Herbal Dewormers: Do They Work?
Is deworming goats naturally a wise practice?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like worms in my goats. If it were up to me, I’d irradicate every single parasite known to goats in one fell swoop. And I’m not alone. However, our ability to effectively deworm our goat herds and other livestock has dramatically diminished over time due to the rise in anthelmintic resistant parasites across practically every agricultural industry. And in the goat world, resistant barber poles, coccidia, and other devastating GI parasites are no exception. Many seek solutions in one area that grows straight from the ground — herbs. But do they work?
Marketed as “herbal” or “natural,” various herbs, seeds, and even bark are blended to create a natural alternative to conventional dewormers. Ingredients commonly found in these products and many DIY recipes include garlic, wormwood, chicory, and pumpkin. Readily available and relatively inexpensive, herbal deworming products are currently used in backyard goat pens, every type of homestead, and on full-scale farms of all sizes. Why? Because many believe the herbs work. Animals are healthier. Animal loss to parasites was reduced to nil. Synthetic dewormers were tossed out. Who wouldn’t agree?
Some would say science disagrees, and absent are the widespread studies confirming that these herbals work. Instead, we’re left with very few relatively small studies featuring inconsistent results. These inconsistencies may be caused by many factors, including study size, location, length of study, and more. However, it takes only a quick read through the American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Control’s (ACSRPC) wormx.info site to see the debate is valid and open for discussion for anyone seeking answers.
So, what do farmers, homesteaders, and all types of sustainable living folks do? We experiment. After all, we already live life a little differently than the mainstream, so why would deworming our goats be any different? I am no exception.
My own journey toward herbals and other natural dewormers began many years ago with horses. I had a mare who was a nightmare to give a paste to, and I didn’t like that fight. After much research and experimenting with various parasite control methods, I found a solution that kept my horses’ fecal egg counts so low that two different vets in two other states told me to keep doing what I was doing.
Then we added goats to the farm. Those goats came from three different farms. I lost one to coccidia in less than two weeks despite the original farmer, myself, and even my veterinarian treating for coccidia. A month later, the remaining does’ FEC were even higher than when purchased despite using a dewormer upon purchase. It was then that I realized I had to treat them the same as I treated the horses — go natural. One year later, each does’ FEC showed low counts that needed no treatment, even after kidding. Three years later, all does are still thriving with zero chemical dewormers.
What did I do?
I did what the science does say — used other integrated pest management practices in conjunction with herbals. Again, this is partly anecdotal. However, in nearly all the stories regarding the success of herbals, there are abundant other measures taken to assist in managing parasite loads.
While this article isn’t the place to cover these other IPM practices in detail, they need to be addressed as they appear to work together to create that healthy environment we all seek for our livestock. My little farm thrives with these practices, and science supports IPM in countless studies, with current studies showing consistent results in favor of IPM in every location.
We incorporate very low stock rates of all species on our farm, which allows for lower loads of infective larvae across the entire pasture. When I allowed one species — chickens — to become overstocked, I immediately ran into issues. We’d anticipated higher predator losses that year due to free-ranging, but for whatever reason, the predators didn’t take our hens that year. So those extra 30 hens became a source of disease and parasite overload. It’s been two years since culling that flock down, and even now, with only eight little hens to my name, I still have odor issues during wet weather. I have healthy hens but I still battle bad soil in the chicken yard. Lesson learned the hard way.
However, low stock rates are not the only IPM we utilize. We listen to the advice of browse over forage for goats by placing pens around browse and moving fencing as needed when browse or forage needs to recover. Our hens also do double duty by scouring both equine and goat manure for yummy larvae, and that further reduces infective larvae on pasture for both species. Species rotation is another practice as equines, goats, and chickens do not share the same parasites, thus breaking the parasites’ life cycle over time.
A legume to consider
In addition to the aforementioned pasture management practices, our farm also has one other weapon at its disposal that is accredited with significantly reducing parasite loads in study after study — sericea lespedeza. While technically not an herb but rather a legume, this tannin-rich, drought-tolerant weed is commonly seen in native grass pastures throughout much of the south and other regions. Even better, studies consistently conclude that effective parasite control is also exhibited in the form of hay and pellets, making lespedeza a viable option for many goat owners regardless of location.
Are these practices all I do to manage the parasites on our farm? No, most certainly not. Our goats also receive copper oxide wire particles (COWP), fresh changes of water, exceptional nutrition to maintain healthy immune systems, clean bedding, good ventilation, and much more. These additional aspects of any farm management practice make so much of the stories anecdotal because there is no way to determine which part of the system is doing the majority of the parasite reduction. Take one practice out, and the entire farm may collapse from parasite overload.
But then again, maybe it takes every aspect to maintain the parasite load on our farm. Your farm may not need all of the same practices. In the absence of consistent studies, this is why we experiment. So be sure to maintain those FEC and confer with your vet while making the switch. Over time, you will likely find a solution that works for your situation, and then you’ll be sharing the anecdotes.
Originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.