Keeping livestock is a big step for many permaculturists, but also an incredible rewarding challenge. Raising animals for meat, milk or simply as additions to the plot (although they will provide manure and companionship, so are not without their benefits should you choose not to consume their products) is a responsibility – you must ensure all the needs of the animals are met at all times – but with the right space and conditions, they can be an efficient and delightful part of your ecosystem.
Many permaculture gardeners start their journey with livestock with the smaller species, such as bees, chickens or ducks. And for many, that is more than enough. But there are other options for livestock rearing, either as a first animal or to add to an existing menagerie. One that is often overlooked is goats.
There are many advantages to raising goats. Firstly, they are curious and affectionate animals, providing a lot of joy in their antics. Goats are also producers, providing milk and, potentially, meat. (Be advised that to keep producing milk, a female will need to breed each year, so plan on your herd growing or make arrangements to find homes for the new arrivals.) They are excellent at keeping weeds at bay, and their manure is a very welcome addition to your compost pile.
However, there are certain other aspects of goat keeping that must be considered before taking the plunge. They will eat almost anything, so while that is great for keeping weeds down on your plot, you may need to construct fencing or other protection to keep them from decimating your crops. As herd animals, it is considered cruel to keep a single goat, so you will need to stock at least two but preferably more to ensure happy animals. They can also be loud, so think about the impact on yours and your neighbors’ peace and quiet. And unlike with poultry, city ordnances typically have limitations on goat species and sizes that can be kept in urban yards, so check before going ahead.
If you decide you want to give goat keeping a go, here are some of the more commonly stocked species that you may want to consider.
As the name suggests, this goat species originally came from the deserts of South Africa. As such, it is an ideal species for warmer climates and locations where vegetation may be a littler tougher to digest. It is primarily a meat goat, but can be used for milk production as well.
Originating in a very different environment – the mountainous uplands of France, the Alpine has been introduced to many countries around the world, including the U.S. in 1922. It is known as a hardy goat, able to adapt to many climatic conditions, while producing good quantities of milk, usually of around a gallon a day.
Another species from the south of the African continent is the Boer. Thought to have been bred from wild goats by native bushmen, the Boer is usually raised for its meat. It is quick to get mature, attains a heavy weight, and its meat is low in fat. Many consider the Boer the premier meat breed in the world, and despite only becoming available in the U.S. in the late 1980s it is now commonly bred commercially.
The Saanen – sometimes spelled Sannen – is a white breed that has among the highest levels of milk production of all goat species. Mature females can regularly produce between two and three gallons a day. The milk is not as rich as other breeds’; having lower butterfat content, but it does make a good all-purpose product, and combined with the Saanen’s easygoing nature and low level of care required, make it a good choice for first-time goat keepers.
Descendants of the animals bought by Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century, these goats are medium-sized meat animals. Sometimes referred to as the brush goat or scrub goat, it is particularly adept at clearing scrub land, briars and other hardy plants, and renowned for its ability to survive in difficult environments.
Sometimes called Stiff Leg goats or Wooden goats, these small goats have the odd behavioral quirk of their muscles freezing when they are panicked. This often results in the animal falling on its side. It is due to a genetic defect, and is from what the goats get their name. It is a personable breed, raised primarily for meat.
Originating in New Zealand, this goat gets its name from the Maori word for ‘flesh’ so, unsurprisingly, they are bred as meat animals. They are a good choice for the permaculturist as they are renowned for their hardiness and ability to get by without too much intervention from their keepers.
Hailing from the Middle East, the Nubian was first imported into Great Britain in the early 1800s, before eventually making its way around the world. The characteristic long ears of the breed are an evolutionary development to help keep it cool in hot temperatures, so the species is suitable for warm climates, although being a larger breed will require more space tan some others. A milk breed, mature females average around a gallon a day, and their milk is renowned for its sweetness.
The Toggenburg produces some of the most ‘goaty’ tasting milk of all species. That may mean it is an acquired taste for those used to less rich versions or cow’s milk, but it can still be used to make an excellent cheese. This species comes originally from the Swiss Alps and is thought to be one of the oldest livestock breeds in the world, as well as one of the hardiest.
Besides these pure breeds, there are also crossbreeds available, such as the Moneymaker, which contains traces of the Saanen, Nubian and Boer breeds, and the Texmaster, which is a cross between the Boer and the Tennessee Fainting Goat.
Whichever species you choose to stock, you must (as you would with any livestock) meet all the goats’ needs. This means ensuring sufficient supply of food, enough space to express their natural instincts and behaviors, access to clean water, shelter and shade, and medical attention as necessary.