… to this guide to starting up with goats as a smallholder or pet owner. This work will be continually revised, so please add comments and suggestions!
Here is advice I have learned from owning goats and studying their needs and behaviour as a smallholder in north-west France, plus tips I learned from volunteering at Buttercups Goat Sanctuary in Maidstone, UK, and evidence from scientific studies.
This is what I believe every new owner should start out knowing, carefully thinking about or looking into.
Spring arrives with fresh, nutritious grass than enthuses the goats to graze with gusto. However, be warned. Goats not used to eating fresh grass may quickly get digestive disorders. This is especially true of goats kept indoors for winter and released in the spring. Those outdoor all year round will have adapted to some extent to the rich growth.
However, for all, I recommend a side-serving of bicarbonate of soda that they can freely access at any time. Bicarb helps them to avoid bloat or diarrhea caused by eating too much rich grass. It helps to keep the rumen moving. You can buy it as a powder from chemists, food retailers or agricultural merchants. Goats simply lap it up from a feed bowl as required. In addition, keep up the supply of hay and a mineral lick, so they can balance their own diet as they need.
This is my favourite book of the year: Temple Grandin’s Guide to Working with Farm Animals: Safe, Humane Livestock Handling Practices for the Small Farm.
Renowned animal welfare professor, Temple Grandin, applies her knowledge of production animal science and her instinctive understanding of animal emotions to guide smallholders and small farm owners on how to gently and harmoniously manage livestock and how to make handling them easy and stress-free for both owner and animals.
I think this is a must for any new smallholder as well as being helpful to all farm animal handlers and keepers. It’s the book I really wanted to read when I started out.
Excellent information on goats, sheep, cattle and other herd animals. Beautiful and helpful photos and diagrams.
As pasture and forage are naturally becoming more scarce with approaching winter, hay becomes a more important component of the diet. This year’s meadow hay with a variety of plants is more nutritional and is vital for maintaining a healthy rumen. Hay is also a more natural feedstuff than other livestock feeds, with a better balance of nutrients for goats. Limit concentrates as much as possible as they can cause rumen upsets and mineral imbalances. This is especially important for bucks and wethers, which are prone to developing urinary calculi from eating concentrate and too little hay.
An enormous amount of rain this year has resulted in muddy areas around shelters. Goats, being adapted to dry, hard surfaces underfoot, dislike the mud and can suffer from foot rot. Wet discarded hay gets scratched up by chickens and then turns to mud. I’ve noticed the goats tend to urinate and defaecate on the hay rather than on platforms, and this adds to the composting effect of the damp bedding. I’ve needed to sweep up old hay and droppings a lot more frequently.
Recent research shows that goats prefer a hard, warm surface to rest up on. In the test they preferred rubber mats and plastic slats to metal grid or wood shavings. As these are firm, dry, warm surfaces, I expect wooden shelves are just as good (as has been found for shorn sheep). I find my goats like to rest up on wooden shelves made from palettes with the gaps filled with wooden boards. The mats and slats also had the benefit that less bacteria got onto the udders. The goats in the trials also preferred to urinate and defaecate in the wood shavings, an absorbent litter. I find my goats normally do these functions in their straw, just outside their bed, normally in a designated location.
The study concludes that goats need several different areas with different flooring types to fulfill different needs. I find they appreciate raised wooden shelving and absorbent litter in different places. Dryness is of utmost importance, then choice of alternatives to meet different needs. Cool areas are required in the heat, whereas surfaces which conduct less heat are preferred when cold. Hard dry surfaces are preferred for rest and play, whereas absorbent material is the toilet of choice.
Some great ideas for housing elements can be found at IGN.
The girls are jostling for rank, hoping to make herd queen when the bucks come calling. The top ranking girl gets first mating in the wild, and our domestic girls still prepare for the season as their instincts guide them. You can expect a few horn clashes and even a reshuffling in hierarchy.
Choosing a buck is important for you as well as for them, so well worth considering before the season starts in September. It’s important to consider the genes that the youngsters will carry, especially if they will go on to breed in the future. Choosing a male that is not related but also comes from a line that has adapted well to the environment, ensures offspring will be healthy and adaptable, as well as productive. You’ll want to look back several generations to make sure there are no shared ancestors, as inbreeding has become common in many breeds. Avoiding commercial breeds and focusing on local ones also helps to improve the gene-pool of your youngsters.
At this time of year I normally have to treat for ticks, especially when it’s warm and damp, as it is this summer. I’ve been fortunately not to have to, so far.
Ticks prefer undersides of the body and creases that are hard for animals to get to. I check each goat under her chin, neck, brisket, belly, udders, and in the joins between body and inside leg. I start with a back and neck rub. Then when the goat is enjoying the interaction, I start checking for small lumps and abnormalities. If I find a tick, I use a special tool I bought from the pharmacie or vet’s to remove it, a “tire-tiques”. Don’t try and remove it any other way as the head may remain lodged in the flesh.
Your goats are probably moulting at the moment, so they love a good scratch, and help from you is much appreciated. Also check for lice, which can hide away in fluffy undercoat, if your goat has not yet shed this.
Positive reinforcement of good behaviour has really worked wonders in resolving one of my goat’s undesirable habits (butting me for attention and cuddles, butting when I remove food bowls, repetitive bleating for attention).
Positive reinforcement is rewarding a goat when she behaves well and is coupled with negative punishment, which means removing rewards if she is naughty. Before I tried pushing her away if she started to butt, pointing my finger and saying “no”. It stopped her butting but she soon started up again. Now, instead of giving her any kind of attention when she butts, I just walk away calmly (removing cuddles and any interaction). Then I make a point of going up to her and giving her a good cuddle when she is quiet and calm. If she lets me stroke another goat at the same time, then she gets a longer and more thorough cuddle. If she chases the other goat away, I stop.