Not all pastures are created equal and that goes for pastures for goats as well. When I looked to find the best combination of pasture diversity for our farm and species of livestock, it was hard to find examples specifically for meat goats. I found some university extension resources on what works for goats, but it was pretty limited.
My overarching decisions have been based on goats’ dietary preference for about 20% forages (grasses/legumes), 20% weeds, and 60% browse (brush/trees/woody plants), according to the Pastures for Profit: A Guide to Rotational Grazing (Undersander, D. et al., 2002).
As a result, my approach for our goat pasture has been to use what works with our climate, as well as:
- Plant species native to the prairies long ago in our area
- Plant preferences for goats: forbs (weeds), legumes vs. grasses
- Potential antiparasitic properties
- Pasture diversity
Pasture establishment, renovation and enhancement
Overtime our goats have helped us renovate our pastures, which were in CRP and then never farmed after that point. With grazing, we’ve reduced the scrub brush and helped bring back new plants from the existing seed bed. We’ve done some interseeding to add more diversity in grasses, legumes and forbs.
After that first season of grazing, it was impressive to see the goat’s work and the existing seed bed start to come back. The following year in areas that needed a little more work or were too bumpy from gopher mounds, we lightly tilled select areas of the pasture and planted seed with our grain drill. With light tillage, we were able to also maintain the existing species since the plants weren’t fully terminated with the light tillage.
Another year we were unable to rent a no-till drill, so I took a “no-till” approach to our grain drill. With the drill placed as low as possible, we planted into select areas of the pasture that was grazed low or areas we cut low for hay. Two seasons ago we rented a no-till drill from a friend to interseed into our pastures and hayfields. Surprisingly the modified “no-till” approach worked better in our pastures. Some time we’ll get our own no-till drill, but knowing that we have a good approach with the equipment we have makes it less of a priority.
We also work to enhance our pasture each winter with out-wintering our herd of goats. We strategically place round bales of hay on the pasture. Goats will eat all winter outside, rather than in the barn. The hay residue offers additional seed and the goats help fertilize the pasture. It’s pretty amazing to see how our north pasture has continued to improve simply based on out-winter feeding. A bonus is that we need to clean the barn less in the winter.
While I like to have a diverse mix of species, I’ve paid more attention to the legumes and forbs since the goats have a greater interest in those plants.
I’ve observed that goats tend to eat more legumes over grasses, based on both in the pasture and hay consumption. They’ll still eat grass, but we’ve focused on adding more alfalfa and clover to both our hay fields and pastures. Since our goats are always growing babies, lactating or growing for meat, they’re never in “maintenance mode.” More of a grass mix may work for goats with less demands on the performance of their bodies.
We’ve planted or I’ve observed these species in our pastures: white clover, red clover, sweet clover, alfalfa, chicory, plantain, birdsfoot trefoil, tall fescue, meadow fescue, Italian ryegrass, perennial ryegrass, Alaskan brome, meadow brome, Timothy, festulolium, orchard grass and more.
About special plant species
Since goats prefer forbs, as in weeds, chicory was an obvious choice to incorporate into our pastures. As a high-quality forage, it has good feed value for our goats on pasture. It’s also drought tolerant, we see it thrive mid-July to August, as the rest of our pasture species start to slow down in growth.
Chicory also contains tannins, which have the potential to have an antiparastic effect on parasites. An Ohio State University study with lambs suggests there might be evidence to support this idea (McCutcheon, J. et al., 2012).
As a bonus, its pretty purple flowers add to the overall aesthetics of our pasture.
It’s taken a while, but this little plant is starting to take hold in our pastures after seeding 3-4 years ago and naturally occurring in other areas.
While hard to establish, birdsfoot trefoil is a great legume to add to your pastures since it doesn’t cause bloat and has good feed value, according to a North Central Regional Extension publication.
Research is also being done to study the anti-parasitic effects of birdsfoot trefoil with the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) Project, “Forage-Based Parasite Control in Sheep and Goats in the Northeast U.S.”
Preliminary studies show improved resilience to barber pole worm for sheet and goats, but no effect on decreasing fecal egg counts. Those leading the study indicate more research needs to be done.
I chose to add plantain into our mix based on its ability to provide a number of mineral, including calcium, sodium, copper and selenium. Our soils are low in selenium and goats tend to need more copper than their small ruminant counterparts, sheep. This plant is one way to address these nutrient needs.
Why pasture diversity?
We aim to have a diverse pasture to balance out the forage availability throughout the entire growing season, from spring to late fall. Additionally, the diversity also helps maintain feed for our goats even when we are especially wet or a dry stretch. And, what if there are weeds in the pasture? I don’t care! The goats will eat them. That’s the same with trees and brush I don’t want to keep long term (some of the trees will stay for cover).
We have had good success with Prairie Creek Seed’s Diversemaster mix and blending in their Forage Feast (Chicory) and Tonic (Plantain). We’ve also used Forage First’s Alfalfa Hay and Pasture mix and Orion XL ladino clover (from La Crosse Seed), sourced through our local co-op, Countryside Cooperative.