Goats are entertaining, intelligent and productive animals and can offer a lot of inputs into a permaculture system.
Due to their varied palate, they can be very useful in managing woody and weedy vegetation, as well as blackberries. In fact, much of their feed can come from excess growth around the garden.
Having fresh milk on hand is also a strong motivator for many potential goat keepers, with homemade goats cheese being a delicacy. Goats can also be kept as a meat source, as well as for their manure, which adds fertility to soil. Unlike larger hooved animals, goats can be kept in urban areas, as long as they are taken out to forage daily.
BENEFITS OF KEEPING GOATS
Manure & mulch:
Goats provide useful manure that can be used for composting and adding directly onto the garden or orchard. It is hard to collect in the paddock but easy to clear out of the goat shed, especially if it is mixed with straw or wood shavings from the floor.
Goat manure comes out in neat pellets, making it easy to collect and spread around the garden. It is also milder than chicken manure and similar in nutrients to cow manure, depending on what the goats are fed and their conditions.
If you are feeding goats branches, the remaining sticks can be used as a coarse mulch around fruit trees (useful for stopping chickens scratching up the goat shed mulch laid underneath) or for kindling. Otherwise they can be mulched and used wherever needed.
Goats are great for managing weedy, overgrown areas. Many of the plants that we find problematic in our systems are relished by goats, even very prickly plants such as blackberries, which have a tendency to take over and may otherwise be sprayed with herbicides.
Goats are less effective at mowing lawns as they don’t eat the grass down to a very low level, although they will keep it short. They will also manage thistles and other low-growing plants. But beware! Don’t allow them near your fruit trees as they can seriously damage them in a short space of time.
If you have tried commercially produced goat milk and didn’t like it, do not despair – fresh, unpasteurised goat milk tastes completely different! A goat will give around 1-2 litres of milk per day, and more at the start of lactation. Milk can be made into cheese, yoghurt and kefir.
Milking can be undertaken either once or twice per day. Twice a day will give you more milk, but less flexibility in your day. Goats can be milked year round and some milking goats can produce for years without birthing again.
Being home at a particular time each day to milk could be seen as a burden, but this is not an issue if you have a homebased lifestyle. Consider sharing the milking with a neighbour to give both households flexibility and fresh milk!
If kids are kept on their mother it is less stressful for everyone. They can be separated at night with a mesh divider so mum can be milked in the morning and the kids can drink during the day. This also provides flexibility—if you won’t be home you can leave them together and you won’t need to milk.
Goat meat makes for good eating and keeping goats for meat can be productive. Goats generally produce twins and meat breeds can thrive in areas where other meat animals might not. Hides are another benefit of producing goat meat.
Clockwise from above: Goats at feeding time; Goat’s can form strong bonds with children; Goat with triplets; Old buck goat.
Goats are very social animals, so a solitary goat will not be happy. They need at least one companion, although this can be another species, such as a sheep.
Goats also need human company. A tame goat that is used to humans is far easier to manage, particularly for tasks such as milking and trimming hooves. Spending time with your goats should be a joy; they are entertaining and affectionate!
A good shelter is needed as goats hate getting wet. This should protect them from the rain and provide shade in the heat.
Goats need good fencing, but it is a myth that they are impossible to contain. A well-strained and maintained ringlock fence of standard height will do the job. Being intelligent animals, they are likely to notice and sometimes even check to see if you have shut the gate correctly. The consequences of escape can be dire – they can cause havoc in tree plantations, orchards and gardens!
Moveable electric fencing can be used, giving more options for moving goats to where their services can be utilised. However, this requires fine weather or a moveable shelter.
Tethers are another possibility for allowing goats to access feed they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get. Keeping a goat on tether permanently is cruel, however goats will learn to enjoy limited periods on a tether if they’re put in interesting places with a range of feed. Ensure that they cannot knock over their water bucket and that the tether is unlikely to snag on anything.
Goats are predominantly browsers, eating leaves and twigs from shrubs and trees, but they will also eat low-growing plants such as grass. Goats should not be given direct access to any trees you want to keep, as they will destroy them very quickly. A ‘cut and carry’ system works well, and if there are trees or scrub to get rid of, goats can feed directly.
A variety of fodder is important. From the vegetable garden, goats will appreciate excess produce, weeds and parts of plants that humans do not normally eat, such as corn stalks. They can be fed prunings from fruit trees (except peaches and avocados), nurse trees and shelterbelts.
Consider planting some fodder trees. Various acacias, locusts, tagasaste and many deciduous trees make useful goat feed with multiple other uses in a permaculture system. You can also cut fodder from outside your property. I regularly harvest willow, elm, poplar, ash and cherry plum branches from along the creek in town.
Most goats will live happily on a combination of grazing grassy areas and ‘cut and carry’ branches, however a productive milking goat will need more concentrated feed. Providing a bucket of feed whilst milking calms and distracts the goat. Concentrated feeds include tree seeds (e.g. acorns), tree pods (e.g. carob) and some vegetables (e.g. sugar beet). In most systems you will have to buy in some extra feed for your milking goat – oats or sprouted barley with oaten chaff are good options.
Unless you are in an area of well-balanced soil and can feed your goats from a very wide range of plants, you will probably need to supplement their feed with seaweed and minerals.
The main milking breeds in Australia are Saanens, Toggenburgs and British Alpines. Beware of very ‘well bred’ milking goats, as they sometimes produce too much milk for their own health and will need a lot of concentrated feed. Anglo Nubians, with their floppy ears and interesting colours, are a large dual-purpose breed with less milk but a high cream content. Boer goats are a meat breed that grows fast, breeds reliably and isn’t fussy about feed.
Many goats are mixed breeds, with some descended from feral populations – these are often smaller goats who are great escape artists but are good at controlling vegetation.
Beck Lowe is currently writing a book on permaculture and animals. If you have an interesting example of a permaculture animal system, she’d love to hear about it: firstname.lastname@example.org