Move over chickens, and make way for the goats. Just as it has become increasingly popular to keep chickens in America's backyards, more people are raising goats on city and suburban lots.
Jennie Grant, a Seattle goat keeper who Time magazine dubbed "the godmother of goat lovers," has had a hand in making that happen. Grant founded the Goat Justice League in 2007 to advocate for legalizing dairy goats in Seattle. That effort led to successful campaigns to legalize goats in Long Beach, California, and the Twin Cities. While Grant said the league is not as active as it once was, she continues to maintain the group's website as a way to offer advice about backyard goat keeping and to provide information about how to change local ordinances that ban goats. Grant has also written a book, "City Goats, the Goat Justice League's Guide to Backyard Goat Keeping," that provides how-to advice for keeping goats in residential communities. It also includes a chapter about how to legalize goats where ordinances prohibit them.
"Goats are a really fun experience and serve as a reminder of how out of touch we are with farm animals and how little people know about them," said Grant, who keeps two does, Snowflake and her daughter, Eloise, in a 20-by-20-foot area in her backyard. Here are 12 tips she shared for raising goats in your yard and keeping them, yourself and your neighbors happy.
1. Check on codes. The first thing to do is to find out if your county, municipality or homeowners association allows goats where you live. Ordinances and regulations can include terms such as agriculture, livestock or nuisance animals, language that can be confusing even to seasoned government officials. Be sure to check noise ordinances in your research as some breeds of goats and males that have not been neutered can be loud at times. "Un-neutered males also can be very smelly and should not be kept in a densely populated area due to their poor hygiene habits," Grant emphasized.
2. You can't have just one. This was something Austin, Texas, urban farmers Jennie Peterson and her husband, Brett Davis, learned through an unexpected experience. Their landscape crew — she is a landscape designer, he is a landscape contractor — showed up with a terrified male goat trussed up in the back of their pickup in October 2012. "Somebody gave him to them, and they all live in apartments," Peterson said. "They wanted to eat him for Christmas dinner, so they brought him to our place to keep" until it was time to come back and get him. Peterson and her husband already had chickens, ducks and a potbellied pig, so they figured how much trouble could it be to keep a goat for a couple of months. "I had heard from so many people that goats are really friendly, but ours wasn't," said Peterson. "So I started asking people on Facebook and Twitter … we have this weird goat. Why's he acting so strange?" That's when she got her answer. "Of course, it never occurred to me that goats are herd animals. You need to have two or more. They don't feel safe and secure when there's just one goat." A single goat also may express its unhappiness by frequent and loud bleating.
3. Know the method behind your madness! Before you get goats, be sure to ask yourself why you want to take on the responsibility of caring for them. Is it to ensure a fresh and steady supply of dairy products such as milk, or to make cheese or yogurt? (This is very doable.) To have as pets for you or your children? (Also doable.) To slaughter for meat? (This will work — unless you give them a name, see No. 5!) To mow down unwanted vegetation? (You will probably be disappointed — or worse if they escape and eat the roses of your neighbor, especially if that person happens to be the blue-ribbon champion of the local rose society.)
4. Choose a breed that meets your needs. Goats that stay small at maturity are smart choices for backyard environments, Grant said. For localities that have a weight limit on goats in residential neighborhoods, the two kinds that Grant says will stay under 100 pounds are mini la Manchas and mini Oberhaslis. Both of these breeds are excellent for producing milk, said Grant. Be sure there is a stud buck of the breed you choose in your area. One of the surprises that people often experience when they start raising goats is that the females have to bear kids to produce milk, Grant said. Pygmy goats make great pets for people with no interests in getting milk from their goats, she added. If one of your goals for raising goats is for dairy, Grant advises against getting a male. "It's far more economical to just bring your doe to a stud buck when it is time to breed," she said, adding that only serious goat keepers who know what they are doing should keep intact males. Accidental breeding when females are too young to breed or inbreeding can lead to serious health consequences for mothers and babies.
5. Be careful in giving your goats a name. People become attached to animals they bestow a name to. This can be a problem if you have to give up your goats for any reason, something Peterson and her husband realized when the landscaping crew returned for their goat. Perhaps sensing his fate, the newly arrived goat wouldn't let anyone near him, even to feed him. For her part, Peterson tried not to get too close to the goat, either, at least emotionally. She didn't want to get attached to him knowing what would happen when the crew returned, so she decided she wouldn't even give him a name. But, in trying to calm him down, she unwittingly did exactly that. "I would talk to him and say 'Hey, buddy, how's it going?'" After several months of feeding him, and trying to win his trust, her "buddy" became "Buddy." With a name, the attachment she had tried to avoid was sealed, and she and Buddy bonded. When the crew came back to get him, she said, "No! You can't have him." All of their goats now have French names, and Buddy has become Goatier, which Peterson proudly pronounces as "GO-tee-aaay!"
6. Make sure you have enough space. Whatever your purpose in getting goats and whatever breed you choose, be aware that two small goats will require a minimum of 400 square feet devoted solely to the goats, said Grant. "This is a very small area," she said, "and you'll need to create entertainment for them." She suggested building stairways to nowhere they can climb or balance beams where they can play. A clever way to create additional space in small backyards is to build a shed that allows the goats to access a rooftop deck via a ramp or another means. "This will help keep the shed from taking away from the goats' outdoor space," said Grant.
And speaking of sheds...
7. You will need a covered goat shed. Having a goat shed is important because goats want to get out of rain, snow and wind, just like people do. You'll need to provide a covered shed for that, Grant said. Her book includes a chapter on sheds with a diagram of what she calls the new and official state of the art Goat Justice League goat shed. Whatever style shed you build, "It needs to have some sort of protected floor that stays dry so they are not laying in mud," she advised. It will also need to have walls that cover at least half of the sides of the shed. Ventilation is important to prevent respiratory problems. You won't, however, have to provide supplemental heat to the shed as long as the goats can stay dry and avoid drafts. "Cashmere is the winter undercoat of goats, so in essence they grow their own warm underwear," said Sue Weaver, a hobby farmer who keeps goats on 29 acres in the southern Ozarks near Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, and once raised goats near Pine City, Minnesota. The author of the book "Goats: Small-Scale Herding," she "likes to blanket really old goats and sick goats when it's bitterly cold." Horse-like blankets designed for goats are available at places that sell goat supplies, but it's also easy to tailor miniature horse blankets and foal blankets to fit them, too, Weaver said. A good example of a well-fitted goat blanket can be seen (or purchased) at Horseware Ireland.
8. You will need food and water. Goats will not get enough calories from roaming around a small backyard and eating available vegetation, Grant said. A goat giving 3,000 calories a day in milk simply can't get enough calories from eating vegetation alone. She suggests supplementing what they will find in your yard with hay, goat chow (available at feed and seed stores) and boughs of branches from blackberry bushes and maple and apple trees. They will also require a steady supply of fresh water. Many plants, however, are poisonous to goats, including ones commonly found in home landscapes such as azaleas, laurel, common milkweed, lantana, oak/plum/cherry trees, wisteria and yews. Poison ivy is also, no surprise, poisonous to goats.
9. Prepare a milking stand with a stanchion. Assuming you want dairy products, plan on milking twice a day, once daily as the days grow shorter. After the goat gives birth, plan on picking up this same tempo after two to eight weeks of rest. You will need a milking stand with a stanchion for the females to place their head in and where they can reach a tasty treat while you milk them, Grant advised. "You have to train them to be milked," she said. You also have to train yourself. "It takes practice to get the hand movement down," Grant said. Without a milking stand you almost have to lie down on the ground to milk them, especially with a short goat.
10. Get a buddy. If by now you're thinking that goat keeping is time consuming, you're right! "You're going to need backup," Grant said. She suggested finding a neighbor who wants goat milk and is willing to help you in your goat-keeping project in exchange for free milk. Helpers will need to be trained, though. Grant recalled that once when she was away, a neighbor who helped her broke a finger on the collar of one of her goats. Grant's insurance company picked up the medical bill but warned her if there was another incident involving liability she would have to get rid of the goats.
11. Build a (very) sturdy fence. Goats are supreme escape artists. Grant quotes an old Greek saying in her book that it's easier to fence out water than it is to fence in goats. While she pointed out that this is an exaggeration, she also stressed the importance of keeping your goats in your yard and out of your neighbors' property where they might find their way past the prized rose bushes and onto the top of a newly purchased luxury car. Your fence will need to be at least 52 inches high and can be made from a variety of materials, including panels, chain links or woven wire.
12. Don't plan on moving anytime soon. If you are going to raise goats, you need to be stable, Grant said. "It's so much work to prepare the goat yard and goat shed that if you are going to get goats you need to plan on being in your house awhile," Grant said. Another consideration about moving is that if you have goats and you're going to uproot you and the animals, you'll need to be sure the new community has a zoning ordinance that permits goats. Otherwise, you'll have to find a new home for them, which can be traumatic if you and your goats have bonded.
The USDA is not aware of a government agency or private group that tracks how many homeowners nationwide keep goats or that assists them with advice about backyard goat keeping. If you want advice for keeping goats in your region, do an online search for a local goat-keeping group or contact your local extension office. If you need help finding an extension office, a regional office might be able to assist you.