So you’ve decided to become a crazy goat person like me – you know, the kind of person who wears T-shirts with slogans like “Relax, I’ve Goat This” and posts countless Instagram shots of their goats doing AWESOME goat things. Ok, well maybe that’s just me... but when it comes to farm animals, goats truly are the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time for those scratching their heads). They’re relatively small, easy to handle, and full of personality. Then again, they are also inquisitive and independent – so there will be some inevitable goat shenanigans! But don’t worry, this startup guide will equip you with some basic knowledge to confidently raise happy, healthy goats.
First, let’s figure out your goals in raising goats. Are you primarily looking for milk, meat, or fiber? Are you in search of a friendly, loveable pet? Or are you looking for an exotic breed to be the envy of all your friends? Also, consider the amount of time and energy you plan to devote to raising your herd. Different breeds require different equipment, skills, and responsibilities. Knowing your goals and expectations will help you narrow down and select the right breed for you.
Before getting too far in, let’s consider one more important preliminary question – are you breaking the law by owning goats? The answer to this question will depend on where you live, as ordinances and zoning regulations are specific to your city and location. A quick call or trip to your local government offices will provide you with the necessary information regarding animal allowances in the city limits. If you live in a larger city, ordinances are probably available online (city ordinances can be very complicated and confusing, so a phone call may save you a headache). Another possible obstacle is a Homeowner’s Association, which may set additional rules specific to your neighborhood. Similarly, deed restrictions may apply. These are typically put in place when a new neighborhood is in the planning stages and can date back many decades. So you may be completely unaware that they exist! However, restrictions on livestock are some of the most common deed restrictions. While these types of regulations might explicitly name goats as an illegal animal, you should also be aware of nuisance laws, which can refer to any animal. If your neighbors complain about the smelly, bleating “nuisance” in your backyard, you may be fined. It is also worth noting that there are often weight limits, shelter requirements, or other rules that may apply to your herd even in places where goats are legal.
Ok, you’re now ready to bring your new goats home. But where is “home”? One goat requires only about 250 square feet of space. However, one goat is a lonely (and loud) goat. As herd animals, goats need a buddy so plan for at least two goats, or approximately 500 square feet of space. This means you can easily raise happy, healthy goats in your own backyard. Still, there are some limitations of a backyard goat farm. Goats are browsers and love variety – weeds, brush, foliage – the more variety the better. However, despite popular belief, goats don’t eat everything. In fact, goats will often turn their noses up at grass. Think of goats as more like weed eaters rather than lawn mowers. A herd will also clear out an area very quickly. You may have a backyard filled with weeds – a real goat paradise – but that area can easily be reduced to dirt in a matter of weeks (maybe even days, depending on the size of the herd). So budget more money for store-bought feed if you plan to house your goats in a smaller space. If you have the space, large acreage can provide a real advantage. There is a variety of natural forage to eat and plenty of space for goats to exercise while browsing for food. Plus, more room means (potentially) more goats!
Goats are second only to Houdini in their ability to escape. They are naturally inquisitive and love to explore – you see a tiny hole in the fence; a goat sees freedom. Goats also believe the grass is always greener on the other side and will attempt to reach the “other side” regularly. And they also love to rub and scratch their behinds against the fence. For all these reasons, your fencing needs to be sturdy and secure. Permanent (or perimeter) fencing should be your strongest fencing – both to keep your goats in and to keep predators out. The best permanent fencing should be at least four feet tall and supported by sturdy wood or steel pipe posts. Four-inch woven wire is ideal for permanent fencing – the smaller spaces in this wire keep most goats from getting their heads caught (a constant battle with horned goats!). Four-inch welded wire is also available and is cheaper; however, it is not as strong as woven wire. You can also add in high-tensile electric wire to your fencing, with a strand at the top and bottom. This adds additional protection against predators, while keeping curious goats from standing up on the fence and reaching for “the other side”. Temporary fencing is a great option for portable pens or for splitting a perimeter area into smaller enclosures. For example, you may need to separate a buck from the ladies or wean kids from their mommas. There are several options for temporary fencing, but electric netting is probably your best bet. You can also use high-tensile electric wire, but you will need at least five to seven strands to keep goats contained (especially smaller goats). Electric fences are easy to install and very portable. However, keep in mind that you will need a working power source nearby. You can also install a temporary fence using metal T-posts and the wire of your choice. T-posts are inexpensive compared to most other posts, and they are reusable, making them perfect for temporary enclosures.
Goats are hardy critters! So in most cases, a simple three-sided shelter that protects against wind and rain is all they need. In general, you will need to provide housing equal to about 10 to 15 square feet per goat (slightly less for smaller breeds such as dwarf or pygmy goats). This assumes that the goats will have access to other range areas (i.e. your backyard or a pasture) for exercise. A layer of bedding (wood shavings or straw) should be added during colder weather. Shelters constructed from wood pallets are popular and relatively easy to build. Dog igloos are an even easier solution if you only have a few goats. Another idea is to use an old dining table as a basic structure and add plywood or tin around three sides. However, if you live in an area with very cold or wet winters, an enclosed barn is probably your best option. If you plan on breeding, keep in mind that you will also need separate kidding areas with housing for mommas and babies. Last winter, we expanded our herd with 30 bred nannies that surprised us with early kids during the coldest week of the year. Building makeshift kidding sheds in single-digit temperatures is a lesson learned the hard way.
Unlike many farm animals, goats don’t require a lot of fancy equipment. To feed your herd, you’ll need food containers or tubs and a hay feeder. Goats don’t like eating hay that has been trampled so a hay feeder (or manger) will save you money in the long run by reducing waste. S imilarly, containers for grains and minerals will make sure less goes to waste. For water, you’ll need a larger, deeper tub so that your goats will have access to clean, fresh water at all times. Additionally, you should store your feed in containers with tight lids to keep it fresh and pest free. Some additional special equipment is required for certain breeds, but we’ll talk about this later on.
As I mentioned before, goats are browsers rather than grazers. Horses and cows are examples of grazers – they will basically stand in one place and eat. But goats prefer to forage or browse – eating weeds, shrubs, and even young trees. Because of their love of browsing, they will quickly clear overgrown land so it is important to rotate them to new pastures or supplement their food source. Apart from foraging, hay is the main source of nutrition for goats, and it is vital for their digestion system to work properly. Each goat needs approximately two to four pounds of hay each day (this varies depending on the amount of forage available). It’s a good idea to feed hay free choice, especially during the winter or if hay is the main food source. Popular types of hay include grass hay and alfalfa. Grass hay typically includes a blend of different grasses and varies in terms of protein, fiber, and other nutrients. Alfalfa is very rich and high in protein – about double that of grass hays. Because of its richness, alfalfa should not be fed free choice. For any and all hay you choose, make sure it is mold free and of good quality. Minerals are also a must in your herd’s diet. Vitamins and minerals help prevent various diseases and keep your goat healthy and productive. Baking soda (yes, baking soda!) can also be a useful addition to your feeding regimen, as it helps with digestion issues and prevents bloat. Both loose minerals and baking soda can be offered free choice. Like all animals, goats need clean, fresh water at all times. If you can’t check water levels frequently, consider purchasing an automatic filling system to keep fresh water accessible. Also, in the winter, you may need a heated waterer so the water doesn’t freeze (unless your idea of fun includes busting ice with a sledge hammer and frozen fingers!).
Depending on where you live, you may need to beef up the security for your goats by adding guardian animals to your herd. Our goats live the country life on large acreage so we keep donkeys or llamas with each herd to protect against our main predators – coyotes and bobcats. Predators vary depending on region, but some common predators include coyotes, foxes, cougars, and bobcats. It’s important to note that even city life does not guarantee safety for goats, as domestic dogs can also pose a threat. There are a few different options for guardian animals – dogs, donkeys, or llamas/alpacas. There are specific dog breeds bred specifically for guarding, such as the Great Pyrenees. Keep in mind, that you will need a shelter and separate food if you decide to add dogs. Donkeys, llamas, and alpacas also offer great herd protection and generally eat the same food as goats. However, research the specific traits and needs of these animals as well. For example, llamas and alpacas require regular sheering (especially in warmer climates). Additionally, the effectiveness of any guard animal depends on its instincts, temperament, and training.
As with any animal, goats have basic health needs that you’ll need to address regularly. You should also be prepared for unexpected illnesses – treating a sick goat as early as possible can save its life. Here is a great starter list to deal with common issues and ailments.
If you plan to raise dairy goats, there are some additional supplies you will need. For starters, you will need a milking stand, or stanchion, with a feeder attachment. That way your goat can happily chow down while you get busy milking. (Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can tie your goat to a fence while milking. Your goat will have different ideas!) Equally important are your milk buckets. A seamless, stainless steel pail is preferred since it is non-porous and can easily be cleaned and sterilized. Once your pail is full, you may notice that your farm fresh milk has a little too much “farm” in it. So you will need a filtering system to remove any stray hairs or debris. This helps keep bacteria out of your milk as well. Then, for storage, use glass bottles or jars (don’t use plastic or your milk will have a funny taste!). Don’t forget to take care of your goat’s udders. Sanitation is extremely important, and the udders will need to be cleaned regularly, both before and after milking. There are lots of options for store-bought udder wipes and dips or you can create your own using an online DIY recipe. Depending on the number of goats in your herd, you may want to consider purchasing a milking machine. However, these machines are expensive and require assembly, maintenance, and regular cleaning. So if you are only milking a few goats a day, milking by hand is the way to go. But if you have many goats to milk, investing in a milking machine will make your life much easier! Identification Supplies: An identification system is important for accurate record keeping, especially when showing, registering, or selling goats. Permanent identification also helps insure against livestock theft. There are three main identification methods used for goats: tattooing, ear tagging, and microchipping. Tattooing is a permanent form of identification, and most registries require tattooing for registration. Goats are typically tattooed in the ear; however, breeds with small ears can be tattooed on the underside of the tail (known as the “tail web”). A tattoo kit is relatively inexpensive, with basic equipment costing less than $100. Ear tagging is a simple, inexpensive method of identification that allows you to quickly tell “who’s who”. However, ear tags can be lost or removed so consider pairing them with another method of identification. For ear tagging, you will need to buy the tags and ear tag pliers for application. Microchipping is also an option. Microchips come in sterile, individual packages with an injector and are typically the costliest method of identification. Additionally, microchips can only be read with a special microchip reader. There is also a chance that the animal can form a tumor at the injection site.
Now that you’ve got the basics, you are ready to get your herd on… and get started down the path to being a “crazy goat person”.