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Silly Billies

Goats as pets is a growing trend. People get them for a lot of reasons like milk, entertainment, companionship, or keeping some of the weeds trimmed. But they are also a lot of work.

Donna Leahey
Monty Pellti, Jana Bullis and Jennifer Zehnder
December 29, 2017

Have you seen that video of the baby goats jumping all over their guard dog? Or the one of the goats singing along to pop songs? Or the baby goats in pajamas? With just a little Googling, you can find videos of goat yoga and even one starring in a Dorito’scommercial.

Jennifer Zehnder of Zehn Nubians says, “Caprines are the new social media and marketing ‘it’ animal.”

Goats, also known as caprines, are enjoying a surge of popularity driven in part by their meme and GIF-ready faces, playful natures, and energetic bounding about.

Other reasons people love goats include their nutritious milk, companionship, and even keeping the weeds in check. “As more folks gravitate toward a farm/homesteading lifestyle for their families, why not add goats? After all, they are a gateway animal into full farm life,” Zehnder says.

Zehnder raises purebred Nubian goats, a popular dairy breed. “My dairy goats are companions, co-workers, entertainers, stress relievers and sometimes stress producers,” she says. “They are sources of pride, milk, cheese, sales, and so very many goat tales. They are my connection to a grounded way of life that is chock full of hard, yet rewarding, labor and a network of good folks who are equally afflicted/enchanted by these demanding little beasts.”

Goats are a lot of work, but they can be pretty rewarding too. (Photo: Jennifer Zehnder)
Goats are a lot of work, but they can be pretty rewarding too. (Photo: Jana Bullis)

One of the reasons for the popularity of goats is how adorable the babies, known as kids, can be, prancing about with their tiny hooves, running, jumping, and climbing. One of Zehnder’s kids became briefly Facebook famous earlier this year.

“I often sell my kids out of state. This year, my last kid was bound for a Minnesota 4Her when his ground transport was delayed and rerouted,” she says. “His trip lasted several days longer than planned, but his cheerful little personality became a popular topic on Facebook as the transporter posted video updates and bragged on his favorite roadie.”

If you’re thinking of jumping on the goat-trend bandwagon, Zehnder has some advice for caprine newbies. She suggests setting realistic goals for what you expect from your goats and make sure you have the resources. “Time, capital, work ethic, penchant for learning, buy-in from family members who might need to assist with and tolerate your new habit, a respected goat mentor, and goat-savvy vet,” she says.

She also suggests starting small and slow until you’ve mastered proper care and management. Don’t rush into breeding or raising bottle kids until you’re sure you know what you’re in for and are ready for the commitment.

When it comes to veterinary care, call around to find a vet who’s comfortable with small ruminants like goats. Large animal vets will be more appropriate than those who see mostly dogs and cats, because goats are much more closely related to cattle. And find your vet before you have an emergency; you don’t want to be trying to track down a goat-friendly practitioner at 2 a.m. when your prize doe is having trouble giving birth.

Zehnder’s mentor is Jana Bullis of Old Path Homestead. As much as she loves her goats — Nubians, Lamanchas, and recorded-grade goats — she does warn that you need to watch out for your landscaping. “Goats will destroy trees and other valuable landscape elements like flower beds, decorative hedges, etc.,” Bullis cautions. You should also be aware that they can be very loud, and male goats, known as bucks, have a very potent smell during their breeding season, which is called rut.

When it comes to knowing what kind of goats to start with, Bullis says, “There are advantages and disadvantages to almost all of them. Miniature breeds will require less feed and smaller housing and space overall but can have difficulty kidding, as well as smaller teats and less volume for milking. Standard breeds are good producers and easier to milk but require more space. Some of the docile breeds that are very productive include Saanen and Oberhasli. Alpines are known for long, productive lactations but tend to be on the aggressive side. Nubians are very popular but loud. They provide a good choice for a dual-purpose goat with high butterfat; however, they don’t produce as much milk as the Swiss breeds.”

Once you’ve settled into your new lifestyle as a goat owner, you get to enjoy the benefits of goat milk, goat cheese, even goat milk ice cream, as well as the fun of watching the kids play and maybe creating the next viral goat video. Many goat owners enjoy taking their animals to shows, like those put on by your local 4H clubs, as well as breeding and selling the kids.

“It’s not all goat yoga and kids in pajamas, but it should be,” Zehnder says. “Goats are a lot of work, but they can be pretty rewarding too. There’s nothing better than watching your kids grow up and go on to be productive caprine citizens, from homestead milkers to weekend show warriors.”

Doing It for the Kids

Before you consider getting a goat, it's important to know how to keep them healthy and happy.

Are there any laws I should know about before I bring home that pygmy goat?
Talk to your local animal control officer, since every city and county will have different laws about livestock. Some will allow a limited number in the city limits, while others don’t allow livestock at all.

How much room do I need for goats?
Depending on the quality of the land and the grazing, 1 acre of land can support a half dozen. This does vary, though. If the quality of the land is poor, it may be barely enough for two goats. If it’s high quality, you might be able to house eight. In a barn, plan on 10 to 15 square feet of space pergoat.

What kind of veterinary care do goats need?
Goats need vaccines just like people and other pets, and will need to be dewormed. Regular vet visits should take care of that. Husbandry is very important, so you should talk to your vet about vitamins and minerals, hay, grain, and water. Sometimes they will have trouble kidding [giving birth], so it’s a good idea to have an established relationship with a veterinarian before you start breeding.

You’ve probably heard that goats will eat anything, but that’s not really true. (Photo: Jennifer Zehnder)
You’ve probably heard that goats will eat anything, but that’s not really true. (Photo: Jennifer Zehnder)

Goats are small ruminants. What does that mean?
Ruminants are mammals like cattle, deer, and sheep with a special chambered stomach that allows them to break down and digest plant material that is too tough for monogastric systems like humans, dogs, and cats have. Ruminants ferment plant matter in their foregut, then chew it as a cud to break it down further before it moves on into the other chambers of the stomach. Goats and sheep are “small” ruminants because they’re not as big as cattle.

Can goats be housebroken?
Goats are not good indoor pets. Ruminants in general poop when the need strikes and don’t particularly care where they are when that happens. You could possibly, with diligence and care, train a goat to eliminate in a particular spot, but you and they will probably be happier if you let your goats live outdoors.

What do goats eat?
You’ve probably heard that goats will eat anything, but that’s not really true. Goats will sample almost anything they encounter to see if they want to eat it, but they can be pretty picky about what they actually eat. You’ll want hay on hand, with alfalfa being a good choice for a little extra protein. When there’s no fresh grazing, they’ll have to have that hay. There are grains, sweet feed, and supplements that you should discuss with your vet.

How often do dairy goats need to be milked?
Twice a day. Every day. There’s no day off for Thanksgiving or Christmas, no spring break, no summer vacation. Twice a day. Every day. This is a commitment you need to be ready to make if you’re going to raise dairy goats.

Why would I choose goats over cows?
There are two reasons you might prefer goats. The first is space. The same acre that could feed several goats will barely be enough for one cow. So, if you’ve got limited space, goats are definitely the better option. Another reason is the milk. Goat milk has less sugar, but more calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, and protein than milk from a cow.

What are some of the costs?
Acquiring quality stock is an investment, and not one you should try to bargain hunt on. The goats will need health testing, another veterinary expense. You’ll want good fencing, because your stock will need to be separated. There’s an investment in equipment to be considered as well, including milk machine, tattoo kit, clippers, milk stand, and trailers.