Our Vision for the Sustainability of Our Goats

I like to dream about what the future holds for our little farm and the most important livestock we raise on it, the goats.  I love all of my animals, but goats are my special pals.  In terms of sustainability, they have the potential to give life to not only their kids and mine, but also to the chickens, pigs and dogs.  If we can successfully provide their needs here on what we can raise, we can use their outputs to create sustainable food for the other animals that call Little Avalon “home.”

While I thought it would be fun to share this with you, I think it’s equally important for me to put these ideas into words that I can look back on as we progress through this journey.  It’ll be interesting to see how things look a year, or five, or ten from now!

Defining Sustainability

Our ultimate goal is to produce enough of our own needs to thrive within our own space.  There will always be things we cannot produce–Ma and Pa Ingalls still went to “town” for coffee, sugar and fabric–but if we can produce enough to live and food for all of our animals, then we will have achieved something so many of us dream of.

In terms of the goats, I want to be able to produce all of their forage, medicinal herbs and winter feed, buying only minerals and only so long as outsourced minerals are necessary.  Ideally, we can build up our own soil to provide for their needs.

I ask myself what we would need to live here if we had to live off grid, away from supply lines in a longer term scenario and I make plans to make it happen.  I’m not a prepper, focusing instead on skills and experience that will allow us to thrive wherever we wind up.  For me, it’s more about the freedom from adulterated foods, overreaching controls and the insanity that is our modern culture.  We wish to opt out, to chase after our own health and happiness, to define that for ourselves with dirty hands and full hearts.

The Ideal Sustainable Goat

The goats have a large role in this too; it’s not simply about being able to grow food for them.  They need to have a set of characteristics that allow them to thrive in as natural an environment as we can provide.  Some key points for us are:

  • strong, straight feet
  • parasite resistance on pasture
  • ability to kid on pasture unassisted
  • inherently good mothers
  • ease of hand milking
  • good production without excess concentrates
  • cold hardiness
  • thrifty on pasture

As some of you know, we moved from 5 acres and essentially a dry lot for the goats to this unbelievable blessing of sub-irrigated bottom land on over 9 acres.  It’s been almost 2 years now and I am getting settled in enough to dream on what to do next.

The goats, having been on mostly dry lot, had to learn how to graze.  The first winter was tougher too, but last spring found them rejuvenated and eager to attack the pasture as it came in.  2017 was the first summer my herd had ever spent grazing/browsing entirely.  I was thrilled with their sleek, glossy condition when they moved in for winter feeding.

We’re blessed with rich pasture here that lasts well into fall.  Though we added supplemental alfalfa in October, they were still grazing green grass and herbs when the snow fell in late November.

Living on Pasture

Currently, the goats winter in the big old drafty barn, spreading an enormous amount of hay waste for us to pick up and inevitably being exposed to more mud and unpleasant conditions than they would if kept up on pasture all season.  To resolve this, we’re currently building a shelter out in the upper pasture, which is mostly hilly and elevated above the wet.

The shelter will have everything they need, including a milking area for me and a dedicated kid creep.  This shelter will be adjacent to the new garden spot, so in winter, we will feed the goats and pigs in the garden area, letting their waste hay be spread as mulch without any extra effort on our part.  We fed the bucks and pigs out there this winter with great results; the first 16’x160′ stretch of our new garden is mulched thick and ready for planting.

Kidding Later

We typically kid Jan-Feb, but I am moving this to Mar-Apr and possibly later in an attempt to solve a few issues.  First, despite feeding outdoors (we fed in the barn last winter) this year, the does really took a cold snap hard and were shivering at zero degrees.  If they hadn’t already kidded, the extra bodies would have helped them stay warmer through the coldest months.

Second, the kids themselves spend more energy keeping warm and thus, not in growing.  Kids born when it’s warmer–and starting to dry up–will be healthier and less likely to develop coccidia issues, something we’ve dealt with every single year despite any efforts to change their surroundings.  This year, so far, we’re dodging it, I believe from herbal efforts I’ll write about separately.

Third, kidding in March allows me to dry off in January, avoiding milking in the two bitter cold months of the year, woohoo!  We’ve talked about staggering breedings to have milk year round, but I think it is beneficial to have periods of rest for everyone.

Kidding without Intervention

I want to write an article about this, it’s important.  I had no local mentor and learned a lot of the basics from online sources.  Unquestioningly, I have been completely involved in every kidding, hurrying to clean the sac off and help mom.  Finally, this year, I sat back and watched the process instead of actively participated and I’m convinced we’re causing harm by helping mom clean.

Additionally, we just need to have does who kid without help, who know how to do things and teach their own kids.  My goal is to have does kidding out on pasture without any need for going into a barn away from the herd.

The Diet of a Sustainable Goat Herd

This is something I’ve given a lot of thought to and spent countless hours researching.  We’ve tried various foods, gathering things like duckweed and lichens to see if the goats would eat them (no) and have refined our hopes/goals down to a few things.

First, pasture for as long as is possible.  If they’re sheltering out there, they have the benefit of getting the greens as soon as they start growing.  We are planning a massive project of reforesting the creek and putting up hedgerows around the perimeters.  Both of those things will give the goats a wider variety of foods to eat, starting earlier.

We hope to somewhat mimic nature’s rhythms, going into winter fat and flush with all of the fall harvest, which will help carry them through in good health.  In the fall, they’ll get apples from our 9 trees and, once we’re done with the garden, will be turned in there with to do fall cleanup.  We’ll grow extra squash and root crops to store away for them, but they’ll also get some when they go to the garden for fall, with the pigs.

Another exciting venture we’re beginning this year is willows.  We’re planting the old garden area to willows, which will be a dual purpose crop.  First, we plan to grow basket willows in a variety of colors.  In addition to those, we are planting some for willow hay.  You can get as much as 7 tons to the acre of willow hay by cutting the willows in late summer while they’re still green.  Basket willows are coppiced so they grow long and slender stems, a perfect size for delicate goat mouths to eat.  We plan on making this a large portion of our winter feed; we already know they love them from small trials we’ve done here.  Its high protein content is an added bonus.

Also, we have an easement through our place with about 10′ of grass growing on either side of the road.  It gets head high by July (too flooded to mow last year, turned out to be a good thing!), so we’re going to set ourselves to learning how to scythe and cut that stretch for grass hay.

Those two sources, combined with as many root crops and apples as we can put back will make up the majority of the goats’ winter feed.  Right now I don’t think that will be enough, but it’s a start and we can discover new ideas along the way.

For the milk stand ration, I am still exploring ideas but they involve a combination of home grown grains like sunflower seeds, amaranth and maybe a small patch of barley or oats.  I’ve read accounts of people going grain free on the stand by chopping up root vegetables and adding things like alfalfa pellets.  I’m all for the root veggies but alfalfa pellets won’t work for our plans, so I’ll have to figure something else out.

The milk stand ration is purely theoretical at this point and for now we’re feeding field peas, barley and sunflower seeds.  We do buy that a year at a time so in the event of an emergency, we’d have that long to figure out an alternate plan.

Medical Care for the Sustainable Goat

We already do the majority of our own vetting, but this year I’ve made the full commitment to go herbal.  If the choice is conventional or an animal’s life, we’ll obviously choose conventional, but herbal healing is a longer term vision with the ability to affect health for years, not just in an acute situation.  I’m learning all I can and have a growing supply of herbs – planting a big herb garden is on the top of my list this year.  I’m also praying for the funding to pursue a master herbalist course, which I know will happen when the time is right.

In the meantime, we are focusing this year on growing, foraging and preserving as many of our own herbs as we can.  In an alphabetical list I’m going through, I’ve gotten to the letter “e” and found that we already have about 16 of those herbs growing wild on our place.  So exciting!

I don’t have a timeline for when we will achieve this.  Funds are always short, either that or time is, so we’re going to do our best to progress toward this and as long as the momentum continues, I’ll call that a success.

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