For the Love of Goats
It’s not uncommon for someone to contact me about a goat problem that they have, and to resist doing anything “unnatural,” such as providing a commercial mineral for their goats. What most people don’t realize is that they aren’t raising their goats naturally to begin with.
In this episode, I’m talking about why my book is called Raising Goats Naturally, what that means, and what it does not mean. I also talk about the five reasons it is impossible for most of us to raise goats naturally in much of North America.
After this episode dropped, I received an email from someone asking how you figure out how much you should intervene in your goats’ birth. And that led me to create the next episode, Goat Birthing: How Much Should You Help?
Other episodes referenced in this episode:
#46 Healthy Weeds and Poisonous Plants with Kim Cassida, April 28, 2021
#54 Nutritional Wisdom with Dr. Fred Provenza, August 4, 2021
#41 Copper Deficiency with Dr. Robert VanSaun, March 17, 2021
#37 Selenium Deficiency with Dr. Robert VanSaun, February 16, 2021
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TRANSCRIPT – Can Goats Be Raised Naturally?
For the love of goats! We are talking about everything goat. Whether you’re a goat owner, a breeder, or just a fan of these wonderful creatures, we’ve got you covered. And now, here is Deborah Niemann.
Deborah Niemann 0:19
Hello, everyone, and welcome. Today’s episode is brought to you by Goats 365, my online membership for people living with, learning about, and loving goats three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. For more information, visit Goats365.com.
Deborah Niemann 0:36
Today, I’m talking about something that is very interesting and controversial. I’m going to try to answer the question: Is it possible to raise goats naturally? Now, a lot of people would say, “Yes, of course.” And, if you know that I have a book called Raising Goats Naturally, you may wonder why I’m even asking this question. Well, the reality is, my books are all published by a publisher. And I didn’t actually name that book. I wanted to call the book “Homestead Goats,” because my idea was that you could buy dairy goats for the homestead, and they would produce all of your milk, the extra male goats could be wethered and then used for meat, you could use the leather from the hides, and of course, you use the poop for compost for your garden. And basically, that goats were just the centerpiece of your homestead. And I turned in my manuscript, and instead, my publisher said, “We want to call this book ‘Raising Goats Naturally.'” I argued, because I said, “People are gonna think this is a book with herbal remedies.” And they were like, “Oh, no. We don’t think that. Why would people think that?” And I said, “Because there’s another book out there with a name very close to that, that is a book about using herbal remedies.” And we went back and forth a little, and they’re like, “But you’re telling people, you know, that it’s a good idea to, you know, follow nature as much as possible, don’t use dewormers regularly, let moms raise their kids…” And, again, I was like, “That’s not necessarily going to be what people think when they see this title.”
Deborah Niemann 2:16
And I was right, because if you look at any of the one-star reviews on Amazon, they are all from people who say, “This person knows nothing about raising goats naturally, because she has no herbal remedies in here.” And so, you may be surprised, then, to hear me say that it is impossible for most people in North America to raise goats naturally.
Deborah Niemann 2:38
First, I think it’s really important that we define what “natural” means here. A lot of people, when they say that, they are thinking, like, “I don’t want to use chemical dewormers. I don’t want to use antibiotics. I want to use herbs instead.” Or, “I want to use homeopathics,” or something more natural. And that is not what I’m talking about when I’m talking about raising goats naturally, because people who have that view of “natural,” they are coming at it from the idea that, like, goats need us to help them—which is not natural at all. You know, nobody is in nature measuring out a tablespoon of an herb to give a goat every day, once a month, or once a week—or whatever—to control their worms. That is not how goats naturally survive if they don’t have people there dosing them.
Deborah Niemann 3:31
I don’t think it is any more natural for somebody to be giving a herbal dewormer to a goat every week than it is for somebody to be giving goats a chemical dewormer every month. In both cases, a human is intervening there to help the goat. And I don’t think goats need any help from us to stay alive, in most cases. Honestly, they’re one of the most invasive species in the world. You know, they have sent in sharpshooters to kill goats in multiple islands in the world, because a couple of them got loose and then overpopulated in no time. You know, this is the story of the San Clemente Island goat. I interviewed someone who raises them, and these goats just reproduced like crazy on San Clemente Island. This happened on an island in the Galapagos a long time ago, because a couple of goats got loose and just kept reproducing. And so the key here, though, is that those goats are in an environment that is very conducive to good health. And the reason that we have so much trouble in the United States is because most of us do not live in an environment that is natural for goats.
Deborah Niemann 4:50
First of all, goats are desert animals. Traditionally, throughout time, they have lived in a place where there is no grass and they are always eating browse—because, we know, they’re browsers. So, these are my first two reasons why we can’t raise goats naturally; they really go hand-in-hand. They’re from the desert, which is very dry. There’s no grass, so they’re eating everything from above their knees. There’s an old saying that goats should never eat below their knees. And that’s because the worm larvae is below their knees. Goats’ resistance to intestinal parasites is not nearly as good as sheep and cattle, and that’s because, throughout time, they didn’t need to be good at resisting parasites, because they weren’t consuming parasite larvae very much, because there’s no parasite larvae on the leaves in trees, which is what they were eating.
Deborah Niemann 5:49
They also like to eat bark from trees. And you know, that’s one of the things that people say, “Oh, well, what about giving goats, you know, natural dewormers?” Well, there was a study that was done on pine bark. And, to get that to the point where it actually reduced the parasites in the goats, it had to be 30% of the goats’ diet. Okay? So, you’re not going to give a goat a tablespoon of pine bark powder one day and call it good for a week; 30% of the goats’ diet was pine bark powder. And yeah, it reduced the worm load. But it didn’t even, like, kill all the worms; it just reduced the worm load. But, if they’re reducing the worm load on a daily basis, that’s good. That keeps them from getting overgrown. But in nature, like, if goats were out there, they could be eating the bark. Like goats… If your goats have ever gotten loose in your yard where you didn’t want them to be, like me, they will strip the bark from trees. And if you’ve got baby trees, it could kill them. This is the way that goats are meant to eat. And most of us don’t have an unlimited number of trees that we can let our goats eat.
Deborah Niemann 7:02
I’m really lucky in some ways that we do have a pond, and there’s willow trees that grow around the pond, which grow like weeds—very fast. And so, we can let our goats back there about once a year for a couple of weeks, and I let them eat all of the baby willows. But that’s… Again, that’s only a couple of weeks. That’s not even close to what it would be like for them in a natural environment. In their natural environment, they are going to be able to browse 12 months a year. And that can’t even come close to that. You know, in Illinois, they’re eating hay for 6 months a year here, because basically, the grass doesn’t grow here from November to the middle of April, so the goats really can’t eat grass because it just doesn’t exist. And the trees have lost all their leaves, and, you know, Illinois doesn’t have a lot of pine trees or anything. So, the only evergreens on our farm are the ones that I paid a lot of money for, and I put in my front yard. And I will say, they have been naturally pruned by my goats. That’s why there are no needles whatsoever for the first 4 feet—or the lower 4 feet—because the goats completely stripped those when they got into my front yard on various occasions.
Deborah Niemann 8:16
If you live someplace like Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, many parts of California that are desert-like, you are going to have a much better chance of being able to raise your goats without any kind of additional support, whether it’s chemical or herbal or anything. In fact, this is one of my biggest frustrations is having people email me, like, somebody’s webpage who lives out there who says that “There is no such thing as dewormer resistance.” Wrong. And that they give their goats “a dewormer every month” and they’ve never had dewormer resistance. Okay, maybe they’ve done that. But, you know what? They don’t have a worm problem, which is why they’ve never encountered dewormer resistance. Just because, those people don’t realize they are living in a desert. They’re living in a place where goats don’t have worm problems, and they could not give their goats dewormer, and their goats would still be doing great. And if they did have a worm problem, they would have goats dying from dewormer resistance if they were just doing this repeated deworming over and over and over again. That’s what happens in the eastern half of the United States, for those of us who have our goats on grass—lots of grass—because that’s where the worm larvae is. And so, the goats are constantly re-ingesting larvae when they’re out on grass, especially if they’ve been on that grass for more than a week or so, because now they are eating where they pooped a few days ago, and those eggs have hatched and the larvae becomes infective and the goats just keep re-ingesting the worms.
Deborah Niemann 9:56
This past summer, I helped multiple people who had moved from various places in the western United States to the East Coast and are having worm problems for the first time ever in their herd. Like, people who’ve raised goats for 10 or 15 years, who felt like they totally knew what they were doing, had never lost a goats parasites, had never even had a problem with parasites, and now, all of a sudden, they have goats dying. And they don’t understand why, because what they were doing out in the desert is not working in the rainy, grassy, southeastern United States.
Deborah Niemann 10:32
So, those are the first two reasons that we cannot raise goats naturally in most parts of the United States. Because, Number One, goats are from the desert. And so, that’s not the right environment for them in most parts of the U.S. And Number Two, goats are browsers, and most of us do not have browse growing on our farms 12 months a year that our goats can consume.
Deborah Niemann 10:52
One of the things I want to call your attention to is Episode 46 that I did back in April 2021 on healthy weeds and poisonous plants. I talked to Kim Cassida from Michigan State, and in there, she talks about how a lot of weeds and shrubs and other plants have so much more nutrients in them than grass does, and so goats have much higher mineral needs than what they can get from grass. And so, that is a reason why we need to also give goats a goat-specific mineral. It is really important to them. I have had people come to me, and they don’t want to give their goats minerals, because they’re not natural, and “How did goats survive before somebody was giving the minerals?” And the answer is: They don’t survive well. They have fertility problems, they have health problems, and sometimes they just die from mineral deficiencies. I also get emails from people who live in various parts of the world where they don’t have minerals available, and their goats have such obvious symptoms of mineral deficiencies, and they don’t have access to minerals like we do. And so, there’s not a lot that they can do. Like, they just have to live with this, you know, with goats that are just not very healthy, not very productive, and it’s really sad. But goats really do need more minerals.
Deborah Niemann 12:22
One of the things I think is super interesting—because I’ve had a number of people contact me from western Africa, which is where Nigerian Dwarf goats are from. And all of those people that I’ve talked to, their goats only have one or two kids. And what is fascinating is that, if you know about Nigerian Dwarf goats in the United States, you know that they are famous for having triplets, and sometimes even four or five kids. We’ve had eight sets of quintuplets born on our farm. And this is very genetic; it’s very specific lines that go back to specific dams and sires and, you know, back five generations or so. And I find it really fascinating that in Africa, these goats are only having singles and twins. And again, like, people send me photos of them, and talk about fertility problems and very obvious symptoms of mineral deficiencies, and then they can’t treat them.
Deborah Niemann 13:20
There was also a study that I read several years ago. It was in a Middle Eastern country, and they were concerned about these goats that were grazing a lot around a landfill or garbage dump, because they were wondering if the goats were going to show signs of toxic metals—you know, like lead and mercury and things like that. And so, they pulled blood on all these goats. And one of the things they found was that they were actually very deficient in a lot of minerals. So, that was a case where, like, that was actually studied, where goats were not really being taken care of by anybody, but semi-feral, you know, living in this area, and they had mineral deficiency problems.
Deborah Niemann 14:03
Reason Number Three that goats cannot be raised naturally in most parts of the United States is because we put up fences. If you listen to Episode 54 with Dr. Fred Provenza—the title of that episode last August was “Nutritional Wisdom”—he talked about how goats are nutritionally wise, and that they can find what they need to eat to balance or to correct deficiencies. And goats can’t really do that if you put up fences and you tell them like, “Well, okay, you are limited to this small space. You’re limited to this half-acre, or this acre.” In nature, they would be able to go as far as they needed to go. They would just keep nibbling and eating things and walking, and they could range over thousands of acres and possibly find what they need. But when you put up fences, the goats can’t go anywhere. Like, all they have is what is in that pasture.
Deborah Niemann 15:03
And it’s really sad to me, every now and then somebody says, “What do I need to plant in my pasture?” And the reality is that there’s nothing that you can plant in your pasture for goats that’s really going to make a lot of sense in the long run, because they need a really wide variety of plants. A huge variety. Like, the bigger the variety, the better, because all plants have different nutrient profiles; they’re higher in some things than others. One of the things that is frustrating to me—and it’s not just with goats, but with human nutrition, too. You see people talking about like, “Food X has all of these amazing minerals and vitamins and stuff.” But, if you look at the actual level… You know, it’s like, kelp is one; I actually addressed this in an article on my website. Kelp has, like, 30 or 40 different vitamins and minerals in it. Isn’t that awesome? Yeah. But the only thing that has in abundance is iodine. Kelp cannot be used as the only mineral for your goats; the only thing it’s really good for is increasing iodine. That’s it. Everything else… Like, yeah, 30 or 40 other minerals and vitamins, that’s great. But they’re all in such low levels that they’re not going to help a goat that’s deficient in anything, or even keep them from becoming deficient in anything else other than iodine.
Deborah Niemann 16:28
So, reason Number Three why it is very hard to raise goats naturally in the United States is because we put up fences and really limit their natural buffet of foods that they would need to be able to get a complete diet.
Deborah Niemann 16:43
Number Four—and this is not true for all of us. But some of us, like me, our water comes from a very deep well. And that means that it is very high in sulfur and iron. Sulfur is an antagonist to copper and selenium. And that means that if you have a lot of sulfur in your well water, your goats may be deficient in copper and selenium. No goat in nature is going to drink water from 100 feet below the ground; they’re going to be drinking essentially rainwater, water from creeks, water that’s sitting in puddles, water in ponds, which doesn’t have all of those minerals in it.
Deborah Niemann 17:24
And you don’t need to go get your water tested. If it has sulfur, it stinks. We had an intern years ago who called it “fart water.” That is how bad it smells. Like, you could be in our living room, and if somebody was washing their hands in the kitchen or bathroom, you could smell it. And a water softener does not remove that. We ultimately had to spend several thousand dollars on a chlorine system to be able to remove it. And that doesn’t even remove 100%. Sad to say, we were so used to the smell that we don’t really smell this tiny amount anymore, but people who visit us can still smell it a little bit. It’s nothing like it used to be. So, we’ve really decreased the amount of sulfur by getting that very expensive chlorine system. But there’s not any other… There’s not a cheap $50 water filter that is going to do that. Believe me, we tried them all.
Deborah Niemann 18:16
The other thing that is in our water is iron. And again, no need to go get a test. If you have iron in your well water, it will turn your white sink or bathtub yellow or orange. You may even—if it’s really bad—you may even wind up with, like, yellow stains on your sheets or, you know, white towels, things like that, because there’s so much iron. Iron is going to bind with copper, making that more unavailable.
Deborah Niemann 18:45
And so, this is why, when we got started with goats, we had problems with severe copper deficiency. And this was back, you know, like 2003 to 2007. And that was back in the day when every vet thought that copper deficiency in goats was impossible, except for a few vets at University of California, Davis. And thank goodness I found their information and knew that I needed to ask for a liver test when a goat died. And that’s how we finally got our diagnosis of copper deficiency, and I finally knew how to help my goats. Because we had goats dying. I never had a buck live past the age of three for the first five years. And the reason the bucks were so much worse is because the bucks got 100% well water, because their pasture was way out from the barn. The does were next to the barn, so they got quite a bit of rainwater, because we had gutters that dumped into troughs in the pasture, so the does were getting some rainwater and also some well water, and that’s why they did not have as much trouble with dying on us. However, our does were not getting pregnant, they weren’t staying pregnant, and some of them miscarried. We saw baby goats at, like, all stages of development from the abortions and kids being born prematurely, too young, too small to survive. And it was all because, you know, they were drinking this water that came from 100 feet below the ground. So, we have to give our goats more supplements in copper and selenium for that reason.
Deborah Niemann 20:30
If you want to learn more about copper deficiency, you can check out Episode 41, where I talked to Dr. Robert Van Saun about copper deficiency. He’s a veterinarian, and has done a lot of research, and is very knowledgeable on goat nutrition. And then, Episode 37, we talked about selenium deficiency.
Deborah Niemann 20:50
And then the last reason, Number Five, that we really can’t raise goats naturally is because most of us don’t let Mother Nature cull our goats. On the topic of parasites, I know that when I got started with goats, everyone was using dewormers routinely, regularly, on a schedule, and I thought, “Oh, that is ridiculous. We don’t need to do that. Nobody in nature has been going around for millennia giving dewormers to goats, and they survived just fine.” But I learned after a number of years that that’s because goats lived in deserts, they were browsers, you know, they could go wherever they needed to get what they wanted, all this stuff that I’ve already talked about. So, you know, back in the early 2000s, initially, I didn’t want to give my goats any dewormers. I wanted to be all organic. And what happened was, goats started dying from worms. And so, then I was very upset, of course, because I loved my goats, I went to the vet, and they told me use these dewormers. “Give them to your goats every month.” And so, I did. And what happened was that, within a couple of years, we had complete dewormer resistance. That means none of the dewormers worked, because all of the worms on our farm were resistant to them. People misunderstand this a lot of times; they think that a goat becomes resistant. No, the goat does not become resistant. The worms become resistant, and it is all the worms on your farm. If you’re giving a dewormer to all of your goats every month, then all of your goats are going to be pooping out eggs from worms that survive that deworming, because no dewormer is going to kill 100%. So, we had a pasture full of worm larvae, and the worms could survive all of the dewormers on the market. So we had no choice, at that point. Mother Nature began to cull our herd. If a goat didn’t have the genetics to survive with a heavy worm load, it died. And there was nothing we could do about it.
Deborah Niemann 23:01
And this is where I learned that, like, a lot of the natural dewormers don’t really work. Because, you know, I was standing out there, like, my goats were dying from worms, and none of the dewormers were working. I tried everything that anybody, if anybody, told me, “This will take care of it.” I put apple cider vinegar in the goats water. I put Basic H in the water. I gave them all kinds of different herbs, wormwood and mugwort. And I tried the herbal blends from all of the most popular people online who were selling herbs. None of them worked. And ultimately, Mother Nature culled my herd, and the ones that were left thrived. And most people don’t do this on purpose, but if you wind up not using dewormers correctly—which nobody did back in the early 2000s—that’s where you wind up.
Deborah Niemann 23:57
We really turned the corner on our worm problems when I rushed a buck down to the University of Illinois vet hospital one night at nine o’clock at night, because I thought, “He’s gonna die on me any second now.” He couldn’t stand, he was very skinny, he was very weak. And I rushed him down there. And the vet professor who was there said to me, “You will never get control of worms with drugs.” And she was the first person who ever told me about rotational grazing. And so, this really opened my eyes to the fact that like, “Oh, okay, so if I want to raise my goats without drugs, I can do that—for the most part—if I change my management.” And so, that’s why my publisher thought that Raising Goats Naturally was a great title for my book, because I learned that it’s really all about the management, that you need to try to mimic nature as much as possible. And in nature, the goats would not be eating where they pooped; they would be moving on to fresher, greener, cleaner pastures. Now, for the last 10 years or so, we really don’t have any worm problems or parasite problems with our goats. And it is really because what I’m trying to do is mimic nature as much as possible, within reason.
Deborah Niemann 25:24
Learning that Nigerian Dwarf goats in their natural environment don’t have four or five kids was a huge eye-opener to me. And, we weigh all of our kids now. And we’ve discovered that a doe can’t make enough milk to feed four or five kids and keep all of them healthy. Like, somebody is going to fall behind because they’re not getting enough milk. Somebody was telling me one time, “Oh, my doe raised four kids. She’s got them right now. They’re two months old.” And I said, “Oh, what do they weigh?” And she said, “I don’t know.” And so she went and weighed them, and she got back to me and said, “They vary from 14 to 24 pounds.” Okay. Do you really think that that 14-pound kid is as healthy as the 24-pound kid? No. In fact, it wasn’t. That 14-pound kid was already having problems with chronic coccidiosis. And that’s what we found, that we are helping these goats along. Like, if we just leave our goats out there to kid all by themselves, our goats are really good at giving birth. Like, I have video that shows, like, a goat giving birth to five kids in 10 minutes. So, she doesn’t have time to do anything other than torpedo them out. And even us humans sitting there with towels trying to dry them off… You know, if it’s cold, we have trouble getting them dried off quickly enough so that they don’t get hypothermia. So, it would be impossible for a doe to clean them off. In fact, I would have to think a really long, hard time to even think if we’ve ever had a doe have four kids survive if we were not at the birth. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with them. Like, if we are there, we have very close to 100% survival, because we’re drying the kids; if the sack doesn’t break when the kid is born, we pop it so that the kid can breathe. But if a doe gives birth by herself, and there’s nobody there, and she’s shooting these kids out really fast, you know, if somebody is born with the amniotic sac still intact, she may not get it ripped off in time. There is a good chance that, if it’s cold, she’s not going to get them cleaned off in time for one or more to not get hypothermia.
Deborah Niemann 27:40
This was something we learned very early on. We missed a birth. Our third year, we missed a birth with triplets, and two of the kids were fine, and one of the kids was half-dead from hypothermia when we found her, because the doe wasn’t cleaning them equally. And also, the other one was, like, smaller than the other two. And so, the smaller one is, the easier it is for it to get chilled.
Deborah Niemann 28:02
Please do not misunderstand this last bit and think that I’m saying that we should let Mother Nature cull our herds. I’m just saying that death is part of nature. And that if you really want to do things naturally, sometimes that is going to end with your animals dying.
Deborah Niemann 28:22
I know, I had this horrible misconception when I got started that, “Oh, animals have survived since the beginning of time without any human help.” You know, like, “Not until the last 100 years have humans been really actively trying to do anything to manage animals, and they survived just fine before we were there.” But the reality is that things were very different before. Like, you don’t hear about goats being taken across the United States on wagon trains and stuff. You know, you hear about cattle, and you hear some about sheep, but you don’t hear about goats. And goats were not very popular in this country at all until, like, the last 20 or 30 years, which is also why there wasn’t a lot of research done on goats until the last 20 or 30 years. You know, we’re not going to do a lot of research on animals that are not really abundant—like, goats are considered a minor species. So, we all just need to be aware of the fact that there is not always a natural answer. Not every animal is going to survive without medical intervention, or without drugs, and things like that. Before we had those things, goats died. You know, that’s the reason that people used things like tobacco and other herbs and stuff 50 years ago, 80 years ago, is because there was nothing else. They didn’t work very well, but they killed some worms. So yeah, if you have nothing else, then some of these older remedies, you know, might be an answer. But, if you have an animal that’s really sick, then you might need to do something that’s a little bit more modern and not necessarily natural.
Deborah Niemann 30:06
I hope that this has helped you to understand more about what it means to raise goats naturally, what a goat’s natural environment is like, and why most of us in the United States, it is literally impossible for us to raise goats naturally, because we don’t even have the right environment for them. You know, if you’re anywhere in the eastern half of the United States, you’ve got the wrong environment, you’ve got the wrong diet… You know, we’re just doing things very unnaturally from the day that the goats arrive on our farm. But, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily going to require, you know, a lot of drugs and heavy intervention; it just means that what we need to do is try to mimic nature and make up for the fact that we don’t live in a desert and we don’t have unlimited browse for our goats to eat.
Deborah Niemann 31:01
So, we can do that by providing them with a really good-quality loose mineral—not a block. I have articles about this on my website; I will link to them in the show notes. And we need to rotate pastures. And if it’s impossible for you to rotate pastures, then you need to set up a legitimate dry lot situation. Not a dirt lot that’s going to turn into a mud lot every time it rains, because that is not healthy either, but a legitimate dry lot. Because basically, you just need to try to imitate the natural environment of the goat. And then, when all of your best efforts to do that fail, you know, if you want to keep your goats alive, then you might have to resort to medications or veterinary procedures and things like that.
Deborah Niemann 31:48
I hope you found this helpful. Thanks so much for joining me today. And remember that this episode was brought to you by Goats 365, which is my online membership for people living with, learning about, and loving goats three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. For more information on that, you can visit Goats365.com.
Deborah Niemann 32:08
And that’s it for today’s show. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to hit the “subscribe” button so that you don’t miss any episodes. To see show notes, you can always visit ForTheLoveOfGoats.com, and you can follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/LoveGoatsPodcast. See you again next time. Bye for now!