Rotate Your Goat

A quick note- I am experimenting with putting my blog on substack. You can access it there and sign up for reminder emails when new posts come out. If my audience grows there I might move the blog over there, though will give readers on wordpress plenty of time to adjust.

https://zeroinputagriculture.substack.com/

When we first bought our 40 acre farm in subtropical Australia it came with a herd of ten beef steers. Even though we were away in the city for work during the week I managed to set up extensive mobile electric fences to move them to new ground every week, rather than sticking to the old system of only moving them between the four permanent paddocks every few months. Within a year the promised effects arrived. Animal impact was concentrated and the plants had a long, uninterrupted period for regrowth. Pasture diversity increased. Springs appeared at the bottom of hills. My paddocks stayed green and productive long after a drought turned everyone else’s land to dust.

Once we moved to the farm full-time I shifted from beef steers to dairy goats (reasons here https://zeroinputagriculture.wordpress.com/2020/04/03/livestock-goat-economics/). Goats are often demonised as environmental vandals, though interestingly the deforestation of the middle east didn’t happen until thousands of years after goat domestication. The key change was the local extinction of predators like lions: herbivore grazing dynamics fundamentally changed in their absence. Humans have the responsibility to reproduce healthy grazing patterns in our livestock today.

When I changed from cattle to goats six years ago I initially decided to give up intensive rotational grazing. The amount of animal biomass was much lower, and the more diverse grazing habits and uncertainty over how effective electric fence meant slow rotation in large paddocks might be suitable for establishing weedy tree species like Acacia alongside the goats. My land is wet enough to support thick forest, and goats adapt well to such systems, so the ultimate aim is selective reforestation.

I shifted back to a system with two large permanent paddocks with slow rotation, setting aside 7.4 acres of NE facing hills for the goats, leaving the bulk of the farm for establishing productive forests. An awkward 1 acre paddock was kept aside for grazing during droughts. Hedges and fodder trees planted around the margins for cutting branches for supplementary feed. After five years the goat paddocks were slowly losing the improvements I observed under the weekly cattle rotations, and the rate of establishment of more desirable species inside the paddocks was negligible. The system accumulated standing dead plant material through wet periods. The most infrequently grazed one acre paddock was by far the worst.

The recent floods were hard on the goats, and even harder on the existing electric fence infrastructure. I left the fence off for months due to vegetation touching the lines. The goats were surprisingly respectful of the boundaries for many months but eventually learnt to venture out into the wider world, though the barbed wire boundary fences kept them on my property. Interestingly they kept to the margins of the thickest forest regrowth, perhaps an old instinct to avoid places where predators could ambush them. They were pretty selective in what they ate, mostly targeting weedy species and leaving my young fruit and nut trees alone.

Once the rain stopped I moved the herd into my old weed-choked vegetable garden beside the house (surrounded by a very hot new electric fence to retrain them) while I pulled down the old damaged fences around their pastures. I also took down the old barbed wire fence that ran through the middle of this space since it was only a hazard for goats that squeezed through it.

Around the goat paddocks I put up star pickets, ran thick wire along the top fence and more durable braided plastic electric cable along the lower edge where kangaroos often bounce through. Soon I will plant Malvaviscus hedges outside the open edges to hinder their movement. Along the top of the hill I will build an alleyway so the goats can travel to specific slices running down the hillside, but I can extend this as I rotate the herd. The land is a bit flatter here so will be more tolerant of continuous animal access.

Starting from the southern end close to their shed I gave them approximately 0.3 acre strips, rotating every third day (though this had to be judged by eye- you ideally want to move them when about half the vegetation has been eaten or impacted). Time will tell if the narrow strips running vertically on the slope will cause an erosion problem, but I suspect the shape will allow me to focus the animal impact more effectively on unpalatable species. Goats are harder to force into concentrated spaces since they are such selective eaters (and skilful fence jumpers). Three days is a useful timing since the fastest maturing parasite (barberpole worm) take about that long to be ready to reinfect the goat. The space should end up dividing into about 25 strips, meaning at three days each there should be four rotations every year, or a total of twelve days being grazed or 3% of the total year.

Learning about managed intensive grazing has been really thought provoking. Traditionally the question is framed as selecting the right number of animals per acre, with problems explained as being due to “overstocking” or more rarely “understocking”. Human language has this awful habit of falling into false dichotomies. Surely if those two are opposites then you have to be doing one or the other if you aren’t somehow perfectly balanced in the middle.

The plain fact is that there is no perfect uniform level of anything in any living system. Life needs to ebb and flow, to peak and trough, and not on a set schedule dictated by words and numbers but guided by interacting with the world and responding to it. You learn to sense the right timing to move on the herd by looking at the behavior of the plants, soil and animals and responding to the weather.

Looking at my current system, which depends on cheap and reliable grid based electricity, energisers, tape and insulators made from fossil fuels in faraway factories, you would be right to point out how utterly fragile it is (though at least the goats are being steadily selected to need no imported feed or medications). At some point even barbed wire fencing will probably be unavailable and alternative methods for managing livestock will need to be rediscovered.

Long ago in rural Queensland some towns had a house goat for each family that left its shelter in the morning to join all the other goats to graze on the margins of the town. They returned to their own family every evening (though this was only possible when there are no crop fields around the town, and few predators lurking further out).

In pre-industrial society where each village was surrounded by fields of valuable crops, fencing was too valuable to use on any meaningful scale with grazing goats (except small house yards to keep them safe and contained). Instead the herds would walk around the semi-wild margins of the village under the guidance of a goatherd, often a young male who wasn’t yet strong enough for more demanding jobs.

Goats are exceptionally intelligent animals (on par with dogs in my experience) and that same talent for getting through fences when unattended can be harnessed to help the animals get their needs without making a nuisance of themselves. Once the embryonic forests on the rest of my land get past their initial fragile stage I will experiment with taking my own small herd to graze between the saplings. Maybe in the future our roads won’t be infested with speeding cars so I can take them to graze the roadsides as well.

Managed intensive grazing ultimately has nothing to do with paddock size. The key ingredient is management, which means observing and responding to the system as it evolves. Anything can be a poison or a medicine depending on the intention with which it is applied.

Aerial view of new rotation system. The goat shed is the black rectangle. The blue lines are the solid wire boundary and the orange the braided plastic. Yellow shows the planned alleyway fence, and individual slices are shown in green, made of white electric tape on movable pigtail stakes.
My beautiful young buck, Dougal, enjoying banana leaves after a busy day grazing a fresh strip of pasture.

3 thoughts on “Rotate Your Goat

  1. Fascinating. You said the key is management, which seems endemic in these efforts. Nothing yields fruit so well as paying attention!

    Allow me to state what seems like the thesis. You’re managing for on specific outcome: a significant amount of high intensity grazing pressure in as short a time as is reasonable, with maximized recovery time.

    I’m sure it’s dependent on the grazing behaviors of the livestock, and the species mix of the pasture, but do you have any words to say on how short a recovery is too short? It seems, from your observations, that something like 2 years is too long. What is the sweet spot?

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    1. The general approach comes from the work of Alan Savory, which has been extended by many other farmers and researchers. Every species of plant has an optimum cycle of impact and recovery, with grasses being adapted for the most intensive treatment (but still needing predictable rest cycles). In my system I would ultimately like to integrate the goats with the tree species that my climate favours, and I am pretty sure I can do this, but it will require a multilayered approach of giving the goats a smaller space for regular grazing (where trees will have difficulty recovering) coupled with larger spaces with less frequent goat impact that will allow trees to mature. Over longer time periods the goat paddocks could be taken out of regular rotation when I have enough space with robust established forest available for them.

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  2. I’m not an expert on things goat, but I’m sure,with all your thinking, something you do will eventually work out for you. Re shifting to Substack… go for it. I’ve subscribed to a dozen or more accounts, although not paying ones, but if you can make some money from it, why not?

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