Goats are true browsers, meaning they prefer to eat foliage above their shoulder height. This makes them great foragers of shrubs and small trees, as well as valuable partners in land clearing, pasture restoration, and woodlot management.
This is not to say that goats will never eat grass, however. On the contrary, they seem to have a noticeable preference for grasses that are high in protein.
Overall, the browsing behavior of goats resembles that of deer, giving them a similar role in the ecosystem.
Goats have small mouths and split upper lips, which enables them to forage very selectively. They use their mobile lips and tongues to pull in forage to nibble on. They typically choose the most nutritious parts of the plants available to them, particularly tender shoots, flowers, and fruits.
Goats are the most active of grazing animals. They will cover a considerable amount of area in a day and will climb to reach their favorite foods. When foraging, they often start at the brushy edges of paddocks before moving toward the center. Their agility and grazing preferences make goats a good choice for making use of steep, rough terrain.
Unfortunately, goats are among the livestock species most susceptible to poisoning due to their curious nature. They will sample nearly anything available to them, so they should be securely excluded from landscaping plants, many of which are toxic and yet apparently irresistible. Goats will be less prone to consuming plant toxins in the pasture if they are permitted to selectively browse a wide range of species.
This small ruminant has relatively high nutrient requirements relative to other types of livestock because of its high energy level and short digestive tract. Therefore, goats should be stocked at lower densities than other animals to permit them to browse more selectively. At times when forage protein levels are low, supplementation may be required to permit healthy reproduction, lactation, and weight gain.
That said, the animal unit equivalent (AUE) for a mature goat is only 0.17, while that for a yearling goat is 0.1.
Goats should be kept within a fairly narrow window of body condition scores (BCS)—between 3.0 and 3.5. Err on the heavy side going into winter, kidding time, or the breeding season.
Grazing systems commonly used with goats include:
- Continuous. Requires minimal fencing and management. Can result in higher parasite loads.
- Strip. Allows higher utilization of forage resources. However, goats cannot forage as selectively as they might prefer, and thus their performance may suffer. Therefore, strip grazing is recommended primarily with fast-growing or stockpiled cool-season forages.
Fencing is the most important consideration of grazing system design for goats because they are susceptible to predators and they are remarkable escape artists. They will not respect physical barriers, so electric fencing is a must. A fence height of at least 42 inches is recommended. However, goats prefer to crawl under fences versus jump over them, so it is more important that the bottom strand be no more than 6 to 8 inches from the ground. A 5-strand fence is recommended for most applications. Woven wire is expensive and may entangle horned goats. Perimeter fencing should not use diagonal bracing at the corners or the goats will climb out.
In areas where predators such as coyotes and feral dogs are a problem, additional safeguards may be in order. Cattle will provide some predator protection, but a livestock guardian dog or donkey may be the safest bet.
Shelter is a must for pastured goats, as they do not have the thick fat layers of cattle or the fleece of sheep to keep them warm. A simple open shed to provide cover from the rain will suffice.
The daily water needs of goats are similar to those of sheep. Most goats will require 2 to 3 gallons of water per day. However, kids may only require 1 gallon per day, while a lactating dairy doe might require up to 4 gallons per day.
Parasites are a common concern with goats. To minimize this problem, move the goats out of the paddock when the forage height is down to five inches, as parasites tend to collect toward the bottom of the forage canopy.
While goats typically prefer to eat plants that are young and tender, they will sample weeds that have gone to seed. If they consume weed seeds, they will spread the seeds in their manure, which will defeat their usefulness in pasture management. Therefore, make sure that undesirable forages are not permitted to go to seed, perhaps through clipping or a more intensive grazing strategy.
Multispecies grazing can significantly reduce parasite loads in both goats and their pasture mates. Goats and cattle can be quite complementary. A common strategy is to clear the pasture of brush and weeds with the goats first, thus avoiding the parasites closer to the ground, and then follow up with the cattle to use the grass and graze the pasture more uniformly. (Plan on stocking the cattle normally and adding one to two goats per head of cattle.) A combination of goats and horses can also be quite satisfactory, but grazing goats together with sheep or camelids will not provide the same benefits, as these species share the same parasites.
Unlike sheep, goats seem to be able to tolerate the higher levels of copper in a typical cattle mineral. Toxicity should not be a concern in most situations.