Plenty Of Plant Varieties Available For Goats

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I frequently receive questions from new producers and potential producers about what types of plants goats do best on.  As always since I am in West Texas, and my readers are all over the world, I leave it to you the reader to figure out which types of plants and techniques will work in your area.

What works in my area may not be successful in your area. You should have access to local experts that can tell you what types of plants will do well in your area and when to plant them even if they don't know what types of plants goats like.

Also, be sure to ask whether the plants you will use can be toxic under conditions in your area. Some plants that are normally safe are toxic under the right conditions, and you will want to be sure that you won't run into that problem.

If you are a producer who has been blessed with native range that is thick with weeds and brush you probably don't need to do anything except maintain proper stocking rates.

The best plants for goats are brush and broadleaf weeds. Goats prefer to browse, rather than graze, and will nibble leaves and shoots far above the ground (and worm larvae) that are a source of concentrated nutrients. This type of pasture will result in rapid weight gains, and reduced use of wormers even in areas of high rainfall.

If you have that type of native range available I would recommend against clearing the brush and weeds to replace them with something else.

Depending on the density of the native plants you might consider broadcasting seed of plants that would do well in the areas that are less densely vegetated to increase the number of goats that the land will support.

If your place is like mine was: an over-grazed patch of rocks, dirt, and the occasional clump of dead vegetation or cactus; or is infested with plants that are toxic to goats; or has a plant community that is not preferred by goats, then you may want to consider starting over from scratch.

Your first step will be to remove the unwanted plants. The method of accomplishing this will vary depending on what you are trying to get rid of, but will almost certainly involve mechanical methods, chemical methods, or a combination of the two. You will need to consult with someone in your area that is familiar with the plants you are trying to kill, and the methods that are most successful and cost efficient in your area.

Next you will want to determine what to reseed with, actually you might want to do that before you kill what you have to make sure that your project will be an improvement. Again, you will have to check with a knowledgeable local to determine which of the plants I discuss below will do well in your area.

In general, you are looking for weedy grasses, small grains, legumes and/or broadleaf weeds that will do well in your area, and are not toxic to goats. The types of grasses that cattle and other grazing animals prefer are not best for goats.

Perennial grasses like; coastal and other bermudas, switchgrass, bluestems, johnson grass, etc. are either too fine bladed or too coarse and tough for goats. They will graze the tender shoots of those grasses, but will ignore the rest of the plant or eat it only as a last resort.

Goats prefer grasses and small grains that are more tender and/or weedy in their growth habit. The following is a partial list of these plants that will work for goats: crabgrass, orchard grass, millet, rye grass, rescue grass, fescue (endophyte free or endophyte friendly varieties), wheat, oats, barley, sorghum, sudan, and sorghum-sudan hybrids.

Goats also like most types of legumes. The main thing to be careful of here is that some types of legumes can cause bloat, so you need to be careful which varieties you pick, and how you manage your herd's access to it. If the goats will be on the legume pasture continuously, then bloat will be less of a problem then if they will be rotated between legume pastures and grass or other type of pastures or a feedlot.

Legumes that goats like include: alfalfa, cowpeas, peas, soybeans, peanuts, lespedeza, lablab, clovers, vetches, and medics. Many of these are annuals that will reseed every year if you allow them to set seed, and some are perennials that will grow for many years if you don't overstock. Legumes also put nitrogen into the soil reducing or eliminating the amount of fertilizer needed.

Finally, goats enjoy weeds and brush. Seeds for these types of plants can be difficult to find commercially and/or expensive. One of the best weeds for goats is pigweed, and the seed is available in a mixture with crabgrass seed from Elstel Farm and Seeds in Ardmore, OK (800-858-7333 or http://crabgrass.hypermart.net/). You may want to see what other types of weed or forb seeds are available in your area.

A popular type of brush for goats that is planted in my area is Four-wing Saltbush. Our local seed suppliers offer this seed, you will have to see what types of brush seeds, if any, are available for your area.

As I said, this is only a partial list of plants that goats prefer, but you can get an idea of what types of plants you need to consider. Next you will need to select specific plants taking into consideration the climate, soil conditions, etc. in your area.

In my area, something is growing pretty much all year depending on the weather.

Most years winter here is nearly indistinguishable from fall and spring. The major differences between winter and the other two seasons are the days are shorter, and we have periodic cold snaps that send temperatures below freezing for days at a time a couple of times each winter. Other than that winter temperatures are usually mild enough for cool weather plants like oats, wheat, clover, etc. to grow in between the cold snaps.

Rainfall is usually more dependable here in the fall and winter, and the rain falls in the form of drizzle, light rain, sleet, or snow resulting in more moisture in the ground. Since temperatures are cooler, the soil doesn't dry out as quickly after a rain. Contrast that with summer when the rain falls hard and fast, if it falls at all, and runs off or is baked out of the soil the next day when temperatures top 100 degrees.

Those factors make planting small grains and cool weather grasses and legumes a no-brainer in my area. Warm weather plants, on the other hand, are a big gamble that frequently doesn't payoff. In a good year I can grow enough during the fall, winter and spring to carry the goats through the summer on the remains of the cool weather plants.

If you live somewhere that the ground is covered with snow most of the winter, or winters are too cold, then obviously you will have to focus on growing warm weather plants.

For my ranch I have been planting a mixture of oats, rye grass, rescue grass, and clover each fall, then in the spring I plant the pigweed and crabgrass mix I mentioned above. I selected varieties of each type of seed that have been developed for the conditions in my area.

I prefer to use a mixture of different seeds for several reasons.

First, goats prefer variety in their diet, and are happier taking a bite of this then a bite of something else.

Second, conditions vary widely across my property, even over short distances, so in one area one type of plant may thrive while just 10 feet away a different type of plant does better.

Finally, the different types of plants are at their best at different times of the year. The oats come on really strong in the fall and winter, but by mid March they have gone to seed. The rye grass on the other hand seems to do better in the spring, and provides little benefit in the fall and winter.

By planting a mixture of different seeds I can extend the time my goats have good quality pasture, and increase the amount of acreage that is usable.

After selecting the types and varieties of plants you will need to plant them, fertilize appropriately, and pray for rain. Below is a description of how I went about preparing, planting and fertilizing our pastures. Again, you will have to check on what methods will work for the plants you are planting and the conditions in your area.

I cleared most of the mesquite and prickly pear from my pastures a couple of years ago, and have sprayed or removed the seedlings that have tried to reestablish since then.

This makes seeding and fertilizing the place a simple process. In late summer I have a soil test done, and based on that we decide what type and quantity of fertilizer to use for the seed we will plant.

When planting time arrives we just mix the fertilizer, the seed, and a little water (to get the seed to stick to the fertilizer) together. That mixture is placed in a spreader that can be towed behind a pickup, and is broadcast onto the pasture. We go behind that with a disc, and lightly disc the seed in to the soil.

I have found that this results in a thicker more uniform stand then using a drill, and the numerous small rocks in my soil cause too much damage to a drill anyway.

The whole process takes a couple of hours. The true genius of the whole thing is the timing of everything. If you are going to do this then you need your goats in sync with your crops in sync with your market and management practices.

When temperatures cool down in September and the rains start it is time to turn the bucks in with our does, and to seed the pasture.

Since I raise stock that can be registered I pen breed the does. Each of our sires is placed in a separate pen with his own harem, so I know which buck sired each does' kids. The goats are kept penned for 6 weeks (or longer if the rains don't cooperate) so that the seed can germinate and get established, and the bucks can do their job.

If all goes well, by November the does are bred and the pasture is ready for them. The does go out in the big pasture, and the bucks go back to their pasture. The does stay there until their kids are due in late February and March then they go back to the pens to kid.

Again, since I register my stock I have to keep track of birthdays and pedigrees, and I find it much easier to do so when the kids are born in a one acre area instead of spread out all over the ranch. The day they are born I: weigh them; tag them; and record their dam, their sire, birthrate, weight, tag #, etc.

The does and their kids remain in the pens during March which coincides with the time that some of the annuals in the pasture are setting seed. By keeping the does off the pasture for a few weeks I don't have to buy as much seed every year.

Around mid or late March we mix the crabgrass/pigweed seed I mentioned above with more fertilizer and broadcast it on the pasture. We don't disc in the spring because the crabgrass and pigweed seeds are very small and will germinate fine without being disced in, and doing so would destroy what by then is a thick stand of plants that should continue growing into June if the weather cooperates.

After fertilizing/planting the does and their kids go back on the pasture. The kids are now a month old and browsing in addition to nursing. The buck kids will stay until the end of May when we will ship them to ASU for the performance test. The doe kids will stay with their mothers on the pasture until we sell them, or breeding season rolls around again.

The kids will reach weaning age around the end of May which coincides with the time that the cool weather plants start to die off, and the does nutritional requirements drop since they are no longer nursing kids.

We go through the summer giving the growing kids access to a protein supplement in a creep feeder if necessary, and the does fend for themselves in the pasture until breeding season rolls around. Then in September we start all over again.

As you can see the whole operation is designed to take advantage of our climate (best growing conditions in the fall, winter and spring) while producing goats for the market I have selected (performance tested commercial herd sires which must be born between January 1 and March 31 to be eligible for the performance test).

Our herd requires maximum nutrition in the spring when the kids are still nursing, and the plants I have selected are at their best that time of year. In the fall and winter the herd's nutritional needs are higher than normal since the does are pregnant then, and the plants I picked are capable of meeting those needs. Finally, in the summer our does' nutritional requirements are at their lowest, and our pastures are at their worst that time of year.

The only part that is out of sync are the doe kids which are still growing during the summer. Their nutritional requirements must be met most years by providing a protein supplement. Their brothers are at the performance test, and aren't my problem at that time of year.

If I was producing goats for slaughter I would want to be in an area where conditions were best in the fall, worst in the winter, and good during spring and summer (that describes most of the rest of the country). Then I would breed/plant about April-May, kid in September-October, and wean/sell kids in December-March when prices are at their best.

By taking into account climate, soil conditions, and the market for their product; producers can select plants that will work best in their operations.

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This page updated 04/10/03

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