Raising Meat Goats on Pasture

Episode 8
For the Love of Goats

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If you’ve heard that meat goats need to be finished on grain, you’ll want to hear this interview with Jennifer Miller, a small animal veterinarian who raises meat goats with her husband on their small farm in central Illinois. Although Jennifer doesn’t work with goats as a veterinary professional, you’ll see that she has put a lot of research into their decision to raise their goats on pasture and hay. We talk about how they got started with goats and why they decided to raise them on pasture and hay. She also discusses their experiment with spent brew grain from beer breweries in her area and corn.

She also does the math and explains how a pound of protein from hay costs much less than a pound of protein from grain, which costs less than a pound of protein from a protein tub. She shared this formula for “Calculating Cost of Complete Protein,” which means, figuring out how much you are paying for a pound of protein for whatever you are feeding.

feed cost calculations

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Book mentioned by Jennifer — A Compilation of the Wit and Wisdom of the Goat Man by Dr. Frank Pinkerton

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TRANSCRIPT – Raising Meat Goats on Pasture

Deborah Niemann  0:18  
Welcome back to another episode. Today I am talking to Jennifer Miller, who raises meat goats on pasture, which is a new idea for a lot of people, because I know a lot of people think you have to feed them a lot of grain to get them to bulk up and make as much money as possible. But Jennifer doesn’t do that. And she’s going to tell us what she does and how she does it. Welcome, Jennifer.

Jennifer Miller  0:42  
Good morning, Deborah. Thanks for having me. I appreciate the time to be able to talk to fellow goat producers.

Deborah Niemann  0:48  
Yeah, it is always fun. I am having such a blast, talking to people, about their goats and on all this fun stuff. So first of all, go ahead and give us a little background. I know you started raising goats in 2004. So did you decide just right off the bat, like I’m going to do this on grass? Or was it something that developed over time? And how did you even get the idea to do this without feeding grain? Because I know, you know most of you’re going to find says you got to feed them grain to get them really bulked up and make the most money.

Jennifer Miller  1:26  
Exactly. We got a convoluted start into the goat business, we bought the property that we’re at now back in 2004. And we wanted acreage because I had always wanted horses. And so we ended up with 15 acres, which was a lot for the two horses that we were envisioning. So we started exploring other small farm options that we have for raising anything on grass. And we went talked, you know, my husband and I about beef cattle. Do we want sheep? What about goats? And goats were just attractive because they’re neat animals. They’re small. My husband does some traveling, so I would feel comfortable going ahead and taking care of them while he was out of town and doing our background research. 

Jennifer Miller  2:16  
You know, we weren’t really into the show thing. And so we were really looking at goats that could take care of themselves, if we were at work. We have full-time jobs. And we could just let them do their own thing. And that’s how we ended up with the goats. And then we narrowed it down further. What kind of goats, obviously, Boer goats weren’t on the top of our list because we weren’t into the show thing. And back in 0506. You know, that’s really what the Boer goats were about. And so we started exploring the New Zealand Kikos. And those goats back in New Zealand when the breed was created, were raised in very strict calling conditions. And they were out on the pastures in the hills of New Zealand. 

Jennifer Miller  2:58  
So that again, narrowed it down for us what we wanted to do, we did a bunch of reading, we’re nerds, I’ll say that right off the bat, one of the books that we read was, I believe it’s Gail Damerow’s Raising Meat Goats for Profit. And we took a couple of things to heart in her book. And really the main one was, if you’re going to make money, you can’t sell your breeding stock for more than two and a half times what market kids are going for. And in order to do that, you really can’t feed a lot of grain, you need to feed them as inexpensively as possible. And that’s where we went the the grass fed route. I will be the first one to say that we are not able to do pasture all year round. We’re in East Central Illinois, and we get snow. And the goats don’t like to pop through snow. So we do feed hay in the wintertime. But we’ve got experience with that on how you can pick your hay as well. So that was a bit of a lengthy lead in to where we’re gonna go today. I think, Deborah.

Deborah Niemann  4:06  
Oh, no, that was great. I didn’t even know quite all of that. So that was good to hear. And I’ve, we met. I don’t know what, six, seven years ago when we were both speaking at a conference. 

Jennifer Miller  4:19  

Deborah Niemann  4:20  
Yeah. So, it was good to hear that background. So how did it get started? Like where did you, did you specifically look for goats that were being raised mostly on grass, or did you start with goats from a grain fed herd? Or, how did you get started?

Jennifer Miller  4:37  
Our actual first goat on the farm was this old Boer nanny goat that was pregnant. And we wanted to kid out a goat and make sure we could handle that. And then we also ended up getting a couple of, they were bottle babies but they were old enough to eat on their own. So we didn’t have to bottle feed them. And we just wanted to raise a couple of goats and that went well, but while we were doing that, we actually did a lot of traveling down to Kentucky and Tennessee, because that’s where the majority of the Kiko breeders were, again 10-15 years ago. 

Jennifer Miller  5:14  
So we visited three farms that had Kiko goats for sale that were raised on pasture. So we did have some mentors at that time to point us in the right direction. Unfortunately, all of those folks have retired and gotten out of the business because age caught up with them. But we did buy some breeding stock from two out of the three. And we have had very good luck with those goats.

Deborah Niemann  5:44  
Did you try just grass? You know, feeding those first goats grass and hay? Or did you start out feeding grain and then transition when you got new goats?

Jennifer Miller  5:53  
No, our first step into this was feeding just hay and pasture. And so we got our pastures fenced because we actually converted row crop ground into pasture, it was pretty low grade row crop ground, which is why we were able to purchase the extra farm ground we had. So once we got that planted in pasture, started putting goats out on the pasture. And then we also learned as much as we could about buying hay. We went to a lot of pasture walks in the area, our Illinois Extension Service is really good about educating folks on that they have equipment they can loan you to do hay testing. 

Jennifer Miller  6:37  
So we really did try to educate ourselves, we also went to several of the bigger grassland meetings, the American Forage and Grassland Council, there’s a Midwestern one as well, we make connections with other folks that graze in Illinois. So when we were purchasing our hay, we knew what to look for visually on what should be good hay, you know, you don’t want hay going to head where their seed heads in it, because that’s mature hay, that’s not a good quality. But you also need to do the actual testing where you take samples of the hay and send it into a laboratory. Because just because it looks pretty doesn’t necessarily mean it’s got the nutrition that you’re looking for. 

Jennifer Miller  7:21  
And so even though we purchased very good quality goats, from people who were raising goats on grass, I would say a general rule of thumb for any person getting into, especially the grazing goat business, because you don’t have the luxury of the extra feed to get them through a crisis, you’re probably going to have anywhere between a 25 to 50% call rate on new goats coming into your herd. And these are goats coming from places that are raised the way that you want them raised. And like I said, it is just because they don’t have that extra luxury of, oh, if I get a little bit of extra such and such feed, I might be able to power through a crisis, you are going to see some goats that struggle. And we probably went through maybe 60 goats to get 30, maybe 20 to 30 good goats. And we sent a lot of pretty expensive goats to the sale barn, because they just couldn’t make it how we were feeding them and what we expected them to do.

Deborah Niemann  8:34  
Okay, and was part of that because I know, you’re also a FAMACHA Instructor. And you’ve got, I know you have really tough standards when it comes to goat’s ability to deal with parasites. Is that part of that were goats with bad parasite loads part of that call rate?

Jennifer Miller  8:54  
Some of them were absolutely, I mean, we had one or two that we would track over the course of one to two years because we were known like, well, are we just doing something wrong? Are we being too hard on our calling standards? So some of them, you know, we would try to see if you know, maybe the first year was a fluke, what’s going on the second year, but we would see one or two particular goats and then even with those goats’ offspring, that we would have issues with them with parasites and those we absolutely got rid of, because being on pasture, if they’re not able to tolerate some sort of parasite load, they’re just not going to do well for us, and they’re also going to be the ones that are contaminating the pastures for everybody else. 

Jennifer Miller  9:44  
That being said, there was a really interesting study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. It’s been within the last year on how the Kiko goats, they are resilient to parasites. And we’ve kind of believed this all along with Dr. Browning’s research out of the Tennessee State University, that the Kiko goats may have better FAMANCHA scores, but they may be passing on more worms having a higher worm burden, but just genetically, they can tolerate it better. 

Jennifer Miller  10:25  
And that might have been something that was selected out of New Zealand, that, you know, you just need to learn how to deal with these parasites because otherwise, Mother Nature is going to take its course and you’re going to call yourself out of the herd. So, that is something that we found really interesting if we do fecal egg counts as sometimes we will find goats that have not too bad FAMANCHA scores, but might be shedding more eggs. And so they’re more resilient, which for goats on pastures, another trait that you’re actually looking for.

Deborah Niemann  10:54  
So when you decided to plant your pasture, did you, what exactly did you plant because you were starting from scratch because you were coming from an empty row crop field base, correct? 

Jennifer Miller  11:06  
Correct. We were enrolled in the Environmental Qualities Incentive Program, the EQUIP Program, so we had to work with our local NRCS agent on deciding what to plant and we planted various things in our two main pastures. We tried to plant in a lot of chicory because it has the tannins in it, which helped to decrease parasite load. We planted different types of different types of grasses. My basic thing is after about five to six years, the chicory died out because that’s the lifespan of chicory. And over time, even though we planted our pastures in specific things, basically, fescue has taken over, and brome grass. And fescue is great because it comes in sect and it’s hard to kill. 

Jennifer Miller  12:10  
Our one pasture that has a lot of brome grass is really frustrating. Because how the brome grass grows, you have to really keep it short, because of the growing point on the grass itself. As the grass gets taller, the growing point goes up with it. So even if you graze it or cut it for hay, a lot of times you only get one good grazing out of it. So we’re actually in the process now trying to figure out what we should try to do with that pasture. Do we consider tearing it up and replanting it, or just making do with what we have and just rotating through as best we can. 

Jennifer Miller  12:49  
So my thing is best laid plans, we thought we had the perfect pasture planted. And over the 15 years, we’ve seen grass succession. And we’re making do with less than ideal conditions than when we started 14 years ago. We have overseeded with clover to help with the nitrogen. And I do think that’s helped the goats like too, we just make sure that we pay attention when they’re going out on the spring that we don’t have any clover bloat. And then that does happen. We’ve had a couple of goats we’ve had to oil because they’ve been a little greedy, and they’ve gotten into too much clover.

Deborah Niemann  13:26  
The first time that I met you guys, I think is when I saw your presentation about how to be most profitable in the Meat Goat Business. And I have since quoted your information to a lot of people who’ve told me that they’re using a protein block or a protein tub, because that’s really the most expensive protein you can possibly give a goat and it’s really not necessary. Can you talk a little bit about how crunch the numbers for us basically and and tell people, you know, what do you wind up paying for different types of protein for your goats?

Jennifer Miller  14:03  
Sure, sure. One of the things I have to do is give some credit to Frank Pinkerton. He is a retired extension agent out of Texas. And he used to have a column in the Goat Rancher magazine. He also had a book published called the Wit and Wisdom of the Goat Man. And a lot of the slides that we’ve done in our presentations have been thanks to him, making us aware of the nutrient requirements of goats, how much protein goats can actually handle. And then these equations to figure out what are you paying for and how does that look across the different types of feed stuffs that are available because if you look at a feed tub versus hay mean you’re comparing apples to oranges. 

Jennifer Miller  14:59  
But when you break it down to the amount of protein that’s in each one, and you can do the calculation to figure that out, that’s when you’re getting the information that is going to help you decide, you know what you need to feed. So one of the important things to keep in mind is a lot of people get hung up on protein, how much protein do goats need. So mature goats can’t handle more than 12% crude protein in their diet, just because of how their digestive tract works. And so if you are pushing the protein on them, and they are getting more protein than they need, they literally urinated out from the back end. So as my husband says, they’re literally pissing away your money because they can’t utilize more than 12% protein. 

Jennifer Miller  15:51  
And so one of the calculations we recommend people doing is this calculation: how much protein is in the feed stuff, and how much is that protein costing. And the numbers that I’m quoting are from an older talk. And so I don’t have numbers from 2019, or 2020. But what you first want to do is the amount of feed stuff, so the pounds of your feed stuff, multiplied by the percent of the protein in that feed stuff gives you your total pounds of protein in what you’re feeding. So if you’ve got a 50 pound bale of hay that’s tested at 12% crude protein, and you’re paying $4.50 a bale for that, you take the 50 pound bale of hay times 0.12. Your 12% crude protein, in that bale of hay is six pounds of total crude protein. 

Jennifer Miller  16:52  
So then your next step to figure out is how much you’re paying for it. So you’ve got your 450 bale of hay, times your total amount of crude protein in that bale of hay gives you the cost of a pound. So your 400, your $4 and 50 cent bale of hay divided by six pounds of protein in that bale works out to 75 cents. So one pound of that protein, and that bale of hay is 75 cents. So if we go from, these are 2015 prices. If you’re looking at a 16% crude protein block, that protein, I’m not going to go through the numbers to bore everybody. But that pound of protein is $2.84. 

Deborah Niemann  17:42  

Jennifer Miller  17:43  
Yeah, yeah. And how many licks is it going to take for your goat to get the protein that it needs. And I haven’t figured out that equation. And if we kind of move down a 16% 200-pound protein tub, yeah, the cost is less, it’s buck 81 per pound of protein. If you go to 16%, what we call sack feed, a 50-pound bag, proteins a little bit cheaper to buck 50. If you’re able to buy feed by the ton have something custom made get 2000 pounds of feed made. Again, your cost is coming down. It’s a dollar nine per pound of protein. And then it just works its way down. If you’ve got good alfalfa hay, 63 cents a pound. If you’re feeding just straight corn, it’s 96 cents a pound. And if you’ve got some pretty poor grass hay at 9% crude protein, it’s 66 cents a pound. 

Jennifer Miller  18:42  
What we’ve figured out that works for us if we are trying to do straight forage through the winter time, we backing up, we make the assumption that when our goats are on pasture, and it’s good quality pasture, they’re meeting their nutrition. On pasture, we don’t worry about supplementing them spring, summer, fall. When we hit winter time,  we do have hay that we’ve purchased. And we have found that if we can find good quality straight alfalfa hay, and then average quality grass hay, we will do our own kind of custom mixing in our hay feeders where we’ll do maybe a day of grass and then a day of alfalfa. And we’ll alternate that. And that has worked for us very well in the past.

Jennifer Miller  19:34  
 And just you know, incidentally, we did try several years ago, Champaign Urbana is very up and coming for the small breweries. And there was a brewer that would let us and whoever needed it pick up brewers greens for free. So my husband would go once a week in the middle of winter with about eight five-gallon buckets and he would scoop the spent brewers grains into these buckets, we bring them home. And we would feed the does these brewers grains. And once they figured out what it was, yes, they would eat it.

Jennifer Miller  20:11  
I’m not sure truly how much difference it made for the goats getting them through the wintertime, we did experiment one time with some inexpensive corn to see if that would make any difference. This year, we quit all of that. And they’ve just been back on hay, I can’t say I truly have noticed a difference. The one thing that I have enjoyed this year though, is my goats are manageable when I go into the pen, because they know I don’t have anything fun to eat, I would get, last year I think I got knocked down three separate times, with them trying to mob me at the feeder, as I was trying to put in the grain. And I’m, you know what I’m 10 years older than I was. And I’m over that. And so I told the girls this winter when it started, I’m like, you know, we’re not doing that this year, you’re just going to have to deal with what you’re given. And like I said, quite honestly, they’ve all done just fine. And so even though you know maybe three years ago, we were feeling guilty. Oh, you know, we’re being so mean for forage feeding. I see no difference in the goats that we have.

Deborah Niemann  21:18  
Yeah, I noticed that. I used to raise Shetland sheep for 12 years. And I was, I started out feeding them just grass, you know, in the, grass hay in the winter and pasture in the summer. And somebody, an old sheep farmer who no longer raises sheep made me feel so guilty. After a couple of years, I was a couple years into it. And I started feeding them grain. And I actually, that was the only year I actually had kidding problems. Because it’s just crazy stuff was having like lambs were too big and stuff like that. 

Jennifer Miller  21:53  
Yeah, yeah.

Deborah Niemann  21:53  
And that was when I realized, no, these sheep can do just fine on grass. And I quit. And you know, so I was like, one year out of 12 that I wasn’t pure grass. And some, yeah, I just don’t think that grain feeding is always the right answer.

Jennifer Miller  22:16  
Exactly. And it really depends on what aspect of the industry that you’re going into. Because I understand that if you are going into the show goat, if you’re going into the the wether industry, they want fat goats, there’s no other way that I can describe it. They want the big over conditioned goats. And the only way that you’re going to get that is with grain feeding unless you are able to keep very high quality pastures. And at least in my part of the state of Illinois, you’re not able to do that, because we hit a summer slump, and most people aren’t going to put in the warm season grasses to cover you during the summertime. 

Jennifer Miller  23:05  
So I do understand that there are aspects of the industry that grass feeding is just not going to work for. However, for the folks that want to try to, you know, maximize pasture, hopefully maximize profit, getting them out of the barn and onto grass. Yes, you can do it. The hardest thing that that we have really found is we’re limited by the amount of acreage, we only have 15 acres. And we have had a few more drought years. So there have been times where we’ve had to pull them off of pasture and put them back into the dry lot and feed them hay that we were expecting to feed in the wintertime. So we didn’t destroy our pastures. 

Jennifer Miller  23:57  
And that’s where being educated on how to manage your pastures really comes into play. Because if you just keep your goats on a pasture that’s drying up, they’re going to destroy that pasture and it’s not going to come back because those roots are going to be so taxed and there’s not going to be enough reserves for it to come back. So it’s a dance with Mother Nature on managing your grass, managing your goats, and managing your parasites all at the same time.

Deborah Niemann  24:25  
I am so glad you mentioned your dry lot because that’s another session I saw you do at a conference one time because I think a lot of people have the assumption that “Oh, a dry lot just means you leave them in one place until they’ve eaten all the grass”. And and I tell them, “Well, what’s a dry lot today is going to be a mud lot when it rains”. And that’s not what a dry lot is. Can you just give a quick summary of like what you did to create your dry lot?

Jennifer Miller  24:49  
Absolutely. Again, working through the EQUIP program. We had to meet certain specifications, they deem it a heavy use area, colloquial term, everybody calls it a dry lot. So we actually picked an area that was close to the barn where we could, but also a central point where goats can go out to the different pastures. So we can send them into the dry lot as we need to when we need to feed them hay. And what we did was we remove the top several inches of topsoil. We went ahead and put down a landscape fabric. 

Jennifer Miller  25:35  
But it is a special order landscape fabric, we had to get it through Springfield, Illinois, and it’s very thick, it’s almost the density of felt. And it’s porous enough to let water through. It’s heavy duty enough that it has been in place for 15 years, and we haven’t had any issue with mud coming up through it, which I know can happen with some of the very thin landscape fabric that you’ll find at your big box stores. So on top of that landscape fabric, there is four to six inches of road pack that is packed down and then we rolled over it with we didn’t have a big roller, we use just tractor tires, we just rolled over it several times. And then on top of that was another four to six inches of aglime, that’s packed down. The specs that it’s built for is actually built for cattle. It has been fantastic. 

Jennifer Miller  26:34  
We can have them on there, in the wintertime. When we pull them off with pasture, we lock them in the dry lot, they have access to the dry lot in the back of the barn where the hay is fed. They can run around there, we don’t have any mud issues. It sometimes gets a little sloppy on the first inch or two just with freeze and thaw. But once everything thaws in the springtime, we don’t have any mud issues. When the goats go out to pasture, in the spring, summer and fall, we did finally get the horses that started this whole thing. And they will be housed on the dry lot. And their hooves don’t tear it up. And so it is something that if you have a sacrifice area, it is worth the money to do it right. So you don’t have to deal with mud all the time.

Deborah Niemann  27:25  
Awesome. I love that description. That’s, I think that’s really going to be helpful to people. If somebody wanted to buy breeding stock from you. Do you have a website? Or how would they get in touch with you?

Jennifer Miller  27:38  
Absolutely. We do have a website. It’s rushcreekfarms.com. Like I said, we are small acreage, we have about 15 does. We don’t sell a lot of breeding stock, because we do have pretty strict calling standards. The doelings need to grow 0.4 of a pound a day, bucklings 0.5 a pound a day. And so if they don’t meet that, they go to the sale barn, we obviously need to retain some breeding stock to keep our herd head numbers up. But certainly if anybody is interested in either breeding stock or just talking goats, we’re more than happy to chat with folks.

Deborah Niemann  28:21  
Awesome. This has been so interesting and educational. I think it’s gonna be really helpful for a lot of my listeners. Anything else you want to add?

Jennifer Miller  28:31  
You know, one of the things that we found is you just have to go and do it. Start small. Educate yourselves, find some mentors, visit as many farms as you can. Learn from other people’s mistakes. And you just have to jump in and get your feet wet.

Deborah Niemann  28:52  
That is a great summary. Thank you again. It is really been great having you here today.

Jennifer Miller  28:58  
Oh, it was my pleasure, Deborah.

Deborah Niemann  29:02  
And that’s it for this week. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to subscribe so that you don’t miss any of our upcoming episodes. Speaking of which, next week, I’m going to be talking about what everyone needs to know before bringing home your first goat. See you then.

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