Dairy & meat goats

We raised a small herd of dairy goats from 2008 to 2014. These animals are an integral part of the working farm, as they allow us to utilize areas unsuitable for vegetable cultivation such as brushy hillside pastures. By grazing these areas, goats effectively turn them into giant solar collectors that convert naturally growing grass and leaves into manure (fertility) and food (milk & meat) that would otherwise have to be purchased and brought in from off the farm, increasing both our budget needs and the risk of introducing off-farm contaminants. We greatly enjoy the intelligence, personality, and usefulness of these animals, which help us to be a more environmentally and economically sustainable farm. This page discusses our overall goat managements methods; other pages discuss our milking methods and raw milk sales policies.

Rotational grazing
We keep our herd moving around the farm on a regular schedule, to minimize parasite issues and avoid overgrazing any given area. We use the same rotational grazing principles for our goats, swine, and poultry. Goats are susceptible to various internal parasites, which generally have a ~28 day life cycle during which they can be ingested by goats grazing near the ground. Goats living in one place too long will excrete out a new generation of worms, which will then re-infest the goat. We move the herd to an entirely new area once a month, including their overnight shelter, thus breaking most of the parasite cycle, and generally do not graze the same area twice for six months to a year. Within a given area, we use portable electric net fences to restrict grazing to small paddocks at a time, so the animals will eat all possible plants evenly and not only their favorites; this helps keep the pasture mix balanced and not skewed away from the plants they like most. This management method also more closely mimics natural herbivore behavior with herds moving regularly to new ground, a natural adaption to parasite and pasture health issues. While this involves more work, the alternative is using chemical deworming agents and overgrazing/damaging our pastures, so we feel the effort is worth it for a healthier and cleaner farm all around.

White snakeroot
The farm has a poisonous plant of concern to goat and human health: a perennial herb called White Snakeroot. It contains a toxin which can pass through a dairy animal into any consumer of the resulting milk. We have been actively managing this plant (by hand weeding it out of our paddocks prior to grazing) since starting our herd in 2008 and have seen or experienced no clinical signs of Snakeroot poisoning in the goats or ourselves, so are comfortable with our management methods as the primary consumers of our milk & meat. More information on our handling of Snakeroot is available here.

From spring through early winter, our goats live on pasture 24/7, with portable shelters for inclement weather that also allow kids to be separated from their mothers overnight. The does are brought back to our central dairy barn every morning for milking, then returned to pasture where their kids are waiting to finish off any milk we didn’t get (there always seems to be some left). During the grazing season, they are expected to forage for  themselves, getting a bit of supplemental alfalfa/grass hay to ensure sufficient protein and dry matter. In the past we’ve also fed a small amount of certified organic grain in the mornings as an incentive to stand still during milking. In 2014 we are transitioning away from grain altogether, using organic alfalfa pellets instead as a milking treat.

During the winter, when pastures are sparse or snow-covered, we increase the amount of alfalfa/grass hay, and still feed some organic grains during pregnancy given the increased demands on the does’ bodies during this critical time. We do not raise our own hay, having neither the land nor the equipment to do so, but try to source it from farmers whose methods we’re comfortable with.

For a goat (or any mammal) to give milk, it must breed and reproduce. We do not keep our own buck for breeding purposes, as mature bucks are large, smelly, and sometimes aggressive animals which require separate pasturing and maintenance, which is too expensive and time/space consuming for our small herd. We breed using a buck from a nearby full-time goat dairy, with whom we keep a closed herd (no other goats visit our farm, minimizing disease transmission potential). Goats come into heat for a short period only, every three weeks through roughly late summer through late fall, so the breeding window can be quite narrow. The buck usually visits for a month, living on pasture with the does, allowing up to two chances for each doe to come into heat and be receptive. The other dairy keeps three bucks, so can always spare one for us depending on their own breeding program that year. In the photo above from fall 2011, the visiting buck is visible at far right.

We aim for our goats to kid in April, when we still have time to pay special attention. Goats tend to kid at dawn or dusk, so we try to be around at those times when kidding is close. We’ve observed or just barely missed most of the births on the farm; only once have we had to actively assist a birth, and that was for a stillborn kid who wasn’t helping as most do. In general, like most animals, goats are quite capable of taking care of themselves and only need someone around if something goes wrong. But we like to be there just in case, and to continue learning the details and quirks of this important life process.

Meat goats
We don’t raise any “extra” goats for meat, but the reality of dairying is there’s no way to produce milk without extra animals (goats average two kids per year), which must be removed from the system to avoid rapid overpopulation. In the natural world, this is accomplished by disease and/or predators; in a farm ecosystem humans take on this role.

We kill and butcher all our own meat on the farm, including goat kids. It’s illegal to sell meat handled this way; to do that we’d have to transport the live kids to a faraway government-inspected processor, leave them there, and come back another time to pick up the officially sanctioned meat. This is not worth the cost and time to us, is far more stressful on the animals (leading to lower-quality meat), and we don’t trust the official system to do as good a job as we do, so we don’t raise goat meat for sale.

We find butchering goats to be as easy or easier than deer, and quite enjoy the lean, flavorful meat, particularly in the winter when our other food stocks are lower. Read more about why we feel on-farm meat is essential to our farm’s management.