After five years of learning to manage a goat herd, and many more years of gardening, we have managed to combine both of our favorite homestead activities. Although we own 38 acres in mid Tennessee, we only utilize about three, because the remaining are steep and wooded. We garden and keep goats in an area deliberately limited in size, and strive to use the land wisely without actually clearing any more woods.
Goats in enclosure next to garden
We merged our gardening and goat herding gradually, and now agree that we would not garden or work with goats any other way. Based on the goat management philosophy of rotating fields for worm/parasite control, we have a summer field and a winter field that adjoins the garden. In the winter, the goats live in their winter goat shed, and roam the garden for browse. In the summer, the goats are kept far from the garden, to minimize the possibility of a goat invasion. Fencing is an important part of our goats and gardening combination. We use 4×16 foot cattle panels for fencing. This type of fencing is strong, does not have to be replaced every few years, cannot be pushed down and compacted like the woven wire can, and is excellent for trellises. Also, it is the only fencing I have used that one person can put up alone, except for the electric strand. The only way the goats ever get out of this fencing is by untying the baling twine I use to tie the gate closed. We also fence the garden with the panels because we want to keep out dogs and deer. Another plus is that a few panels can easily be removed to allow goats access into the garden, without having to cut fencing.
Our garden size is approximately 60 x 130 feet, and the winter goat field is also about that same size. So, combining the goats and garden doubles the size of their field. This provides more space for the babies born throughout December, January and February. We usually keep six or seven does, at least one buck. At birthing time, our herd temporarily increases by an additional 15 head. We do have two other small birthing lots we divide the goats into, so the garden doesn’t have all of the goats at the same time.
Combining the goat herd and garden has been mutually beneficial. The goats generally occupy the winter field from November to March. In mid to late March, they are moved to their summer field. By this time the honeysuckle and other early weeds are making a comeback in the summer field, and the goats are ready to get out of their depleted winter field. After the goats are removed, we till up the old beds, add other natural soil amendments needed, and plant the garden. After planting is complete and seedlings are beginning to come up, we begin cleaning old hay out of the goat shed to use for mulch. By cleaning out the goat shed, we get an empty storage building for summer garden tools and rototiller. This eliminates having to carry tools daily into the garden from the house.
The cleaning of the goat shed is done over time as different plants need mulch, so the unpleasant and difficult job of cleaning out the goats’ shed is spread over a period of time. As the layers of hay are pulled off the top for mulch, the hay underneath has an opportunity to dry out a little. This makes it easier to fork out and move to the garden. At the end of the gardening season, the tools are moved back to the garage and the shed is again ready for the goats.
When we first tried putting the goats into the garden we were concerned about the possibility of the goats compacting the soil. We have found that, because the garden adds so much space to their existing field, no part of the garden is used too much. The goats generally prefer hanging out in the goat shed, or right in front of it and this is where the soil is compacted the most. Tilling in the spring puts the air back into the soil, and we have not noticed any compacting. This year, we will use the winter goat field to plant corn, rather than just using the existing garden.
Before letting the goats into the garden in November, we make sure that we have harvested or removed vegetables which can be harmful to goats. For instance, even though our greens are not finished producing, and we could continue to pick for a couple of months, we pull them up, or transplant them into the greenhouse. Kale, collards, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli, according to the goat books I have read, can cause the goats to bloat, so we remove these. We harvest all herbs, but leave stalks for the goats. We remove tomato cages, to keep goats from pushing them over and harming each other or themselves. We harvest all of the beans, peas, and other legumes for seed. Leaving these on the plant can also cause gastrointestinal distress. By the time the goats are let into the garden, most of the garden has dried up, and the weeds have quickly taken over the space once occupied by garden plants, so they can hurry up and make seed before winter. The goats mostly end up clearing the weeds that have grown up since late summer, and also leftover, dried up vegetables including squash stalks, watermelon vines, and dried bush bean leaves and stems. The goats spend the winter eating corn stalks, and meticulously pick the stems of the pole green bean plants off of the fence. Because we garden organically, pesticides or herbicides are not a problem.
In March, by the time volunteer potatoes and onions are coming up, and Anise Hyssop is beginning to grow up from the roots, we remove the goats. I have never seen the goats nibble at the early volunteer potato sprouts, although the green on the potatoes from exposure to the sun is a cumulative poison for goats. We make sure all of the potatoes have been dug and removed from the garden, and any rotted potatoes get tossed out of the garden. Even though early sprouting garlic and onions can taint the taste of the milk, it is not an issue for us since I let the mothers raise their own babies. By the time we start milking, the moms have been moved to their summer field. Onions, garlic, and parsley are especially high in nutrients for the goats. (Note: These plants may give the milk an "off" flavor.)
Lot intended for gardening being prepared by goats.
Using the garden as an extended goat field has been beneficial for the goats in that they get to eat a larger variety of browse. It is beneficial to us, because they clean up the garden waste. Rather than cleaning up the garden ourselves, and then waiting for the composting to do the magic on the stems, the goats clean the garden, and then magically and quickly transform it into a usable product (manure!), which they randomly spread throughout the garden.
It also occurred to us that possibly the manure which was being added over the winter might be too "hot" for the new seedlings. In late March and early April, we transport even more manure into the garden beds from a source with two-year old manure. By the time we add whatever other garden supplements we are going to use (lime, minerals, sand, inoculants, etc.) to the old manure and till with the existing soil, the new manure is so spread throughout the earth that it doesn’t pack much of a punch that we can see.
Combining the goat field and garden gives the goats a larger field in which to play and exercise. Feeding and watering the goats at the far end of the garden encourages movement out of the shed. I feed my goats four-parts whole oats mixed with one-part non-medicated chicken scratch. The corn and wheat from the scratch are cracked and do not germinate when spilled in the garden. However, the oats do germinate, and when tilled under in the spring, enrich the soil with green nutrients.
Another advantage to cycling goats into the garden and having an adjoining goat field, is that only one water line needs to be put in for both activities, thus saving on the expense of running separate water lines to goat field and garden.
Quite frankly, the only disadvantage we have found to combining the goats and the garden, is that only annuals such as green beans, tomatoes, squash, corn, potatoes, peppers, etc. can be planted in this garden. We are working to eliminate this problem by having a different perennial garden which the goats do not have access to. We will plant greens to use over winter, asparagus, rhubarb, herbs and other perennials. In fact, several young bucks are in that field right now, clearing weeds and grass, exposing rocks to be removed, and of course, doing what goats do best-fertilizing the field for us.
Lisa Luck happily gardens and raises goats with her husband, Darrell, and grandson, River, in middle Tennessee. She has three grown children who live within three hours and frequently visit the farm. A few of her interests include working in the greenhouse, cheesemaking, photography, writing, homeschooling, and homemaking. Lisa also has a desktop publishing business which she runs out of her home.
Poisonous garden plants:
- Green potatoes
- Rhubarb leaves
Plants which can cause gastrointestinal distress:
- Green beans
- Greens (collards, mustard, kale)
- Brussels sprouts