The debate over whether or not goats should be allowed in urban backyards is a heated one, as I discovered after being interviewed for a New York Times article describing the difficulties of goat ownership. Unfortunately, the article failed to acknowledge the benefits of goat as pet beyond the delicious dairy factor. To be sure, goats are challenging creatures. This holds true in any environment, urban or rural.
Personality wise, goats are like a cross between a dog and a cat. They love to be stroked, pet, scratched – especially scratched, and can be trained to walk on a lead, carry packs, or pull carts. Much like the feline, they will possibly come when called, but don’t hold your breath. They demand attention, get jealous if another herd member is getting more love than they are, and make human-like screams when in pain or afraid. They will sit in your lap, nibble your shoe laces, eat from your hand, and sometimes give kisses. They are intensely independent and curious, to the point of being naughty. They will exploit any weakness in a fence if it will gain them access to better forage or allow them a larger area to explore. They are smart and crafty, verging on wily. The job of a goat owner is to stay one step ahead of her caprine friends. Challenging? That would be an understatement. Rewarding? You betchya!
So how the heck does one raise a goat in a city, let alone the country? Sheesh! With a little work, problem solving, innovation, determination, and staying on one’s toes, goats make lovely backyard companions. If you are considering taking the caprine plunge, here are a few things to consider.
1. Is it legal to own goats in a city?
Before diving in, find out whether or not your city allows goats. Municode is a fabulous online resource for researching your city’s codes.
If you find it’s not legal, change the law like the folks in Seattle, Denver, and Kansas City have done or are attempting to do. Goats make great backyard pets as they are relatively quiet, don’t smell (only bucks stink and you wouldn’t want to keep one of them in the city anyway), don’t bite, their manure can be used as compost (unlike a dog’s), and they can demolish your weeds.
2. Do I have enough room for goats?
That’s right, I said goats, plural. These guys are herd animals. To just keep one would be cruel. However, if you can find a wee goat fresh from her mama’s teats, you might be able to get your golden retriever and her to make friends. I wouldn’t bank on that so I would say it’s best to go with two goats, at the least.
There are two sizes of goats, miniature and standard size breeds. Miniatures require 135 square feet of roaming space. A standard goat would need twice that, which would probably be more feasible in a suburban backyard. With the 1000 square feet we have in our San Francisco backyard, standard sized breeds are out of the question.
3. Goats need daily care and adequate shelter.
Contrary to popular belief, goats will not eat anything. Stick some meat or cheese under a goat’s nose and she will turn her head in disgust. Don’t even think about picking something off of the ground and offering it to her. Your gift will surely be rebuffed. And once and for all, goats don’t eat cans. They might taste one, but they won’t actually eat it.
Goats are ruminants, intended to digest the cellulose of plant fibers. Thus plants should be the basis of their diet. Goats are mostly browsers, but you probably won’t have enough fresh and dry forage in your backyard to cover all of their dietary needs. We feed our goats alfalfa and/or orchard grass for the dry. If you have a wether (castrated male), don’t feed alfalfa as the high calcium can cause urinary problems. To a lesser degree we offer the goats fresh things like weeds, raw veggie scraps, and tree branches for the leaves. Green things can potentially cause bloating of the rumen, which can be deadly, so always keep some baking soda out. The goats will eat it if they need to neutralize their stomachs. Some green things are poisonous to goats. Know exactly what you are feeding your friends and if it's safe.
Goats should also be fed a ration of grains twice a day in order to ensure adequate nutrition. This should be available from your local feed store. If you have a lactating goat or doe in her later stages of pregnancy, you need to make sure that her feed is at least 16% protein. Of course, fresh water should be available at all times.
Goats have high mineral needs, especially for copper. They need to always have access to minerals, either loose or as a compressed brick salt lick. Watch for high salt contents since that can deter the goats from taking in enough minerals as they will stop consuming when they feel they have gotten enough salt. Do not be tempted to buy something that is labeled for both goats and sheep. Copper is toxic to sheep so these products will be useless. Goats must have copper, as I recently discovered when one of my goat’s coats started to go gray and dull – a sign of mineral deficiency, particularly copper. We now give our goats copper boluses twice a year along with their minerals. On the other hand, too much copper is toxic. Do your research on how much copper your goat will need and administer accordingly. Selenium is also an essential mineral. You need to check with your hay supplier to see if you live in a selenium deficient area. If you do, there are supplements that you will need to use, especially during the end of a pregnancy.
Every six weeks, hooves need to be clipped. Twice a year, goats should be de-wormed. And once a year, you will need to update their tetanus shots.
As for shelter, goats require something that will keep them dry and out of the wind. We use dog igloos, but any small draft free structure will work. It’s also nice to have a dry area for the animals to roam around on rainy days. We’ve put up clear corrugated roofing over a portion of their pen.
Life expectancy for goats is around 15-18 years. Figure they will be around as long as human children usually live in their parents’ homes.
4. Goats need to give birth in order to produce milk.
I know this might come as a shock to some of you, but don’t feel silly that you didn’t know. Time and time again, overly educated adults, some even mothers themselves, have asked me how I got my goat to produce milk. Mothers, people! This goes to show exactly how far we have been removed from food production. We can’t even recall that goats, like all mammals, must have offspring in order to lactate.
Now that we’ve all reached that little epiphany, let’s move on to reproduction in an urban environment. First you will need a buck to impregnate your goat. Unless you have a large property, I wouldn’t recommend bringing the buck to your little urban homestead. You may be wondering why you couldn’t have a male and female goat pair to make babies. Well, I’ll tell you; bucks smell. Really, really, really strong. They also pee on their faces in order to woo their women. I’m not kidding. Apparently, it drives the ladies wild. (Attention human men, I am certain this only works for goats. Don’t even think about trying it. I guarantee poor results.) We send our does off to the country, where the odiferous buck is of no offense, for a six week romantic get away, otherwise known as a stud service. For $50-75, our does receive room and board and all the lovin’ they can handle. They come back to us pregnant and five months later give birth on the urban farm.
This leads us to the space constraints of dairying in the city. Once the doe kids, those babies grow faster than a bean sprout. Suddenly, your little herd of two has turned into a gaggle of four or five. Though those little fluffy critters are cute enough to make you puke, you live on a plot the size of a postage stamp. Where are you going to put these new additions? Most likely, you won’t have room for more goat friends. Good quality dairy does are highly marketable, if you can find a buyer in your area. Therein lies the rub. Goat rearing in the city is kind of like a pyramid scheme. You need to keep finding people willing to purchase the goat babies to keep yourself in milk. Oh by the way, did I mention that goats only produce milk for about 10 months? After that, they will need to be “freshened” (impregnated) in order to give milk again, which means more babies to find homes for.
And then there are the males. The livestock world is cold to the men of the species. Since it takes very few males to impregnate lots of females, breeding bucks are kept very selectively. Most males are either wethered to be companions for other goats or slaughtered for meat. You will have a 50/50 chance of having male offspring so you need to figure out what you are going to do with them after they arrive. Could you butcher your own animals? Would you be able to find a buyer locally? On Craigslist? Are there farmers outside of your city that might purchase a goat or two? Be honest with yourself. Sending the offspring to a local shelter so that you can make chevre from your own animals would be irresponsible animal ownership, not to mention it would give the rest of us urban goat owners a bad name.
5. Milking goats is a daily job.
When your doe is lactating, she must be milked every day. Every day. Twice a day for standard sized breeds (I only milk my miniatures once a day). This means if you go on vacation, somebody needs to do the milking for you otherwise your doe will dry up and you will be milkless until the next breeding cycle. Make friends with goats’ milk lovers. You can probably train them to do the milking while you are out of town in exchange for all the goat milk they can drink. This type of trade has worked well for me.
6. The key to raising urban goats is adequate fencing.
In a rural area, setting up a goat pen and small barn is pretty straight forward. Urban areas can pose more challenges, particularly around legal code issues. Most cities have restrictions around how close animals can be to dwellings. San Francisco requires that animals be kept at least 20 feet from any door or window. Find an area of your yard where you can contain the goats legally, and yet allow for enough roaming space to keep the gals happy.
Miniature goats need a minimum of four foot high fencing to adequately contain them. For standard goats you would probably want to go with five feet. We use redwood fencing in some areas and wire field fencing in others. Goats love to gnaw on wood (not severely) so plan to replace wooden fences after a few years. Some people use electric fencing, but city’s often have rules about that so make sure you know what you can and can’t use. There are a wide variety of materials that will make good, strong fences, just remember that goats are escape artists. Gaps, spaces, or holes in fencing larger than 4”x4” could have you chasing small goat kids down all day long. Thin wire will be rubbed against and bent down until the goat can leap over it. Play it safe and build secure fences before your goats arrive.
7. Be good to your neighbors.
In a city, you live so close to your neighbors that you can practically spit on them. Don’t. If you want to have your animals without raising the hackles of the folks on your block, keep things clean and tidy. Keep your manure shoveled and compost tumbling to prevent stinky anaerobic activity. Use lime or enzymatic products, like Roebic, to control urine odors. Keep flies and vermin in check. Nobody wants to live next to a dump. Don’t let your property become one.
8. Disbudding and castrating are necessary evils.
Goats have horns. In small spaces, you do not want a goat with horns. Not only could she injure you or a child (god forbid), but she could seriously harm another goat, dog, or herself. Horns can break off during aggressive play or attempted escape artistry and as the horn is alive, there is a vein inside that if broken can cause the goat to bleed to death.
The most effective way to stop horns from growing is disbudding, which entails shoving a two week old baby in a small box so they can’t move and pressing a special hot iron into their skulls until it burns the horn bud off. This is as painful as it sounds. Disbudding irons are pricey and the process is ugly, so I take my kids to the vet to have it done. I’m a total wimp when it comes to inflicting pain on baby creatures, though I am sure that I will eventually take it on since having the vet do it is expensive too.
Castrating males isn’t as bad, though there is a lot of controversy around which method to use. Like I said before, male goats are not cut out for city life due to their unique smell. They can also be aggressive. If you decide to wether your goat, at around eight weeks you want to either band the testicles with these thick rubber band thingies (available at feed stores) which cut off blood supply to the testicles, or use something like the Burdizzo to squash the blood vessels.
There you have it: the basics of raising goats in the city. There are a lot of issues to take into consideration when thinking about owning goats. It is a serious commitment. Will goats become as popular as the backyard chicken? If my ability to find buyers for the babies that we produce here at Itty Bitty Farm in the City is any indication, the answer is most assuredly no. Yet I hope that all the work involved doesn’t dissuade folks from considering them as potential pets. Producing your own milk from animals that you have direct care over is more rewarding than you can imagine. It’s worth the effort and reminds us of how grateful we should be to those who produce our food.
For more detailed information on raising goats check out Gail Damerow’s book Your Goats (geared towards kids, but a great book for beginners) and Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats. My hands down go to source for all things goat is the Fias Co Farm. This site has some of the most extensive information on raising goats out there on the web, including a lengthy list of plants, shrubs, and trees that are poisonous to goats.