Goats are a wonderful animal to keep around the property, and they serve many functions, including brush maintenance, destruction of poisonous plants and weeds, fertilization for your lawn, and good-hearted company while you're hard at work outside, just to name a few. Since I raise goats, I've had to learn several goat lessons the hard way.
There's no other way to learn, no amount of hand-me-down knowledge from the older farmers concise enough, no book informative enough, than simply trying hard, struggling, and learning through a constant series of mistakes that give way to glorious success.
The first lesson I learned was how important it is to have as much contact as possible with your goats from birth. This includes bottle feeding them and showing them affection. Oftentimes, we assume that simply throwing some bulk feed on the ground is enough to satisfy all of their various needs, but feeding is just one critical part of a larger whole in goat care.
If you want your goats to be people-friendly and to actually heed your beckoning, you must exercise a level of interaction similar to that with the family dog. Bottle feeding is the easiest and best way to make this happen. When you put a goat's nutrition into your hands, you teach it that you are its source of food and drink. This allows them to bond to you. It's also true animal husbandry.
I learned quickly that even being away from my goats for a few days was long enough for them to assume that I might never come back. They took a couple of days to warm back up to me. Since then, I've maintained plenty of contact with them just to be safe. The last thing you want to deal with is a two-hour-long nightmare of chasing your goats down throughout your property, one by one, wrestling with them to get them back into their fence or their pen.
I tend to overdo things at times and shelter is no exception. My first chicken coop was a 500-pound beast that denied predators and kept the chickens safe, but served very little in ease of use and functionality. So your next lesson might just be in accommodating your herd.
You want to give them proper quarters for shelter and this means not just a safe place to stand around when it rains, but a comfortable place to sleep at night. Think of the seasons in your area, how hot and cold the temperature extremes can be, and how little or how much precipitation you are likely to receive. This translates into their water supply so that they can quench their thirst.
Your goats will appreciate a nice bed of straw or even pine shavings to sleep on at night. Consider throwing a feed block or a mineral block inside so they can have something to occupy them during those long days of nonstop rain or snow, or heat and humidity. Ventilation is also a good thing to think about. You don't want to put them inside a clapboard structure that denies them the basic comforts that every animal needs.
When you've got the sleeping and loafing quarters established (loafing shed) and you've figured out the feeding situation, let's say a small square bale of good hay once per week, depending on your herd size, you need to start considering containment. This is where you're likely to run into countless variations on a theme: fencing.
Fencing has been the biggest lesson of all. It's never-ending and that's likely because I tried to utilize all the information available out there at once, instead of working with and learning from my own goats.
Don't overthink fencing and don't assume it will take care of itself. You don't have to go the route of simply leaving them to their own devices if you're on a small bit of acreage, but you don't have to go all out and spend tens of thousands on an 8-foot-high, electrified high-tensile steel, nation-crushing abomination either. Goats need protection, plain and simple. Think of their fence the same as you think of the chicken run. You don't want predators getting in, although you won't have as much to worry about with goat predators as you will with chickens. You simply need to ensure their fence will keep dogs, coyotes, things of that size, out. It goes without saying that if a dog can't get into your goat pen, then the goats can't get out of it. Of course, this excludes the babies. That's a whole different article.
Consider simple electric wire, maybe poly-wire or poly-tape, on some T-posts if you're working with a limited budget. If you have materials laying around you can easily adapt them into a working fence, too.
I chose to go with a wooden fence because it was simple, since I made it from leftover lumber after demolishing an old unused shed, and because I like the look of a nice rustic wooden fence. The rails are close enough to keep the goats in and no other predators can squeeze through them. I decided to put a single strand of electric wire about 3 inches above the top rail in order to double the fence as part of the chicken's yard. That kills two birds with one stone, leaving my birds alive and eager to help clean up any messes the goats make. The chickens also help eliminate some of the insects that seem to accumulate on the goats.
Once you've got your fencing in place you're pretty much set. Your goats have food, water, shelter and protection. Those are the real necessities and, as long as you provide at least those things, your goats will appreciate your efforts.
Harder lessons sometimes come with new experiences. I like to free-range my chickens, and one of the primary purposes I started raising goats was to help control overgrowth and brush, so it goes without saying that I want to free-range my goats as well.
When it comes to life outside of the pen, remember that you can't simply keep your goats locked into a tiny pen their entire lives. It defeats their many purposes. You want to let them out as often as possible so that they can browse, that is to say, "graze, but like a goat, which chooses to go UP for its food rather than going DOWN and eating off the ground."
I learned that goats browse by word-of-mouth and observation. Sure, you can put them into a small yard without any tall vegetation and they'll eat it down to the dirt, but if you let them have a chance at your overgrowth and thick brush along a tree line, you'll notice very quickly just how good of a job they can do in tackling that thick mess of nastiness. Within two weeks my small herd cleared a line of sight along my tree line that allows me to easily walk through it and see much of what I never knew was there!
If you're going to give some acreage to your goats on a permanent basis, which is probably best, try using paddocks, which are basically just a cluster of small lots that you can control traffic in and out of. For instance, you divide a large square into four smaller squares with fencing and you rotate your goats. Maybe you keep them in one small square for a week then move them to the next, and so on until they come back to the first square after a month. This allows for new growth to occur rather than having a large bare patch of earth that serves no nutritional value to your goats.
When creating your paddocks or simply fencing off a large plot for your goats, think about the type of fencing or containment methods you'll need to use. A permanent fence is best because you only have to put it out one time. Use welded-wire fencing or "no-climb" goat fencing, which is slightly cheaper at the farm and ranch stores. Essentially, you want fencing that prevents anyone squeezing through or climbing over. If you have the electricity budget to spare you can use simple electric fencing.
The crucial thing to learn from your goats is how they react to being zapped by a fence. They are unlike most other animals, as when other animals hit on a hot-wire they jump back and never dare to approach it again. Goats don't work like that, and it will be a constant source of frustration for you as you try to figure out what works best for you and your goats.
Goats will jump THROUGH the fence when they are zapped. Instead of jumping back they just run the rest of the way through the fence. So electric fencing can seem downright pointless at times, unless it's strong enough, the wires are close enough, and maybe even tight enough if you're using high-tensile wire.
You want a wire as close to the ground as you can stand, then several more strands about 4 to 6 inches apart. Above 4 feet you won't need to worry about. Proper grounding of your fence is also crucial. The grounding rods you put into place work by making contact with water deep in the soil. This creates the connection that, when touched by your goat, gives them a hearty zap.
One thing to try is two rows of wire, one about 6 inches to 1 foot behind the other. This creates two walls of zapping power that will help contain your goats. When they get the urge to bolt through the first fence after being zapped, there's a second row waiting to stop them ... hopefully.
Of course, this whole fencing subject is a big one, and there are many options and variations out there to try. I say that you should assess your setup, your goals, your goats, and start with the simplest option you can come up with, always striving to create something that you only have to put up once. I can't count how many times I've put up, taken down, put up again, taken back down my fences to finally arrive at the solution that worked for me, which was a solid welded-wire fence stapled to posts and boards to have a nice rustic look, with a few strands of hot-wire on top and bottom to add a little extra flavor in keeping my goats in and the bad guys out.
With some patience and luck you'll soon find that your herd takes care of itself, enjoys seeing you carry the same old feed container each day to them, and gives you plenty of laughs as they jump around to play and get their heads stuck in coffee cans. It's a never-ending laugh riot and well worth the time and effort you put into it.
Just remember, you have to observe your goats and tweak your setup to your herd. You'll learn all the lessons the right way and reap the rewards over time.
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