PHOTO: Philippa Willitts
Thinking about keeping goats on your urban homestead? I, too, have felt the siren call of backyard dairy and meat, so I sympathize. There are a number of things to consider before you jump into goats, though. There are the obvious issues of how to feed and take care of them, as well as special topics of urban goat-keeping that you’re definitely going to want to meet head-on before you bring these animals onto your property. They’re adorable with their inquisitive natures and seemingly innocent faces, but don’t let those dairy goats fool you—they are work!
1. Goats Are Picky Eaters
Contrary to the popular misconception, goats cannot subsist on tin cans. Goats love to play and are curious. They’re often to be found gnawing on “toys” they find and even ripping the paint of the side of a buildings—they’re like bored toddlers in this respect—but they need to eat a balanced diet.
Browsers by nature, they prefer to dine on leaves, shrubs, small trees and tall brush, along with a nice alfalfa or mixed-grass hay. Find the very best hay you can to feed your goats, and then prepare to have apoplexy every time your goats pull the precious stuff to the ground, trample it, poop on it and then refuse to eat it. Also be prepared to have to drive a bit if you want to find it at a good price, as most municipalities no longer have large tracts of land dedicated to growing hay.
Goats aren’t apt to graze from the ground like a cow, though they will eat grasses and wild herbs as they find them if there’s nothing else. Your urban lot might not support a small forest or even an overgrown area, but you can honor the browser in your goats by begging your neighbors for tree and shrub prunings. Be sure to know what you’re feeding your goats, though—avoid giving them plant matter that could be poisonous to them. or that has been sprayed with herbicides.
Ask organic produce grocers if they’ll let you pick up the leftover produce they couldn’t sell. Most will be happy to work with you if they can, as it provides a way for them to pass on their extras in a meaningful way and can provide them with a tax break. It’s worth a phone call or two. My goats will only eat the fruit and leafy greens from our weekly spoiled-produce run. If your goats prove likewise picky, you can compost the leftovers or feed them to your chickens.
2. Goats Will Escape
Have you heard the old saying that if water can fit through it, so can a goat? I’d like to tell you that this is just a cute joke, but it’s not. Goats are smart, and some are downright wicked. If a goat is determined to explore your prize-winning rose bed, your hastily cobbled together “fence” is not going to keep it out.
Recommended Goat Fencing
Homesteaders Bonnie Von Dohre of Ohio and Rachel Payne of Tennessee are fond of woven wire fencing because of how strong it is. Von Dohre double stacks hers for height because her goat is a jumper, and Payne uses two strands of barbed wire on top to deter inquisitive caprine adventures. These types of wire are typically held up with T-posts, so be prepared to drive posts into the ground of your backyard. Purchase the strongest wire you possibly can because there’s no sense wasting your money on weak stuff (like chicken wire) that the goats will just push through, smirking at you with their mirth-filled rectangular pupils and smug, almost human-like grins.
Some people have success with electric fencing for goats. For best results, train your goats to an electric fence when they’re young to teach them to respect their perimeter.
“Electric netting works well, but the electric (netting or as an interior barrier) has to be hot,” Payne says. “It needs to be strong, well-grounded, kept clean and with a good energy source. Aluminum wire conducts better, poly rope or tape does not conduct as well. “
The reality is that you may go to a lot of trouble with your fencing, pouring hours of labor and not a few pennies into the project, only to have your goats locate a weak spot immediately and work their way out. At this point, you might start considering Jedi light sabers attached to your T-posts or, quite possibly, how your backyard goats might taste with ketchup.
Our Fencing Setup
On our urban homestead, we had great success with chain-link fence panels for our small dairy herd (no more than three milkers at a time). We constantly searched the local online ads for people selling used chain-link dog runs for cheap. We could pick up five assembled 6-by-6-foot runs, some with gates and some without for about $100. The chain link is strong, and the panels make your paddocks movable because you can lift them and reconnect them with clamps and minor hardware, like a socket set.
Every 30 feet or so, we’d drive a permanent fence post and connected the panels to provide strength. (Our goats like to rub against the panels.) Over time, we accumulated enough panels to have a nice-sized goat run on our acre lot—about 1/8 acre total space, with separate sections for rotating the animals around. You do have to constantly check the bottom of the panels because the goats like to push their way out. We used zip ties and wire to secure the bottom sections. Using these panels we set up several goat areas over time, and were able to rotate them through to new paddocks every few months.
More Reasons A Good Fence Is Important
A good fence will also keep neighbor kids and pets out of your goat’s area, and this keeps things safer for everyone. Small children, lured by the overwhelming cuteness of baby goats, may wander into your yard and try to get inside the goat paddock. Even small goats can injure a child simply because they have hard hooves and even harder heads. Also, your goats can be hurt by even a small domestic dog.
We often think we’re safe from predators in the city but the truth is, we’re not, including human ones. Our animals have been injured and killed as a prank by some neighborhood boys. Bottom line, it’s better for everyone if your fences are as secure and safe as you can possibly make them.
3. Goats Poop … And Have Other Unseemly Behaviors
Be Manure Aware
Goat poop is polite, comparatively speaking. It’s small, pelleted, not that smelly and comes out ready to apply in the garden—not high in nitrogen content, it’s considered “cool” and doesn’t need to be composted first. However, it is poop. Your neighbors may not be thrilled to be living next to an animal that poops—never mind his ginormous German Shephard that poops his weight every day.
There are things you can do to keep goat manure obscured. As you’re setting up your fencing, allow for the ability to move your goats from one area to another. This will help break up the pathogen cycles in your soil. From bacteria to fly larvae, gunk builds up in the soil when goats live in one place for any length of time. (This is true for any backyard livestock). If you can move your goats to new areas every so often, you interrupt the life cycles of those pathogens and reduce the chances that your goats will get sick or have unhealthy worm loads. When you move the goats out, spread around the leftover manure and straw, and toss some clover or alfalfa seed into the paddock. Then, when the goats come back around to that area, they’ll have something to munch on.
If you have a buck, your neighbor may also not appreciate its strong odor when in rut (a roughly five-month period of time when the buck is ready to breed). Your neighbor may point out that the reeking stench of your buck is seared into his nostrils every time he breathes.
To be honest, your neighbor has a point. Bucks in rut are like nothing you’ve ever smelled before, and if you’re going to own one, you’re going to need to keep a set of buck clothes that are only put on when you have to work with the buck. Also plan to keep your buck far away from your lactating nannies—if they get anywhere near him, their milk will taste like something died in it. How far away you ask? Um, the dark side of the moon might be far enough. Maybe.
Something else your neighbor may object to when you own a buck is the constant mating that takes place for all and sundry to see. Try and picture it from your neighbor’s point of view. He’s having cocktails on his deck with his boss when, all of a sudden, your buck wiggles out from under yet another fence and makes an aroma-filled bee line for your nannies. As the buck struts and flares his nostrils, pees all over himself and generally shows off in front of your girls, your neighbor and his guest are privy to a scene that just isn’t for everyone to observe. Some things you can’t unsee.
Stick With Girl Goats
Bottom line, if you live on an urban homestead, don’t bother to keep a buck. Instead, search your local classifieds or even Craigslist for goat owners out in the agricultural areas near you who offer their bucks’ stud services. When we lived in a city, we did this every year with great success. Most often we would bring our girls to the buck’s farm for date night. The girls would stay a few hours to a few days, depending on how the farmer preferred to do it. You’ll either pay a cash fee for this stud service or the farmer may ask for his choice of kids once they’re born. Not keeping a buck and simply using the services of one outside the city will make for fewer awkward conversations over the fence for both you and your neighbor.
4. Goats Gotta Have Babies To Make Milk
Bucks do serve a vital purpose, though! In order to produce milk for you, your nanny will need to have her own kids. While there’s simply nothing cuter than a baby goat, kids present their own set of issues.
Be Prepared For Homestead Operations
You’ll need to learn how to do things like disbudding, a process of removing the horn buds on a baby goat. This may leave you shaking and incoherent with trauma your first time, though the goat usually bounces back after a few minutes. Kathryn Robles, who urban-farms in Portland, Ore., points out that sometimes, no matter how hard to you try, your neighbors still end up involved in these raw homestead moments.
“I had a neighbor stop by with their kid while we were in the middle of disbudding,” she says. “That was awkward. We even were doing it in the middle of the day during the work week while most everyone would be at work so as to be less .. obvious.”
There’s also the delightful job of castrating your spare male goats. There are several reasons to take this task upon yourself, including preventing them from accidentally breeding their moms and sisters while they’re still on site, which they can do at as early as 7 weeks old. Regardless of which method you chose for this, don’t be surprised if this task drives you to drink. In fact, city boys, I suggest you not perform this job at all unless you want a complex that can only be worked out in therapy. There’s a great deal of screaming involved. And the goat cries, too.
Twins Can—And Probably Will—Happen
The thing about kids is that it’s normal for a goat to give birth to multiples, with twins being the most common. That means that you’re planning, housing and feeding all need to expand exponentially. If your dam throws baby girls, this can be a benefit, especially if you want to grow your backyard herd. Baby girls equal more milk down the road.
If you end up with baby boys or more girls than you need, you’ll have to find a way to sell them off. Your local classifieds, especially online venues like Craigslist, can be a great resource, but prepare to have an iron wedge driven in your heart in order to be able to part with your babies, despite their constant chaos. You may realize you’ve never loved anything more than that constantly hungry little maniac that pings off you like a pogo stick every time you enter the goat yard. People buy goats for all kinds of reasons and, especially with extra baby boys, young goats often turn into roasts. Be prepared to accept that reality.
Tips For Selling Baby Goats
Selling to good people is important. Try to get a read on each person you talk to who is interested in your goats, and make sure they’re actually planning to feed and care for them. Ask them why they want goats, and make sure they understand that goats are social and shouldn’t be alone. Sometimes you’ll get a customer who only wants one goat to eat their weeds, but this may not be the best thing for your goat—most goats really need the company of other goats and their health may suffer if they’re lonely. You can refuse to sell to anyone if you feel like they won’t be a good fit.
With selling surplus goats can come the burden of registering your goats and dealing with the whiners who complain about price. People often want dairy goats registered with The American Dairy Goat Association so that they can trace the milking bloodlines of the animal and be sure they’re getting a top-performing goat. That’s great—we love informed goat owners! However, most people don’t want to pay the extra money for such a service and for those bloodlines. That doesn’t prevent them from complaining at you for an hour about the sale’s price while they look over your goats and then leave without purchasing one. When you list your goats, be sure to indicate whether your price is firm. If you’re willing to haggle a bit, you can use the popular “OBO,” meaning “Or Best Offer”.
Don’t Listen To Me, Though
All in all, goats are a great and highly adaptable to a backyard environment. If you have little space, you probably already know you should stick to dwarf goats or mini breeds. If you have more space, go for the larger producers. Everything else I’ve mentioned will work itself out. I don’t want you to let me scare you off goats—they’re a fantastic investment in time, care and affection! Just keep these points I’ve mentioned mulling around in your brain for a while before you purchase your first backyard goats.
Be prepared to answer as many of your concerns and questions before you bring them home. For the rest of the issues, there’s no better teacher than experience—especially making a few mistakes! Invest in a few yoga videos for stress management, bribe your neighbors with fresh milk and cheese, and buckle up for a wonderful ride. Don’t worry, you’ll do great. Just never be fooled by those innocent faces.