How Many Goats per Acre?
How Much Pasture per Goat and How Many Acres Does a Goat Need for Sustainable Grazing?
Reading Time: 8 minutes
One of the most important decisions you make is how many goats to keep on your land. For grazing management, it is key. How many goats per acre are recommended? That is a difficult question because it depends on so many variables: goat size, breed, and stage of life, region, climate, landscape, soil quality, pasture condition, plant types, rainfall, and other weather conditions and predictability.
As you make your estimations, consider how your herd will expand, how many kids you will keep, and bear in mind worse case scenarios (poor weather, difficulty selling). Overstocking will not only hit your pocket, but will diminish the health and welfare of your animals. But when goats can meet their needs, they stay healthy and produce for longer.
Calculating Goats’ Forage Needs
Each goat needs to be able to find enough food to maintain her body weight, plus support reproduction and lactation when bred. Goats consume on average 3.5% of their body weight in dry matter per day, but more when lactating. As hay is around 85% dry matter, it works out at about 4% in dry forage. High yielding dairy goats may consume more like 4.5% of their body weight per day. For example, an average 110 lb. goat may eat 4.4 lb. of hay or dry forage a day (4% x 110), a 130 lb. Boer goat is estimated to eat 5.2 lb. per day (4% x 130), but a lactating dairy goat may eat 7.65 lb. (4.5% x 170).
You need to calculate your goat’s consumption based on their ideal weight (3.5 body score), rather than when they are under- or overweight. Goats need larger volumes of moist forage: good quality grass in temperate regions is only around 20% dry matter.
If your pasture cannot continue to supply such quantities, you can of course supplement with hay and minerals. Dairy does need additional concentrates just before birth and during lactation.
How Much Space Does a Goat Need to Graze Effectively?
Pasture provides goats with more than just feed; it allows exercise and mental stimulation. Goats naturally seek out and extract the most nutritious plant parts in difficult terrain, having evolved agile bodies, curious minds, and the urge to use their skills. A featureless barn or run leads to boredom and frustration. In the European Alps, for example, dairy goats roam around two miles over mountainous terrain seeking their favorite plants. This exercise also keeps their hooves in perfect condition. If goats do not have different pastures to explore and forage (and even if they do), they appreciate a goat playground, providing structural and browsing enrichment. This can be climbing apparatus, cut branches and brush, and any features that provide stimulation and play.
Goats need space to spread out, and to a greater extent than sheep. Lower ranking animals need to keep away from dominant individuals. They will not graze near dominants, so risk losing out on the best quality patches. To avoid competition, space feed out, so that vulnerable animals get a chance to access it. Equally, supply large enough paddocks for them to graze away from dominants. Most competition arises in herds where new goats have been introduced, as family members are a lot more tolerant.
Planning Each Acre Sustainably for Goats
There are various factors to bear in mind at the planning stage:
- Carrying capacity is the maximum number of goats the land can support long-term without loss of soil health, moisture retention, forage quality and quantity. You need to allow forage to renew after grazing, avoiding the loss of favorite species and the encroachment of less palatable plants.
- Stocking rate is the amount of land per head over the whole year. This should allow each animal to achieve adequate nutrition and avoid parasites.
- Stocking density is the space within each paddock or grazing area per head. This should allow enough personal space to avoid conflict and access to feed for all, but be small enough to encourage intake of a variety of plants, rather than just the favorites.
It is difficult to estimate these numbers for land and conditions that can be so variable. The key is to remain flexible. Start with a small herd and observe how much they eat over the year. Observe which areas they favor and which plants they leave. You should then use a rotational system to allow plants to recover before the next grazing, especially for the most heavily grazed plants. Once goats have reduced midgrass to four inches, they need to move to a new pasture to allow renewal and avoid parasites. In drier areas and taller plants, forage remaining will need to be higher. Native rangeland species support lighter grazing than introduced grasses, but they need less maintenance, if grazed carefully.
The most effective system is managed rotation of strips of grazing. Goats enter each strip for a short period of time before moving on to another. This prevents goats from continually wearing down a patch of favored plants. They would be likely to do this if left in the paddock while the plants regrow. It also encourages them to eat less favored species, so that they graze the land more evenly. However, the strip must allow goats enough space to browse peacefully.
How Much Pasture per Goat on Small Acreage?
If you only have a little land, start small and make at least four paddocks for rotation. You will need at least six weeks to pass (longer in humid climates) before returning the herd to the first pasture. Sometimes homesteaders have some land to clear of brush. Of course, goats are the ideal species for the job. However, we need to consider what the goats will eat once the brush has gone. Overgrazing depletes meadows of diverse flowering plants and bushes after a few years. Nevertheless, goats need variety, getting by on monotonous grasses as a last resort.
If you have less land than can support your goats, you will need to manage it carefully and buy in hay and supplements.
In a damp, temperate zone of France, I keep four 130 lb. dry goats on half an acre. I have to rotate four pastures to allow forage regrowth. Each paddock (around 5000 sq. ft.) gives them adequate space to wander, forage, and play. I have found that they like a base area around their barn to rest in the sun and socialize. A large tree also makes a good base. As this area erodes, it is a good idea to allow for a sacrificial area around their shelter in addition to their pastures. This area can be used as a run during seasons when there is little pasture and they are dependent on hay. Goats prefer to return to this base during the day for rest periods, so access from each paddock is ideal.
However, in my region, an acre is estimated to provide 70% of the diet for 1–3 goats (depending on forage yield). My half acre probably only provides for one goat, so I supplement with purchased meadow hay (about 10 lb. per day and twice that in winter) and browse cut from trees and brambles beyond the paddock boundaries. Together with rotation, the biodiversity of the meadows remains, although the yield is diminished compared to early years. However, when they were kidding and being milked, it was a different matter, and I needed more land.
Grazing Management: How Many Acres per Goat for Grazing and Hay?
With greater acreage, you can plan self-sufficiency. It is important to stay within the limits of your carrying capacity, so that your activity remains sustainable.
You will need to estimate how much forage your land can produce. A soil survey can help to calculate possible yield. Then, consider how much to leave for renewal: the forage residue. For most pastures, we can take 50%, giving rise to the expression: take half, leave half. Of the half you utilize, only about half will be consumed. The rest is lost to wastage, trampling, and insect damage. Your consumable amount will therefore be around a quarter of the projected annual yield of your land. This portion you divide by the needs of your animals over the year.
Stocking rates are usually calculated using an animal unit (AU). An AU is based on a 1000 lb. cow and calf consuming 26 lb. of dry forage per day. Goats vary in forage consumption according to size, type, and life stage. Estimates for goats are generally as follows:
- 110 lb. goat (eating 4.4 lb. per day) is 0.17 AU;
- 130 lb. Boer goat (5.2 lb. per day) is 0.2 AU.
This works out at 5–6 goats per AU. Your county Extension agent or National Resources Conservation Service may be able to advise you on soil surveys and typical stocking rates for your area based on acres per AU. However, you will still need to observe your goats’ land usage and adjust accordingly.
How Many Acres Does a Goat Need in Different Regions?
Average stocking rates vary widely in different states, on different soils, ranges, and climates. For example, in Iowa, one AU needs 3–5 acres, that is 1–2 goats per acre on permanent grazing. However, in Texas, rainfall is often below average. So, permanent stocking level must be much lower and forage residue higher to allow for recovery. Remember that changes in range condition can lead to considerable changes in carrying capacity. It is worth basing your stocking rates on pessimistic estimates of forage yield. In addition, monitor plant use, rotate frequently, and adjust as necessary.
- Harwood, D., 2019. The Veterinary Guide to Goat Health and Welfare. Crowood Press.
- *Lyons, R. K., Machen, R.V., Stocking Rate: The Key Grazing Management Decision. Texas A&M Agrilife Extension. See also Livestock for Small Acreage Landowners.
- NRCS Iowa. 2013. Brush Management with Goats.
- Redfearn, D.D., Bidwell, T.G. 2017. Stocking Rate: The Key to Successful Livestock Production. Oklahoma OSU Extension.
Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.