Goats and The Law

Goats and The Law

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Do you know a good goat lawyer?  

Actually, we do.  

Brett Knight is a licensed attorney in Tennessee, a former state prosecutor who is currently in private practice as a criminal defense attorney. He is also a first-generation farmer who owns Tennessee Kiko Farm with his wife, Donna. While not criminal, farming introduced him to a different side of the law. Goat law. He isn’t likely to represent you and your goats, but he is happy to discuss the topic.  

Goats can easily get themselves — and you — in trouble. 

The first question to ask when considering goats: Is your property located in an area that will allow for the scope of your operation? 

Brett cautions that before you buy the first goat, check your state laws, local zoning, and ordinances. “Google searches — even credible lawyer sites — can be dangerous. You may be getting advice that is not specific to your state, or situation.” There are several different definitions of land “use,” as well as allowable stocking rates (animal units per acre) depending on how your area is zoned. Some areas allow goats — some areas allow goats with conditions. Know before you grow. Seasoned goat owners will attest — “goat math” is real. Not just in the multiplier of offspring – but the desire for more and more goats. “Donna and I started with two goats, thinking ‘This will be fun!’ Within three years, we had 100 goats … not counting our babies due in November …” Thankfully, their area allowed for expansion.  

Green light for goats? Slow down. There are other aspects of the law to consider. 

You will be liable for the behavior of your kids. Liability can be addressed in three ways: 1. Reasonable Measures; 2. Insurance Coverage; and 3. Business Formation. 

In the Law of Negligence, the “reasonable person standard” is the standard of care that a reasonably prudent person would observe under a given set of circumstances. (West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. 2008. The Gale Group.) Brett cautions that most decisions hinge on his standard, “The law gives you reasonable protection to act reasonably. If you don’t act reasonably, an attorney can offer little defense.” 

If you regularly post your goat escaping on social media — and establish a history of neglecting the risk — you will have little defense if there is a complaint.

What is the reasonable standard of care for a goat? 

Goats need proper facilities.  

Fencing a goat is one of the world’s oldest jokes — but no laughing matter when it comes to the law. “It is an owner’s legal duty to properly confine their goats. If you fail to do that, you can become not only civilly liable for any damage the goats may do — but in some states, like Tennessee — there is criminal liability depending on the infraction.” Reasonable measures are a goat owner’s best defense. It is prudent to build a fence that is equal to the standards in the goat-keeping community, and to maintain that fence. Any negligence on your part not only leaves a hole in your fence but a hole in your defense! If you regularly post your goat escaping on social media — and establish a history of neglecting the risk — you will have little defense if there is a complaint. 

Standards of care may vary. Depending on how your goats are viewed — as livestock or pets — by your neighbors and the zoning laws, there may be additional concerns to address in their care such as the housing required, as well as management of waste products, odor, and noise. What might be standard in a livestock operation can be interpreted as neglect in a pet situation. 

Beyond the care of the goat, if you choose to welcome visitors to your goat operation, or engage in “agritourism,” it is important to recognize that farming has inherent risk — large equipment, tools, uneven terrain, electric fences, chemicals, medication, the list is endless — and most visitors are unaware of the dangers. “Bringing people on your farm is a great thing — I don’t want to discourage that.” In fact, Brett and Donna are looking forward to having visitors on their farm. While there are agritourism laws in many states to protect farmers, they don’t protect from reckless or intentional acts — or negligence. Before inviting guests, it is imperative that you address any safety concerns. Signage can be helpful to give notice of risk: electric fence, keep out, area closed, etc., but does not completely absolve the farm host of liability for their guests. 

Offering products from your farm — meat, milk, lotions, or even crafts — may subject you to additional regulations. For food production, there are sanitation standards, licensing, labeling, and possible inspection requirements. Other products can fall under product safety regulations.  

Signs must be properly worded to be effective, and still do not excuse an owner from negligence or acting recklessly. 

There are insurance policies to cover your financial liability for accidents or injuries that may occur. Discussing in detail your operation and circumstances with an agent is critical, as is keeping your policy updated, or you may find that certain incidents are not covered. Many owners go a step further and have guests sign waivers to release them from liability. A well-drafted waiver informs the guest of the risk. While Brett is a fan of waivers, “They must be properly worded to be effective, and still do not excuse an owner from negligence or acting recklessly. Attorneys, insurance companies, and extension offices are good sources of waiver templates, but must also be familiar with the activity covered and the state and local law.”   

The third option for limiting liability is in how your business is legally defined. Most small operations fall in the category of sole proprietorship or partnership, where the owners are personally responsible for any incidents. Brett suggests that, “If you are worried that your liability risk could cause you to lose your personal assets, you might consider a business formation. You don’t have to be a big operation to get the benefits of being an LLC.” An LLC is a Limited Liability Company that separates your personal assets from your farm assets. Forming an LLC can be done online by paying a fee and completing paperwork — but you must operate like a business to be treated like a business under the law. “The #1 reason an LLC fails is that it does not act like a business. You must keep records, and cannot commingle personal and business accounts.”  

Sgt. Fitzpatrick apprehends two goats caught out past curfew. Used with permission from Sgt. Fitzpatrick/Belfast, Maine Police Department.

Beyond liability, there are other situations where a goat operation might encounter the law:  contracts, scope of practice, and prescribing. 

While verbal agreements can be binding, if you are selling, leasing, or offering breeding services for goats, it is prudent to have all business transactions in writing. Details are very important. Brett says, “You can do almost anything (that is legal) in the form of a contract if two people agree and put it in writing. A well-defined contract protects you, protects your relationship, and protects your reputation.” Having a written contract clarifies the transaction and expectations for both sides of the agreement.  

Experienced goat owners often have skills that can benefit inexperienced goat owners. While experience pays, it is not enough to merit pay when rendering services from producer to producer. Charging a fee to do procedures on another person’s animal or receiving compensation to render services can cost you. It is against the law. Many procedures that producers commonly practice on their own animals fall under the scope of Veterinary Practice by law, and require a veterinary license to perform for compensation on any animal that is not their own. Some violations are issued warnings, some fines, and some are felony charges.  

Many procedures that producers commonly practice on their own animals fall under the scope of Veterinary Practice by law, and require a veterinary license to perform for compensation on any animal that is not their own.

Offering medication and dosage recommendations for medications not labeled for goats is also prohibited. To recommend dosage or administer a drug for other than the labeled species is called extra-label prescribing and use, and can only be done legally under the advice of a licensed veterinarian with an established patient/provider relationship. To know the limits of practice and prescribing, consult your state veterinary medical association. www.amva.org 

While goats can easily get you in trouble, you can circumvent the risk by being proactive. Stay informed of your state and local laws, take measures to ensure everyone’s safety, and do what a reasonable person would do!  

Thanks to Chief Ryan Austin, of Fort Plain Police department, and his goat LEO. 

Karen Kopf and her husband Dale own Kopf Canyon Ranch in Troy, Idaho. They enjoy “goating” together and helping others goat. They raise Kikos primarily, but are experimenting with crosses for their new favorite goating experience: pack goats! You can learn more about them at Kopf Canyon Ranch on Facebook or kikogoats.org 

Originally published in the November/December 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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