What Do Goats Do Naturally? 7 Goat-Friendly Barn Essentials
Providing Safe, Natural Fun for Goats: Climbing, Hiding, Foraging, and Exploring
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Goats need more than just food, water, and healthcare. They have active minds and bodies honed by their long evolution in mountainous terrain, which results in certain behavioral needs. But, what do goats do naturally when left to roam free range? AgResearch, a New Zealand crown research institution specializing in sustainable agriculture, has an animal welfare team assigned to study how goats behave in their natural environment and what makes them content. Gosia Zobel and her team logged the activities of dairy goats free-ranging in an alpine setting. They also sought out studies of goats in the wild. They applied the information that they gleaned into building structures within the housing of the research center’s Saanen goats. Based on these principles, Zobel also provides enrichment to her own goats’ enclosure at home.
What Do Goats Do Free Range in Mountains?
The team recorded the activity of 20 milking does within a herd of approximately 100 head roaming freely in the Swiss Alps. They found that the does followed similar activity patterns, walking about two miles a day up and down the mountainside. Goats spent half the morning lying out in the sun, often on rocky surfaces. In the afternoon, they frequently sought out shade, often under rocky ledges or in caves. They spent more time browsing the slopes in the evening.
These activities were similar to those observed in feral herds in several studies. So what do goats do in the wild? Considering various sources, particular uses of the environment stand out:
- climbing rocks;
- sunbathing and resting on rocks;
- resting in caves and secluded spots in the shade;
- traveling widely to browse a variety of plant species; and
- forming cliques with specific individuals.
We can adapt our farmyard environments to allow such choices.
Providing Activity Choice within Enclosures
The researchers tested some ideas on housed goats. They found that even mature lactating does used platforms to climb onto or hide under, even though the individual goats varied in how they used the structures.
In addition, goats preferred using feeders situated above their heads with a step for their front hooves. They also favored feeders at eye level over those at floor level.
Experimental feed bunks: The elevated feeder was preferred. Goats also favored head-level feeders. The floor-level feeder was least favored. Photo credit: Neave, H.W., von Keyserlingk, M.A., Weary, D.M., and Zobel, G., 2018. Feed intake and behavior of dairy goats when offered an elevated feed bunk. Journal of Dairy Science, 101(4), 3303–3310.
For resting surfaces, goats preferred rubber mats and plastic slats, while preferring to use wood shavings as their latrine. One option the research team did not evaluate was hard abrasive surfaces, and Zobel admits that after seeing the goats in the Swiss Alps, she wishes they had included rocks or concrete.
From her own work, and that of other researchers around the world it is clear that goats have their individual preferences, and they need the facility to choose. Zobel explains, “… the name of the game for us is always choice. Some goats actively climb, while others actually choose to hide away. So we ensure the environment gives opportunity for both.”
In their report, Zobel and her team identified several features that would allow goats within commercial housing to follow their natural inclinations. These simple steps would improve goat welfare in any system where goats are not able to roam freely.
1. Raised Areas
Goats use rocks to climb up to safety and to look out for danger. High points make a secure place for rest and play. Even if goats have predator-proof runs, they still feel this need to stay safe. So, they will be comforted by having places they can rest up at height. We can emulate this feature by adding platforms and cable spools to housing and playgrounds. My own goats favor wooden platforms constructed using used pallets. Platforms also help goats to escape from aggressive companions, a very real threat in a confined space.
2. Hard, Dry Surfaces
Foot health needs dictate that goats’ flooring stays dry to avoid scald and rot. Hooves grow quickly, because they are adapted to climbing several miles a day over rough rock faces. Such activity wears hooves down. A pile of rocks makes an ideal playground for exercise, stimulation, and hoof health. Zobel has added asphalt roofing tiles to her goats’ cable spools to give them a rough surface to jump upon. Her goats also love lying out on the hard surface, reflecting the behavior of the Swiss goats and those at the research center.
3. Hiding Places
Caves provide not only shade and weather protection, but also the safety of a hiding place. Within the goat barn, goats may not need to hide from the weather or predators, but they still like to get a little privacy. Subordinate goats can hide away from alphas and bullies, who are appeased by not having other goats in their sights. This can reduce fighting and social stress within close quarters. Platforms can perform several functions: a raised area with a hard, dry surface on top and a hiding place below.
4. Varied Forage
Goats browse a wide variety of plants for optimal nutrition, and the foraging activity this requires takes time and stimulates the mind. When we dispense a uniform ration and monoculture fodder, we take away goats’ main daily occupation. This readily results in boredom. In fact, varied pastures are better for health and production. Goats have shown they can balance their own diets at range, imparting a better flavor and nutrient profile to their products.**
If goats cannot range at will, interesting plants can be brought to them. They adore branches from leaves and bushes. When talking about her own goats, Zobel gives an example: “We collect downed trees (particularly poplar, plane, willow, Japanese cedar, etc.) and put [branches] upright in the fence: they avoid the leaves once they have touched the ground!”
Goats also seek out food in various ways and favor a “browsing posture” reaching up above their heads with their front hooves on a raised support. So providing a choice of racks at different heights and locations can be rewarding, and help reduce aggression.
5. Mental Stimulation
Goats show complex intelligence in cognition tests, but such sharp minds need stimulation. Goats are very adept at extracting nutrition in many ingenious ways with their mobile lips and tongues. This could explain why they are so good at tinkering with things that get them into trouble. Alternative activities that engage their desire to explore and experiment help to pass the time and keep them content. Varied toys and playground activities exercise both the mind and the body.
6. Social Stability
Goats naturally like to hang out in groups of roughly twelve well-known companions. Those companions are not random but personally selected by each goat. They are normally family members or long-term friends. In a large herd, goats need the ability to draw away from the main herd into private groups. Maintaining a low stocking density and increasing space allows them to do this. Platforms increase indoor floor-space and partitions allow goats to move off into separate areas. We should also consider goats’ social bonds when dividing the herd.
7. Horns Are Important to Goats
Horns have important functions for goats. They serve as status signals in a hierarchical society. Goats use them to warn others more than for actual fighting. They also use them to dissipate heat and scratch themselves. They enjoy thrashing vegetation to relieve tension. Consequently, we must think carefully before removing them as to whether it is really necessary. We can adapt housing for horned goats by providing wider avoidance space around feeders and by including such features as platforms and partitions. Humans too need to careful around horned animals. Indeed, we may need to take extra precautions or adjust their handling technique to avoid inadvertent injury.
Complexity and Choice
What do goats do when they have the choice? They climb, forage, rest, hide, and socialize with preferred companions. They cannot do these things in a barren pen. In summary, we can see that goats need:
- a complex environment to occupy their active minds;
- options to express their varying preferences;
- a variety of forage;
- long-term relationships;
- the choice to remain in groups or seek privacy; and
- structures for exercise, rest, and a sense of security.
These are all things that we can provide, even within limited space. In this way, we allow goats do what goats do naturally in a safe and comfortable environment.
References: *Zobel, G., Neave, H.W., and Webster, J., 2019. Understanding natural behavior to improve dairy goat (Capra hircus) management systems. Translational Animal Science, 3(1), 212–224.
**Rubino, R., Pizzillo, M., Claps, S., and Boyazoglu, J. 2011. In: Fuquay J., McSweeney, P., and Fox, P. Encyclopedia of Dairy Sciences. Academic Press. 59–66.
***Zobel, G., Freeman, H., Schneider, D., Henderson, H., Johnstone, P., and Webster, J., 2018. Behaviour of dairy goats managed in a natural alpine environment. Poster: 52nd Congress of the ISAE.
Originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.