Goat Herding Tips: Common Goat-Keeping Mistakes

Novice herd owners can stumble when raising their first bucks, does, and kids. Here's some advice to consider before buying your first goat.

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by Terry Wild Stock Inc./Terry Wild

Novice herd owners can stumble when raising their first bucks, does, and kids. Consider these goat herding tips before buying your first goat.

A long time ago, when I was living in the city but dreaming about life in the country, I wanted goats. I voraciously plundered the livestock shelf at my local library for goat herding tips. I formed strong opinions about breeds I’d never actually seen. And when I finally did move to my new property during one bright, hopeful summer, I made sure goats were part of the picture as soon as possible.

Mistakes soon followed. Experience is a pitiless and thorough teacher, leaving you with some bumps and bruises along the way. I’m wiser now, and I hope that sharing my early caprine catastrophes will keep other newbies from repeating my errors.

Mistake No. 1: Buying the Cutest, Smallest Goat

I was told the docile, tiny buckling had just been weaned. I chose him because I liked his coloration and was intimidated by the prospect of handling a large, potentially aggressive male in the future. Although I thought a small male would be a wise decision, what I actually got was a malnourished runt.

a small runt buck picketed beside larger buck kid

Don’t plunge into goat keeping without understanding good conformation–the physical details that make up a breed’s correct appearance. Most goat keepers are thoughtful, kindhearted people, but some are less-than-scrupulous folks looking to turn a profit from ignorant buyers who overlook an animal’s crummy condition for cuteness. Educate yourself on the markers of good health. Find a goat keeper you trust, and ask them to use their own animals to show you what to look for.

Seeing proper characteristics in the flesh will help you a lot. The animal’s coat should be glossy and clean, and its eyes should be bright and clear. The goat should be engaged and curious as you investigate it. Look for straight legs, a broad chest, well-trimmed feet, and an alert stance. Milking does should have a soft, wide, round udder and equal-sized teats that hang evenly. Warning signs of a goat in bad condition are a hunched back, a potbelly, a dull or patchy coat, a swayback, a narrow chest, a mouth that looks deformed, and udders that hang low or lopsided.

If you’re buying a young kid, look for one fed on its mother’s colostrum during its first days of life. Most responsible breeders and keepers ensure that this life-giving liquid is consumed in its entirety, because it gives kids their best chance at a vigorous, vital start. Kids deprived of colostrum or rejected by their mothers can fail to thrive, or even survive. (This was the tragic case with my first buck.) Bottom line: When you’re choosing from a lineup of kids of the same breed, don’t select the smallest one, no matter how adorable it seems.

Mistake No. 2: Purchasing from a Crowded Farm

The Nigerian Dwarf goats were offered on Craigslist at the bargain price of $50 a head. When we arrived at the seller’s property, the bleating, bellowing, crowing, and squealing of many animals reached our ears. Next, the smell hit us. To say that this 1-acre farm was overcrowded is putting it mildly, with at least 25 individuals crammed into a barren paddock. Once the keeper was finally able to chase down the two we liked–the fact that she had to use a net should’ve been a red flag–she assured us that the half-wild kids were “probably” unrelated.

commercial goats crowded around a feeding area

I’ve bought some wonderful goats from Craigslist ads, and I really enjoy using the website to connect with local farmers and acquire animals suited to my climate. But the truth is, goats found online or at an auction are a crapshoot. Goat keepers may end up with a wonderful animal, or they may end up with a diseased creature loaded with parasites.

If I’d known then what I know now, the overcrowded conditions on the farm selling Nigerian Dwarf goats would’ve tipped me off to neglect. When we got them home, we discovered that our new goats were teeming with lice, terrified of human contact, and in dire need of hoof maintenance. While we did eventually heal and tame them, I wouldn’t want to repeat the process with any additions to my current, healthy herd.

I don’t mean that goats taken from bad living conditions aren’t worth your time. Some folks turn their properties into a restorative haven for these creatures, with wonderful results. But when you’re a novice buying your first goat, an animal’s health and personality problems will add frustrating complexity to an already tough endeavor. I recommend you buy goats from someone you can trust.

Mistake No. 3: Tethering Goats Unprotected

The fences on our newly purchased, dilapidated farmstead desperately needed repair. We decided to tether our goats to make use of their wonderful appetites on our overgrown fields. The system worked perfectly for a few months, but then we became aware of stray dogs in our areathe hard way.

picketed goat looking off to the side

Exuberant new property owners often have visions of self-sufficiency dancing in their heads. But if you can’t provide a safe, secure place for animals to live, those dreams can come crashing down pretty quickly. Before you bring home animals, first ensure adequate housing and fencing for them.

Picketing gave our goats nutritious, free food but left them vulnerable to attack during the day. While we were out of sight, a pair of stray dogs made deadly work of our defenseless does in minutes. This devastating loss made me keenly aware of how big a threat predators can be to a herd. As a prey animal, a goat’s instinctive reaction is to run away. But if it’s trapped on a picket, there’s nowhere to run.

We took a break from raising goats for a year after this loss and worked on repairing and installing proper fences. Once we’d secured our land, we started afresh with a new trio of animals. Now, lesson learned, we only picket them when we’re working nearby, and we return them to their securely fenced paddock and barn when we’re done. Other keepers opt for choosing a livestock guardian animal that lives with their herd, offering a protective eye 24/7. Llamas, donkeys, horses, and specific dog breeds, such as Great Pyrenees and Anatolian Shepherds, can fulfill this role if trained, but don’t expect untested animals to protect your herd. Untrained guardians can be deadly to goats.

Mistake No. 4: Using Inadequate Fencing to Separate a Buck from Does in Heat

I glanced up from weeding turnips at the sound of a deep thud coming from the barn. I stood up when the thud sounded again. As I ran toward the building, a sharp crack told me our newly purchased buck had broken free for the third time that day. By the time I’d opened the barn door, it was obvious we’d have kids in a few months, ready or not.

black and white buck goat standing beside brown doe

To produce milk, a doe must have kids. And to have kids, a doe needs a buck. These simple facts of life offer quite a puzzle for a goat keeper. Do you keep a buck, or do you turn to artificial insemination? Do you observe your doe’s heat cycle in time to bring it to a stud service? These options come with their own pros and cons. We opted for getting a buck, with hopes of self-sufficiency, while also reserving the option of swapping bucks with nearby farms.

Our buck was docile and calm the day he arrived, and easily led into the temporary stall we’d built. I’d read that the smell of a buck can send a doe into heat, but I didn’t think it could happen so quickly. Within minutes, our does were using every flirty trick in the book, sending merciless goo-goo eyes and suggestive tail flicks. Our laid-back buck became a living battering ram of hormone-fueled passion, and our barn became the set of a livestock soap opera that no amount of stall repairs could restrain.

For any newbies looking to purchase a buck, be forewarned that your animal will stop at nothing to get to a doe he desires–and that he’s got a hammer for a head. To control him, you’ll need to house him separately, in a paddock with the durability of Fort Knox. Give him a wether (a castrated buck) for company, and be prepared for him to test his boundaries with all of his might.

Mistake No. 5: Letting a Billy Bully You

Our new buck stepped in front of me as I went to fill the water bucket. The hair along his back was standing up, and his yellow eyes fixed on mine. I nervously stepped back and waited until he moved so I could complete the chore. He then followed me, head tossing, as I proceeded into the pasture. Suddenly, I found myself face-to-face with the buck as he threw himself onto his hind legs and took a few menacing steps in my direction.

person standing in front of buck goat with a five gallon bucket of water

Bucks don’t want to be your best friend. They want to be dominant or put in their place–it’s how they understand the world. If you don’t establish yourself as the leader of the herd, you’re inviting a buck to challenge you for the position. A buck who blocks you, stamps his feet, raises his hackles, tosses his head, or, worst of all, rears up on his hind legs and tries to butt you is signaling that he wants to pummel you into submission.

Don’t let the buck win, but don’t be cruel or, for that matter, afraid of him. Instead, prove that you’re a leader he can follow. Some folks use physical force to subdue their bucks, but I opt for a more psychological approach. Since goats hate water, it’s my secret weapon. I carry a bucket with a gallon of water during all of my buck chores. If a buck stands in my way, I push him to the side with the bucket. If he acts aggressive, I throw the water in his face. It won’t hurt him, but it certainly scares him off and cools down the situation. Life becomes better for both of us; he now respects the bucket, and I can do my work a lot more comfortably, albeit warily.

My first goats traveled with me through the gauntlet of inexperience. Our trials and tribulations paved the way for where we are today. I’m glad to now be wiser and more capable as I share my days with these gentle, ornery, and endearing creatures. I hope that you, too, can learn from your triumphs and failures when you weave a herd into the fabric of your life.

Wren Everett and her husband quit their teaching jobs and moved their family to 12 acres in the Ozarks, where they’re establishing their dream of a self-sufficient, off-grid property.