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Goats might make sense for your homestead if you have two hours a day to spend on care, money to burn, plenty of pasture, and a yearning to have them. (Otherwise, consider raw milk shares or trading for dairy with other homesteaders.)
After reading Goat Song by Brad Kessler, I fell into the had-to-have-them category. Plus, I am a cheese fiend, so our homestead wouldn't be complete without dairy animals. Given our mountainous, forested terrain, and limited acreage, goats made more sense than cows. I am stubborn as a goat, too. So, I kept at it even when it was more work and expense than expected.
Getting Started with Goats
There is a ton of great information available on raising goats on sites like Fias Co Farm, extension office publications, MOTHER EARTH NEWS blogs, and in Deborah Niemann's must-read book Raising Goats Naturally (available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store). There are also big differences in care requirements depending on breed, purpose in keeping goats, and your homestead setting. And it's easy to get information overload and lose sight of important things. So, as you begin your research, keep these elements in mind.
Determine your purpose for keeping goats. Do you want to raise meat, dairy, fiber, brush- clearing, or multi-purpose goats?
Identify your conditions, requirements, and available resources for keeping goats. What infrastructure do you have or can you build to house goats? Do your goats need to be family-friendly or predator resistant? Is climate a concern (e.g cold winters, hot summers)? How much land do you have for pasture? How will you confine your escape artists?
Plan your budget. Goats need housing suitable to their purpose (e.g. minimal shelter for meat, plush shelter for milking), fencing, minerals, clean straw, and nutritious food. Bucks need separate housing and pasture or you need to factor in stud-related costs. Pasture development is costly and is labor intensive. Goat prices varies by breed and pedigree. Common breeds are easier to find, cost less to transport, and may already be well-adapted for your area so they save you on vet bills. Goat registration and showing goats may be necessary for selling speciality breeds. And stuff happens, so build in a fudge factor.
Choose the right breed(s). Your local agricultural or extension office should be able to direct you to breeders in your area. Wikepdia has a table of goat breeds with utility noted. Goat societies, breed clubs, and owner forums are also good sources for breed info. Typing “goats and homesteading” in your search engine can give you information on the breeds other homesteaders keep. Dig deep and get the dirt on potential breeds so you are fully prepared to meet the challenges of goat ownership.
Rely heavily on experienced goat owner information. Newbies like me are so thrilled about having goats that we want to share our joy with the world, but problems like parasite build-up in pastures, identifying and treating illnesses, and caring for or culling older or weaker goats are still distant concerns for us. Spend time on the less-polished websites and forum posts from long-time goat keepers.
Along with all that prep-work, make sure you know goat math
I knew goats had to make babies to make milk, but I hadn't realized they would need to have babies every 8-12 months to keep producing milk or that there was a 145- to 150-day gestation period. Goats also need a two month milk-free period to recuperate before giving birth. After kidding (goat lingo for having babies), depending on number of kids (often twins or triplets), you may have to wait two months for useful amounts of milk from your does. This means up to four months per year with no milk from your main squeezes.
But wait...there's more! Doelings should not be bred until they are 80% of mature weight, or around 1 year of age. And some goats only come into heat once a year.
So, now for that math I mentioned:
Doe bought on September 1, 2016
+Comes into heat and is bred in October 2016
+Kids in March 2017
+Kids nursing until May 2017
= 8 months of care and feeding before you get milk
If you are going for meat, wait 11+ months for your first taste of goat chorizo. Alternatively, if you buy an adorable 8 week-old, just-weaned doeling born in March 2017 you may have to wait until May 2019 for milk.
Say what!? If your goat is only in heat in the fall and hasn't hit the 80% size-criteria in time, you may have to wait to breed until the following year. Breeding too early can put the doe and/or kids at risk for death or long-term health consequences and isn't recommended.
If this exercise in goat math hasn't scared you off, then read on for some tips that will hopefully make goat keeping easier for you.
Buy a Bred Doe
My herd began with two mature Nigerian Dwarf does who had already kidded. I picked one of them up on “weaning day” and immediately began milking her. She gave me just enough milk to make fresh cheese twice a week and add some to my morning tea. Way better than waiting 8 months!
Sometimes breeders struggle to find buyers for mature does since most new owners favor cuddly doelings. This means breeders may be willing to hold and breed a mature doe for you to ensure a good owner (and good price). If they make profit on selling kids, they may even be willing to let you pick-up at weaning like I did. Also, be on the lookout for farms that are down-sizing or getting out of keeping goats due to life-changes as they may have bred or milking does for sale. The worst a breeder can say is “no” so just ask.
When buying mature does, also ask why the owners are selling to make sure you aren't buying someone else's behavioral or health problem.
Have a Strategy
There are a lot of considerations that go into breed selection. I chose Nigerian Dwarfs because I can stuff them in my Honda Fit for vet visits and wrestle them onto the milkstand. Also, I wanted a breed that would be easy to sell as pets on Craigslist. Since they have twins or triplets, I can even sell kids in pairs to make sure kids will have companions in their new homes. Also, their milk is great for cheese-making.
But the primary reason I chose this breed is to have milk year round. My does can be bred every 3-4 weeks all year long. So, I set the kidding schedule to ensure milk production. The downside of smaller goats is that you need more of them. And that means work on the milk stand. They also seem like pets. So, their small size and the pet-factor make them a bad choice for meat.
As a good homesteading strategy, even if you choose a large breed as your mainstay, you could keep miniature goats to augment your milk supply. If you aren't comfortable dispatching pet-like goats, but can't afford to keep all unsold offspring, consider outsourcing. Under U.S. regulations, goats must be slaughtered at a USDA or state-inspected processing facility if you want to sell the meat. Since these are the rules anyhow, why not turn a problem into a product to help support your homestead activities?
Goat Management 101
If you have ever worked in an office environment, then you know what it's like to work with goats. Does are wonderful workers, with great personalities, and they sure know how to schmooze up the boss (see this recent study to find out how).
They can also be moody and try to gore the guts from the doe in the next cubicle over. They are competitive eaters, are always in cliques, and are a.) lazy unless motivated or b.) high-strung and irritating if not sufficiently challenged. They are prissy when it comes to rain and wind and they poop everywhere – even in their food and water.
As far as I know there are no “drama-free” offices or goat herds. But as any good manager knows, you can make an environment more amiable and your workers more productive by considering needs, appreciating strengths, and encouraging collegiality and good health. Towards that end, consider these tricks.
The Bully-Bowl and Kiddie-Cup
Give your bully her own bucket of feed away from the rest of the herd. All herds have a queen, and they attain that role by being stronger or smarter and a bit meaner than the rest. If your queen has her head buried in a bucket of food, she's less likely crowd the feed trough and head butt competitors.
Feed your kids separately too or they will stand in everyone else's food or get pushed out by the bigger goats.
Goat Litter Box
Goats may poop everywhere, but they are conscientious about where they pee. This means you can use a goat litter box. The box (or designated area) needs to be wider and longer than your goats because they will want to stand in it to go.
Start with about 3-4 inches of straw to trap the urine. Add 1 inch of straw as needed to control odors. Every two weeks, pitchfork out your litter pile and start over. Leave a little pee-straw behind so goats know where to go. Goats will occasionally miss or go somewhere else if the box is occupied. Just spread wood ash over the wet area to discourage repeated use and sweep it up when dry.
Note: If you spread straw on the rest of the floor, goats will assume the entire floor is a litter box, so this method requires that you don't spread straw. Instead leave straw bales out as goat chaise lounges. When the bales break down from normal goat activity, use them to line your litter box .
Manure Master Plan
Wood floors make manure collection easy. Just sweep the floor twice a day and scoop the good stuff directly into a container for composting, like a 32 gallon trash can. Between the manure, goat hair, random straw from the litter box, and food scraps, this stuff seems to be the perfect composition of greens and browns for hot composting.
Add a little water to activate and cover. After your container heats up and then cools down (couple of days in warm weather), use it as mulch for new garden beds. Or, spread it over your red wriggler worm bed. Some of the manure may not fully compost by this method, so apply no more than four inches of manure at a time to avoid accidental hot composting and wormicide. Add kitchen scraps and weeds to give the worms variety. Then, put a thin layer of the used goat litter as cover to create a moist, dark worm paradise.
If you plan to milk goats, three separate spaces are recommended. You need: 1) a Milk Parlor, 2) a Kid Pen, and 3) a Goat Living Room. If you have resources for a goat mansion, then two others spaces are useful: 4) Birthing Rooms and 5) Bonding Chambers.
The Milk Parlor
Unless you enjoy having guest goats eat your hair and nip your knees while you are squeezing the teets of a (possibly) uncooperative milker, then a private milking stall is a “must-have”.
If space requirements or circumstances necessitate more than one goat in the milk parlor at a time, give your guest goat a treat bowl at the foot of the milkstand. If you milk from side to side, you'll be able to see when your non-milker makes a move (e.g. a run on the feed bucket) and can take preventative action such reminding them they already have a bowl. If your guest goat bothers you, you can blow on her face to simulate wind. Two or three lung-fulls usually does it. If these tools fail, opt for a strong tether and a quick milk-hand.
The Kid Pen
It's standard practice to begin milking does while their kids are still nursing. To do this, you need to separate the moms from the kids for several hours a day to build-up surplus milk. Generally this occurs overnight since most goats are busy browsing in pasture during the day. For details on how and when to begin separation read Raising Goats Naturally.
If you only have one goat nursing a time, you can put the doe in the milk area overnight and milk her first in the morning. But if you have multiple mom's nursing, it takes less space to create a small sleeping area for the kids with a kid-sized litter box, fresh water, and room to twirl and jump, than it does to make a room to hold several full-sized does.
Goat Living Room
Of course you also need a place to keep the rest of the goats. Wind and rain protection are critical. But also make sure your goat house is well-ventilated because goats are gassy and sensitive to the smell of urine. Goats also like things to sit on like straw bales or pallets. Goats tend to be homebodies when not in pasture, so give them room to lounge as a group.
In extremely cold weather, you can insulate your goat living room with stacked straw bales and create straw bale seating areas to get goats off the cold ground. I usually buy about 20 bales at the start of winter for this and then use that straw in spring as cover for seeding pasture, garden bed development, kidding clean-up, and goat litter.
The Birthing Room
Birthing rooms are nice, but not always necessary. If you have limited space, keep a calendar and plan your pregnancies so they are spaced out by a couple of weeks. The last few days before kidding, does get really moody. They may even act like bucks in ruts. If you have two goats kidding around the same time, separate them to keep the peace and avoid injuries. If you are short on rooms, you can use stacked straw bales to divide your main goat room into smaller holding cells. Usually as long as hormonal does can't see each other, they will chill out.
The Bonding Chamber
Some people also like to keep the doe and her kids separate from the herd for a few weeks so they can bond, grow, and recover. For me, this is a nice idea, but I just don't have the space. So I only wait until the little guys can jump (about 2 days) before I put them in with gen-pop. Until then I muddle through with the use the milk area and the kid pen.
Since I let them join the herd so young, I've created a few places for kids to hide under or squeeze into to get away from the big girls. I also keep a kid-sized feed bowl and water in these spots. And, I leave the milking room door open when not in use so new mom's and kids can rest/hide away from the herd.
Now that your totally spaced-out...on to a few more things you don't want to learn the hard way.
If you decide to keep bucks, and you probably will to ensure the health of your herd, you will need a separate buck pen. Wait until you need a buck to buy one to save on care and feeding. In fact, buy two so they keep each other company and increase genetic diversity.
And if you want well-behaved bucks, never visit your does before visiting your bucks if there is a chance your does might be in heat. Bucks can smell when a doe is in heat. So, if you see the girls first, then you end up smelling...well, like a doe in heat. To a penned-up/pent up hunk of burning love whose sole purpose in life is to impregnate your does, that can result in some pretty serious behavioral problems (and possible danger to you) if you skip this tip.
It's also a good idea to keep a few strategically-placed squirt bottles around the buck pen. You don't want to get close enough to a buck in a rut to use the simulated wind trick that works on milkers. But a high-powered water stream will simulate rain long enough for you to exit the pen.
Bucks are normally as easy to keep as does. But they have their moments and tend to be a bit more emphatic about having their way when they happen. As long as you understand their perspective, you'll get along just fine. P.S. The peeing on the face thing is really not a big deal. Buck urine is pungent, but harmless.
Goats are browsers and require a diverse diet for good health. As a new goat owner, I spent a lot of time studying up on goat feed. Initially, stories of malnutrition scared me into using “grain” as my main food supply. Grain, in the goat world, means something other than pasture or hay. I chose bagged pellets because they were convenient and formulated for goats. But I also took my goats on long walks and paid close attention to what they ate. I identified the plants and researched nutritional content.
Based on those observations, we fenced off an area that included all their favorites like black locust, red sumac, sourwood, maple, oak, and pine trees and lots of berry bushes and brambles. We then added pasture powerhouses like alfalfa, rye, mustard, lupines, cowpeas, hairy vetch and birdsfoot trefoil.
Our pasture also came with mountain laurel, azaleas, and rhododendrons which can be poisonous to goats. My goats routinely eat the new leaf growth on these plants with no ill-effects. Occasionally a new kid will eat too much and end up sick. They get frothy at the mouth, spew their cud, and scream in agony.
A few hours later they are fine and they never do it again. When it happens, I squirt baking soda water in their mouths, keep them walking around the pasture, and periodically rub their rumens. I don't know if it helps, but it makes me feel better to be doing something. I've read that ingesting these poisonous plants can be lethal, but I suspect the fact that they are otherwise well fed keeps them from eating too much of a bad thing.
By accident, I discovered that if I seeded a part of the pasture with buckwheat the goats would avoid it. This effectively gives the pasture a chance to rest. When I am ready for them to graze in that area again, I scythe down the buckwheat and goats suddenly notice the other delicacies growing below. I can't swear this will work for others but since buckwheat is a good source of organic matter and a safe-edible (if your goats will eat it), it's probably worth a try.
In winter, my goats get more pellets. They also get evergreen ground cover, holly, pine needles, the fodder you water (see previous post, F is for 'Fodder'), and cold-hardy greens from our garden.
Disbudding and Wethering Kids
Disbudding refers to the burning off of horn buds on a two week old kid. Kids look terrible for about two months after disbudding, so if you plan to sell them, take pictures before they have giant scabs on their heads.
Wethering is goat-neutering and is performed at around 8 weeks of age. I “band” my wethers, as in put a band around their testicles to stop blood flow until they fall off. Some people find this practice controversial. Honestly, I find repeatedly putting does through pregnancy and labor so I can enjoy their milk controversial, but I try to make up for it by otherwise taking good care of my herd. Banding ranks below breeding on my list of things I feel guilty about related to keeping goats for personal use. And after a day or so, the wethers are as loving towards me as ever, so I don't think they harbor any bad feelings either.
Both procedures are generally considered necessary if you plan to sell kids as pets. They can be done on-farm with minimal investment and are fairly easy to do. But a livestock veterinarian performs these services in minutes and usually charges reasonable rates, so that is also worth considering. These are both subjects you should research and make your own informed decisions about.
Making a Goat Milking Stand
Having trained six goats to be milkers, I have discovered a few tricks to shortcut frustration and fast track milk production.
My first secret weapon is my milk stand. Like all milk stands, it has a place to attach a feed bucket. This is important because you can use a bucket of feed to lure the milker to the stand and coax their head into the medieval stock-like head trap. Then when done, you can remove the bucket and lure them off the stand to make room for next milker.
If you opt for an attached food container, you may want to give the milker an even better treat to tempt them off the stand (nicer than a wrestling them off). Bagged alfalfa pellets, intended for horses, work nearly as well as expensive goat treats at a quarter of the cost.
I added two rows of railing along 60% of the length of my stand, that I call “training bars”. I use the top rail to run a rope under the chest of new milkers who like to lay down on the job. I use the bottom rail to run a rope over the hind-end of goats who act like bucking broncos.
In extreme cases, I use two ropes and both rails. I have to reach around the rail to milk, but it's not actually in the way.
I added a clip with soft ties at the back of stand to overcome the doe's natural instinct to kick me off when I've taken more than a normal share (like they do to their kids). I also added a slide-stop that keeps goats from stretching out too far (a variation on laying down).
To avoid spills, I milk with a handled cup and periodically empty this directly into my storage container. I use mason jars and pour the milk through cloth napkins to filter out debris. If a doe goes wild on me, I just move my hand, holding the cup, and give them a minute to calm down before I start milking again.
Start feeding does on the milk stand before they kid. Begin and end all milkings with praise and pets. And finally, remember that goats are mind-readers. If you aren't focused on milking, they'll exploit your weakness. Keep your head in the game!
Oh, and watch this video. This young lady's calm demeanor and excellent techniques gave me the wherewithal to train and milk my first doe. I don't know what I would have done without seeing it.
Say Cheese!: Making Cheese with Goat's Milk
Any new cheesemaker should check out the New England Cheesemaking Company and get a copy of Gianaclis Caldwell's great book Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking: The Ultimate Guide for Home-Scale and Market Producers (available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store).
But for starters, try these simple techniques to make cheese and yogurt. For cheese, fill up a quart mason jar, cover it with a coffee filter and caning ring lid, and let it sit out on your counter until the curds separate from the whey, usually 1 to 3 days.
Strain out the liquid using a cloth napkin or flour sack towel. Tie up the towel like a hobo suitcase and hang it to dry for an hour or so.
When the consistency feels right to you, put the curds in a bowl, salt to taste, stir, and spread on fresh bread. Use the whey as a water substitute in baking, soups, or sauces.
For yogurt, add two tablespoons of your favorite store bought plain Greek yogurt to a quart jar of milk, cover, and keep at 80-90 degrees for two days. The inside of an unheated gas oven is a good place to develop yogurt culture. Or you can also use a water bath and occasionally add more warm water to keep the temperature up. I learned this trick from John Seymour's beautiful book, The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It (available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store).
If you stuck with me this long, then you've the makings of a great goat keeper. I give you my best wishes for a happy, healthy, and productive herd! Join me next time for The ABCs of Homesteading: H is for Horticulture. It's not just a big word, it's a super important skill every homesteader should have in their mental toolkit.
Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina where she currently raises pigs, goats, poultry, bees, worms, vegetables, herbs, trees, shrubs, and mushrooms. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Find Tasha at The Way Back and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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