LEARNING TO THINK LIKE A GOAT
Making Your Life Easier . . . And Theirs Too
by Suzanne W Gasparotto, Onion Creek Ranch
Raising goats will be easier if you understand how goats think and how they live. If that statement sounds absurd to you, then you have much to learn about livestock in general and goats in particular. Learn how to accomplish your goals by modifying your management techniques to take advantage of goats’ habits and behaviors. Working with them is much easier than trying to bend their instincts to your wishes.
Goats are herd animals. Having few defenses — they are sprinters, not long-distance runners, and their horns provide limited protection — goats are prey for many other species. The herd means safety and each goat must be able to keep up with it. A goat separated from its herd is a potentially dead animal. An injured or sick goat will quit eating and leave the herd to hasten its death so it doesn’t draw predators to its herdmates, while the healthy members will cast out a sick animal to save the rest of the group.
A goat’s eyes are set in the side of its head, so it sees the world differently from humans. When approaching a goat, don’t come at it head on; it cannot see you clearly.
Approach from the side and far enough away that the goat can see you coming. Don’t put your hand on the top of the goat’s head; you will panic it. If you grab for the goat’s horns, it will instinctively drop its head to avoid being caught.
Notice how goats sit in groups within the herd. Family units and friends sit side by side, with one goat facing one direction and the other goat facing 180 degrees opposite, allowing two goats to cover 360 degrees of visibility to stay alert to danger.
When herding goats, follow fencelines. Herd from behind about a car’s length and out to the side so they see you. Remember how their eyes function. If one goat breaks from the herd, stop and re-group because the rest of the herd is going to follow the departing animal. Remember the herd instinct.
Gates must be fully opened; a partially opened gate looks closed to an animal whose eyes are in the sides of its head. If you are moving a goat and it stops in its tracks, don’t try to push it. It will balk and bend into a stall. Instead, pull the animal to get it moving again. Goats usually don’t back up; they don’t have a “reverse gear.” Turn the entire group around and then move forward.
Herding kids is like herding chickens; they go everywhere. Herd their dams and the kids will follow. Bottle babies don’t herd at all. Don’t worry if they lag behind a short distance. They don’t have the herd instinct that dam-raised goat kids have. They will eventually follow you, but you will likely have to round up a few laggards.
When put in a stressful situation (working, transporting, loading, etc), goats will crowd into a corner head first, squashing the ones in the back. You may think that they believe that if they can’t see you, you can’t see them. This is inaccurate. From a predatory standpoint, the goats farthest from the outer edges of the herd are the safest, while the goats on the outside of the group are probably a predator’s dinner. Pushing for innermost sanctuary means safety and survival.
A goat that feels threatened will spit or sneeze as an alarm to get out of its space. This is a common reaction of dams with newborns when other goats, animals, or people approach.
Goats are constantly challenging each other for primacy in the herd. There is a distinct pecking order and every goat has its place. You cannot change or stop it. You can only move those goats that don’t get along into another herd. If it is worth having in the goat’s world, it is worth fighting for. Higher status in the pecking order means that the goat gets first pick of food and sexual partners, thereby having a better chance of reproducing its genetic line. Stronger and healthier goats achieve higher places in the pecking order and are therefore more likely to survive. Survival of the fittest applies 24/7, providing the species its chance to live another day.
Horns provide a vital life-saving function to goats. Horns are radiators for a species that has no sweat glands. They aren’t much protection but they dissipate heat. A goat without horns is lower in the pecking order. Never disbud or dehorn.
Goats are not naturally aggressive, but don’t get between breeding bucks and does. Their behavior changes when in heat. You will get hurt. Reproduction is instinctive and primary to species survival.
That kid that you thought was so cute to push and butt heads with will hurt you when it grows up. You have put yourself on its level, and you will have created your own safety problem because you will have to re-establish your position in the herd by head butting/head pushing on a daily basis.
Goats are curious, intelligent, and stubborn. You must learn how to modify their behavior by providing alternatives. If they are eating the livestock guardian dog’s food, figure out a different way to feed the dog because the goats will not stop.
Goats are very smart, but there is one thing that they will never understand: Why the feed trough is still empty when they get there before you do.
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Reprinted with permission from Suzanne W. Gasparotto
Suzanne W. Gasparotto is the owner of Onion Creek Ranch in Lohn, Texas, and the informational website TennesseeMeatGoats.com. Onion Creek Ranch created the Tennessee Meat Goat™ by selectively breeding fullblood Myotonic goats. The only meat goat developed without dairy influence, this improved Myotonic goat stands head and shoulders above its ancestry. Contact Suzanne at 325-344-5775 or onioncreek @ tennesseemeatgoats.com. Onion Creek Ranch is located at 4564 County Road 300, Lohn, TX 76852.
Purchase supplies to keep your goats healthy at Jeffers Livestock’s goat department.