Welcome 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.
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.
Forage is naturally woodier and drier, so hay, brambles and branches are favoured at this time of year. Feed plenty of this year’s meadow hay, which will give goats energy and warmth.
If you are feeding concentrates to lactating goats, reduce the quantity to allow them to dry off, and to prevent digestive issues. Give a maximum of 200g of concentrates per day over two meals. If possible, phase out commercial pellets, which are high in cereals and proteins, and phase in whole barley, maize, oats, and low protein vegetables, like dried beet pulp pellets, if not beet from your own garden.
Make the most of brambles, nettles and tree foliage before it dies down for the winter. Woody, leafy plants are a natural favourite, which are good for nutrition and digestion.
Sweet chestnuts and autumn fruits are highly desirable, but limit their consumption, as there can be too much of a good thing, inducing digestive upsets and obesity.
Make sure they have access to a mineral lick with copper and selenium, as well as fresh water daily (with a little warm water added on cold days) and look out for symptoms of worms (loose feces or pale inner eye-lids: see links to internal parasite control).
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.
A damp autumn can be just right for the proliferation of internal parasites (worms). I am so happy to get some really good worming advice from my vet when one of my goats showed symptoms of a high worm burden. This is not a goat farming area, so often goat-specific advice has been hard to find. She took an egg-count, advised accurate weighing and warned me not to underdose. Goats must also be wormed orally as they don’t absorb medication well through the pour-on or injection methods. The dose per weight is always higher than for sheep, as goats have a higher metabolism.
Orally dosing can be a tricky operation with a 68 kg goat who is very strong and wriggly and doesn’t like the procedure. I used a goat weight calculator and measured her girth around chest and withers to obtain her weight. Getting her to ingest the wormer from a dosing syringe was impossible, even with two helpers, so I just tried dripping the wormer over some alfalfa and beet pellets. She snaffled that up and licked the bowl clean! So no stress and medicine direct to the rumen where it works best.
Parasite prevention: pasture rotation with solar powered electric net fence
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.
You can help goats adjust to freshly-growing pasture by providing bicarbonate of soda that they can freely access at any time. Bicarb helps them to avoid bloat or diarrhoea 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.
A word of warning: you’ll need to limit the free-availability of bicarb to those times when grass is freshly growing. Goats are sensitive to the taste of salt and will access the salt/mineral lick when they feel the need for salt. However, bicarb satisfies this urge. Freely ingesting bicarb will reduce their appetite for the mineral lick, so they may miss out on any other minerals they require if constantly supplied bicarb. An alternative is to mix bicarb in with their treats (or supplements if they are lactating) during the spring onset of pasture growth, rather than allowing them to serve themselves.
There has been some excellent research published about goat behaviour and welfare this year. Here is my personal favourite list which I have summarized in an article to complement my book, Goat Behavior, available on Amazon stores.
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.
During a hot summer we need to ensure that goats can find ways to avoid overheating, suffering heat stress and, in the worst cases, getting heat stroke. They run the most risk during hot, humid days. Make sure they have plenty of cool, clean water on such days and that they always have access to shade and shelter. When indoors, make sure their barn is well ventilated.
If goats are panting or reluctant to move out of the heat, they are likely to be heat stressed and you should take immediate steps to cool them down by moving them to shade, offering them cool drinking water or dampening their legs.
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.