By Christine Kocourek – I have been involved with goats for more than 20 years, starting with grade dairy goats. My farm currently has more than 40 head of registered fullblood, purebred, and percentage Boer goats. Our herd began with one fullblood buck and two very pregnant grade Boer does. It rapidly grew from three goats to nine when the does kidded. You too can start meat goat farming with your own small herd.
Numerous articles have been written extolling the virtues of using goats as weed-control and their kids as meat, but how does one economically begin to meat goat farming? Boer goats, bred for meat, can be costly with percentage does usually starting at $100 and purebred and fullblood does starting at $400 and climbing from there. Registered dairy does can also be in the $200 range. How does one make sure that every dollar is spent wisely when pursuing meat goat farming?
There are a few things to consider before jumping into meat goat farming for the homestead. Number one being the condition of the land. Goats prefer brush and scrub over pasture. They will chew the bark off their favorite trees until the trees ultimately die. On limited pasture, an animal’s worm load goes up, necessitating medicating the animals on a regular basis. Many wormers have a 60- to 90-day hold, meaning slaughter animals cannot be butchered for 60 to 90 days after worming them. Wormer is not something I would like to have to eat with my meat. However, by making sure the wormload is low on the land the goats are pastured on and by butchering the kids while young, you may circumvent commercial wormers. You can also utilize natural dewormers such as pumpkin seeds or diatomaceous earth. Goats do not thrive well in a feed lot situation, where they live on dirt and are fed grain.
Hand-in-hand with pasture is fencing. Goats are the escape artists of the domesticated animal world. Heavier breeds of goats like Boers and lactating does who have udders have a tendency to stay where they are put. Kids, however, are another story. We use five-foot tall mesh fencing. Goats’ horns can get caught in this type of fencing, but very rarely do we find a goat with her horns caught. Electric fencing is also used quite successfully and is more economical than mesh fencing. However, the first wire has to be about four inches from the ground and each subsequent wire needs to be spaced so agile goatlings cannot slip their bodies between the cracks. Seven strands of electric fencing evenly spaced work well. Then again, wire fencing, like electric and high tensile, cuts deeply when an animal is caught in it and fights the wire. Chain link fencing is another option. A savvy buyer can often get chain link fence for a deep discount when scavenging it from demolition sites. I recommend placing a want ad in the newspapers of a bigger town.
In the event that the land is not conducive to fencing, goats can be staked out. That said, keep in mind that a goat tied is defenseless to predators, can potentially strangle herself if she jumps over an object and hangs, and still needs the basic requirements of food, shelter, and water. Tying involves a collar, a nylon dog or calf-type collar or a plastic chain collar, not a loop of chain around the animal’s horns. A plastic chain collar, made out of the decorative chain fencing found in hardware stores, is strong enough to hold a tethered goat, but weak enough to break if the animal is in danger. Tied goats should not be left unattended.
Speaking of predators, consider the threats where you live. In our area, our biggest predators are coyotes and neighborhood dogs, the dogs being the greater threat. People may be another threat, especially if you live close to a highly traveled road and have motorists who like to throw objects out their windows. Dogs like to chase and will run a goat down, potentially causing abortion in pregnant does. When a dog catches a goat, it will chew on it and sometimes kill it. We chose to purchase a guardian dog to run with our goats. Our Anatolian Shepherd was born on a goat farm and lived with goats since her birth. She does not bark unless to warn, is generally found lying lazily somewhere in her pasture, and for her size, does not consume massive quantities of food. Of course, a dog does become another mouth to feed and care for.
Another option might be to run two sets of fencing, the inner pasture containing the goats and the outer pasture ringing in the goats containing donkeys, mules or llamas. Mules and donkeys have a tendency to pursue small furry creatures relentlessly. I owned a horse that stalked and then picked up a full-grown Rottweiler off the ground with his teeth and shook it. I have also heard of several mules that destroyed a band of Pitbulls by stomping and tossing them. Keep predators in mind when you design your fencing arrangements.
Goats require some sort of shelter out of the weather. This may be as simple as a densely woven group of trees they can take shelter underneath and out of the wind, to a calf hut or barn. Whatever shelter is used, good ventilation and cleanliness go far to ensure the health of an animal and her young. We have used straw, old hay, wood shavings and dead leaves (raked by friends in town who are happy to give them to their country friends) as bedding. We rank wood shavings as the best in terms of containing odor and absorbing urine.
With the basics taken care of or at least thought about, it is time to pursue assembling the herd. Think about how much goat meat you intend to eat a year. We prefer to butcher 100-pound goats, which yields about 50 pounds of meat, which we then grind up. Many people prefer young kids, in the 50-60-pound range. One doe can yield one to four, and in rare cases five kids, with twins being the most common. Boer goats cycle year ’round and it is possible to get three kiddings in two years, provided the doe is kept in good shape, which is tough to do on pasture alone. So, if you plan on eating eight kids a year, you will need three or four does.
Now we move on to our search for the ideal homestead meat doe. The ideal doe is generally not a registered animal, although it may be if it is a cull from another herd. Place an ad, watch the classifieds for people getting rid of goats, or contact any large goat dairies in your area. Often a doe that is being culled from a large dairy because it is not producing a lot of milk can be a perfect addition to a meat herd. Some people are happy to give away their goats for free knowing they are going to a good home. Steer clear of older does who have never kidded unless you want to run the risk that they may be sterile. If the animal is older than three years old, has never kidded, and you do not have much experience with goats, you should probably avoid acquiring her. If the doe has kidded before, inquire as to whether she had multiple kids. Twins are great; quads require some thought before purchasing unless you have no problem with helping out the doe with supplemental feeding. Was birthing easy for her? A doe that had one hard kidding, such as breech or tangled kids, won’t necessarily repeat this scenario, but you should be aware of it. Does she have good mothering instincts? This is my primary consideration before purchasing a doe. Does that I have bottle-fed still turned out to be competent mothers and dairy herds bottle feed their kids all the time, but does that are just bad moms are consistently Bad moms and pass that “skill” on to their daughters. If you manage to latch onto a doe that will nurse anyone’s kids, she is a prize. Has she ever had mastitis? Avoid does that have had mastitis before. They tend to be more susceptible to it in the future. Also, studies have shown in cows that calves which were fed milk from cows with mild mastitis have a tendency to freshen with mastitis. Any strange tendencies like freshening with a hard udder, blood in her milk, or attempting to nurse off her own teats? Freshening with a hard or swollen udder may be a result of too much potassium in the feed and could be “curable;” then again, it may be a recurring issue. Blood occurs in the milk when a blood vessel breaks, due to an injury to the udder, and turns the milk pink. Was she easy to breed and did she settle quickly, or did she need to be rebred repeatedly? Does that do not rebreed easily may be cystic. Is she an easy keeper? Does that keep their body weight even while nursing kids are an asset. Less food costs equal less expense raising your meat. How is her udder hung? Is it tightly attached to her frame or does it look like it is hanging on a shoestring? If the goat is to spend its time in brush and foraging, make sure she has a tight udder attachment so the teats do not drag on the ground when her udder is full or pose the risk of getting hung up in brush. I also prefer darkly pigmented udders. Pink udders have a tendency to sunburn and I prefer not to apply sunscreen to my girls every day before they go out to pasture. A sale yard is probably not the best place to pick up a doe unless you know her history or the breeder selling her. Generally, does that show up at auctions show up there for a reason, due to fertility or health problems.
Wherever you get your animals, make sure they are healthy. And even if she appears healthy, isolate your doe from the rest of the herd for at least four weeks. Some people isolate their animals for upwards of six months, but for a small farm this may be impractical. By keeping the doe separated from the herd for a period of time, you can watch for problems like pinkeye, sore mouth, ringworm, and make sure she is free of external and internal parasites through worming before introducing her and any of their little stowaways to your herd.
I have a ragtag bunch of meat does. Our large-boned Nubian/LaMancha goat has a lopsided udder and a propensity for drying up after milking for only four months. However, she is an excellent mother, her doe kids are excellent mothers, she throws triplets for me repeatedly, and I picked her up from a dairy farm for only $75. I am not planning on showing her so the lopsided udder doesn’t matter. I have two Saanen-cross does that I picked up for $35 each. I found them staked out in someone’s yard without shelter. They are extremely easy keepers, excellent mothers, produce copious amounts of milk, and each threw twins for me last year. What a great find! I also picked up two 3/8 Boer does, experienced moms, both bred, from a breeder who had been breeding Boer goats but had decided to downsize. These girls cost me $175 each, but they each had triplets, and then had triplets the following year. They were excellent mothers and very hardy. I consider them a good investment. If you are willing to take a chance, you may be able to pick up orphaned kids a day or two old from goat breeders. I acquired triplet registered Boer kids from just such a breeder. However, I also had a person who didn’t work outside the home take care of them for me as they required 24/7 care and additional support because they were so young and got off to a bad start. This may not be an investment you wish to jump into if you are not experienced with goats.
One last point about meat goat farming: You need access to a buck to breed your does to. For meat goat farming, I recommend Kiko or Boer buck. The higher percentage Boer or Kiko buck you use, the better chance you have of attaining a meaty kid. For instance, if you use a 50 percent Boer buck on your does there is a chance that the kids will take after the dairy side of the buck and not the Boer part. On the plus side, having your own buck makes it easier to tell when the doe is in heat, you can breed whenever you want to, and you do not have to pay someone to have your doe serviced. On the downside, a buck requires special fencing arrangements, is another mouth to feed during non-breeding season, and can be quite stinky at certain times of the year. When deciding whether to purchase your own buck, it is best to ask around at the stockyards or place an ad in the paper to see if anyone lives near you and would be willing to breed their buck to your does. Don’t be offended if someone you ask says no. The buck owner is accepting a level of risk when allowing an outside animal onto his or her farm, the risk being exposure to disease or parasites. I have found my Boer bucks to be very gentle and easy to handle. I also spend the time to make sure they remain so some bucks continually test the master/slave relationship. If you are not assertive, owning a buck may not be for you. Meat bucks can get up to 300-plus pounds. They can be damaging, and we found that siding their shelters in tin prevents them from beating their horns on buildings.
Getting started with meat goat farming and raising your own meat kids can be an economical and enjoyable experience, provided you take the time to properly prepare for goat ownership and selectively choose your does. Knowing what has gone into your meat in terms of chemicals and byproducts provides a certain peace of mind. When people ask us if we have any kids, we answer, “Yes. They’re all four-legged and when they get sassy, we eat them.”
Good luck with meat goat farming!
Originally published in Countryside January/February 2004 and regularly vetted for accuracy.