During snowy, cold weather like this our young stock are tucked away in the barn. Part of our herd stays outside and does quite well. During weather like this or cold snaps we feed extra hay, which helps keep them warm, bed down the pasture shelters and the goats naturally grow a thick winter coat. I often find that our goats that live outside year round are healthier than if they were in the barn. I didn’t stay out long since I came out to check the goats and bottle feed a few babies.
Note: Our goats and guardian dogs always have access to shelter, water and food. If it gets too cold or too much snow they'll be moved into one of our barns.
When someone asks if we have pets, I’ll talk about our high maintenance house cat and even mention our affectionate barn cats. But it’s usually a few minutes later I’ll remember to mention my two dogs, Moly and Ruby. I often call the dogs my two best employees, because that better describes them than pets.
Moly and Ruby are both Great Pyrenes, a breed that falls into a group of dogs labeled livestock guardian dogs (LGDs), also a type of “working dog,” similar in nature to police canines, service dogs or herding dogs. The dogs work best in pairs and live with our livestock 24/7. It’s fascinating to watch our dogs work together. The other day while I was checking the pasture, Ruby was laying with the goats on a patch of old hay from their winter feeder. Moly nowhere to be seen. I called for her and a few minutes later she barreled full speed over the pasture ridge. She had been patrolling the north pasture but came back at my call. This is typical LGD behavior, where one dog will stay with the herd, while the other patrols the rest of the pasture. If one dog senses a threat or a disruption, it will bark for the other dog to join them or return to the herd. Rather than attacking, the dogs provide protection in the form of keeping predators at bay. On our farm predators include other dogs, coyotes, bear, wolves, eagles, hawks and even unfamiliar people.
When we have visitors on the farm, I’ll give them a heads up about the dogs and mention that they don’t behave like other breeds of dogs. They won’t come running up to be pet, nor want much, or any attention from people. The dogs are most comfortable with livestock, and that’s due to the breed’s characteristics and the fact that they’ve lived with goats since birth. Both Moly and Ruby live with the goats 24/7, 365 days a year. They don’t come in the house, we don’t take them on walks (except when we were doing some basic training) or take them on trips. In fact, I will schedule veterinarian farm calls for annual checkups to minimize stress on the dogs. The dogs are feed daily while we check the livestock and they always have access to shelter and water.
Aside from dogs, farms may choose to use other forms of livestock guardian animals, including llamas and donkeys. We’ve used a donkey in the past, but the particular one didn’t work out so he returned to my father-in-law’s farm. The dogs are more appealing for us since they do a better job protecting young livestock from areal predators.
The threat of predators killing livestock is very real, especially in northern Wisconsin. I know farmers who’ve lost calves and sheep to wolves and bear. On our farm we’ve taken measure to protect our goats with Moly and Ruby, our livestock guardian dogs, but also made a substantial investment in high quality woven wire fencing, which includes a strand of electric at the top to keep critters from climbing or jumping in and a strand of barbed wire at the bottom to deter digging under the fence. While we haven’t lost any animals, I know the likelihood of it happening is very possible
If you’re interested in learning more about guardian animals, here are some more resources:
The goats moved into a new paddock earlier last weekend since they ate through the grass and brush a little faster than usual. Once we had the new paddock fence up, the gate was opened and the goats move right into the new area. A common thought is that it can be challenging to move animals to new paddocks. It’s actually quite easy, especially once they’re used to the process. The goats know they’re getting fresh food and that’s the biggest motivator. If there are any animals that decide to stay back, it doesn’t take long for them to catch up to the rest of group. Since they’re herd animals, they like to keep company. Watching the video, you’ll see this in action.
After the animals are moved, then we’ll move the portable shelters (general shelter and the other is for the dog food) and the water tank. The water is hooked back up to the seasonal water line and the animals are set for another 5-7 days on their new paddock.
That night Scott and I re-watched the video a few times, it was amazing the other activity that was going on – detail that we didn’t notice right away. If you watch the video again, you just might make these observations as well: our resident pasture fawns running around in the background, Ruby’s natural ability to watch over her goats and the birds chirping, along with the other sounds of nature. It’s crazy to think that it’s so easy to miss the details of what’s around us day-to-day, or even moment-to-moment.
The goats are finally out on pasture and love it. But, it has been a lot of work to get to this point.
Last fall our pasture perimeter fence was put up right before the first snow in November. We were able to do some late winter grazing, but didn’t rotate since our portable paddock fence can’t be used on frozen ground. We continued to outwinter (feeding out on pasture, either the plant matter or feed hay) throughout the winter months. The goats did great eating on the brush and grasses still standing, while naturally fertilizing the pasture. Once spring arrived the goats were back to feeding hay outside, while the pastures greened up.
Even though the fence was up, the goats weren’t ready to head out to pasture right away. There was quite a bit of prep work to do: fill gaps at the bottom of the fence to keep the guardian dogs in and predators out, troubleshooting a grounded electric fence (meaning it wasn’t working properly) and getting the seasonal pasture waterline ready for use. More importantly, the goats and dogs needed to be trained on the portable electric net that’s used to divide the paddocks. It took a few sessions over a few days, but the animals learned quickly to respect the fence.
Now it’s the fourth week of the grazing season. The goats moved into a new paddock on Sunday. I was amazed how easy it was to move the goats into the paddock. I wasn’t sure how the dogs would do. After I anchored the portable fence gate open, I turned around to look for them. I didn’t see them, because they had already cruised into the lush grass and were checking out the new fence line. The animals still have access to the barn, but after the next rotation they’ll be out on pasture full time with a movable shelter to protect them from the elements.
Here’s how the managed, rotational grazing process works on our farm:
Resources that have been helpful:
I own and manage Cylon Rolling Acres in northwestern Wisconsin. On my farm I raise Boer - Kiko meat goats and dairy buck kids all on pasture. We also harvest maple sap. Read more here.
Keep up Day-to-Day with the farm:
Cylon (pronounced Si-lon) is the name of our township in St. Croix County, Wisconsin. Sorry fans, our farm is not named after the robots of Battlestar Galactica.