Not all pastures are created equal and that goes for pastures for goats as well. When I looked to find the best combination of pasture diversity for our farm and species of livestock, it was hard to find examples specifically for meat goats. I found some university extension resources on what works for goats, but it was pretty limited.
My overarching decisions have been based on goats’ dietary preference for about 20% forages (grasses/legumes), 20% weeds, and 60% browse (brush/trees/woody plants), according to the Pastures for Profit: A Guide to Rotational Grazing (Undersander, D. et al., 2002).
As a result, my approach for our goat pasture has been to use what works with our climate, as well as:
Pasture establishment, renovation and enhancement
Overtime our goats have helped us renovate our pastures, which were in CRP and then never farmed after that point. With grazing, we’ve reduced the scrub brush and helped bring back new plants from the existing seed bed. We’ve done some interseeding to add more diversity in grasses, legumes and forbs.
After that first season of grazing, it was impressive to see the goat’s work and the existing seed bed start to come back. The following year in areas that needed a little more work or were too bumpy from gopher mounds, we lightly tilled select areas of the pasture and planted seed with our grain drill. With light tillage, we were able to also maintain the existing species since the plants weren’t fully terminated with the light tillage.
Another year we were unable to rent a no-till drill, so I took a “no-till” approach to our grain drill. With the drill placed as low as possible, we planted into select areas of the pasture that was grazed low or areas we cut low for hay. Two seasons ago we rented a no-till drill from a friend to interseed into our pastures and hayfields. Surprisingly the modified “no-till” approach worked better in our pastures. Some time we’ll get our own no-till drill, but knowing that we have a good approach with the equipment we have makes it less of a priority.
We also work to enhance our pasture each winter with out-wintering our herd of goats. We strategically place round bales of hay on the pasture. Goats will eat all winter outside, rather than in the barn. The hay residue offers additional seed and the goats help fertilize the pasture. It’s pretty amazing to see how our north pasture has continued to improve simply based on out-winter feeding. A bonus is that we need to clean the barn less in the winter.
While I like to have a diverse mix of species, I’ve paid more attention to the legumes and forbs since the goats have a greater interest in those plants.
I’ve observed that goats tend to eat more legumes over grasses, based on both in the pasture and hay consumption. They’ll still eat grass, but we’ve focused on adding more alfalfa and clover to both our hay fields and pastures. Since our goats are always growing babies, lactating or growing for meat, they’re never in “maintenance mode.” More of a grass mix may work for goats with less demands on the performance of their bodies.
We’ve planted or I’ve observed these species in our pastures: white clover, red clover, sweet clover, alfalfa, chicory, plantain, birdsfoot trefoil, tall fescue, meadow fescue, Italian ryegrass, perennial ryegrass, Alaskan brome, meadow brome, Timothy, festulolium, orchard grass and more.
About special plant species
Since goats prefer forbs, as in weeds, chicory was an obvious choice to incorporate into our pastures. As a high-quality forage, it has good feed value for our goats on pasture. It’s also drought tolerant, we see it thrive mid-July to August, as the rest of our pasture species start to slow down in growth.
Chicory also contains tannins, which have the potential to have an antiparastic effect on parasites. An Ohio State University study with lambs suggests there might be evidence to support this idea (McCutcheon, J. et al., 2012).
As a bonus, its pretty purple flowers add to the overall aesthetics of our pasture.
It’s taken a while, but this little plant is starting to take hold in our pastures after seeding 3-4 years ago and naturally occurring in other areas.
While hard to establish, birdsfoot trefoil is a great legume to add to your pastures since it doesn’t cause bloat and has good feed value, according to a North Central Regional Extension publication.
Research is also being done to study the anti-parasitic effects of birdsfoot trefoil with the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) Project, “Forage-Based Parasite Control in Sheep and Goats in the Northeast U.S.”
Preliminary studies show improved resilience to barber pole worm for sheet and goats, but no effect on decreasing fecal egg counts. Those leading the study indicate more research needs to be done.
I chose to add plantain into our mix based on its ability to provide a number of mineral, including calcium, sodium, copper and selenium. Our soils are low in selenium and goats tend to need more copper than their small ruminant counterparts, sheep. This plant is one way to address these nutrient needs.
Why pasture diversity?
We aim to have a diverse pasture to balance out the forage availability throughout the entire growing season, from spring to late fall. Additionally, the diversity also helps maintain feed for our goats even when we are especially wet or a dry stretch. And, what if there are weeds in the pasture? I don’t care! The goats will eat them. That’s the same with trees and brush I don’t want to keep long term (some of the trees will stay for cover).
We have had good success with Prairie Creek Seed’s Diversemaster mix and blending in their Forage Feast (Chicory) and Tonic (Plantain). We’ve also used Forage First’s Alfalfa Hay and Pasture mix and Orion XL ladino clover (from La Crosse Seed), sourced through our local co-op, Countryside Cooperative.
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Right now my farm is somewhat like a teenager. It’s not quite to its full size, which at times can mean growing pains and even awkward situations (think of grandma giving you an XL shirt to “grow into”).
As my herd of goats grows, I’ll need more options for housing our breeding animals year-round. I have drafted expansion plans for our barns. But, I also need to consider how the pasture can be used in the winter as well. This is due to having multiple groups of animals over winter, which include our (1) breeding bucks, (2) breeding does, and (3) doelings kept for breeding, but not old enough to breed. And, then in January, the (4) dairy buck kids arrive. They need to be in separate groups because of their size difference, safety, and to prevent any unplanned breeding. This year the current barn space should be okay. It’ll be tight, but okay.
However, this is why I’m planning ahead for using our pasture over winter primarily for our bucks or older animals. Goats are fairly hearty animals as long as they have access to shelter to keep them from getting wet. I’ll be adding a tree line windbreak along our west pasture to provide more protection from the elements through the winter months.
This recently I started working on the actual windbreak layout. It’ll be two rows of Colorado Blue Spruce trees along the north end of the pasture. The trees are spaced about 15 feet apart in each row, with the trees off set in the second row, also 15 ft from the first row. Since there’s a field driveway that goes past the corner of the field, a small section of the windbreak will be one row to allow for hay equipment access to the other field. The spacing is based on recommendations for livestock windbreaks from my county NRCS conservationist and also account for ease of mowing around the trees, especially when they’re young, and still having access to maintain the fence line.
The trees are transplants and are 1 ½ - 2 feet tall and have a growth rate of 1-2 feet per year. This is why it’s important I get these trees in the ground now, so they’ll start being useful in a few years. I’ll plant them this fall and will put mulch around the base to help with moisture and weed control.
When we purchased the farm four years ago, it hadn’t been in operation for quite some time. Since then we’ve done a lot of work around the farmhouse, on the pole sheds/barns and put up new pasture fence. The fields appeared to have been in some sort of CRP or set aside program at one time and then later let nature take its own course.
We contemplated tilling everything under and starting over from scratch. But, our grazing specialist at the time brought up the idea of letting the goats do the first round of pasture renovation since their diet includes browse/brush. Since last fall we’ve started grazing and the goats have been doing a great job of cleaning up the pasture. We also make our own hay on the same ground. It has been really fun to watch the diversity of the pasture grasses change with each rotation of goats and cutting of hay. Even with those improvements, portions of the pasture were so bumpy it was almost impossible to cut hay without breaking equipment or going incredibly slow. So, we decided it was time for our second round of pasture renovations.
For part two, we did a modified version of interseeding to smooth out the ground (no bumps) and out of practicality since we have limited tilling and planting equipment. Selected areas of the pasture were lightly disced and then planted using our small grain drill and drag as described in the GrassWorks Grazing Guide on page 8: http://grassworks.org/?300604/Guidebook.Pasture%20Density.pdf.
Throughout the last year I’ve been doing my homework on the type of plants I wanted to establish in the pasture. If I was going to make an investment in seed, it was important it was:
I ended up ordering three types of seed from Prairie Creek Seed:
Now it’s a month later. We’ve had great growing conditions for fall with warm weather and rain. The new seeding is taking off great. I’m anxious to see how the goats like it come next grazing season and once it has had time to be established.
I own and manage Cylon Rolling Acres in northwestern Wisconsin. On my farm I raise Boer - Kiko meat goats on pasture.
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.