Pasture Management for Goats
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by Dorothy Rieke Goats are browsers; they are not grazers. Preferring variety in what they eat, pasture management is a must as goats are contented to eat different kinds of bushes, weeds, flowers, trees, and some grass. It seems that goats do better with this variety in their diets. They produce more milk, experience better health, and avoid diseases that often plague domesticated goats kept in pens.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PASTURE
Good pastures are necessary for goats. They provide forage for goats, absorb rainfall, filter runoff, and reduce erosion. Poor pasture management with overgrazing causes bare spots, weed growth, runoff, increased erosion, and dust. Poor goat management will result in animals grazing all year in the same areas, creating a single large, weedy pasture and animals having access to ditches and large areas of bare ground.
PASTURE MANAGEMENT PRACTICES
Good pasture management will ensure several lush areas with few weeds, with animals fenced away from ditches and streams. Areas of bare soil will not be present.
One good idea is to take inventory of pasture areas on your farm or ranch. Check for kinds of grass species currently in the areas, look for bare areas with no grass, identify the weeds growing in the pastures, any particular species present? Also, look for areas that may need to be fenced off, such as deep ditches, ponds, or streams.
SACRIFICE AREAS WORK WELL TO PRESERVE SOIL
Keep a “sacrifice” area in mind. These are used during wet winter months when wet soils are saturated and the grass growth is minimal. If animals roam across this wet soil, the traffic will cause compaction that works against grass growth. So, a small area is sacrificed to save the other pastureland.
Most goat owners will recommend pasture rotation which illustrates “graze the best, leave the rest.” Rotational grazing disrupts the life cycle of pathogens. Animals kept in the same pasture for too long will infest themselves with parasites lurking in the soil. Of course, the parasites cannot hash without a host. With rotational grazing, the herd moves, so the pathogens die off.
Rotational grazing creates healthier plants because the plants have an opportunity to rest and then continue growth. Another advantage of rotational grazing is that the goats become more contented. Truthfully, rotational grazing follows nature’s pattern providing fresh ground and thus fresh contentment for the animals.
One producer raised wheat and corn and let his goats into the wheat fields after harvest for two to three weeks. Then, he let the goats into corn stalks for the same amount of time. At this time, he kept moving them back and forth. Finally, he moved his goats into a pasture planted with alfalfa and pasture mix. Later, he moved them into another area for several weeks. This is how he fed his goats a variety of food and saved his pastures through rotation. The alfalfa was grown for the goats; the wheat and corn harvest were for the farm. However, the goats were able to benefit from those harvested areas.
GRAZING TOO LONG IN ONE AREA CAUSES CONCERN
Another thought here is that goats often return to the same area where favored plants grow. When they do this, the sites could become heavily infected with gastrointestinal parasite larvae. Wood lots with hot, humid environmental conditions are good places for the gastrointestinal parasite to flourish. However, goats do not consume forage close to the ground where this larva is present. The goat may also eat plants with high tannin concentrations, reducing fecal egg counts and possible gastrointestinal parasite larvae numbers. Of course, understand that good nutrition for the goats will aid the immune response to fight parasites.
CONTROLLED GRAZING WINS APPLAUSE
With controlled grazing, the goats are allowed to graze in certain areas for a short time; then, they move. These areas have plants that are six to eight inches tall. Smaller areas are more evenly grazed. Any surplus growth can be harvested as hay. With hay harvest, the leaves use the energy from the sun through photosynthesis to grow back without using all root reserves. Without rest periods, goats can kill the field contents through grazing too long in one place. Controlled grazing improves pastures, extends the grazing season, and provides a higher quality forage at lower costs.
Controlled grazing is the way to go with goats. Legumes and native grasses may reappear in the pasture with more diverse content. It also, as mentioned, often controls parasite problems.
Once the pasture plants are grazed to four inches, producers must move the goats to another pasture. Then, it is time for another action that will result in moving even grass growth species. Mowing also will result in more leaves and fewer stems, providing a more enticing blend that is thicker and hardy. It also prevents certain weeds such as thistles from going to seed. This reduces weeds that may appear later. Also, goats like eating pasture that is short because that is more palatable for them.
Another preventive action is harrowing the pasture because this breaks up the manure and evenly distributes the nutrients in the manure. This helps control parasites and insects such as flies that lay eggs in fresh manure. Breaking up those piles exposes the larvae to sunlight, killing them.
Strip grazing is another valuable practice in sustainability and yet providing food for goats. Large paddocks are separated into smaller areas, generally with electric fences placed ahead and behind the goats. Goats do not graze well without strip grazing. This type of grazing manages the goats’ grazing actions.
STRIP GRAZING WORKS WELL
Goats on strip grazing can be expected to have a high daily gain and improved body condition because the pasture will be vegetative and of good quality. They will not be eating soiled forage. Often suggestions for strip grazing are stockpiling fescue during late fall and early winter months.
Some producers have experienced better conditions with their goats during controlled grazing. Some mentioned that goats profit from human contact as they work with the fences, water tanks, and mineral troughs. They have also noticed that plants during controlled grazing will persist longer and yield better.
Moving the goats means that there is less trampling of plants and soil. Manure is more evenly distributed. Overall, producers notice better contact with the goats as they are with them more frequently. The pasture also benefits as it is evaluated with productivity in mind.
As with any venture, there are costs involved with controlled grazing. However, looking at the benefits, the costs seem to be minor compared to the advantages for the land, the goats, and the producer. Because it provides the most nutritious forage for growth and development, it is a win-win practice.
Originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.