While all the details may make it seem like goats are complicated to care for, in reality, they have simple needs and simple regular maintenance requirements. Let’s walk through a year in the life of a goat and see just how things look from the perspective of a “less is more” management system. While different climates will offer different challenges at different times of the year, you can use this example as a general guideline and apply it to your own unique environment.
Spring is a time of growth and renewal. Goats now are full of energy and enthusiasm, just as we are. They long for fresh greens and if you pasture, now is the time to be proactive about pasture management. If your goats live in their pasture area, you don’t need to do anything special to acclimate them to eating fresh greens, but if you winter in one place and turn out to pasture in another, you’ll need to take care to acclimate them gradually. If your goats are on a dry lot, it can be a great time to begin guided goat walks, where you take your goats out to nibble on the fresh greens and get some exercise with you. This is such a great way to spend time with your goats and is fulfilling for both humans and animals, but if goat walks aren’t your thing, you can bring them fresh cut greens in small amounts or simply let them enjoy the hay they are accustomed to. There’s no right or wrong way to approach this and the rest of life tends to dictate what works for us. I never took goat walks with my goats who lived on a dry lot at our old farm – I was too busy raising my babies and there wasn’t anywhere to take them anyway!
If you’re breeding, spring is an ideal time of year for kidding and it is in this season that most farms see an explosion of new life. This is the time of hustle and bustle; for me, I spend more time in the goat barn during kidding than the rest of the year combined. It’s the best time too, the time I spend all year looking forward to, planning on and dreaming of. Here, all that hard work comes to fruition and the promise of new life fills the air with an almost tangible vibration that is contagious and exhilarating. All preparations have been made in previous seasons, so now it is time to welcome the newcomers and enjoy spending time with them.
One benefit to rising energy in spring is that it makes the task of spring cleaning much easier. I know I’m much more motivated for these types of tasks in spring, whereas by fall my enthusiasm has diminished greatly. If you’ve used the deep bedding method all winter, now is the time to do a thorough cleaning, stripping the shelter down to the base floor and either leaving it bare or putting down the summer bedding. We shelter on dirt floors and in summer we leave them bare, bedding only in cold winter months when they are inclined to spend a little more time indoors. Whether you’re going bare floor or adding new bedding, now is the time to spruce things up in preparation for summer.
Spring Pasture Acclimation
As new growth appears in the pasture, it’s a good idea to do regular pasture walks and familiarize yourself with what’s growing there. A plant identification app can be really helpful for these walks and you can learn to identify what’s edible and what poses a potential problem. I just want to make a quick point here – try not to get too worried about what’s growing. While exceptions certainly exist, goats are generally wise about what they consume and will not try to consume toxic plants as long as they have ample healthy choices. Many plants that are listed as toxic on goat lists are either ignored completely by goats or not toxic if ingested in small amounts as goats are wont to do. Fiasco Farm has an incredible amount of resources, including this list of edible and toxic plants for goats. Take a look at that and consider printing or bookmarking it to reference later.
Unlimited, sudden access to pasture can cause several health issues, some of them serious and potentially fatal, so it is imperative to gradually acclimate goats when it’s time to move to pasture. Start by putting your goats out into the pasture area for 30-60 minutes the first day. Turn them out later in the day and be sure they’ve eaten hay before going out. After the time is up, return them to their winter pen for the day. On day two, check for signs of digestive upset – namely, diarrhea. If they have normal stools, increase the time on pasture today to two hours. On day three, repeat the check, then leave them out for four hours. If on day four stool is normal, leave them out for eight hours and on day five, assuming normal digestion, they are ready to stay out full time.
If on any day they have loose stool, let them out only as long as the day before and don’t double the time they’re out until stool returns to normal. With this slow, gradual timeframe, you should never run into real diarrhea and if you do, your goat may have ingested something harmful. We’ll discuss first aid in another lesson, just know that diarrhea is a sign of potential trouble and not a normal symptom in a gradual acclimation such as this. If one member of the herd has diarrhea–not just clumpy or soft manure–the herd should stay in the following day to be sure it resolves.
During this early transition, I put a hay feeder out to help keep them from overindulging. Here, we feed hay until pasture is on really strong and heavy and then pull it for the season, usually sometime in May.
Parasites tend to be more of an issue in wet spring. If your goats are young kids, coccidiosis can be of particular concern in the wet of spring. We’ll talk more about specific conditions and treatments later, but this is the time of year to pay more attention to parasite issues and be especially diligent about checking FAMACHA scores and watching for signs of digestive trouble – clumpy or runny manure.
During the transition from winter to spring, your goats will start shedding their winter coats. It’s not uncommon to have clumps of cashmere or even spotty shedding on occasion, but balding patches are not a normal sign and can indicate external parasite issues, such as lice or mites. Your goats may really love being brushed during this shedding, but brushing is not a necessity.
Hooves tend to grow more in the wet of spring as well so during this time you may find you need to trim hooves as often as every few weeks, whereas in hot, dry or cold, freezing times of year, you might not need to trim at all.
Spring is when ticks begin to emerge again. While goats seem to be a little more resistant to tick-borne diseases, now would be the time to implement tick prevention if you choose. I’ll include some options for natural tick prevention in the health section. Here, our tick problem is fairly minimal and we don’t use any prevention method in any of our livestock outside the suppression effects of poultry who love to snack on ticks.
Summer is a time of stability. The spring rush is past, any sold kids are on their way to new homes and we settle in for a season that is usually fairly neutral in terms of goat health concerns. For many, heat and water supply are the main concerns for summer. It’s important to make sure that fresh water is available all the time and where possible, kept in the shade to keep it cooler. I love float valves for automated, endless water that I don’t have to worry about.
Goats do well in summer heat, but like all animals, need shade and airflow. Given the choice between various shelters and the shade under the trees, mine will always choose the shade under the trees. If you sit in your goats’ shelter and compare it to how hot it feels under a tree, you can see why they want to be outdoors so I recommend trying to incorporate some outdoor shade when possible.
Here on our farm, not much is happening in summer. Parasites are well controlled and goats are out on pasture. Keeping the mineral feeders filled and doing daily wellness checks are about all I do outside of our regular milking routine. This downtime is one of the benefits to living in a place with hot, dry summers. My goat fellows in the southeastern United States are in the thick of their parasite battles during this season and must be ultra diligent to stay on top of parasites.
In nature, summer is the time of year animals are really beginning to recuperate from the reduced nutrition of winter. Your goats will show some of the same tendencies, sleeking out, fattening up and looking at their annual best. This is the time of year I like to take body photos of goats, with or without shaving.
Speaking of shaving, if you live in a hot climate, some folks prefer to shave goats. I have never clipped for heat because shorter hair means less protection from sun, but you know your climate and goats best and can decide which option you think will work best for them.
If you have a garden, it’s starting to produce now and some of the abundance can be given to your goats. The above list from Fiasco will tell you some of the garden plants whose excess is suitable for goats.
Lastly, summer is the time of year to make arrangements for the fall/winter hay crop. While this timing will vary depending on where you live, we’re getting our second cutting of alfalfa about the middle of August. If you have the storage space, it makes financial and practical sense to buy the next year’s worth of hay all at once and have it safely tucked away at home. There’s something incredibly satisfying about putting up the winter hay and admiring a barn filled with security and health for the goats.
Now is also the time of the grain harvest and if you’re feeding grain, you can also stock up on this, storing it in moisture and sun proof containers to last the season. We do all our buying annually here, storing in enough grain for all the livestock during summer harvest so it’s in and done – no need to trek through snow with bags of grain to put away because it’s all already there.
There’s not a lot of routine work to do with the goats in summer, but regular FAMACHA and body condition scores are important, along with checking on hooves. Summer here means a break from hoof trimming because what little growth they have is worn off on pasture. You’ll likely find you can reduce your trimming schedule unless you live in a tropical or humid climate.
While each season has its own beauty, fall is a special one on the farm. The garden is being put to bed and the abundance put in the pantry. Here, when the killing frost comes and I’ve harvested everything I intend to harvest, I turn the goats out into the garden to clean up what’s left. I’ve never worried about pulling plants they shouldn’t eat; they tend to avoid them and instead focus on what they can consume. It is here in the garden we feed the winter’s hay, laying down a layer of mulch for next season’s planting.
Though you may not have had many health issues during the summer, it’s a good idea to have a good long look at everyone in fall as they’re heading into winter, traditionally one of the tougher seasons for overall health. You’ve kept an attentive eye all along, but now’s the time to really examine everyone for any health issues that could potentially be exacerbated by winter conditions. Examine coat condition, body condition, FAMACHA scores, hoof quality and any other outwardly tangible sign of health you can. If you use fecal sampling to determine parasite loads, send in a fall sample to be sure your parasite program is working and use this time to make changes if you have high counts.
The coming of winter necessitates the transition to different feed and watering systems in areas where it freezes. When temperatures consistently freeze at night and are close to freezing during the day, we pull out the heated bowls, take out the hoses and set up the winter hay feeders. It’s a good idea to have gone over the electrical systems of the water heaters before you need to use them, testing each and making sure it is functioning properly.
Depending on your summer bedding method, it’s time to either do a fall cleanout or lay new bedding in preparation for winter. We lay a thick layer of straw now and will check it periodically throughout winter to make sure there is no ammonia odor and a continuing thick layer to snuggle up in.
Winter is also a time of decreased activity, a hibernation of sorts. We try to honor that slowing down in our systems, creating efficiency so we don’t have to spend a lot of time hauling hay and filling water, but instead can focus on more family time and other activities within the spirit of the rest season. If you find yourself tired and struggling to do all the necessary chores, consider reevaluating each one and looking into more efficient options. For example, if you’re feeding hay every day, could you design a feeder that allows you to feed hay every week instead? Then your daily goat visits are less about work and more about enjoying your four-legged companions.
Like its warmer summer counterpart, this season is usually a time of reduced need for maintenance. Daily wellness checks are still important, but not a lot needs to be done. If it’s cold and freezing, hooves will again grow more slowly. Parasites aren’t as active in freezing winter so there’s rarely a need to do a lot of parasite management in this season. If your winter is a rainy season, however, this is the time you’ll really have to step up your diligence and increase your FAMACHA checks.
As winter progresses, it’s important to gauge consumption of winter feeds and make sure what you’ve stored up is enough to last and if not, begin sourcing additional feeds.
Continue the discussion in the Management forum.