, pigs and cows, offering valuable insights into the very nature of each animal. This excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Goats.” 

Whenever you need to set up an area for goats — inside or out — it is beneficial to remember the adage of a goat, “like a 3-year-old in a goat suit.”

If a barrier can be jumped over, an electrical wire reached, glass windows pushed upon, grain accessed or nails stepped on, it will be. Any object within reach will be challenged, broken, eaten, chewed, ripped, pushed or punctured by a goat. If you wouldn’t leave your 3-year-old nephew alone for 20 minutes in the shelter or hope to hold him with the fence you just built, it probably isn’t adequate for a goat either.

Goats won’t take up much room on your farm. Their housing requirements are nearly as casual as those required for chickens. In fact, a large shed will do just fine for a few goats. With just a little ingenuity and room in your budget, you can have the ideal setup for keeping goats.

There are two primary methods for housing and containing goats. The first is to pasture them and provide a poor-weather and bedding shelter. The other method, “loafing and confinement,” is to keep goats in a shed or small barn with a fenced yard for exercise.

The loafing-and-confinement system of raising goats is used mainly for dairy and fiber goats or by farmers who don’t have ample pasture. Sufficient room is provided inside and out but keeps high-energy activity to a minimum. Less energy expended allows for productive use of feed.

An average goat only requires 20 square feet indoors, plus 200 square feet outdoors. Meat goats require more: 30 square feet inside, 300 outside. Miniatures require a third less than the others.

The Goat Barn

An existing shed conversion may be perfect for housing goats and could save you building a new structure. Knowing the number of goats you will house at the height of the season (your does plus offspring that you keep for five to six months) will determine whether an existing building is adequate. A communal stall takes 35 to 50 percent of your floor space and leaves adequate room for a milking station, feed storage and one or more smaller stalls. The small stall will be used for isolation of a sick goat, quarantining a new goat, kidding or weaning.

Design your floor layout to accommodate the feeding and watering of goats without entering their communal stall. The easiest way to do so is to build a half wall between their space and yours. Your side contains the manger, water bucket and soda/salt feeder. Their side contains slatted or keyholed head access to all three.

A slatted or keyholed access manger may be the most economical investment of your time in a shed conversion. Goats are not only notoriously picky about the hay they eat, they are also the most wasteful. If they can climb into a manger to eat, they will do so, soiling their feed in the process.

At an open manger, they are known for taking a mouthful of food, turning to see who may be behind them, and dropping half of their mouthful on the floor in the process. A slatted or keyholed access manger ensures they can neither swing their heads around nor climb into the manger to eat.

The standard top width of a keyhole is 8 to 9 inches with a keyhole-shaped taper to the bottom at 4 to 5 inches wide. The full height of the keyhole is 16 inches. Goats will crane their necks to put their heads in at the top and then lower their heads to a comfortable fit within the slot.

If the top of your wall is higher than most of your goats can reach through slats or keyholes, you could build a variable-height step on their side of the wall. Later, kids feeding at the manger will use the higher steps. Keyhole entries won’t work for horned goats.

Temperature 

Goats will huddle together and keep each other warm (enduring temperatures to freezing) as long as their goat house is free of drafts and leaks and the bedding is ample and dry. Take extra care for extremely cold days and nights, if kidding is imminent, or if you’ve had early-season births. Extra bedding, a supervised or safe heating unit and/or a little extra hay for adult goats will help keep the cold out of your herd.

During the summer months, you’ll find goats equally resilient, but do not lock them in during the hottest summer nights without a breeze blowing through and plenty of cool water.

Floors and Bedding 

The flooring in a goat barn need be nothing more than dirt covered with a thick layer of bedding material. Straw and waste hay are easy to use and inexpensive, but wood shavings are easier for cleaning and more beneficial as a future compost.

Keeping a goat’s bedding clean is of the utmost importance. You won’t have to spend hours cleaning out their pen every morning, though. All that is required is to lay some fresh bedding over the existing every few days.

When you’re cleaning out the stall, be sure to compost the rich organic waste material for at least six months, then add it to your gardens. Compost longer if you’ve been using waste hay as bedding material.

Lighting 

As the days grow short over the winter months, you’ll find yourself doing chores in the dark more than once. If you keep dairy goats, the addition of lighting performs double duty. Natural and artificial lighting for 18 to 20 hours per day will maintain milk production through the fall and winter months plus increase the success rates of early spring breeding.

Grain or Goat Ration Storage 

Store grain away from all moisture, out of the sun, off the ground, and certainly out of a goat’s reach. Should a goat obtain access to the grain barrel, it will eat until the grain is gone — gluttony that could result in death through bloat. A galvanized trash can with a snap-on lid placed well out of reach keeps goats and vermin out of the grain.

The Yard

The goat yard should be dry at all times to prevent bacterial infections in hooves. If you don’t have a dry area available for goats, a poured concrete pad suffices during the rainy season. It will also keep their hooves neat and trim. Plan for at least part of the yard to be on the south side of the building.

Goats are happiest when they have something to climb on. An outcropping of rocks is ideal, but any sturdy structure will satisfy their instinctual nature to climb. Keep climbing objects well away from the fence or they’ll use them as steps to freedom.

Fencing for Pasture or Yard 

“A fence that can’t hold water won’t hold a goat” is an age-old axiom. Above all other considerations, the fence deserves the most attention. Goats will go over, under or through a fence before you’ve taken three steps away from their yard if it hasn’t been built correctly.

  • Four-feet-high minimum. Five-feet-high for the highly active and nimble Nubians and miniature breeds.

     

  • Page wire fencing with 12-inch openings is acceptable if you will never need to contain kids; otherwise invest in a 6-inch page wire. Chain link or stock panels with small openings are equally acceptable.

     

     

  • Use 8-foot posts, 8 to 10 feet apart, buried at least 30 inches into the ground. Posts can be steel or wood.

     

     

  • All corner post supports of a goat yard fence go on the outside. Goats will climb or shimmy up a fence support no matter how slim.

     

     

  • If building an electric fence only, run the wire, from the bottom up, at 5, 10, 16, 23 and 31 inches, and a final strand at 40 inches for all breeds. Electric fencing is not a viable option if power in your area is prone to blackouts, although you can also consider solar-powered electric fence chargers. They are common, effective and not too expensive. Remove all weeds that touch the wire.

     

The Gate 

Your goats will watch you enter and leave the yard. In doing so, they will learn how to operate the lock. As soon as they’ve mastered the latch or handle, they’ll be wandering through your flower garden, investigating activity on the road, taking their lunch in the grainfields or bleating at your front door.

A goat can flip a hook out of the eye it rests in and has the determination to mouth and hoof at a lever latch all day until it opens. Determined goats have even been known to slide a large bolt to the open position.

  • Place all slide bolts, latches or locks on the outside of the gate where the goat can’t reach them.

     

  • Install your gate to swing into the goat yard so that even if one of your escape artists manages to unlatch the gate, she might not know she did so.

     

The Pasture

The practice of pasturing goats is a personal decision that may be based on breed of goats, farm economics, available pasture or even your need to have brush cleared on acreage.

As feed can be 70 percent of the cost of keeping any goat, even partially pasturing meat breeds is frugal and wise. Milking does set to managed pasture will create more milk, but it will be lower in butterfat content.

If you will be pasturing your dairy goats, take heed that consumed pungent plants could alter the flavor of milk. Ensure as well that the does aren’t in forest or overgrowth. A milk goat’s udder could easily be scratched or damaged while foraging in such conditions.

Allow at least 1 acre for every 10 goats, and employ rotational pasturing by moving their pasture as soon as each area looks sparse. Rotating ensures that each pasture remains viable and decreases the potential for parasitic infestation.

Goats eat a wide range of native plants on acreage, but should still have access to free choice hay so that they are not forced to eat less than desirable forage. Your goat may have an instinctual nature not to ingest harmful plants, but take precautions by walking your pasture and knowing the plants growing in it. Local authorities maintain lists of known poisonous plants in your region. Even nonpoisonous plants can be toxic if they’ve been sprayed with pesticides that are not within the realm of instinctual knowledge.

Goats on pasture, like any other animal, may be stalked and attacked by predators. Losing a prized goat or kid to coyotes, feral dogs, wolves, cougars, bears and the like is heartbreaking. No two situations are alike in the most effective legal manner to cope with predators. Possible options for protecting goats might be a herd-protecting dog, donkey or llama, or stronger electric fencing.

 


Reprinted with permission from The Joy of Keeping Farm Animals, published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2010. 


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Post a comment below.

 

Laura Childs
12/10/2010 10:40:00 AM
Finally, there are those who keep dairy goats for the purpose of making cheeses. These goats have udders to protect and are fed and cared for very well - without the potential of spoiling the taste of their milk by ingesting wild onions, mint, etc., found on pasture. Many small dairy farms keep the healthiest and happiest goats - concrete pads and all - I've ever seen. I think it is great that we can all share out best practices and small farm strategies but I want to be careful to not alienate others for their situations and choices. We are all on a journey. Laura Childs http://www.goodbyecitylife.com

Laura Childs
12/10/2010 10:31:11 AM
Jan makes a good point about fencing. With the variance in the goat breeds (and how capable or interested they are in jumping or knocking over the fence), not to mention the personalities we find within any breed, EVERY farm has to find their best strategy for confinement for THEIR goats. Sometimes it takes a few variations on a theme to find one that works for you. I have seen goats test an electric fence repeatedly throughout the day and throughout the seasons. Yes they are smart - smart enough to know that sometimes the power goes out - whether trained on the fence or not. For this reason I never rely solely on electric. We have backup solar here but I still prefer a permanent/strand combination. Again, whatever works for YOUR farm. I want to address the 'wincing' some people feel about confinement sheds and concrete yards. I too have a compassion for animals and would love to see all animals roaming free, protected, and in lush fields but there are many situations where that is not an option and I wouldn't want to condemn another's desire to keep goats if that is all they could currently offer. Over the years I have seen people with a desire to keep chickens and then goats - but who lived in the city. They did so but within a few short years they were scouting country property to get back to the land and give their animals a 'better' life. I personally am proud of them.

Jan Steinman
7/10/2010 1:50:01 AM
Great info! But I think the section on fencing misses one key point: if you make it more desirable to be on one fence than the other, the goat will stay on the desirable side. This means a paddock system where you move them before they graze down their favourites will work with the simplest of fences. Keeping them moving before they over-graze an area also helps control parasites, which typically get passed to ungulates within a few inches of the ground. I'm a great fan of non-permanent solutions. It made me wince to read about pouring a concrete pad for your goats! Our goat shed is an old camping trailer we removed for free. When the goats are ready to be moved to a new pasture or paddock, we simply move their entire house! The same could be done by putting a conventional building on skids. We control our small herd with just two strands of "sometimes" electric, at knee and hip height. This is also very portable and easily re-configured. Goats are very smart, and quickly become trained to the electric fence -- then, it doesn't matter if it is on or off! I often string "dark" wire around areas I want to protect, and the goats respect it.








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