How To Get Started Keeping Goats

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Young white goat grazing at the meadow

If you think you’ve been seeing more and more about goats lately, you’re not wrong. They’re the second fastest growing livestock in the USA right now (after chickens of course).

Are you looking to jump on the bandwagon? Were you sold on the amazing reasons why keeping goats will change your life?

Well, you’ve come to the right place.

This how-to guide should get you started on the road to keeping goats without the stress. Sure, it’s a learning curve, but keeping goats is a fun and rewarding experience.

Before you know it, you’ll be producing your own goat milk and cheese. And, you’ll get to see cute kids at play while learning a lot about these loving creatures, up-close and personal.

The main things you need to understand to get set-up include: choosing your goats, providing shelter and security, and the basics of feeding.

Which Breed of Goat?

The first thing you need to do is find the right goats for you.

Choosing your breed depends on a number of factors including:

  • Milk production – how much do you need/want?
  • Milk taste (which can vary substantially)
  • The size of the goats, which may depend on the space you have available
  • If you want your goats to be a source of fiber, like cashmere or mohair
  • The cost of the goats – initially and long-term
  • Personal preference based on their appearance
  • Availability of your preferred breed in your area

Two Goats are Better Than One

Remember that goats are very social creatures and do not like to be alone so you’ll need at least two goats. Other hoofed animals such as sheep, donkeys or horses, can also be good companions for goats.

While most goats will get on well with chickens or pet dogs once introduced properly, they don’t provide the same level of companionship. If you want happy and healthy goats, make sure they’re not lonely.

Popular Goat Breeds

Goat

Alpines – these medium to large sized animals originated in the French Alps, and so tend to do well in cold climates. They come with various shades and markings and produce a high quality milk for drinking and making cheese.

Nubians – very friendly creatures with floppy ears and cute noses, Nubians produce a creamy milk, high in butterfat. It’s just one of the reasons why they are the most popular dairy goats around. They’re also great with children, but can be quite talkative.

Nigerian Dwarf Goats – a miniature goat of West African Origin, these goats are both gentle and cute. Because of their small stature, they’re great for backyard farmers or those without much land. Among the dairy breeds, Nigerian Dwarf goat milk has the highest levels of butterfat, making it super creamy.

Saanens – these white or cream colored goats are the largest, yet one of the calmest, of the dairy breeds. They produce the most milk on average, although it tends to have a lower butterfat content.

Fiber Goats – if you want to make your own sweaters and other clothing, you’ll need a fiber goat. Angora goats produce mohair, while cashmere goats, funnily enough, produce cashmere. However, these breeds tend to require more care than dairy goats.

Choosing your Specific Goat

Probably even more important than choosing the breed, is choosing the specific goat. Their overall health, temperament and even the flavor of their milk can be impacted significantly by their bloodline.

You’ll want to buy from a reputable breeder who can give you details on the bloodline, animal health and the amount of milk the mother produces.

Look out for healthy eyes, a shiny coat, check the feet and also the size and shape of the mother’s udders (because naturally the kids will have small udders until they produce offspring).

The animal you’re looking at buying should be friendly and lively.

Don’t forget to taste the milk of the mother too – if you can’t stomach the milk, what will you do with it?!

While many new goat owners don’t bother to get a veterinarian to check out the animal before buying, it can be a good idea. It’s also advised to avoid buying goats at auctions.

What Age Goat to Choose

Again, this depends very much on your personal preference and financial situation.

  • If you buy a doeling (a baby goat), it will cost the least upfront. But you’ll have to wait around 18 months before you can breed. Then add an additional five months until they have offspring and you can milk.
  • A junior doeling (aged 6 months to a year) means you can cut out some of the wait time. They get more expensive as they get older though. You can even have them bred before buying meaning you just need to wait a few months until the kids (and milk) arrive.
  • You can also buy a senior doe already in milk. Just be sure to be very diligent in your background and health checks here. If she is such a good pet and milk producer, why are they selling her? There may be a perfectly legitimate reason, but always find out first.

Male goats (bucks) can be smelly and even aggressive. Novice goat owners may prefer to keep just female goats to begin with, and search locally for a buck to breed.

Plus, keeping males and females together has been known to alter the taste of the doe’s milk … and not for the better!

How to House Your Goats

Goats are little Houdinis – masters of the impossible escape.

You may think you have the most safe and secure setting possible for them, but they will do their best to prove you wrong.

Goats need both a shelter and an extremely secure area to keep them safe from predators.

Providing Shelter

Ideally, you’ll be able to provide a barn with room for the goats and their kids. You’ll also need to be able to fit water, feeding equipment and extra feed. A separate area for milking and kidding is highly recommended for sanitation purposes.

However, most people don’t meet all of these requirements, at least not in the same building.

At a minimum, your goats need a well-ventilated yet draft-free shelter to keep them safe from the wind, rain and sun. They’ll need at least 15 square feet of space per goat, and that’s if they have access to the outdoors.

If you live in a very cold or wet climate, your goats won’t want to go outside so will need much more room. You’re looking at a minimum of 40 square feet (if you go by the American Dairy Goat Association’s guidelines of 15 square feet indoors and 25 square feet outdoors).

Don’t forget to add a nice layer of bedding straw to the shelter floor. It keeps the shelter warm and soaks up urine. Clean it out daily, or every other day, by scooping out any dirty straw and adding a clean layer in its place.

For colder climates, you may also want to consider installing a heating lamp or other artificial heat source to keep young kids warm during the winter months.

Preparing The Pasture

The happiest and most productive goats have access to a secure outdoor area.

Unlike sheep or cows (who reach down to eat,) goats aren’t grazers.  Instead, goats reach up – they like brambles and wooded areas as opposed to open pastures. This should be welcome news to those that have big areas of brush to be cleared.

However, even if you don’t have a wooded or bramble-filled area, your energetic goats would still like to frolic and run outside.

It is important to note that while most plants will not harm your goats when eaten, there are some which are poisonous to them. You’ll need to clear these away before letting them roam free. These include the Common Poppy, St. John’s Wort, Goat Weed, Pine and many more.  Check out a more detailed list here.

Many species of mushroom are also highly toxic to goats. Keep an eye out for any fungus growing in shady or damp places inside the pasture or near the outside of the fence.  Remember, mushrooms can go from nothing to full grown overnight so be diligent in removing any materials on which fungus likes to grow such as rotting wood or excessive leaf litter from your goats’ living spaces.

Goats are easy prey for a variety of animals including coyotes, wild dogs, wolves and more.  Many goat owners say their biggest fear is the neighbor’s dog- who would kill the all their goats in a matter of minutes if they got a chance.  (This is one good reason to keep a Billy goat with your herd as full grown bucks are very strong and will fight to protect their does and kids.  Companion animals like a herd dogs or donkeys also make excellent bodyguards for goats.)

Naturally, the goats’ shelter and outdoor space will need to be secure – to keep the goats in and the predators out.  This brings us to the topic of…

Building the Right Fence

Thoroughly research your fencing options in terms of quality and budget and be sure to splurge in this area if you have to, to keep your new pets safe.

Many recommend woven wire fencing (which may be found at your local ‘big box’ home improvement store), supported by thick wooden posts. The fencing should be at least 4 to 5 foot tall, but the taller the better.

Because goats are escape artists and they will more often than not find a way to push under, through, or even climb over the best fence; another option is to combine woven wire with electric fencing.  Add electric strands at the top and bottom on the inside of the fencing. This ensures that goats won’t escape and the electric at the bottom is especially useful in keeping predators at bay.

(Please note that while placing the electric strands on the outside of the fence may seem like a good way to prevent goats from shocking themselves unnecessarily, this is a very very bad idea.  Curious goats will try to poke their heads through the fence in order to inspect some tasty morsel on the other side and become stuck due to the backwards curve of their horns.  Goats are clever and will quickly learn either to not do this or how to get their heads and horns unstuck.  However, running a wire on the outside of the fence runs the risk of injuring or even killing a trapped goat before they can free themselves or be freed by their person-family!)

If you’re keeping miniature breeds, like the Nigerian Dwarf, or horned goats, go for a smaller spacing in the fence wire to stop escapees or accidents.  It may also be helpful to run closely-woven chicken wire around the bottom 2 – 3 feet of the fence to prevent curious kids from wiggling through to the outside!

Welded wire is an absolute no-no, because goats will try their best (and most likely succeed) to break the welds .

If you’re adding a gate to your fencing or sheltered structure, get a goat-proof latch. They’re incredibly clever and will open simple latches. You have been warned.

Lastly, never ever stake your goat in a field in lieu of paying for fencing!  Staking offers zero protection from hungry predators or the elements and makes for a very unhappy goat!

What to Feed Your Goats

In addition to the foods your goats will naturally browse upon, your herd will require a supplement of hay, alfalfa, grain and minerals. Here’s a breakdown of the basics you will need to purchase:

  • Hay – feed your goat the best quality hay you can afford. Because hay isn’t washed before it’s dried, it will most likely contain pesticides. Consider purchasing organic – not only for your goat’s health but for yours. After all, you’re drinking their milk!
  • Alfalfa – milking does will need this because it’s rich in nutrients like calcium and protein which they require for high-quality milk. Because alfalfa is such a huge GM crop, whose primary use is the global animal feed market, it makes sense to source organic alfalfa.
  • Grain – your goats will need grains, such as a mix of corn, barley and oats. Check out these guidelines for an estimate of how much grain you’ll need as it depends on age and gender.
  • Supplemental minerals and other nutrients are required by your goats, in addition to those that they get in their feed. This is because most soil is now deficient in minerals, due to over-farming. Buy a goat-specific mineral block at your local farm-supply store.  (Even if your feed claims to contain all of the necessary nutrients for a healthy and happy goat, you can still feel free to provide them with a mineral block as a tasty treat!)

While it may seem like you have a lot to buy for your goats, always strive to buy the best quality food you can. Buying in bulk is one way to help cut costs without compromising on quality. If you have a secure and dry feed storage area then this can be a great option for you.

If not, why not team up with other goat owners nearby to share the cost of high-quality bulk feed?

Feeding Equipment

Goats need access to a continuous supply of fresh and clean water, particularly in hot weather or if they are milking. A simple bucket will suffice – but it’s a good idea to hang it up to avoid getting goat poop in there!

Check the water supply frequently – particularly if you live in a cold climate where water is likely to freeze, or in a hot climate where it can evaporate. If you aren’t home all day, consider an automatic watering system.

You’ll also need to invest in food bowls, a hay manger, mineral feeder and feed storage containers.

Remember to always keep goat feed clean and dry by investing in proper storage and feeding apparatus.  Fungus such as the mold which grows in damp straw or hay can be deadly to a goat as it will disrupt the delicate microbial balance inside their rumen, leading to bloat and inability to process food.  (Green or loose stool is a big indicator.  If this happens, consult with a veterinarian right away!)

Additional Information

There’s a lot to consider when you’re starting out with goats. Make sure to check out this article on reasons to keep goats, which also includes some important points to consider before making an investment.

Regardless of what stage of goat rearing you are in – start slow and build it up. Look at it as the fun and long-term educational project that it is!


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