Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Goats tie you down, particularly dairy goats, making it difficult for many people to enjoy the myriad benefits of goats. Even an overnight absence, or a short trip to visit family for the holidays, creates a management problem for the daily needs of your left-behind livestock. For much of the year, goats need daily (or twice-daily) milking without fail, regular access to fresh pasture, a safe place to overnight, regular monitoring to ensure fences are secure, and so on.
Most homesteaders enjoy being anchored to their land and all its benefits, but it’s still nice to get away once in a while. In fact, for 2015 we chose to (temporarily?) go goat-less to allow for some long-overdue travel and life flexibility, yet also clearly noticed the lack of natural pasture management and fresh milk supply. Over the years, we’ve experimented with various approaches to having our milk and traveling, too, and share some ideas below.
Try training friends or neighbors in goat management. Many people are intrigued by goats, but don’t have the time, resources, flexibility, or confidence to raise goats themselves. Our vegetable farm’s workers generally loved our homestead goats, and welcomed a chance to work with them; many learned how to move fences and herd animals, and a few even took on regular milking shifts.
We’re also fortunate to have homesteader friends nearby who also raise dairy goats. The relationships and shared skill sets we developed among all these folks became a real asset when we needed someone to cover goat work for a night and/or morning, even just so we could attend an evening event somewhere.
If you don’t have goats, acting as a goat-sitter for someone else is a great way to get started. Rather than take the plunge before you’re ready, look for ways to help out on established goat farms or homesteads. You’ll gain much-needed skills and perspective, and chances are the goat-herds will welcome another reliable, knowledgeable person they can call on when needed.
Another option involves coordinating with other goat-raising neighbors in your area to host your goats during a certain stretch of time. When our nearby goat-raising friends decided to spend a three-month sabbatical away from home this year, it became clear that the best option for everyone involved was simply to bring their goats to our place during their absence. We already had the infrastructure and knowledge in place to manage their animals with minimal disruption, with far less hassle than arranging for someone to do three months of daily chores on their land, and our current lack of goats made the transition easy. It would certainly be possible for a trusted, otherwise goat-less friend to host your herd for a stretch of time, using portable infrastructure like electric nets, shelters, and milking setups without the host needing to invest in any permanent infrastructure.
If your potential boarder already has goats, there are some issues worth considering, to avoid uncomfortable problems or misunderstandings.
1. Disease/parasite transmission: Different herds, even in the same area, may carry different biological populations with them, and mixing the two (or even sharing pasture) can transmit new problems to either herd. Discuss what health issues might exist, ahead of time.
2. Herd behavior: Goats have a distinct social order, and introducing new animals into a herd, even temporarily, may cause some problems.
3. Management choices: Does your boarder’s approach to goats match your own, in terms of feeding, pasturage, shelter, etc? Do you require your goats to eat organic feed, or avoid chemical dewormers, or have a certain amount of space? Ensure you’ll be okay with how your goats are handled.
4. Compensation & liability: What compensation does the boarder expect? Who pays for hay & feed? How will you both handle any problems that arrive.
While all this is a lot to think about, establishing a comfortable relationship with a boarder can really open up the possibilities for a life with goats (just not all the time). And this leads to a new idea we’ve recently been discussing: goat-sharing.
Hosting our friends’ goats during sabbatical worked especially well since we didn’t have our own herd at the time, but still had our full goat-raising infrastructure (barn, permanent & portable fencing, ungrazed pasture) available and ready to go. It worked so well to bring that herd here for a few months that we began discussing a new way of managing goats: herd sharing.
What if a single herd “migrated” between different homesteads over the course of the year? Each family would do the work and gain the benefits of the dairy goats for a period of time, before the goats moved somewhere else for a while. This would allow pastures and homesteaders to rest and recover from the daily goat demands, while alleviating the need for year-round responsibility. Of course, this would also mean gaps in the fresh milk supply, but we’re used to preserving milk during non-milking times anyway.
This arrangement would also take advantage of individual infrastructure; perhaps the homestead with the best barn would over-winter the goats, while the homestead with the best pasture for a certain time of year would be sure to host the goats then. This model would be especially good at mimicking the natural movement of grazing herds; instead of just rotating pasture use on one patch of land, we’d be giving the goats an opportunity to move across miles of landscape, accessing different plant communities and soil types.
Our three-month experiment this fall with “sharing” goats was a wonderful success; we produced, consumed, and preserved a lot of milk, while grazing down much of our pasture areas without the stress of needing to plan for a full year’s grazing cycle. Being tied down for three months wasn’t so bad, knowing that some freedom was on the horizon; we’re already planning a nice overnight camping trip now that the goats are gone (for now).
Over the winter we’ll be considering the idea of expanding this temporary arrangement into something more, taking into account the boarding factors listed above to ensure that all parties are fairly and comfortably represented in the arrangement. If you have land, but no goats, perhaps becoming a rotational goat host would be a good way to get some experience without the full commitment?
Working Together To Raise Goats
In many traditional communities, raising livestock works because the responsibility is communal or at least shared across multiple families. Too often modern homesteaders are somewhat isolated from others with comparable skill sets or interests, making this already challenging life more difficult. The benefits of raising dairy goats are so immense, though, that working out ways to balance the responsibilities can have significant benefits.
Our approach to having our goats, and freedom too, is still evolving. We’d be interested in hearing from others who are experimenting with this balance.
Photo by Joanna Reuter
Eric 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. He managed a home dairy goat herd from 2008 to 2014, and currently works part-time for a nearby artisanal goat dairy. Read all of Eric's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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