Managing Vegetation with Goats
Updated: Mar 9
We recently welcomed two Nigerian dwarf goats to Apple Acres Farm – Niko and Nibler. Like all animals on the farm, these two little buddies are here to work… and to be as cute as possible while they do it! We are very intentional about which animals we raise and do our best to productively harness their natural behaviors. When done right, this results in less work for us while improving the health, happiness, and productivity of our animals and land.
When we moved to the farm in 2018 I quickly decided we needed goats to help us manage vegetation in certain areas. Originally we’d considered dairy goats… then I learned about what’s involved in keeping dairy goats. After doing more research I decided wethers (castrated males) would be a better fit. There were several reasons for this.
The main deciding factor between dairy goats (does) and wethers was that the latter don’t need a special diet and can live entirely off of foraging when given access to diverse browse (along with clean water and free-choice minerals). As regenerative farmers we are trying to look for additional ways to minimize the inputs required to operate our farm. Therefore, being able to feed our goats directly off the land for the majority of the year aligned well with our goals.
For those not familiar with goats, they browse on trees, forbs, and grasses. They will not mow the lawn – that would be sheep. Our wethers will require hay over the winter (supplemented with non-treated Christmas trees!) but we are excited to have animals that can feed themselves during the growing season. Plus their manure will help in our ongoing efforts to build healthy soils and grow nutritiously dense (and delicious) produce. Win-win!
Another significant reason against dairy goats is that you have to have kids (baby goats) every year to keep the does in milk. No kids, no milk. That means impregnating the does each year, which requires a billy goat (which we don’t want) and then the birthing of kids (which should go smoothly but won’t 100% of the time). Then there is the twice a day milking, the special diet since they are production animals, and the fear of them injuring their utters in rough terrain.
Ultimately, we wanted goats for vegetation management first and foremost, so wethers it was!
Using Goats to Manage Less Desirable Vegetation
We actively cultivate only about two out of 14 acres. The remaining 12 acres are either beautiful old(ish) growth forest or old pasture land and apple orchard gradually reverting back to forest. I enjoy the variety of microclimates and ecosystem types we have around the farm but we are limited to a few narrow ridges of flat(ish) and open land for growing food.
In some of these flat ridge areas we are planting select trees for silvopasture (the integration of trees with foraging animals). One example is near the apiary and goat pen where we have planted a black walnut guild (i.e., plant community) to provide future shade and forage for the goats and chickens, medicinal herbs, and open space thanks to a chemical (juglone) produced by the walnut’s roots that will deter other trees from establishing in that area. For those interested, this guild includes one black walnut in the center, two mulberry trees, hazelnuts, horseradish, and various wildflowers, herbs, and grasses.
In the open areas that are suitable for food cultivation, we have desirable and less desirable vegetation establishing. I prefer to think about vegetation not as native or invasive because plant communities are not static and our changing climate will continue to shift existing plant communities. Without knowing what exactly will be best suited to our future (unknown) climate, I am not one to blindly dislike something just because it is an early succession plant that competes well in previously disturbed soils – which is what most “invasive” plants are. Goats also enjoy eating many of these less desirable plants (thorns, prickers, and all!).
I try to focus instead on identifying the value of existing vegetation for wildlife and pollinators, our livestock, our food supply, and/or medicinal uses. Autumn olive is a great example of a beneficial “joyful grower”. Most people consider it to be an undesirable species but pollinators love the early summer blossoms, our chickens and local wildlife value the nutritious late fall berries (we also eat them!), and these plants fix nitrogen which is valuable to nearby plants in the poor soils that autumn olive tend to thrive in. That being said, I don’t need as much autumn olive as we currently have.
Luckily, that’s where goats come in!
Goats do not eat everything (including tin cans) but they are curious and explore the world with their mouths. They also are cautious, especially if they are not shown how to browse by their mothers.
For the first 9 weeks of our goats lives, they were raised primarily on hay in an enclosed pen with an outdoor area. This limited experience foraging means they need to learn what is edible and tasty to eat. I am helping them to expand their palettes and specifically trying to introduce the vegetation that we want them to focus on (spotted knapweed, thistle, buckthorn, autumn olive, etc.).
We set up their sleeping pen in an area that has a mix of autumn olive, forbs, and grasses. They spent the first several days settling in and exploring the new vegetation. Each day they try new plants – some they take an immediate liking to (spotted knapweed, serviceberry), whereas others we are hoping they will eventually warm up to (thistle, buckthorn, autumn olive).
We don’t want the goats to finish off all the food in their sleeping pen since there will be times that we cannot have them out foraging. We also needed to train them to the portable electric fence, which we will setup to allow them to safely forage in designated spots around the farm. We have a variety of predators so the electric fence is meant to keep the goats safe.
To start with, we have set up the electric fence adjacent to their pen to provide an expanded foraging area within sight and connected to their sleeping pen (the sleeping hut was a safe space they liked to run into the first week). We will move the fencing around as they eat more vegetation to keep them from getting bored as well as to spread out their poop. This not only saves us time managing manure, it also keeps them healthier by minimizing their exposure to parasites.
The next step is to train them to wear a harness and walk on a leash. Once they are leash trained we will be able to start foraging in different areas. I’m also excited about the idea of walking with our goats. There are areas that we don’t want the goats to heavily browse so it would be nice to be able to have them visit and lightly browse these areas (while under supervision).
Niko and Nibler could live as long as 11 to 16 years so initially we have been spending a lot of time to socialize them. While they are working animals, they are also our outdoor pets! I often find myself walking down with my morning tea to simply hang out. I’m also looking forward to building some goat playscapes using scrap lumber we have from past projects!
Winters will be more challenging as one would expect. Unlike the summer, we will need to haul water (via sled) down to their future barn, keep the water from freezing, store hay, muck out the deep bedding each spring, etc. But so far it’s been a lot of fun to get to know them and watch them expand their browsing capabilities.
Unlike when we had pigs, goats require very little work other than making sure they have clean water each day, periodically refilling their mineral dish, and changing out the bedding in their sleeping hut. As long as we continue to give them access to a variety of diverse browse they just do their thing each day.