Considerations to be given to goats for pastures

Goats are very active foragers, able to cover a wide area in search of scarce plant materials. Their small mouth, narrow muzzle and split upper lips enable them to pick small leaves, flowers, fruits and other plant parts, thus choosing only the most nutritious available feed. As natural browsers and given the opportunity, goats will select over 60% of their daily diet from brush and woody perennials (multiflora rose, saplings, small deciduous trees, black locust, briars, brambles, sumac, privet, honeysuckle), and broadleaf plants (pigweed, dock, horseweed, plantain, lambsquarter, etc.) over herbaceous species such as fescue, bluegrass, orchardgrass, crabgrass, bermudagrass. The ability to utilize browse species, which often have thorns and an upright growth habit with small leaves tucked among woody stems, is a unique characteristic of the goat compared to heavier, less agile ruminants.

Goats have been observed to stand on their hind legs and stretch up to browse tree leaves or throw their bodies against saplings to bring the tops within reach. Goats are more likely to select plant parts containing tannins than other domesticated ruminant animals. Goats even sometimes climb into trees or shrubs to consume the desired forage. In spite of their grazing preferences, goats can be grazed on pasture alone. The feeding strategy of goats appears to be to select grasses when the protein content and digestibility are high, but to switch to browse when the latter overall nutritive value may be higher. This ability is best utilized under conditions where there is a broad range in the digestibility of the available feeds, giving an advantage to an animal which is able to select highly digestible parts and reject those materials which are low in quality.

In a pasture situation, goats tend to graze from the top to the bottom of plants and do not like to graze near the soil surface. Therefore, goats will more uniformly graze a canopy than other ruminants. This behavior results in even grazing and favors a first grazer-last grazer system. This system might consist of using a goat herd as the first group and cattle as the last group. This management is most appropriate with lactating does or growing kids whose nutrient requirements are high.

Goats have been observed to:

  • select young grass over clover.
  • prefer browsing over grazing pastures, and eat more browse than do other domestic ruminants.
  • eat a wider range of plant species than do sheep or cattle.
  • prefer foraging on rough and steep land over flat, smooth land.
  • graze along fence lines before grazing the center of a pasture.
  • graze the top of pasture canopy fairly uniformly before grazing close to the soil level.
  • will travel longer distances in search of preferred forage than will other domestic ruminants.

Grazing time can be influenced by several factors including the season of the year, the temperature and humidity, the topography of the land, the nature of the plant canopy, pasture availability and social interaction between animals. The season of the year, with changes in day length and intensity of sunlight, cause goats to graze in different patterns. At mean temperatures below 50°F, goats spend very little time grazing at night. At mean temperatures above 50°F, some grazing time will occur at night; and when mean temperatures exceed 77°F, one or more grazing periods will occur at night. During hot weather, frequent movement of goats during the day will increase intake. The topography and size of the pasture also will have an effect on grazing time, as will forage availability and ease of forage removal. Sites within the pasture where urination and defecation have taken place and this can increase the time it takes to graze. Goats are generally sociable so if one animal gets up to graze, others will follow.

Control grazing and strip grazing

The basic principle of control grazing is to allow goats to graze for a limited time leaving a leafy stubble, and then to move them to another pasture or paddock (a subdivision of a pasture) or sub-paddock. Smaller paddocks are more uniformly grazed and surplus paddocks can be harvested for hay. The pasture forage plants, with some leaves still attached, can then use the energy from the sun through photosynthesis to grow back without using up all of their root reserves. Even brush will need a recovery time if it is being used as forage for goats. Without this rest period, the goats can kill the brush through continuous browsing.

Under control grazing, legumes and native grasses may reappear in the pasture, and producers often report that the pasture plant community becomes more diverse. Control grazing can be used to improve the pasture, extend the grazing season, and enable the producer to provide a higher quality forage at a lower cost with fewer purchased inputs. Control grazing can also be useful in reducing internal parasite problems, if meat goat producers are careful to move the goats to a new pasture before the forage plants are grazed too short (less than about 4 inches). In addition, the use of the FAMACHA system to selectively deworm goats will overcome the problems of pasture infestations by resistant intestinal nematodes due to increased refugia. Refugia is the proportion of nematodes that provide a pool of susceptible genes and dilutes dewormer-resistant genes in that population.

Strip grazing can be easily superimposed on control grazing in large paddocks by placing movable electric fences ahead and behind the goats, giving them sufficient forage for 2 to 3 days. Strip grazing is very effective and results in high pasture utilization because otherwise goats will not graze soiled forage well. Strip grazing results in high average daily gain, increased gain per acre, and in rapid improvement of body condition when pasture is vegetative and of excellent quality such as during cool weather when plant quality declines only slowly. Strip grazing is very effective with stockpiled fescue during late fall and early winter. Strip grazing is not recommended when pasture is of low quality because of reduced goat selectivity.

Control grazing versus continuous grazing

Control grazing allows the manager a better utilization of the forage at hand because this grazing method gives more control over grazing animals. During periods of fast growth, the excess forage can be harvested for hay. Control grazing can stretch forage availability and the grazing season as spring forage growth slows during the hot summer months. It also slows the gradual predominance of less palatable and less nutritious plants because goats are forced to consume all plants before moving on.

Another level of managerial control is achieved by having more than one pasture. Under a control grazing system a) goats are easier to handle and more docile because they are in frequent contact with humans when fences, water tanks and mineral troughs are moved, b) plants that are sensitive to close and continuous grazing will persist longer and producer better, c) less forage is wasted by trampling and soiling, d) urine and dung are distributed more uniformly, e) managerial and observational skills of the producer will improve because goats will be observed more frequently, and pasture species and productivity will be evaluated more carefully. Conversely, control grazing may not be beneficial because of a) high cost, b) unsatisfactory layout such as long, narrow paddocks or wet and dry areas within the same paddock, c) overstocked pastures, d) rest period is too long between grazing such that the available forage becomes mature and of low nutritive value with a lesser amount of young green leaves, d) pastures dominated by low forage quality.

Continuous grazing or stocking means that goats are maintained on one pasture for the entire grazing season. Therefore, the goat makes the decision as to where to graze, when to graze, where to congregate and to selectively graze unless the stocking rate is too high. Goats may overgraze the plants they prefer and undergraze other, less preferred plants if the stocking density is not adjusted as conditions change. Forage availability may be ideal, too high or too low during different periods of the same grazing season. Therefore, adjusting the stocking density as needed greatly improves forage utilization. Temporary fences can be used to fence off portions of the pasture and harvest surplus forage for hay. Finally, certain forage species such as switchgrass, big bluestem, indiangrass and johnsongrass are not suitable for continuous grazing unless the stocking rate is low enough to maintain a 6 to 8 inch leafy stubble.

Forward creep grazing

Installing an opening in the fence with a small gate allows animals with the highest nutritional requirements such as kids, to have first access to fresh, high quality, ungrazed forage ahead of their mothers. Forward creep grazing can be easily used in a control/strip grazing system.

Limit grazing or supplementation with other crops

Limit grazing is a strategy used to meet goat nutritional requirements with grasses of differing nutritive values, or with a cool-season grass and legumes sown in separate pastures. Adult does could be maintained on a low quality warm-season bermudagrass or switchgrass after frost, but allowed to strip graze a high quality winter annual forage such as cereal rye, annual ryegrass, wheat, or oat as a protein supplement for only a few hours each day or every few days. The same principle can be used with a low quality cool-season grass grazed during the hot summer months, and warm-season legumes such as soybean or the fodder trees black locust or mimosa. The foliage quality of these legume plants change little throughout the growing season, thus they are referred to as protein banks.

Parasites and pastures

One of the best ingredients of a parasite control program is reducing the number of parasites that the goats are exposed to in the first place. One way to accomplish this is to manage your pastures in a way that will reduce its parasite load. There are several ways to do this:

  1. Take a hay crop. This type of pasture can be incorporated into a dose-and-move program in which goats are grazed on one pasture in the early grazing season and then moved to another goat pasture which was used for a first cutting of hay. Another move before the end of the grazing season will probably provide the best parasite control.
  2. Incorporate annual pastures into the grazing system and drag some implement in the stubble before planting.
  3. Incorporate into the grazing system plants containing high concentrations of tannins such as sericea lespedeza and chicory. Alternatively, incorporate fodder shrubs that contain high concentrations of tannins, such as black locust.
  4. Graze a contaminated pasture with another livestock species. The goat parasite larvae cannot survive in the gastrointestinal tract of another herbivore species. THIS DOES NOT APPLY TO SHEEP, which share worms with goats. Another approach is to use a first grazer, second grazer system using two livestock species.
  5. Use control grazing practices to optimize pasture production. This is a better practice than continuous grazing on the same pasture because goats will return to the same areas where their favorite plants are growing, thus those areas will become heavily infected by gastrointestinal parasite larvae.
  6. In extensive situations with an abundance of pasture land compared to the number of goats, allow the goats to have plenty of forage, thus giving them the opportunity to select the most nutritious parts of plants. In such situations, goats will not graze close to the ground and thus will not ingest many gastrointestinal parasites.
  7. Put goats in a browse area (woodlot) when environmental conditions favor the rapid life cycle of gastrointestinal parasites (hot and humid). By browsing, goats will not consume forage close to the ground where the parasite larvae are located (0 to 5 inches from the ground level). In addition, many browse plants have the additional benefit of harboring high tannin concentrations. Tannins have been shown to reduce fecal egg counts and possible gastrointestinal parasite larvae numbers.
  8. Always put goats with the highest nutritional requirements on the best quality pastures you have on your farm. Good nutrition allows a more effective immune response to fight gastrointestinal parasites.
  9. Rest a pasture. Unfortunately, it takes a long time for the worm eggs and larvae to die off if the pasture is just left empty. A year or at least an entire grazing season is required, which is usually impractical.

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