We all want to live in peace. So do goats (believe it or not!) They have evolved a social system to avoid conflict. Problems occur when considering how to house goats. Our housing design might conflict with their natural social inclinations. That is when we see them fight.
Goats naturally compete when feed and resources are centralized, because they evolved in regions where food, water, mates, and shelter were hard to find. A strict hierarchy is set up to rule who gets first choice without resorting to conflict. Subordinates are expected to keep their distance, which is easy to do out in the open, but trickier when housing goats in barns. Issues occur when space is restricted and escape routes are blocked. Subordinates cannot get out of the way at a rate that the head goat finds acceptable.
This is the issue we face on the homestead or farm when we construct a goat shelter, a goat barn, or when feeding goats in racks or troughs. We need to bear housing design in mind when caring for goats. Firstly, our walls may not allow sufficient space for subordinates to escape fast enough or far enough away. Secondly, feed may be dispensed centrally, meaning that subordinates cannot access the feed without transgressing dominants’ personal space. Thirdly, our custom of introducing new stock and selling off excess animals is contrary to does’ natural social system of stable family groups.
Consider Social Life When Planning How to House Goats
Feral goats live in small matrilineal groups and form long-term relationships with female relatives. These bonds are formed while kids with mothers and sisters. When herds are disrupted, it can take a long time to form new friendships and rebuild a peaceful hierarchy. Newcomers are seen as competition and are initially rejected. The Centre for Proper Housing of Ruminants and Pigs at Agroscope, Switzerland, found that a new goat introduced singly suffered stress for at least five days, even when fighting had ceased. Each lone newcomer attempted to hide away, passing up chances to access feed. Horned goats that used to be dominant in their previous herd suffered more than lower ranking goats. Newcomers to a horned herd hid more and ate less, since the need to maintain personal space would be more critical when faced with horned competitors.
Traditionally many farmers have dehorned young kids when housing goats. However, we are increasingly finding the disadvantages of performing this procedure, due to the essential social and thermoregulatory functions of horns, the painfulness of the procedure, and its consequences for future pain sensitivity and scurs. The Swiss studies aimed to find other solutions to aggression in the goat house and at the manger.
When new goats were introduced to an established herd along with two familiar goats, they were found to suffer less stress and each received less aggression than one goat introduced alone. Researchers also recommended making introductions in a large arena at pasture, where they have space to settle their hierarchy and still find access to forage.
Even though stress levels were reduced by twelve days, the long-term effects of regrouping goats as adults can be seen in their tolerance of one another.
How Much Space Do Goats Need?
Goats that had grown up together would feed side by side at distances of one to five feet (0.5–1.5 m), whereas those regrouped as adults fed at greater distances up to thirteen feet (0.5–4 m). Overall, it is recommended to keep goat groups stable and consisting of companions that have grown up together.
Even when goats are bonded, competition will naturally arise. Apart from spreading out our feeding racks to give each goat a chance to feed, the trials revealed other effective measures that we can take where space is limited. Building solid partitions between feeding stations allowed subordinate goats to feed closer to more dominant goats, as did feeding at different heights. Partitions 43 inches (110 cm) long and platforms 32 inches (80 cm) high worked best. Solid partitions allowed subordinate goats to remain out of sight of dominants while feeding. This appears to satisfy the dominants’ need for personal space.
Where goats feed alongside each other at a barrier, the design of the barrier needs to allow quick and easy escape from attackers from behind and restrict attacks from neighbors within the manger. Palisades that allow quick exit by lifting the head were found to be the easiest to evacuate and the least stressful for goats at feeding time. Open palisades that allow visual access to the feeding goat’s rear enable goats to remain vigilant to danger from behind and quickly exit if a dominant animal approaches. Palisades restrict movement of the head once within the manger, so that goats cannot easily evict their neighbor. This design allots a feeding space to each individual. Diagonal or horizontal bars are less effective as they allow neighbors to side-swipe one another and reduce horned animals’ exit speed.
Subordinates may still be reluctant to approach the manger while dominants are present. One solution is to provide equal quality forage regularly, so that subordinates can take their turn once dominants have had their fill. Another successful strategy is to lock all goats in their feeding stations via a headlock on each stanchion. In this case, well-fitted, solid blinds are required within the manger to prevent goats from attacking their neighbors’ heads using teeth or horns.
How Do Goats Feed?
On a comfort level, goats are adapted to eating from trees and bushes, rather than the ground, so mangers should be at least four inches (10 cm) above the ground to allow a natural eating position. If the feeding area floor is littered, floor level may rise as litter accumulates, so it is practical to position hay racks and mangers in a bedding-free zone. Feeding level also affects the distance goats will tolerate between each other. Studies at AgResearch, New Zealand, found that goats prefer overhead feeding racks and those at head level. They competed more for overhead racks: if you install such a feature, ensure that there are enough for the whole herd.
Goats’ natural method of browsing involves pulling on foliage, which will result in plenty of waste from a traditional hay rack. This can be avoided by using mangers where the goats’ heads enter the feeder or a shelf is provided below the hay rack.
How do Goats Relax
Agroscope also found partitions and platforms allowed subordinate goats to find peace in the rest area, by hiding out of sight or jumping up out of the way. Ideally, a circuit with no dead ends will allow subordinates to escape aggression. A minimum of 51 inches (1.3 m) between walls or partitions is required for goats to avoid being trapped.
Despite the conflicts that arise, goats do not like to be apart from the herd, unless they are about to give birth. Individuals separated for any reason, such as health issues, suffer stress unless they maintain visual and auditory contact with the herd. Even subordinate goats eat little in isolation, even though they are presented the opportunity to feed without competition. Preferably, isolated goats should have the ability to touch other herd members, as well as see, hear, and sniff them. These social contacts are important to goats.
How to Make a Goat House DIY
Although metal palisades and specialist installations may come at a cost, budget solutions can be made using wood and palettes to construct hay racks, palisades, platforms, and partitions. Adding platforms to existing walls increases effective floor space as well as improving the quality of the space from a goat’s perspective. Goats are adapted to climbing and hiding in their natural environment, so platforms will be enjoyed for exercise and resting spots, as well as for escape routes. Goats prefer to rest against a wall, so adding partitions increases rest space as well as hiding places. Hay racks can be positioned within the shelter in such a way as to divide up space and provide barriers. Supplemental hay racks can be hung by platforms to add extra elevated feeding places.
How to House Goats Comfortably
When designing the goat house, we need to be aware of goats’ perception of their surroundings. They are wary of dark places and restricted areas, so make barns light with high visibility and easy escape routes. Sometimes goats will not enter a dark barn, unless a safe exit is visible through the other side. Goats can get trapped in a shelter or denied entry by a dominant. I found that a wide opening or providing two entrances allowed goats to shelter together. Predator fear remains a part of goats’ natural instinct, so a calm location without fast-moving, noisy, or sudden events, such as traffic or flapping material, is preferable. You may find that your goats wish to remain close to where you are and the best place to locate their shelter is near your activity. Once established, goats tend to prefer a home base to return to. If you are rotating pastures, they may appear distressed when moved to unknown ground. My approach is to provide a permanent shelter, close to my house, and rotate alternate pastures adjacent to the home turf.
Dryness is crucial for goats’ comfort and health. They need a rainproof, windproof, well-ventilated shelter with dry floor and bedding. If you have a lot of rainfall, you will need a hard surface, such as concrete, around the shelter to avoid mud and foot-rot.
AgResearch tested goats’ preferences and found that goats use different surfaces for different needs. They prefer firm, thermally-insulating surfaces for resting and absorbent material for urinating. Beds can be wood, plastic, or rubber and generally don’t need straw, unless it is really cold. Goats usually urinate around the bed on straw, shavings, or other absorbent material. Providing a variety of surfaces and bedding in the shelter enables goats to fulfill their needs.
How Do Goats Spend Their Time?
Goats spend their day performing different tasks, so their accommodation must bear these needs in mind. Out on the Alpine mountains, dairy goats have been found to spend much of the morning resting on a rock in the sun, and the afternoon sheltering undercover. Come the evening they will venture out to browse in cooler temperatures.
Agroscope’s latest research confirms that the quality of accommodation affects goats’ activity. Goats chose to spend time outside, and used enriched, spacious, sheltered outdoor runs more than barren ones. Their rest was less interrupted within well-structured housing.
Goats need plenty of time lying down to ruminate and digest vegetation. They also need to range and forage to maintain their exercise levels and fulfill their natural behavioral needs. They need to groom by rubbing against trees and rocks, but fence posts, walls, brushes, and people will also do rather well. They need to socialize, make bonds, confirm their rank, and maintain their personal space. They need to shelter from rain, wind, and sun. Most of these needs can be fulfilled by providing varied pasture, adequate shelter, and a stable social environment. Understanding how to house goats when space is limited, by enriching their housing and outdoor runs, and providing the means to escape aggression will enhance their well-being and reduce stress for you and your goats.
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Originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.