Livestock- Goat Economics

Fat is likely to have been the key to the emergence of modern humans. Humans underwent a dramatic change during their evolution where their digestive system was reduced by a dietary shift to more nutrient dense foods. This freed up energy to be used elsewhere, leading to the evolution of our outlandishly huge brains and all the peculiar behaviours they allow. Herbivorous animals get most of their energy from plant matter, especially cellulose that requires large and slow digestive systems to break down with the help of microbes. Our cousins the gorillas are still on this path. Purely carnivorous animals get most of their nutrition from meat and protein, but this comes at a metabolic cost since all that unwanted nitrogen must be excreted. Cats have particularly powerful kidneys as a result. Humans can only eat so much protein before the stress on their organs becomes unbearable. The real rocket fuel that accelerated human evolution was probably fat since it is the only nutrient that is has high energetic density and a low metabolic impact. Hunter-gatherers are known to reject carcasses with insufficient fat. Fatty nuts are also often an essential part of the human diet but tend to be highly seasonal, while animal fat is available whenever game is present. Nuts can be stored for some time but tend to become rancid due to their unsaturated fat content, unlike the saturated fat in animals that can be rendered and stored for long periods of time, such as in pemmican.

When humans adopted agriculture they gradually developed a metabolism that could handle increasing amounts of carbohydrate in the diet, for example through increasing copy number of genes for digesting starch. This is because there are many crops that produce starch but very few that produce fat. In our climate plant based fat is scarce, found only in pumpkin seeds, chufa tubers and macadamia nuts. Industrial science has recently made a wide variety of plant seed oils cheaply available as foods, but before the adoption of chemical preservatives these oils would go rancid before they could be consumed. Even whole wheat contains enough fat to make fresh whole flour go rancid within days. Modern milling strips off the rich oily coat as bran, then chemically bleaches the starchy core to keep flour shelf stable. Converting the unsaturated plant fats into saturated fat by hydrogenation also produced significant amounts of unnatural trans fats, now linked to a wide range of serious health conditions and that are likely responsible for the war on dietary fat in the 20th century. The biggest solution to the fat problem for agricultural humans was the development of dairy animals, which are probably the driving force for the enormous success of the Indo-European people that spread out from the near east to claim territory from Western Europe to India. These people also developed wide spread lactose tolerance, allowing them to consume a food that was borderline toxic to others. Dairy fat continues to be produced during dry and cold weather in animals bred for long lactations and can be stored as clarified butter in warm climates or as whole butter and hard cheese in cold climates. Dairy animals convert low quality plant matter growing on land unsuitable for cropping into high value protein and fat. In my state the essential role of this animal during colonial times was summarised in the book “The Indispensable Goat” where many settler accounts said that without their goats they would have starved.

When most people think dairy they think cows, but for most people through most of history the goat has been the better option (or sheep in regions too wet or cold for goats). Goats were usually an animal for the peasants, while cows were more often kept by the wealthy. One big factor is size. A goat needs less land, allowing them to get by on marginal scraps of land that would never support a cow. Goats are also more flexible in their diet, consuming a wide range of weeds that would be somewhat toxic to cows. Goats also drink a lot less water, even less than their smaller size would suggest. I sometimes wonder if more milk comes out of my goats than water goes in. The smaller size also makes goats a lot easier and safer to manage, with a tame and collared goat just possible to man handle into position. Cows by comparison need to be convinced to go where you want them. An angry goat might at worst cause a broken arm, and my Saanen goats are particularly chilled out. A cow can kill you without even realising you are there. Cows do have the advantage of being more resistant to predators once grown so can graze unsupervised in places goats cannot. The more prolific breeding of a goat also means it is easier to adjust herd size over time as needs change.

It might be worthwhile to outline the dynamics that my small herd has settled into. I currently have two does in milk, three young does pregnant due to kid in a few months, one mature wether (castrated male), two young wethers, and a buck who lives separate from the main herd. They alternate grazing two paddocks about 5 acres each that are full of a variety of weedy species and some grass, so about one acre per goat. At most times of year this is more food than they can eat and the paddocks get somewhat overgrown and untidy. The limiting factor in stocking density is how much feed is available during the worst times, which for us means droughts that can last 6 to 9 months. During these times the pastures get eaten down and a bit thin and I need to supplement their feed with branches cut from trees outside their paddocks. Over time I am increasing the density of shrubs and trees inside their paddocks, something that is not possible to do if you are stocking at higher rates. Stocking at higher rates also means a higher chance of disease and pests, higher chances of unbalanced nutrition due to limited forage choice and much higher chance of goats escaping in search of greener pastures. Saanen goats seem to be much better behaved than others in this regard.

I believe this size flock is about the minimum viable size for a single isolated breeder. If several neighbours had goats they could get away with fewer if they could rely on others for access to bucks and replacement animals. Goats are incredibly hardy until they are not, at which point they are prone to dropping dead without much warning. If you have the absolute minimum of two goats then one is likely to drop dead, leaving you with one very scared and lonely goat that will scream around the clock. If you intend to milk then you will need to breed regularly, which means keeping or borrowing a buck. Having your own allows you to reduce the chance of introducing new diseases into your herd. When dairy goats are raised exclusively on pasture it is best to only breed them every second year with a rest in between which means keeping a second set of does to alternate breeding. Wethers can be culled at birth, but are better kept to size up during periods of abundant feed and culled once conditions start to turn dry. I have also noticed the herd grazes more confidently as the number of goats increase, presumably due to a feeling of safety in numbers.

In terms of production my two does produce 1-4 L per day, peaking in spring as the kids are weaned and gradually dropping over the next year. Feeding imported grain can greatly increase milk production. Assuming an average of 2 L per day this is equivalent to about 4300 kJ and with a person requiring about 10 000 kJ per day means the herd produces about 20 % of our calories for a household of two. On top of that we get about 25 kg of meat, and at 5800 kJ/kg provides about 2 % of the household energy requirement. The real value of the meat is as protein, with humans needing about 60 g per day the goats provide 34 g per person, a bit over 50 % of our needs. The dairy is also protein rich, with 2 L containing about 72 g protein, providing the other 50 %. The culled goats also provide a large amount of rich bone broth, plus offcuts that provide about half our dog food needs. The culled goats also provide about 6 kg of rendered fat, about 3 % of annual household needs but that can also be turned into soap. Goat hides, bones and horn are also valuable resources for making clothes and tools.

As for inputs, goats require rain proof housing since they chill when left in the rain, plus access to clean drinking water. My goats stay in their paddocks behind single electric lines kept clear and connected to a high energy energiser that delivers 3.5 Joules (voltages matter less than total energy delivered). Even if fences are left off for a few weeks the goats stay inside provided there is plenty of diverse pasture to eat (showing you can use intelligence of animals to your advantage). Planting hedges outside electric fences has proven to be very useful. Goats can learn to jump or run under single electric lines (which is sometimes a problem for small kids, but they don’t go far from the herd or eat much). They can also slowly push their way through hedges. Putting both together means they can’t quickly get past the electric line because of the hedge, and can’t slowly get through the hedge because of the electric line. Once established the hedges can provide a source of extra feed during droughts (and I will do an article on hedging later). The total starting costs for a breeding herd, shelter and fencing came in between $5 and 10 thousand dollars. Land costs are extra and harder to account for. Keeping dairy goats is definitely not a profitable exercise compared to just buying industrial milk in the supermarket.

The daily time demands are also a major consideration. Every day I let the goats out in morning, sometimes walking them out to ensure they find good feed (15 minutes), then I bring them back into shed mid-morning with some cut branches (15 minutes) and let buck out. I milk around midday (30 minutes) and put the buck in and let herd out (15 minutes) mid-afternoon, then finally bring the herd back to the shed on dusk (15 minutes). This daily routine of takes about 1.5 hours and in return the goats provide 20 % of calories (40% if I was only feeding myself). The approximate time weighted EROEI of zero input goat dairy is 8 hour working day/1.5 hours work = 5.3 (double that for feeding only myself), which is high enough to sustain basic agrarian societies. This means for every one day I invest in keeping the goats I am paid back 5-10 days to do other activities. More time is consumed by bottle feeding kids, but it produces much easier to handle animals and happens in winter when there aren’t many other jobs. Culling and processing animal takes about 6 hours, for three animals is 18 hours for the other 50 % of annual household protein needs (time weighted protein EROEI might be possible to calculate as well assuming constant daily protein requirements). The value of the herd is higher since goats also produce valuable manure that boosts yields of other crops. Goats also tie you to the farm even more than crops. I must milk and herd every day, though experiments in France showed skipping milking one day a week (14% less work) only reduces total milk output by 7%. I haven’t left farm for more than a few hours or a short day trip since getting goats a few years ago. Traditional societies often used young boys to act as goat herds to reduce predation by wolves and keep the herd out of protected areas (a possible alternative to rediscover in a de-industrialised future).

It is worth stopping to consider the power of exponential growth since it is on everyone’s mind with the current coronavirus pandemic. Currently there are about 30 000 dairy goats in Australia. Kids from them mature every 2 years, doubling the size of the herd. A full model would allow for goats dying as they age, but they can also breed every year if necessary. From this humble foundation herd Australia could grow its goat numbers until there is one milk goat per person in a mere 20 years (10 goat generations) if we wanted to, potentially providing 20 % of the nation’s food energy and 50 % of its protein, running on nothing more than weeds and wattle trees. Everyone would have the chance to experience the affection and companionship I feel every day with my dear goat friends who are the equal of any dog in intelligence and loyalty. Exponential growth doesn’t only happen for diseases and disasters but also for solutions based on biological growth.

Ada got stepped on by her mother and needed a brace. She was always patient when I adjusted her magic foot and is now a mum herself.
Goat kids have an irresistible urge for fun.
Climbing is a great way to warm up.
Weedy pastures looking a little worn down. This same area is now over 1 m deep in forage and should keep the herd going for a few months.
Baby Beatrice. She was the tiniest goat kid I have ever seen but she made up for it by screaming blue murder when her bottle was taken away. She is now the spokes-goat for the herd and always has something nice to say when I see them.

9 thoughts on “Livestock- Goat Economics

  1. So informative, as always. Thanks Shane for all the time and thought and research you put into this.
    I consider this to be an invaluable analysis of goat husbandry, and one I concur with from my limited, but quite real, experience with them. Lovely animals, hard to manage on poorly set up pastures and poor fencing…we gave it up.
    You are succeeding and showing us all what that takes.
    Thanks again, Mate!


  2. Thanks for another interesting and informative write-up. I always particularly enjoy your animal focused articles and comments on other websites. Out of curiosity, how much do you think this information transfers to sheep in place of goats? They certainly seem like similar animals, but I’d imagine the differing behavior and forage requirements might change things. Curious to hear your thoughts.


    1. Thanks for the feedback! I don’t have direct experience with sheep, and even within that species I have read their behavior and hardiness varies enormously. Some forms apparently browse just as much as goats do. Even cows are more grass tolerant than grass preferring, readily eating a wide range of shrubs, trees and forbs if given the chance. Their capacity to tolerate poorer quality feed means it is easier to overstock them and degrade the vegetation. Sheep are somewhat similar in being tolerant of pushing vegetation to the edge of collapse. Goats under those conditions get wormy and turn into escape artists.


      1. That’s good info, I wasn’t aware of the wide tolerance ranges of either species. I’ll be sure to select for breeds that browse more and be careful with the stock rate. Appreciate the response and look forward to your next article.


      2. Hello, I was giving some of your articles a re-read and a follow-up question occurred to me. Do you only eat the muscle meat of the goats or the organ meats and bones as well? If you only eat the muscle meats, this seems like an easy way to increase the fat, protein, and nutrition you are getting from your animals with barely any extra work.

        This book is what I see recommended for anyone looking to get the most out of organ meats. Bones and the like can be made into broth, as I’m sure you are aware.


      3. I turn the whole skeleton into rich broth that lasts about as long as the meat does. I am a fan of organ meat but unfortunately I am the only one in the household, so they usually get combined with the lower quality meat trimmings to make up about half of our dog food requirements (mixed with cheap cooked sweet potato). I do keep the high quality visceral fat to render down, which I have made into decent soap but can also be used for cooking as a vegetable oil substitute. A full grown goat produces about 1-2 kg of high quality rendered fat. You can extract more from the fatty offcuts but it is generally lower quality and more prone to rancidity (more unsaturated fat content).


      4. I’m glad to hear that you’re making use of the whole thing. I’m sure it’s some small comfort to the goat’s family haha.

        Did the organ meats and bones make it into the article’s calculation for protein and calories provided? If not, how much further do you think it would stretch with that included? What about with the poorer quality fat and meat trimmings included as well? I’d imagine you could eat it quickly even if it doesn’t store. (speaking of, I’m sure the dog would appreciate that as well, if he doesn’t already)


  3. That is a really interesting question. The mass of low quality off cuts is probably about equal to the high quality meat. The best organs are pretty small by comparison, though it you cleaned up all the intestines they would be about as much again. So if you were determined you could double or triple the estimated meat yield by including offcuts and all the organs. I try to make use of every part of the goat, including bark tanning the hides. It has worked well so far, with ones I did years ago still being stable. I haven’t found the time to figure out what to do with the leather yet. One more thing on the long to do list, though I should be slowing down tree planting in the next year or two (though a shift to tree pruning will kick in shortly after that).


    1. Interesting to note that it increases so much if you’re determined enough. Likely not worth it now, but in a decade we might have a different perspective. I’ll be sure to keep that added potential in mind when I get my own animals. I’m glad to hear it’s all going to use regardless, anyhow. Thanks for clarifying these details.

      Brain tanning might be good for clothing purposes, though I’m sure you have other options for that. Other than use as shelter or cut into cordage, I’m not really sure. I’m certain you’ll find a use and give us another interesting article about it in time, though.


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