It seems like more and more people are becoming aware of the need to grow
some of their own food. Usually they start with a garden, and maybe some chickens
or meat rabbits. But eventually, if the family has room for them and the zoning
allows, they decide that they need their own milk supply (with a little home-grown
veal or chevon [goat meat] as a bonus). Cows have their place, but in many
are a better choice. They are smaller and easier to handle; less expensive
to purchase; require less room; and can eat, and even thrive on, feed that
a cow would starve on. And, if you have to keep your own male, buck goats are
easier to handle and less expensive to raise (though smellier) than a bull.
Goats are, IMO, one of the best choices for survival livestock, because they
are so useful for much more than just milk.
But speaking of milk, they are useful small dairy animals. One good doe (a female goat) of the large breeds should produce, per year, on average a gallon of milk a day for about ten months. (This is if she is well-managed, and good management of any livestock, but especially of dairy animals, doesn’t come overnight. It comes from years of experience and continued studying – so if you expect to need dairy animals in the future, now is the time to start.) When times get hard, it may be difficult, at least initially, to supply dairy goats with the kind of feed they need for the best production, so it would be a good idea to look for stock that is already being bred to produce with less grain than is commonly fed to high-producing goats. Now you are looking at smaller amounts of milk being produced, but on a more sustainable feeding program. I have Kinder goats, a cross of Nubians and Pygmies, precisely because of the feed consideration. They are easy keepers, and will continue to produce smaller amounts of their very rich milk even on very small amounts of grain.
If you allow five pounds of hay per goat per day, and a pound or so of grain (they don’t need much if any grain while dry, and will need a little extra during the peak of their lactation, so it averages out), it will take almost a ton of hay to get one milking goat through a whole year, plus about 365 lbs. of grain – allow 400, to make the fifty-pound bags come out even. At current prices, in my area it costs about $150/ton for hay (and I’m sure that’s going to go up this summer, with gas prices so high) and almost $80 for grain (C.O.B.) for one goat for the year. If you have pasture, even one filled with brush and blackberries, you can reduce the hay costs considerably. Just watch their condition, and add feed if they start looking thin or the milk drops off noticeably.
Now, when it becomes impossible to buy hay (as it probably will someday), or just plain too expensive, goats really begin to have the advantage over cows. It’s much easier to take the scythe out in the yard and cut a ton or two of hay by hand for your goats, than it would be to cut by hand the nearly four tons of hay needed by a 1,000 lb. cow. Ditto for growing and harvesting the smaller amounts of grain that a goat would need.
If you don’t have a hay-field, don’t despair. In other countries where many people still keep backyard livestock, they cut hay from their lawns; from their orchards; from the sides of the roads; from ditches and any place else where a little bit of grass, brush, or edible weeds manages to grow. Also, it’s possible to raise a lot of feed in the family garden. I save pea-vines and corn stalks for the goats, for example. You wouldn’t want to feed a steady diet of corn stalks, but they are good for stretching other feeds out. Perennials that you can grow for feed include comfrey and alfalfa. We commonly think of alfalfa as being grown in large fields, but a border around the edge of the garden (where it will get tended and watered) will produce a lot of feed.
Goats don’t need anything fancy for housing. In most climates, they will do fine with a three-sided shelter facing south (or north, if you are in the southern hemisphere). Mainly they need something that will keep the wind and the rain off, and dry bedding to lie down on. It’s advisable to construct their manger in such a way that you can feed from outside the pen, and so that the goats can’t get into the manger. If they are allowed to walk on their feed, they won’t eat it, which is quite a waste, especially if you’ve hand-harvested it. Their water should also be on the outside of their pen, forcing them to put their heads through the fence in order to drink. This will help keep their water cleaner, as they don’t watch to see where their droppings are going, and won’t drink if even one nanny-berry has fallen into the bucket. They do need to have clean water available if you are expecting them to produce milk, so make sure they aren’t shorted on that. If you have to, you can take them out to the water supply for a drink at least twice a day (three times would be better, but they are capable of tanking up and lasting for a while). This is sometimes the best way to go in the winter, when you might otherwise have to carry heavy buckets of water out to them. (They like hot water in winter, by the way, if you can manage giving it to them.)
As you’ve probably heard, the biggest drawback to keeping goats is keeping them in their pens or pastures! They are escape artists extraordinaire, and can open latches, jump over fences, and squeeze through holes that you wouldn’t believe. The key here is to be smarter than they are. Use gate latches that have spring-loaded catches or some mechanism so that livestock can’t pull them open. (Difficult to describe with no pictures – go to a feed store and ask to see their gate latches. They should have something useful, as many horses are also escape artists.) I’m now using pens that are built with cattle panels, the ones called combo panels (they have smaller openings on the bottom, which in theory will keep small animals from going through – young goat kids, however, can still get through). These are 52” high, and none of my Kinder goats have gone over the top of them. The panels are made of heavy enough wire that the goats can’t walk them down, either (goats are notorious for standing on fences with their front feet), though it would be best to have posts in the middle of the panels as well as at each end. If you are fencing a large pasture, woven wire will probably work, but will need some tending. And keep in mind that goats are small enough to be vulnerable to predators (a livestock guardian dog would be a good idea).
I mentioned earlier that goats have other uses besides just producing milk, although that could be their most important use, especially if you have young children. Meat is probably the alternative use that comes first to mind. Purebred dairy goats don’t really make very good meat animals, although they do produce meat. Again, I like my Kinder goats – they aren’t as big as purebred dairy goats, but are fast-growing and meaty, while still being good little milk animals. (And they have the best-flavored milk I’ve ever tasted – it’s almost like drinking half-and-half.) Their carcass cutting percentage runs around 60% or so, and the flavor is great. An alternative is to keep goats that are dairy crossed with Boer (or Kiko, another meat breed). I have a part-Boer doe, and she is a very nice dairy animal, but with more muscling than if she was purebred Oberhasli (she’s 3⁄4 Ober). A little more Boer would make a meatier carcass, but I and others who milk crosses have found that their udders and teats are thicker-skinned than a purebred dairy doe, and thus they are harder to milk. But, with the right parents, they can be very productive milkers and easy keepers, so are not a bad choice as dual-purpose animals. And, for the next use category, they are much more useful than the half-Pygmy Kinders.
Goats can be used as draft animals. They can pull carts and garden cultivators (there is one made especially to be pulled by a goat), and they are also very useful small pack animals. Goats as pack animals are becoming very popular, and with good reason. They can forage most if not all of their feed while out on the trail (while leaving little trace of their passing – most people would mistake goat sign for deer sign); will follow their owner (if bonded to people by being raised as bottle babies) and thus don’t need to be on lead ropes; and can carry useful amounts of gear. A full-grown pack wether (castrated male) can carry up to one-third of his own weight all day long. Since large-breed wethers may weigh anywhere from 180 lbs. up to over 300 lbs., you can see that they can be quite useful on the trail. Something interesting that’s been reported is that a human walking with a herd of goats can get much closer to wildlife such as deer before they spook and run off, so in a survival situation, the goats might even be of assistance in getting meat for the table. Goats that are not milking can go up to three days without water, which could be necessary in a dry region. But since they can only make a sustained pace of around 2 1⁄2 miles per hour, and need at least three hours of browsing time per day, they can’t go as fast or as far as horses can. However, they can go places that horses, or even llamas, can’t go. If you can get there on foot, the goats can get there, too. This could open up potential new bug-out locations!
Pack equipment for goats can be purchased from several vendors, but it’s also relatively simple to make your own. In fact, it is possible to make cross-buck pack saddles out in the field, if necessary. The size is smaller than for a horse, but the rest is pretty much the same, except for the angle of the cross-pieces. Their angle should be slightly less than 90 degrees, unless you have a very fat and wide-backed goat.
There are some other uses for goats that would be considered by-products. Their hides make a thin, fine leather (goatskin was once used for high-quality gloves); their intestines have many uses – catgut is one of them; and some goats produce enough fiber to be useful. Angora goats are too small for pack or draft use, and would be difficult to milk even if they produced enough milk to bother. And while many end up being butchered, they aren’t really good meat animals, either. But most goats of all breeds produce small amounts of cashmere, some more than others. It requires painstaking care to clean the cashmere and separate all of the hair out of it so it can be used, but in a TSHTF situation, someone may have the time and the need for fiber, so it’s worth considering.
Goats do need some basic care. All goats need attention to their hooves – if they are packing and out on rocky trails, they may need very little trimming, but if they are confined to pens all the time, their hooves will need trimmed every few weeks. Or, you can do as one lady I know does and use a Surform rasp on the milkers once a day before taking them off of the milking stand. They also need mineral salt formulated for goats (goats and sheep have diametrically opposed copper requirements – enough to keep a goat healthy will quickly kill a sheep), and they need to be wormed at least two or three times a year. Herbal wormers are available, and it would be a good idea to learn what is in them, and how to formulate them, and begin growing your own. It’s also a good idea to vaccinate for a couple of things – a veterinarian can tell you what is needed in your area, but tetanus is definitely on the list.
I’ve been keeping goats for about 24 years, and still don’t know everything there is to know (far from it). If you are new to goats, it’s a really good idea to get a couple of books about them, and to read as much on-line as you can. The FiasCo Farms web site has a wealth of information (though the site owner is a vegetarian, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for butchering information). Then when you are ready to get your goats, take someone experienced along with you. They will be able to help you avoid making serious mistakes. When you start getting a refrigerator full of milk and are wondering what to do with it, I highly recommend the book Goats Produce Too! [by Mary Jane Toth.] The cheese recipes in it are much better than another popular cheese-making book that has been around for a long time, and it also has recipes for chevon (goat meat).
Our goats are an integral part of our survival plan, whether we stay here (as we hopefully will be able to do), or whether we have to ‘bug out’ to some other location. If you think they ought to be part of your plans, get started now, don’t wait!