This is probably going to be a very long post and I apologize for it in advance. I managed to stumble upon this site while looking into raising goats and I thought, since there is a forum, I might post and get an idea of whether or not raising goats would be a feasible idea for my situation.
I’m currently running a 90 acre farm with about 40 acres of pasture land. The farm itself is located between three mountains in Kentucky and much of the terrain is very hilly. Until about three years ago, we had been running poled Hereford cattle accompanied by an Old English Sheepdog for herding and protection. Since their departure, the farm has become a bit woolly from the growth of blackberries, clover and an assortment of wildflowers. The orchard, and many of the hillside areas have also grown up with a fair bit of brush and weeds. These areas are not exactly ideal for brush removal by machine and I have been told that it’s simply “too steep” for a bush hog to clean. We’ve kept up with having a decent garden, and acquired a license to sell organic produce, but I am looking to expand the gardening area, clean up all the overgrowth and give my sweet OES something to do other than skitter over to neighboring farms and herd the livestock of other farmers. It was cute the first time he did this. The 20th time? Not so much. With that in mind, we’ve also been considering milking and possibly raising goats in the future if everything more or less works out.
So, with this information, I guess I’m wondering a few things.
Would goats be a good option for clearing the farm?
If I’m starting out, and looking to clear land over milking/breeding, how many goats would I need?
How different really are goats from cattle?
Would I need to retrain my OES for goat herding purposes?
Is there anything, specifically, that I should take into consideration before getting goats?
I don’t have goats and don’t think I will get them. Cattle are a lot easier to fence in. Also from what I’ve read from other people posting about their goat challenges, they sound a lot more fragile than cattle, or at least than my cattle. I got Scottish Highlands because they like browse, calve easily, are very cold hardy, love highland terrain, and are on the small side compared to other meat breeds. (And yes... I admit their epic cuteness did factor in, too.) Beef cattle can be milked and I plan to milk mine, but that’s just for personal consumption and we don’t need a large volume of milk. They wouldn’t do for someone who wanted to sell dairy products. Most states, it’s challenging to make money from dairy unless you’re a factory farm, so do check your local regs if you haven’t done that yet. They tend to be, shall we say, a tad bit on the draconian side.
Unless you’re prepared to do a lot of “sheep & goat” welded wire perimeter fencing, you might want to consider going back to the cattle. Or you can use sheep & goat e-netting and move your goats around to do the weed control that way. Just keep in mind the e-netting needs a close-mown perimeter if it’s going to have the kind of shock value needed to keep in goats (and sheep, of course). Beyond that, get yourself a Story’s guide for goats. There’s a lot of info there.
There are people who make their living out in the west Midwest moving their goats around on public and private land for weed clearing operations. It does work, but for them it’s a full time job. They roll out the netting and then settle in to watch the goats clear land. All day, every day. They’re full-time goatherds. The questions that would be in my mind would be whether I could keep the goats on my land or not (and of course, away from plants I don’t want them to eat), and whether it would be worth the cost of upgrading my boundaries... which is why I decided to go with cows. I’m not saying goats aren’t for you. I think many people do very well with goats, but the fencing is an important consideration.
Best of luck and wisdom to you as you consider your options. And of course, welcome to Permies!
Cindy in SD
Tomorrow doesn’t exist and never will. There is only the eternal now. Do it now.
One significant consideration is that goats are browsers, so they like to eat trees. Especially fruit trees. Five motivated goats can strip all the leaves and bark off a 12' bush in a couple of hours (ask me how I know!). Some of them are also pretty good tree climbers. If you want to keep your orchard in good shape, goats may not be the best choice. For clearing shrubs out of pastures, though, I could see it working well, if you had a good fence.
I love goats. I had them in the past, I miss them, and I want them again. But I have some things I want to do here first.
Goats need good fences. A good fence can be a stout woven wire fence. Or it can be an electric fence.
It is possible to contain them with electric IF you are diligent about keeping the fence cleared of things that ground it out. I have kept goats in with solar powered electric fencing. I also had an escape, and had to send the dog to fetch them. Again, to fence them in with affordable electric, you must be diligent about anything grounding it out.
It is also possible to set up moveable temporary pasture with electric fencing.
I haven’t done it. BUT I knew a woman years ago who lived in the woods and would turn her dairy goats out during the day to free range. She had an LGD to protect them. She also had a huge amount of browse available.
Dairy goats take time. Any dairy animal does. You’d be milking on a schedule, twice per day. Every day. Without exception. This can be onerous. Or not. It depends on you and your schedule. Depending on the breed you raise, the amount of dairy fat will vary, but you may end up with rich creamy yogurt, cheese, ice cream (ice milk, really, but sooooooooo good), etc. People loved the cheesecakes I made back then. But you don’t have to get dairy goats. You could get meat goats. Or just buy wethers as brush eaters.
Are goats a good fit for you? Maybe. It sounds like you have plenty of browse. You’d need to protect your orchard, of course. I would suggest going to visit a few goat people first.
I've had goats for several years, and am a budding pig farmer. Our terrain here is very steep high elevation; dense conifers, woody brush, lots of gravel where there needs to be soil, lots of ground water. We're thinning out the trees so they can be healthier and so that something other than maple, dogwood, huckleberry, and alder can grow amongst them. Like... grass. And pasture. Running the animals on this ground will also help to build soil.
So our first 'pasture' was an experiment with the goats. We electrified several acres around a draw with a creek. At the very least they would reduce fire hazard. They're good about pruning the trees (needles, smaller limbs, and lichen) up to 5-6' high and cleared out most of the brush and undergrowth. 2 large goats (around 200lbs) ate everything there was to eat in a season in that area.
So now we're moving them into another draw to do the same. In their wake, in the previous 'pasture', we're putting the pigs. We want to see what they make of it. We have full size pigs and miniature pigs. The full size pigs are tilling machines, and are especially fond of consuming stumps and roots, which we appreciate. We also want to see what the pigs do to the creek bed. Right now it's spread out in many areas, forming little bogs before narrowing down int o a creek again to the next boggy area. We're going to see if we can encourage them to wallow in specific areas and what they can do as far as "making ponds" in the draw. Anyway. The goats stripped out most of the brush and small trees, now the pigs can go in and root up the remains, leaving the way much clearer for thinning trees and for seeding new growth.
Obviously we have different terrain. But I hoped to maybe illustrate how these animals are functioning for us on the land. Goat are difficult to contain, yes. So are pigs. A large pig can easily pick up several hundred pounds of weight and go underneath it (we tried strapping logs onto the bottom of our fencing to keep them from going under...). So far electric fencing has been the absolute best. It is THE CHEAPEST factory-made fencing you can get, per foot, and it works to keep animals in and predators out. A high-joule charger will resist a lot of grounding. We're running a 6 joule charger that uses less than .5 amps from the battery/solar setup its on, cranking out 10,000 volts. It makes animals not want to touch it twice, which is very nice. Makes me not want to touch it twice, too xD I always bust up laughing at the blood-curdling involuntary scream that rips out of my throat when I get zapped. It doesn't even "hurt", really, it's just startling to the senses.
Goats will strip out the BEST of the best and move on if they can. Don't expect a herd to focus one blackberry patch down to stubble before moving on. To get them to destroy a patch of something you need to pen them in with it. Although, as mentioned before me, the one exception may be fruit trees. They will spend every waking moment of their day focused on a fruit tree; wood, bark, leaves, stems, you name it, they want to eat it. They will ring an apple tree in a heartbeat. However, as others on this site have learned; macerating meat in hot water (making a rotten meat slurry) and painting that onto the trees will definitely keep a goat from eating the tree, without harming the tree. Plants love that slurry!
How well a pig tills your earth depends on the breed, probably. We got Mangalitsas for their cold hardiness. You could easily run pigs to tackle brush and brambles, especially if they're good foragers. They can reproduce and give you an organic, pastured meat product too. Our pigs are dog-like and love attention and interacting with us; but that's also characteristic of their breed. I fully expect a pig to strip bark of a fruit tree just as a goat would, but they are perhaps easier to deter int the sense that they're not going to CLIMB the tree. Ringing your trees with sturdy wire skirts up to 3' high would be enough to protect them from the pigs.
And we are able to run our goats and pigs together. Granted we've only got a couple of each and have made certain they interact peacefully. They make a nice combo team for stripping land.
One suggestion/partial solution would be to create a central feeding station for your animals. If they have ample forage plus get tasty treats, they're less likely to get bored and test the fences. It could be handy to have your browsers come running to you when you call or whistlem telling them you've brought grain or whatever.
BTW - goats are grain addicts. Like... it's like cocaine for goats. At least my goats. They get one taste of it and they turn into grain-obsessed screaming fools. They can think of nothing else, and no punishment is severe enough to deter them from trying to get more grain. I have to ween them down off grain every time they get into it. I don't normally grain them. But this is VERY handy, because any respectable goat will readily take a bribe. And being able to shake a grain jar and have your goats do ANYTHING you want them to is so unbelievably handy ;)
My experience with portable electric chicken netting was that some goats respected it, and some didn't. Saanens were more likely to respect it than the Toggenburgs and Saanen/Nubian crosses were.
Right now I do complete free-ranging as I don't have any goat-proof fences (other than one that I built to keep all animals out of my garden and orchard). Goats respond to this quite well, they are intelligent creatures and recognise the times of day when I give them food, or will come when they're called, so it's easy to round them up for milking. This is probably not the most effective method for getting rid of blackberries and other overgrown areas, as the goats tend to just nibble plants here and there. A combination of this, plus tethering some goats right next to the blackberries (or using portable electric fence) might work, but if you need to keep your goats out of the neighbour's land, then you'll probably need to get better boundary fencing.
I've also kept goats close to the house, in a strawyard, which is good for getting manure for the garden, but more labour intensive as you need to bring their food to them, and you don't get their blackberry-clearing benefits.
For land-clearing purposes, it's not so much the amount of goats that you have, but the concentration of them in a certain area with portable fences or tethers. Some goats have different plant preferences to other goats, so having more of them helps make sure that they're eating all the weeds, but around 5 to 7 of them should be enough for this.
My border collie/husky cross tries to herd my goats. It satisfies her instincts, and she's not rough with them, they don't seem to mind. I'm not sure how OES would go, it probably depends on the individual personality of the dog, so best to just observe and see how she is - if you know anyone locally that has goats you could always bring the dog there and observe, or see how your dog behaves around sheep.
Other things to know... Goats are more sensitive to soil nutrient deficiencies than cattle, so it would be worth looking at local soil conditions, and seeing if it is a bit too acid or alkaline, and if there's any minerals missing, if there are, then you can offer the minerals free-choice, or mix small amounts into their treat feed (my book 'Backyard Dairy Goats', and Pat Coleby's book 'Natural Goat Care', both have information about goat mineral requirements). Goats like their grass to be quite high - they prefer not to eat anything less than 6 inches from the ground. They are very selective as their natural instinct to avoid parasites, and many people that complain about goats being parasite-prone are often expecting their goats to be lawnmowers and leaving them on the same pasture for too long, or are moving them on to pasture before it's high enough (or aren't paying attention to mineral requirements).