As we kick off what I can only imagine will be a fairly long-running series on the rearing of our cantankerous caprine friends, as well as their broader usages, I feel compelled to present a disclaimer–I am far from impartial. I grew up caring for a small flock of goats, and they are far and away my favorite four-legged companions, tied even with the loyal canine. As such, if you’re looking for a series of articles to talk you out of some far-fetched dream of goat-ownership, this ain’t it. Chances are, in this very article I will wax poetic about the myriad usefulness of goat-given produce. For those of you who enjoyed our Guinea Hen series, this will be structured in roughly the same way, albeit with a few more parts. We’ll begin today with a broad overview of the cloven-hoofed critters, and follow it up with articles on rearing, housing and some of their more elaborate uses in the future.
Okay, genealogy isn’t exactly the right word here, but I’m on an alliteration kick so bear with me. Goats are one of the oldest domesticated species of animal in the world, and it’s not hard to see why, considering their multitude of uses. From milk and meat to fur and hides, goats may be one of the most useful animals on the planet, and at a very manageable size. Likely originating with the wild bezoar ibex of the Zagros Mountains, Neolithic farmers herded goats primarily for easy access to milk and meat. It was here that the numerous secondary uses of goats began to become apparent, with their dung being utilized for fuel, and their bones, hides, hair and sinew being used for clothing and tools. Jump the clock ahead a few thousand years, and folks discovered their skins can be made not just waterproof enough to keep out the rain, but to store wine in as well. Prepared differently, the skin could even be made into vellum, a parchment-type material used for writing.
Alternative Uses for Current Caprines
Of course, the world has come a fair distance since we’ve had to use flaming piles of goat manure to keep warm, but the humble goat still offers a variety of uses beyond, or connected to, milk and meat, which for obvious reasons remain the primary. Here are some of the most popular.
Sentient Bush Hogs
Let’s start this one by dispelling a common myth–goats are NOT lawn mowers. Not even a little bit. If you’ve purchased goats with the hopes of saving on time, lawn-mower and fuel costs, you will be sorely disappointed. In fact, you will sooner lose your goats in hip-high growth than see them clear even a small patch of common grass. As brush-clearers, however? The animals are second to none. Turn them loose in any dense section of underbrush you need cleared, and the animals will have it down to dirt in no time. Weeds, leaves, blackberry brambles, full-on sticker bushes, goats will tear through it all. When that’s gone, they’ll even chew the bark off your trees if you let them. The trick is, goats ingest food based on how well it will ferment in their four stomachs. As such, they like variety, and will be drawn to the most nutritious plants–which grass is not. This is why goats are technically classified as browsers, rather than grazers.
Sheep are not the only animals who can produce a fine natural fiber. In fact, one of the finest textile materials around–cashmere–comes from cashmere goats. If your tastes are a little less fine, other breeds of goats–Angora and Pygoras specifically–yield mohair, which can easily be spun into yarn. If you’re a knitter, weaver or crocheter, and don’t mind picking up one new skill (spinning), goats can supply you with all your yarn needs in perpetuity–no more trips to the store for ever-more-pricey balls of yarn.
I mentioned several uses connected to milk and meat–this is the first, and possibly most unanticipated. Goat milk, as it turns out, can make a very soft soap, perfect for those with more sensitive skin. (Perhaps this would be a fun subject for a future article…)
The more obvious alternative use for goat milk, Gouda, Cheddar and even Brie can be made with it, alongside more traditional goat-specific cheeses like Chevre. Feta, a popular staple in Mediteranean diets, also uses goat’s milk, though it is often blended with that of a sheep as well. Chevre and Feta, actually, happen to stand alongside Mozzarella as the easiest cheeses to make, particularly at home. We will cover this process in detail in the future.
Much like any game animal, if you’re going to slaughter your goats for meat, the hides can be kept and tanned. Now I realize this strains the modern definition of “useful,” but it can be a fun project nonetheless. Once complete, the hides can be used to make gloves, or even sewn together to make rugs, as goatskin is exceptionally durable, especially when compared with other commonly tanned materials such as deerskin (which I must admit, is more where my expertise lies).
It seems I have again run long and loquacious (see? I warned you), so I’d best wrap it up while four of you are still awake. Tune in next time as we go in-depth on some different breeds of goats, and the attributes of each.
A humble homesteader based in an undisclosed location, Lars Drecker splits his time between tending his little slice of self-sustaining heaven, and bothering his neighbors to do his work for him. This is mainly the fault of a debilitating predilection for fishing, hunting, camping and all other things outdoors. When not engaged in any of the above activities, you can normally find him broken down on the side of the road, in some piece of junk he just “fixed-up.”
James Phipps says
I have Kiko Goats in Central Texas. They do well on my acreage.
They are very prolific. To coyotes at bay I have a Great Pyrenees-Anatolian Shepherd mix. He does a good job. I have an older Boxer who thinks that she is a wannabe herding dog.
Goats are supplemented with feed but probably 95% of their diet comes out of the pasture. In the winter, they even eat cedar. A good fence is a necessity to keep all of the animals in. Shelters are important because mine dislike rain. Obviously a water trough and a stock tank is a necessity.
Some folks us llamas, donkeys or Great Pyrenees for livestock guardians.
Great article Lars. I live in TX where I have found that goats are very popular livestock. I have a fair amount of land, some wooded, some open field and a stream fed pond. I would be interested in whether or not a small flock of goats would do well if left to their own devices (ie left to roam wild) if released in this type of environment.
Goats also make good coyote food. I have a wild herd that roam between ranches. They’ve been here for many years but the herd stays small due to predators. Some years we see kids with the herd but we also see them dwindle. Their mortality rate is high. They seem to survive by having the ability to move around.away from the threat. I have raised goats for 23 years and here in TX I couldn’t do it without 2 Pyrenees dogs being with them for protection.. So yes they would survive but they would need hundreds of acres to stay out of harm’s way. I think they would be at a great disadvantage to turn out domestic goats to the wild. they have no street smarts. Also there’s safety in numbers. A small group just wouldn’t survive.
David Smith says
Good article; would like to read more about the challenges associated with goat-tending, including how much space they need, appropriate fencing, etc.
They need food, like the article says they are browsers and like brush. They will eat grass if that’s all there is but they also get parasites from eating so low to the ground. U’ll need a good Goat fence, one with the proper spacing so they don’t get their heads caught in it. Barbed wire won’t cut it, I’ve seen goats go thru a 9 strand barbed wire fence like it wasn’t even there. Most important get a protector, I run 2 Pyrenees dogs, they live with the goats. They are the best protectors, they live to protect their goats. I socialize with them each day. Their job is a hard, boring one and they look forward to their loving and cookies each day. I lost 1 goat to predators in 23 years and that was the day I removed the dogs from the herd to care for their needs. I use 2 to keep each other company. They are low maintenance but keep the mats out of their hair. There’s many good web articles on raising goats.