Entertaining, intelligent and productive animals, keeping backyard goats can offer a lot of benefits to a permaculture system.
Here we look at three benefits of keeping backyard goats and how to keep your goats thriving and happy.
Manure and mulch
Goats provide useful manure that can be used for composting and adding directly onto the garden or orchard.
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.
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 one to two 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.
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.
Requirements for keeping backyard goats happy
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.
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!
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.
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. Concentrated feeds include tree seeds (eg. acorns), tree pods (eg. carob) and some vegetables (eg. 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.