Goats have gotten a reputation as one of the peskiest, most irritating, and bothersome farm animals. Images of “Billy” goats eating tin cans or tearing clothing off the line as it dries have been commonplace for several generations. While raising goats certainly does come with its own set of challenges, many of the supposed challenges to raising goats can be adequately dealt with through proper design that best utilizes the inherent tendencies of goats when interacting with a farm ecosystem.
Goats can be a fairly simple animal to raise as long as you keep them in the right conditions that take into account some of their innate habits. Goats have a reputation as animals that eat anything from tin cans to underwear and if you leave a goat unattended in your yard, you will come home to find pretty much all of your vegetation either gone or well mowed back.
As with all animals, there are different breeds of goats with different characteristics and personalities. Some breeds of goats are better for milk production while other excel at producing meat. Goat cheese and other dairy products (yogurt, etc.) can bring a pretty price as a specialty product in a niche market. Goat milk is also often used as one of the main ingredients in a number of beauty products such as soaps and lotions because of its nourishing properties.
For people with very small pieces of land, the Nigerian Dwarf goat breed is a good choice. They produce a decent amount of milk but, because of their size, need less room for foraging. Another quality option for people with more space is the Nubian breed. This goat has long floppy ears and produces milk with the highest fat content which makes it a great option for people wanting to produce cheese or other milk-based products.
One of the most common misconceptions that people have regarding goats is that they are grazers, like sheep or cows. This misconception is often what leads goats to be considered obnoxious, pesky animals that are always looking for a way to destroy your flower bed, vegetable garden, or clothes hanging out to dry.
While goats can eat grass, they prefer to forage, meaning that they prefer to eat leaves, branches and other vegetation that is up off of the ground. Goats have fairly sensitive stomachs and eating off of the ground often exposes them to parasites that can cause a load of harm. Even if you feed your goats grain-based feed, you should never place the feed on the ground, but rather keep it up high in a trough. Since observing the natural behaviors and inclinations of animals so as to better put them to work for the greater whole of the farm ecosystem is a central tenant of permaculture design, the (sometimes pesky) foraging nature of goats can be taken advantage of.
One small farmer in El Salvador was considering clearing about an acre of land that had completely grown up in weeds, brambles, thorns and other undesirable vegetation that wasn’t offering anything of benefit to the farm system. After a day or two of trying to machete his way through the mess, he had advanced a couple of meters at most and had a good number of cuts and scrapes from the thorns covering his arms and hands. Noticing that a neighbor´s goat seemed to enjoy the vines and weeds growing along their property lines, he purchased two goats, tied them both to a stake close to the edge of the overgrown area of his farm and let the goats go to work. Every day, he simply moved the goats farther inwards as they ate their way through that massive vegetation.
After a month or two, he had a piece of land that was cleared, fertilized with goat manure, and ready for planting. While goats are often considered to be one of the main culprits of deforestation because of excessive grazing in vulnerable ecosystems, in this case, goats were used to begin the process of reforestation. Once the land was cleared, the small farmer planted a diversified fruit orchard with interspersed nitrogen-fixing trees. What used to be an overgrown wasteland had been turned into the beginnings of a healthy agroforestry system with the help of goats.
The Purpose of Sheep and Goats to the Small Mayan Farmer
From a western perspective, the main goal of raising animals is for meat production. However, for thousands of small farmers in the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala, sheep, and goats are raised on communal pastureland not so much for their meat, but for their manure. The Mayan people are the people of the corn and their entire diet has been built around the cultivation of corn. Corn, however, is an extremely nutrient heavy crop that pulls large amounts of nutrients from the land. Without a way to return those nutrients to the land, repeated corn harvests would quickly deplete the soil of its natural fertility.
Mayan farmers, then, have developed a goat and sheep raising technique that takes advantage of the abundant communal pasture lands that they collectively manage. Every night, children gather up the herds and corral them into raised pens. The floors of these raised pens are made from thin wood boards that are slightly separated allowing the sheep and goat manure and urine to pass through the floor and into a tank that is built below the pen.
Worms are then introduced into the continually growing pile of sheep and goat excrement to help speed up decomposition and add extra nutrition through worm castings. After the corn harvest, this abundant supply of fertility is then spread over the land to replenish the fertility that the corn took from the land.
Goats, then, when properly managed, can be an essential contributor to any permaculture design system.