HOMESTEAD GOATS 101
So you think you want goats...
(yes plural, goats are herd animals)
Goats are a long term commitment, with a lifespan similar to a dog. However, they are a livestock animal that not as many vets have in-depth experience with. They have needs unique to their species that may be too involved for a typical pet owner. We don't wish to scare you away from the joys of caprines, but we aim to be upfront and helpful in guiding your decision.
Regardless of why you seek goats (see below on Breed Matters) there is no doubt that you want healthy and sound caprines.
The seller/breeder should be able to tell you the goat's entire history and provide relevant medical information. Any concerns or problems should be fully disclosed (do you have the knowledge to handle those problems? Be honest with yourself.)
Does this seller/breeder have an established reputation? Have you seen their facilities? How do the other animals on property look? And has this seller maintained a relationship with a vet?
What are their biosecurity practices and have you physically laid eyes on their biosecurity panels?
If you are looking to work with particular breeds or purposes, are you familiar with what a quality representation of that breed should look like? This is called conformation.
How to identify an ill goat is detailed further below.
What is their purpose?
For what purpose do goats sing to your heart?
Or simply, pets
All above may come registered or unregistered. You need to know which you are looking at buying and understand what registered animals vs non will do for you.
We advocate for registered goats as it proves the breeder put some degree of conscious thought (if not exhaustive thought!) into pairing and producing their livestock. Pedigrees prove lineages and breeders, potential awards/designations for superior breeding stock, and can aid in the selection of future breeding choices. That does not mean an unregistered goat is of less quality or less loved by their breeder. WHY is that goat unregistered should be the question.
And, are you getting males or females, or both?
or, Unhealthy Goats
Like most animals, a healthy caprine should be alert and bright eyed. Goats that are accustomed to humans will have a curiosity in anyone who visits, even if they run off to watch you from a distance.
Watch the goat move. Does the animal appear correct for breed (conformation) and move smoothly with no signs of injury? Are they jumping, sun-bathing, and chewing their cud?
How does their coat look? Their coat should be full and fluffy in the winter, and sleek in the summer. There should not be any areas of missing hair and certainly not areas with obvious rash/irritations/scabs.
Some goats may rub their noses on their hay feeders when getting hay, resulting in a single bald stripe. One should know the difference between a hay manger rub, signs of mites/lice, or deficiency.
Mineral deficient goats and lice/mite infested goats can appear very similar. An easy tell-tale sign of mineral deficiency within a herd is seeing the darker-haired goats lighten or redden, and the hair can change from straight to crimped in appearance. This is also a common sign of coccidiosis in young goats.
Mites/lice in goats is very common and you are most likely going to encounter them at some point. A good breeder will make sure to properly treat the goats and clear up any serious skin concerns prior to sending the goat to their new home.
Goats with the correct mineral balance show resistance to many goat illnesses and parasitism. The method of controlling parasites themselves will vary from property/herd, but ensuring minerals are balanced for that herd is always your first line defense for their overall health. Some goats in a herd always seem to be outliers from the management plan that handles the herd majority, and so conscious breeders will aim to not breed goats that struggle with parasites, anemia, or deficiencies regularly.
Goats do NOT need heat sources unless they are ill. In fact, adding a heat source is more likely to make your goat ill or worse: start a fire and/or electrocute them.
Goats need at minimum a three sided shelter. Their shelter must be dry and without significant wind intrusion. The cold is not a concern, but high ammonia or moisture build up is. Straw makes good winter bedding but is unfortunately cost prohibitive in many locations. We've found that every bedding option has pros/cons. Mostly we use the hay left in the mangers that is unpalatable to the herd.
Goats do not like water, and will usually run for shelter in the rain. Their hooves can easily rot if they are too frequently on wet/muddy ground.
Just like their wild cousins, captive goats enjoy items to jump and climb on or to hide in.
Like fencing in water.
If you think it is adequate, it most definitely is not.
Electric fencing must be extremely powerful to stop a goat, with more strands than a horse or cow requires.
Typical roll-out welded wire fencing will break under the pressure of their hooves or leaning bodies.
Roll-out wrapped wire fencing can work in some situations, but some goats are heavy enough to squash this as well.
Horned goats may find themselves in trouble with certain fence types.
Babies may walk right through a too-large fencing gap.
Some goats have great fun jumping over or squeezing under fencing.
The type of goats you own can influence the fencing you choose, and what works on one property or with one herd may not work well on another.
Not tin cans.
The myth that goats eat tin cans seems to prevail. In reality, goats are very picky eaters. They simply like to nibble all things like toddlers and they certainly will swallow non-edibles.
Goats will not trim your lawn like sheep, as they are browsers not grazers. They will happily eat your bushes, trees, weeds, ivy, and a whole host of things that are poisonous.
Their daily diet should be long-stemmed forages. If you have acres of overgrowth (minus toxic plants) then they will consume most of their calories from this. Otherwise, or in winter, they require quality hay. The richness of the hay you need will depend on the purpose of your goats and their breeding status. In New England, we typically look for 2nd cutting hay or very high quality 1st cut hay.
They are still likely to require more calories. If making meat, milk, fiber, or babies, goats need grain. If growing, goats need grain. Males may have grain! All goat feed should be properly balanced with 2x the calcium per phosphorous ratio (2:1) no matter what type of goat they are.
In our area, we were unable to sustainably source or store enough ingredients to make our own grain mix correctly. Organic non-sweet feed goat grain was 2x the price of the brand name sweet feed goat grain which our feed store sells. After several years of trying all sorts of alternatives, we finally went to the sweet and sticky "goat crack" (and our goats have never looked better!)
As mentioned above, all goats should be consuming a 2:1 up to 4:1 calcium to phosphorous ratio in their diet. That includes feed, hay, water*, and minerals.
Ah, minerals. Goats need them! Goats have soft tongues and cannot make proper use of a mineral block. They need loose minerals. Do not give them a salt block either, their quality loose minerals you buy will contain salt.
Goats need lots of copper, unlike their sheep friends who need significantly less copper. Your herd will likely need copper boluses in addition to their regular minerals, but this is a deeper topic that should be consulted with a knowledgeable breeder and/or your vet before doing. Although rare, it is possible to overdose on copper.
Check your feed bag! Ask your hay supplier if they have a hay analysis done recently. And shop carefully for minerals!
*One brand of minerals that seems to satisfy most herds on most properties is Sweetlix. We have loved their Magnum Milk product that has a lower calcium total in it, to balance out the heavy amounts of calcium and iron in our well water. Stay tuned for an in-depth blog post on balancing mineral needs.
*Your water will have a big impact on herd health. Our well water has antagonists that lower the absorption of copper. Knowing your water will greatly help you to balance a goat's mineral need.
Purina Wind and Rain is another commonly used, good product. Redmond and Manna Pro are comparatively poor options and frankly I don't know what the nutritionist of those companies is thinking.
They happen, be prepared.
We love doing things ourselves on the homestead. Saving money and learning valuable skills is great, but sometimes you just need an expert or a controlled medication. Please find a local GOAT knowledgeable vet before committing to goats. Goat vets are hard to come by in many regions and are often operating with very outdated knowledge!
You may also want to get familiar with local farriers that will see goats. There are many herd management services that our farrier assists us with for a small fee, saving us big money or an extra hard day's work to do it alone.
This is a general list and does NOT cover any supplies one would need for specific breed types, pregnancy, kidding, or kids.
Please have an emergency kit with these items at minimum:
Disposable gloves, tetanus antitoxin, molasses, vet wrap and gauze bandages, thermometer, fortified vitamin B complex, probiotic paste, activated charcoal, chlorhexidine/iodine (we use chlorhexidine for many uses including cleaning the human house!), milk of magnesia, vegetable oil/olive oil, sterile needles with syringes, back up thermometer, pen-aqueous antibiotic.
And, hoof trimmers!