Dairy goat wethers are not only loved and valued at Edelweiss Acres near Olympia, Washington, but their owners Donna and Steve Semasko, actually breed for them. The reason-they make great pack goats. And for the Semasko family, the market for trained pack goats is worth taking a close look at.
"With dairy goats most of the time you want a doe, and if bucklings came out, I didn’t want to sell them for meat," said Donna, who has raised registered Oberhasli since her daughter got into 4-H goats several decades ago. "I was lucky enough that I could always find homes for them. I didn’t want to sell the bucklings for meat because they were so sweet. Besides, there aren’t a lot of Oberhasli around and I wanted to see more of them out there."
Semasko’s breed of choice, Oberhasli, have a naturally sweet nature, she said. Of course their disposition was helped along by the fact that the Semaskos bottle fed every kid that was born on the farm. That kind of interaction makes for extra friendly goats and a strong bond between goat and human. Bottle feeding no doubt made it tough to get rid of the "boys" when Edelweiss Acres was a strictly dairy goat place. But now Donna’s bottle-fed bucklings and wethers are perfect for pack goats when they get bigger.
"People looking for personable and intelligent pack goats reserve the bottle babies well before they are born," Semasko said. Hand raised babies turn out to be the best pack goats because they follow rather than drift away from their human packing companions.
Semasko’s pack goat business all started with a bum knee.
"I started having trouble with one of my knees and I was having surgery on it so I couldn’t go out and hike hard for two or three days and carry a pack," she said. "At the time I had a couple of little wethers that were like velcro on me when ever I was around. So I wondered if goats could carry things."
To find out, Donna did what many people do when they have an off-the-wall idea…she Googled.
"I checked on the Internet and found John Mionczynski who had written a book on pack goats and had been doing it for 15 years before I thought of it," she said. "He’d been doing it as a guide service."
Donna did a little bit of reading, took a couple hikes with her little wethers, and knew she was onto something. By the next season she was selling kids for pack goats and shifting her breeding focus to bucklings with pack goat conformity rather than doelings with dairyness.
"I found that for my herd, if I bred the does at the very beginning of their standing heat you get more boys," she said. "If you breed in the middle you get half and half, and if you breed toward the end you get more does."
Last season Semasko bred 10 does. She got 22 kids. Eighteen of those were bucks and the rest were does. That ratio pretty well fit what she had orders for.
Semasko’s Oberhasli bucklings are particularly well suited for duty as pack goats. They are quiet, good natured, and actually have a history as a draft animal rather than strictly as a dairy breed.
"Oberhasli tend to be hockey-that means the hocks in the rear legs tend to point toward the center of the goat," said Semasko, who has given seminars on goats for years. "Where they were originally bred-in the Swiss mountains-they used them in the forest to help with their logging. They found them to be a very easy to manage and the hockiness gives them the capacity to be draft animals. They have most of their power in their rear legs and are able to go up and down hills. They are literally like mountain goats."
Good pack goat conformation is different than that of top quality dairy goats. Semasko’s Edelweiss Acres website offers these conformation tips, as well as other information and links to other pack goat web sites and discussion groups.
Pack goat conformation
- Body type: The pack goat should look muscular in appearance (not a dairy goat type) with thigh/gaskin muscles well defined; shoulders and neck should show good muscle tone.
- The chest should be wide and deep.
- On an adult pack goat, one should be able to put a finger width between each rib.
- The legs should be thick with the front cannon bone and foreleg being approximately the same length, pasterns should be perpendicular to the ground; elbows should not "wing" out (come away from the body) when the animal is on the move; large hooves are a plus.
This type of pack goat conformation is not exclusive to the Oberhasli breed. And, although partial to her Obers, Semasko readily admits that any dairy breed, as well as crosses between dairy and the more muscular meat type breeds like Boer, can produce good pack goats. Semasko said some packers, herself included, like to hike with does even though they rarely get as big as wethers, as long as they don’t have a huge dangling udder.
"I have one doe that never gets a huge udder," she said. "She gives maybe a quart in the morning and one again atnight. That type of goat makes a perfect pack goat. She’ll never be as big as the boys but does can become very strong and they can bond the same as bucks. We have some folks who have purchased does out of her line because they want a doe that’s going to give them some fresh milk on the trail. They also want a doe with a little udder so if they’re going cross country they don’t have to protect a big udder. It’s tucked high up so it won’t get scratched."
Pack goats tethered together are easier to control if you need to leave the trail.
Semasko said the real key to a good pack goat is finding one with a good attitude. A bottle fed goat that has been handled by humans daily has a pretty good chance of developing a good attitude.
"When you’re feeding them the bottle you’re talking to them and teaching them their name," she said. "You’re also touching them everywhere. You’re picking up their hoofs, lifting their tail, rubbing them all over so that when they get to be over 200 pounds they won’t have an ‘ooops, don’t touch me there’ kind of problem."
"Some packers prefer goats with horns and if you want horns on your goat, those need touching as well, so that they know if somebody touches their head when they’re older, it’s okay," she said.
Semasko said pack goat owners might want horns on their goat for two reasons.The most important reason is that they serve as a natural cooling system for a hard working goat. The second reason is that a goat knows he has horns and isn’t afraid to use them for protection on the trail.
"They know they can drop them if there’s an overly aggressive dog loose on the trail," Semasko said.
At Edelweiss Acres, pack goat kids start hiking while they’re still on the bottle.
"We start taking them on one or two mile hikes at about two weeks of age," Semasko said. "They get a little collar and a lead, and they learn to walk with you on a lead. As they get older you won’t need the lead."
Older goats almost always hike off lead but they always have a lead available. The lead is wrapped around the goat’s pack frame where it can be used when necessary. Hikes are always started with the goat on the lead so he or she understands a hike, not a browsing lark, is in progress. After a short walk with the lead the goat gets the message and the lead is removed and stowed on the pack frame. Then the goat is under positive control.
Semasko explained that positive control is a combination of training, experience, and response to simple and clear voice commands.
"If I go out by myself I have two goats with me. Falcon (an 11-year-old wether) usually walks in the front and knows we’re going to the end of the trail," she said. "The other goat stays in back of me."
"If I see horses coming down the trail I will say ‘Falcon, Whoa!,’ and he turns around and looks at me. Then I go up and take his lead which is usually wrapped around his cross buck, and I’ll take both goats off to the side of the trail and we’ll wait for the horses to pass. It’s just a courteous thing to do."
Much of what the Semaskos have learned about pack goats is contained in their own self-produced two manuals. The manuals include much of the information covered in the annual seminars that Donna gives such as:
- Wilderness essentials and safety
- Information on poisonous plants
- Lumbar scoring
- Pack goat anatomy
- References for goat packing supplies
A 4-H manual includes information that is specific to 4-H members, such as is needed for showing, presentations, and records. Pack goat kids for 4-H clubs are becoming a growing part of the demand for Edelweiss Acres babies.
"I’ve been a 4-H leader for 16 years. At one point we had some youngsters that loved their goats but weren’t into the dairy portion," Semasko said. "They wondered if there was something else they could do. We found out they loved to hike and so it was perfect to set up a pack goat project. Nine or 10 years ago we were one of the first 4-H pack goat clubs in the country. Now it’s popular across the nation."
One of the more interesting parts of 4-H pack goat showing is the obstacle course club members put their goat through.
"The trail test with obstacles judge has the youngster put packs on and then walk through the trail," Semasko said. "It involves going over and under obstacles. There’s a water obstacle and one to jump up on and another to jump down from. The youngsters can do this with their goat on or off lead."
The obstacle course is a valuable and practical training ground. Any goat, Semasko said, will take easily to a pack. But getting them used to carrying one prepares them for the real world of packing.
"The main reason you want to get them started with a pack sooner than later is that they realize that they have a pack on," she said.
If we’re going overnight and Falcon is carrying 60 pounds and the pack is wider than him, he knows that from experience. If he’s walking on a trail and there are two trees that are very close, he’ll stop and look at it. We know what’s going through his head. A lot of times he’ll decide to walk around the obstacle and find another way to get back on the trail. The younger goats might try to get through and get stuck with their packs. They learn from experience."
The first experience an Edelweiss Acres goat gets with a pack is at six months when Semasko puts a small soft dog pack on. Most of her pack goat kids are sold by then, however, going for between $100 to $175 each. If a customer wants a fully trained goat they’ll pay around $250. A trained and full grown pack goat can carry between 25-30% of their weight.