A Primer on Keeping Goats

A friend of mine, Michelle, asked on a Facebook post, “Just out of curiosity, what’s involved in keeping a cashmere goat and how much would one cost? And do they require friends or are they ok solo? You know… A FAQ of goats, if you will… ?”

This short series of questions deserves a longer response – too long for a FB comment, so I decided to write a blog post…

This post is not exhaustive by any means. It is meant to assist you in your decision whether to purchase goats. The last section of this post will give you resources to learn more. And, of course, you can always Google!

How Many Goats to Buy

Goats are herd animals, which means they are social and should never be kept alone. And your dog does NOT count as a goat companion. Goats and dogs can get along, but you must be careful introducing them since they are natural enemies. Dogs are predators and goats are prey.

Therefore, you should plan on having at least 2 goats. If you are just going to have a handful of goats and you do not plan to breed, I highly recommend that you buy wethers.

Wethers are neutered males. They behave much like does (females), but are usually cheaper. One bonus is that they tend to produce more cashmere since they are not putting energy into reproducing.

goats are herd animals

Goat Pasture & Feed Requirements

To keep 2 goats healthy, you should have at least ½ acre of high quality pasture for them. Experts state that you should not stock more than 3-5 goats per acre.

Since goats prefer weeds to grass, a high quality goat pasture is very different from a high quality sheep, cow, or horse pasture. Weeds are OK for goats but would not be OK for other livestock.

One misconception about goats is that they eat anything. THIS IS NOT TRUE!!! They are actually very picky eaters; they just eat a lot of plants that other livestock don’t eat. And they don’t eat all weeds.

One of the first things a prospective livestock owner should learn is how to develop and maintain a good pasture. The better your pasture, the less you will spend on supplemental feed.

It is OK to supplement a goat’s natural diet (called browse, which includes grass, weeds, leaves, bark, and small twigs) with grain. We use a mix of sweet feed, oats, alfalfa pellets, and cracked corn. Just a little each day to keep them friendly. A cup or 2 per goat is plenty unless they are pregnant or lactating, then we give them a lot more.

The main supplemental feed for goats is hay. You’ll want to find a local farmer or feed store where you can buy hay. It’ll probably be cheaper from a farmer.

Hay is normally cut 2 (or sometimes 3) times per year. Second cut hay is the most nutritious.

Just put enough hay out each day for them to finish. If there’s leftovers the next day, reduce the amount you put out; if they’ve eaten it all, give them a little more.

Goats need mineral supplementation. Get GOAT minerals; not sheep & goat minerals. The former has more copper, which is necessary for goats but can be toxic to sheep.

Fencing

There’s a saying: “If water can get through a fence, so can a goat!”

I recommend a 7-strand electric fence with a STONG energizer – the strongest you can afford.  You’ll curse it every time you accidentally shock yourself, but you’ll sleep better knowing your animals are protected.

If you’re only going to have full-size adult goats, you can get by with 5 strands. Electric will be the most economical fence to install, and quite safe when the energizer is working properly.

A safer fence would be 4”x4” woven wire, with 3 strands of electric around the inside and a strand of barbed wire around the bottom. But this is very expensive. We started with this fence but when a flood destroyed it, we went to 7 strands of electric and have had no problems.

Shelters & Equipment

Here is a link to how to build the shelters we use. One modification that I’ve made since writing these instructions is that I’ve started using goat panels rather than cattle panels. We have a couple of does who can get their heads through the openings of cattle panels and they get stuck. The goat panels only have 4″x4″ openings – too small for them to stick their heads through. You can buy goat panels at Tractor Supply, but they are expensive. You might be able to find them cheaper at a local farm store.

Goats don’t need a barn. We use our barn to store hay, tools, and equipment. We do not normally put goats in it.

We build our hay feeders out of 2 crisscrossed pallets. We get the pallets free from the electric company or feed store. (Pro tip: use a reciprocating saw to remove boards from a pallet. It’s nearly impossible to pry them apart without breaking them.)

We use quite a few buckets and feed pans. Unless you install a watering system, you’ll want a large bucket for water. Ideally situated where you can reach it with a hose.

You’ll need fencing tools. The specific types of tools may vary depending on what kind of fence you install, but I can almost guarantee you’ll need a T-post driver.

A good quality pitchfork and wheelbarrow or Gorilla Cart would probably be a good investment.

You’ll need a way to transport your goats. It is much cheaper to take a goat to the vet than to have the vet come to the farm. If you have a pick up truck, a Goat Tote would be a great solution.

You can also use an extra large dog crate. I’ve transported many goats in a crate in the back of my van.

Don’t keep collars on your goats when they are in the pasture, but you’ll need leashes and collars for handling them.

A goat stand is absolutely necessary for trimming hooves, combing out cashmere, and doing medical treatments. You can purchase a goat stand or build one. We built this one.

Routine Maintenance of Goats

Aside from daily feeding and watering, we trim hooves every 3-4 months. You’ll want to invest in a good pair of hoof trimmers. I like these trimmers with a serrated blade.

You’ll also want to learn the FAMACHA process of checking to see if your goats need to be dewormed. With this method, you look at the inside of their eyelids to see if they are anemic, which is an indication that they need to be dewormed.

Parasites (often called worms) are the most common health problem in goats. We check them, at a minimum, every time we trim their hooves. Goats that need to be treated get a treatment that day, then 2 more treatments spaced 10 days apart, for a total of 3 treatments over 30 days.

Your local Agricultural Extension Agent will be able to teach you the FAMACHA method, as well as many other farming skills. More on that below.

Cashmere goats need to be combed in February or March each year. That’s when they naturally shed their cashmere. You can learn more about cashmere goats here.

Oh, and you’ll want to clean your feed pans and water buckets on a regular basis. And you’ll probably need to clean up hay. It tends to pile up wherever you feed because goats won’t eat hay that they’ve stepped on or otherwise soiled.

Medical Considerations for Goats

Find a good goat vet. Goats are the “ugly stepchild” of the livestock world. A lot of vets don’t know much about them and many medicines are used off-label because they were not formulated for goats.

Large animal vets (those that specialize in farm animals) treat their customers differently from small animal vets (dog & cat vets). They tend to educate the farmers more than pet owners on how to do basic medical procedures. My vet taught me how to wether (castrate) my goats.

Your vet or your local Agricultural Extension Agent should teach you how to give shots.

You’ll want to put together a basic medical kit for your goats. I use a large toolbox. At a minimum you’ll want:

  • Dewormer (I use Cydectin oral for sheep at twice the labeled dosage for goats)
  • Insecticide to treat lice and mites (I use Cylence)
  • Probios (probiotic powder)
  • Activated Charcoal (in case they eat something poisonous – I’ve only used this once but I think it pretty inexpensive)
  • Rubbing Alcohol
  • Dimethox, if you have kids
  • Corn syrup, corn oil & molasses – mix in equal parts and administer with a drench gun for an energy boost
  • 3cc & 6cc syringes & needles
  • Drench gun
  • Goat weight tape measure or a regular tape measure and the goat weight chart in Storey’s Guide to Raising Meat Goats. You’ll need this to estimate the weight of your goat for various medications.

When you establish a relationship with a vet or Agricultural Extension Agent, ask their opinion of what should be in your medical kit. When I started in goats, I asked my vet to put together a medical kit for me. She loved it and said it was like assembling a baby shower gift! (Of course, I had to pay for it.)

Resources for Farmers

A fantastic resource for learning about farming is your local Agricultural Extension Agent. It is his or her job to provide support to farmers. And most of it is free! Your agent can help you find hay, fencing contractors, animals, … anything related to farming. And they can help you decide how to best set up and manage your farm.

I highly recommend asking him or her when and where the next Small Ruminant Master Class is being held, and you sign up for it. It is the most thorough class I’ve ever taken on goats. There is a fee.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service agent is another person you might like to know. Farmers, ranchers and forest landowners can receive financial assistance from NRCS to make improvements to their land. They also provide technical expertise and conservation planning for farmers, ranchers and forest landowners wanting to make conservation improvements to their land.

https://goats.extension.org/ has a lot of goat information. Click the Resources menu item to see a list of subjects.

Storey’s Guide to Raising Meat Goats is a fantastic book for raising meat goats. Except for the dietary instructions (which are for “fattening” up meat goats), most of the information applies to fiber goats.

If you want to raise dairy goats, I recommend Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats, which I have not read, but I assume it is as good as the meat goat book.

Every breed has an association. To learn more about a specific breed, Google the breed association.

Perhaps the best way to learn about goats is to befriend a goat farmer. Ask if you can help with the daily chores. Ask if you can help with routine maintenance. Ask if there is any grunt work, like mucking hay, you can help with. I guarantee you that you will learn something, even in the grunt work!

Purchasing Goats

I encourage you to do your research, find a vet, get to know your Agriculture Extension Agent, and get your property properly set up before purchasing goats.

When you are ready to take the plunge, inquire with at least 3 farmers. They should be open to answering your questions, and they should be happy to show you around their farm.

Ask questions about how they keep their animals and how hardy the animals are. Ask about each animal’s conformation. You can learn about proper conformation on the breed association website. You don’t have to buy a perfect animal, but it should have good conformation to have a long, healthy life.

Purchase from the farmer who gives you the best impression – even if their animals are more expensive. If you save money by purchasing an inferior animal, you will more than pay for it in vet bills (and angst) in years to come.

Use this form to help evaluate the goat farms you visit and the individual goats you are considering to make wise buying decisions. I designed it specifically for cashmere goats, but it can be adapted to any breed.

For most my life, I never-in-a-million-years imagined that I would be a goat farmer. Now I can’t imagine life without them! I hope this article helps you decide if goats would be a good addition to your homestead.

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