Grazing Goats

Goats evolved in the high, dry mountains of Asia. Here, they had to adapt to the rigorous conditions of climate, range and available forage. Goats are perhaps the most versatile of the grazing ruminants; able to efficiently utilize almost any type of plant. They are highly selective preferring woody browse and flowering forbs to grass and clover. Goats were indeed Man’s first domestic ruminant. But goats have gotten a bad reputation over the years. The most common mental pictures many ranchers have is (1) a goat standing on the hood of their new pickup or (2) a herd of goats led by their bellwether and herded by an underfed, dark-skinned boy. The surrounding landscape is always dry and invariably barren. The truth is that goats need to be managed just like any other domesticated animal. True, goats can survive in all but barren country and are the domestic animal of choice in Third World countries. This is because goats are the most efficient converters of energy into useful products; milk and meat for eating, fiber and hides for clothing and shelter. They thrive on range that is unsuited to other domestic animals. However, goats can also be used on range that is suitable for cattle or sheep for the following reasons:

One: Goats enable economic diversification
Two: Goats allow range utilization & diversification
Three: Goats reclaim weedy pastures
Four: Goats can generate income
Economic diversity stems from the fact that goats provide three separate sources of income; meat, fiber and biological weed control. Income from weed control is not direct on your own place, but it can be if you lease your herd to your neighbor to eat his weeds.

Diversity in range utilization stems from the fact that goats prefer the tree, shrub and forb strata to the available grasses. For those with inaccessible range, goats mean more effective and efficient utilization of that range because goats prefer high ground.

For those with weed infested meadows and bottomlands, goats mean effective and efficient control of those weed populations. A cattle rancher running goats will eventually improve the range, eliminating the forb and shrub strata. When goats get to the point of directly competing with the cattle for available grasses, it should be the economics of the industry that decides stocking percentages; how many cattle, sheep and/or goats to carry to maximize income. In the past, the cultural bias we Americans have against goats has interfered with our ability to make rational decisions regarding range utilization. It’s time that we stopped. It’s time to understand the facts and leave our prejudices behind.

Goats have been a fixture on arid rangeland throughout the world for a long time and compare favorably with cattle and sheep. There has been a lot of research in Texas and Oklahoma about brush control and range utilization. In fact, according to Dr. Charles Taylor at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in Sonora, running goats with cattle or sheep on arid range will actually increase the overall efficiency of available plant use. Studies in New Zealand have shown that goats can increase weight gain in the cattle herds by improving their diets arid balancing their numbers with the overall carrying capacity of the land. Cattle ranchers in the arid American West need to understand why in order to be convinced that running goats is a good idea.

The definition of carrying capacity and the calculated allocation of diversified livestock to the available resource is the key to efficient and cost effective range utilization. Carrying capacity, the number of animal unit months (AUMS) that a property will carry on a year round basis and range composition, the relative percentages of grass, forb, brush and tree cover, are calculated by the Soil Conservation Service and other professionals all over the West. One cow/calf unit or AUM, based on the consumption of 26 pounds of forage per day, is equal to 6 doe/kids unit. Let’s assume that you live in an arid area that receives 1 0 – 1 5 inches of rain annually, riot unlike Sonora, Texas where this study was done. Let’s also assume that you have a carrying capacity of one cow/calf unit per 20 acres. You have a total of 1,000 acres and a brush cover of 30%. That brush is not normally used by cattle and produces about 200 lb. of useable forage/acre/year. You now run 50 head of cattle. By stocking just enough goats to use the brush and only some of the grass, you could run 40 cows and 140 goats, or 63 AUMS, a net increase of 13 AUMS. It is possible for 6 head (1 AUM) of goats to produce income comparable to that of a single cow. The goats will eat the brush as well as some grass and eventually, the brush strata will die out. Then you will need to adjust the number of AUMs recommended for a pure grass range.

Let’s work through another example, this time on the neighbor’s 1,000 acres which has less brush and better range. His carrying capacity is 1 2 acres/AUM with a brush cover of 20%, and he normally runs 83 cows. If he wishes to use the 100 pounds of available forage/per acre/year that the brush is producing, he would cut back the number of cows to 70 and add 100 goats, running a total of 87 AUMS. The extra income produced by the 1 7 additional AUMs would continue until the brush is exhausted.

In a cattle rancher’s mind, the first question has got to be “Will goats really eat forbs and browse before grass?’ followed closely by ‘Why?” The heart of the answer lies in the anatomy of the goat. Goats have an advantage over cattle and sheep because of their digestive system. All are ruminants, meaning that it is bacteria in the rumen that does the digesting before the forage passes to the true stomach or abomasum. In this way, all ruminants convert otherwise indigestible carbohydrates and unusable proteins into nutrients. The feeding habits of animals, or diet, is determined by several factors and herbivores can be classified into three types:

  • Concentrate Selectors
  • Grass and Roughage Eaters
  • Intermediate Feeders
  • All ruminants fall into one of these categories. Deer are concentrate selectors. They forage over wide areas selecting the most nutritious and delicious seed heads and buds which tend to concentrate the available and necessary nutrients. Cattle are grass and roughage feeders. They depend upon a broad-sided approach to the problem of maintenance, ie: eat as much as you can as fast as you can and with luck, you’ll get enough to survive. Goats and sheep are intermediate, or opportunistic, feeders. This means that they eat a little of everything, selecting those things which they prefer if they are at hand, and alternatively eating whatever is out there. They depend upon their efficient digestive tracts to derive the necessary nutrients for survival.

    All ruminants eat what they eat because that is how they evolved. Each occupies its own niche, minimizing competition with larger species and maximizing the available forage. Goats probably evolved in the mountains so as not to compete with the large grass eaters on the plains, and by removing themselves to the mountains, adapted to the available forage.

    To understand the beauty of a goat’s belly, one must understand rumination and plant structure. Plants are composed of cell contents and cell walls. Cell contents are easily digested but the cell walls, composed of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, are more difficult. An immature plant has a greater cell content/cell wall ratio. Mature plants have more cellulose and that can restrict the passage of food through the digestive tract. Too much fiber can clog the system and prevent the consumption of the amount of forage needed to meet the nutritional requirements of the animal. This is because the cellulose is held in the rumen awaiting remastication, or chewing cud, and the eventual digestion by the rumen flora. Because mature grasses are generally higher in cellulose than immature, animals that evolved on the grassy plains must be able to store the cellulose necessary for body maintenance until it is broken down. The larger the animal, the more grass it needs, and those with larger rumens have a selective advantage. Cattle are evolutionarily adapted to use grass and so choose grass as their primary source of food (Taylor, 1989).

    By contrast, goats with their relatively small rumens process food more quickly and have evolved selecting browse as their primary food source. Browse is generally higher in lignin, an almost totally indigestible portion of the cell wall that actually interferes with cellulose digestion. If a cow consumed large amounts of lignin or browse, their rumen would remain full for a very long time and might even prevent the cow from eating enough more digestible cellulose to survive. It might literally starve to death with a full cud. In an effort to conform to their evolutionary niche, goats adapted to a diet high in lignin. They have a small rumen and a high digestive turnover rate (Taylor, 1990). The indigestible lignin is quickly passed through the system and the goat gets the benefit of the available cellulose. Very little energy is wasted in the process.

    Diet preference can also be determined by the presence or absence of compounds such as alkaloids, tannins and terpines. Cattle are susceptible to these compounds and have been known to abort after consuming plants high in terpines, such as pine boughs. They are also susceptible to poisons such as digitalis, present in larkspur or poisonweed. Although studies are incomplete, goats seem to thrive on pine boughs and are unaffected by larkspur. Other poisonous plants such as locoweed, lupins, choke cherry and water hemlock seem to have no deleterious effects if other forage is also available. Problems tend to occur only when goats are confined in small pastures.

    Physical properties can also determine a plant’s acceptance as forage. The presence of thorns, hairs, spines and awns influence a plants’ level of preference. Cattle will eat cactus only in an emergency after the rancher burns off the spines. However, goats will select many species of cactus such as the small mammillaria cacti common in the West. Goats have small mouths and mobile upper lips that allow them to be more selective than either cattle or sheep. In fact, the more spines and thorns a plant has, the more palatable it is to a goat. Multiflora rose, a growing pest species in the South, is a favorite as are thistles (the whole plant, not just the flower head). Goats also have the advantage of being able to browse higher in the trees and bushes than either sheep or cattle. They are adept at balancing on their hind feet and bending the just-out-of-reach branches down to within range. Goats also prefer to be on the highest, most inaccessible rocky outcroppings available while cattle and sheep graze contentedly on the lowlands.

    Goats will use the entire range of vegetation available that cattle and sheep would not access not only because they will climb but because they travel farther in a day. Early research in Texas determined that cattle travel 3.3 miles per day; sheep, 3.8 miles per day; and goats, 6.1 miles per day. Furthermore, cattle spend 78% of their eating time selecting grass, while goats spend about 50% of the time. Conversely, goats spend 29% of their eating time selecting forbs while cattle spend 21 % (Fraps and Cory, 1 940). While statistics for browse are not available, the logical conclusion is that cattle eat grass 78% of the time, forbs 21% of the time and browse 1% of the time, while goats eat grass 50% of the time, forbs 29% of the time and browse 21% of the time. Compared to other ruminants on well stratified range, goats consume more forbs and browse than either cattle or sheep. Although goats consume fewer forbs than sheep, they also eat less grass than cattle and sheep (Taylor, 1989).

    Multi-species grazing uses the entire range of vegetative strata available. Preferences for certain plant species that a grazing animal might have are determined by genetics, prior experience, environmental circumstance, and the availability of that preferred species (Malechek & Provenza, 1 981). Since goats graze on all levels, there is less grazing pressure on grass. Grass vigor and seedling establishment is improved resulting in improved diets for cattle and sheep.

    Goats can also be used for biological brush and weed control if they are properly managed. In times of drought or during the winter when herbaceous species such as grasses and forbs are not available, goats are particularly effective in controlling brush. Brush suppression will be a result of constant defoliation in the summer and a reduction of above ground woody biomass in the winter. The plants are unable to store the amount of carbohydrates needed to survive winter or drought. In the Rocky Mountain West, goats prefer mountain mahogany, bitterbrush and gooseberry, but they also eat sagebrush and greasewood in the absence of these preferred species. Another species effectively controlled by goats is soapweed or yucca.

    Noxious weeds can be controlled with goats by stocking infested areas with large numbers of goats and putting selection pressure on weeds. Studies in Texas define a heavy stocking rate for goats as 1 goat per 2 acres for 4 months. After this time, the goats must be pulled off the range or reduced in number. Goats will naturally select flowering species, so timing is important. Goats put on leafy spurge in full bloom will defoliate the spurge stand, preventing the plant from setting seed and reducing the plant’s ability to reproduce sexually. Broom snakeweed, an established pest plant in the West is not palatable to any other domestic animal except the goat. Preliminary observations are that goats will eat snakeweed in the Fall after the plant blooms. They will reduce the above ground portion of the weed over the winter months, especially if there is a scant snow cover and the snakeweed is the only plant protruding above the snow. It can cost up to $70/acre to spray “Tordon”, making goats a cost effective method for controlling weeds. However, goats also have the capability to overgraze plant species important to wildlife and grassland production. Close management is required to use the goat as a tool.

    Finally, goats can pay for their keep. With $100 hay fed for five months, goats can be kept for about $30 per doe per year or $182 per AUM per year. In that year, each doe will raise an average of 1.5 kids. If the kids are sold to the meat market and all are shorn, $60 to $78 per breeding doe can be made each year. That’s $360 to $468 per AUM, for a cost of $182 per AUM. A 500 pound calf sold at $.85 will return $425 and will also cost $182 in feed. Taking into consideration that (1) the weeds will be back and (2) losing a single calf could significantly affect the profit margin, whereas losing a kid will not, it starts to make economic sense. Nothing fancy or exotic, just plain dollars and cents. Here are the facts:

    Goats are a valuable tool when used carefully and deliberately. – Goats add another dimension to livestock operations by providing biological weed control.

  • Goats generate income from meat and fiber.
  • Goats allow ranchers to efficiently and effectively use their available pasture.
  • Goats are a versatile, useful addition to any livestock operation.

    Fraps, G.S. and V.L. Cory, 1940. Composition and utilization of range vegetation of Sutton and Edwards Counties, Texas. Texas Agr. EV. Sta. Bull 5M.

    Malachek, J. and F.D. Provenza. 1981. Feeding behavior and nutrition of goats on rangelands. In: Nutrition and systems of goat feeding.

    Symposium lnternationale. Tours,France. 1:411-428.

    Taylor, C.A. 1991. Brush control and Nutrition on rangeland. Unpublished.

    Taylor, C.A. 1989. Brush control and range utilization with cashmere goats. In: Proceeding 2nd Annual Conference. CaPrA, pp 132.

    Copyright 1994 Capricorn Press. Not to be reproduced without express written consent of Capricorn Press. Contact for more information.

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