Article Index "Housing, Fencing, Working Facilities & Predators" Article Index

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HOUSING, FENCING, WORKING FACILITIES & PREDATORS

By: Lynn Harwell & Frank Pinkerton
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Introduction
Someone has observed that, of all domestic animals, the farm goat and the house cat could more easily return to the wild than any of the others. Hogs, dogs, donkeys, horses, camels, and cattle are known to have reverted to a feral state as well, but usually under a fairly specialized set of circumstances. But wild house cats abound everywhere, and many a tropical island lies denuded, subject to the ravages of uncontrolled populations of escaped or abandoned goats.

This would imply that the common briar, brush, or swamp goat can be husbanded profitably without an abundance of fencing, sheds, or handling facilities. Two simple factors eradicate this notion: 1) the goat's curious, nomadic nature, and 2) the presence of predators, both domestic and wild.

A goat's curiosity urges him to seek the wild, blue yonder, whether it be the Blue Ridge or the neighbor's blue delphiniums. He excels in this. The net result can be a loss of income or a loss of friends, more likely both. Oddly enough, some owners have little trouble keeping goats on the farm with seemingly simple fences, while others couldn't keep a goat on Alcatraz.

Three things seem to make a goat want to leave home: 1) hunger, or at least better feed across the fence, 2) an inadequate fence, and 3) an obstreperous individual goat. The first item is apparent; goat nutrition and grazing habits are discussed in other sections. The second is discussed in the fencing section immediately below. The third is readily solved by a trip to the nearest abattoir, and calls for an admonition to goat owners everywhere, which is rarely heeded:

    "If you 'love' your goats and that love affects decisions about selling and retention, you are in the goat business for a hobby. If you are in the goat business for a hobby, you are very likely not in the goat business for a profit."

Feed, from some source, must be available. In addition, responsible goat ownership and management calls for attention to fencing, adequate protection from the elements (in the Southeast, this will more likely be rain), simple working facilities, and protection from predators. The following discussion treats these factors in order.

Fencing
Fortunately, the twin management problems of goat wanderlust and goat predation can usually be handled with a single solution. To wit, a fence designed with a goat's instincts in mind. Much of the time, a fence constructed to keep a goat at home will discourage predacious animals. It should be noted that several of the companies manufacturing and selling fence, particularly electric fence, have excellent publications available, which contain adequate diagrams and specifications.

While it is not true that a goat proof fence must also be airtight, to frustrated goat farmers it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the difference. This is mainly because they started with something less than adequate, and were forced into a "patch" job. With such a beginning, one is soon patching one's patches.

Effective goat fencing of the conventional (non­electrical) type, is approached in one of two ways. This may be of woven wire, or alternatively, closely­spaced barbed wire.

Woven wire, called 'wire net' in some areas, represents the most common conventional goat fence. The wire mesh is usually 47" in height and topped by one or two strands of barbed wire, and may also have one strand at the bottom, just above ground level. Some manufacturers now produce a special "goat net" containing vertical stays ten or twelve inches apart, rather than the ordinary 6 or 8 inches. This usually helps a horned goat 'back out' through one of the rectangular openings much easier, and thus eliminate entrapment.

Posts can be either wood or steel, and are set usually one rod apart, frequently closer, with care taken that a post be set at all abrupt changes in grade. Relatively flat terrain is best for a tight installation. Gully and stream crossings have to be engineered to fit the circumstances. Approaches to woven wire fence construction vary, with no one way being absolutely best for all circumstances.

Barbed wire fencing for goats was long thought to be ineffective, but in recent years ranches in the West have used eight or more strands of closely­spaced 15½ gauge barbed wire with good effect. At first blush, this seems to call for extreme effort. But completed costs are less than for woven wire. If an old cattle fence is to be made goat­proof, with corners and line posts already in place, an extra four or more wires, along with some respacing, is not all that much trouble.

With barbed wire, line posts are often farther apart, but several twisted wire stays in place between posts the fence present a formidable barrier. Each additional wire costs only about 1½ cents per foot, and the stays run about 30 cents each. Spacing should be closest (as little as three or four inches) between six and twenty four inches above the ground. Care should be taken that the bottom wires conform closely with the terrain. Rigidity between wires seems to be important. A tight stretch and liberal use of stays helps meet this need.

Electrical fencing for goats holds promise. It is fairly new, but expanding rapidly. If strict adherence to principles is followed, such fences can be both effective and relatively inexpensive. For goats, five or six wires are usually adequate and can be constructed for approximately one third the cost of woven wire. Alternating hot and ground wires, particularly on the lower part of the fence, increases effectiveness.

Goats must gain respect for electric fencing. Untrained goats can be attracted to the fence by hanging pieces of foil or aluminum drink cans on a "hot fence, or by placing hay or ground feed just across the wire.

An electrical fence must be adequately grounded. It also must be protected from voltage surges, whether caused by lightning or the power source. The new breed of fence chargers, called energizers, are more effective because they are far less resistant to power loss caused by plant growth, moisture, and other factors which tend to bleed electricity off the wire.

Electrical fencing became almost universally practical in New Zealand, through the development of several technological innovations. In addition to the energizer, the Kiwis gave us high tensile fencing wire, improved insulation, and much better portability. Superior construction techniques, particularly in corner and brace arrangements, also have application for other types of fencing.

Portable fences, also electric, go hand­in­hand with improved grazing management, discussed in another section. In three on­farm cattle applications on small acreages in South Carolina, results were amazingly similar. Given a boundary fence of adequate deterrence, the portable electric cross­fencing materials, turn­key, ran about $14 per acre. Similar fencing for goats would be modestly higher.

In 1991, economists at the University of Illinois made the cost estimates for fencing construction shown in Table 1. The comparisons invite a close look at electric fencing.

Table 1. Comparing fencing costs in Illinois, 1991
  Cost Per 100 Feet   Cost
Fence Type Materials Labor   Total Per Mile
Woven wire plus 1 barb $70 $27   $95 $5,016
Five strand barb $44 $27   $71 $3,749
Three strand h-t elec $55 $20   $75 $1,267
One wire portable elec $ 6 --   $ 6 $ 317

Housing
Goats seem to enjoy water for drinking but, like the proverbial hobo, they don't use it much for bathing. In fact, when the water comes from above, they seek shelter. During warmer weather, this may only cause discomfort. But, in colder temperatures, goats should not remain cold and wet for long periods. Young goats are particularly vulnerable to respiratory infection and to hypothermia.

In the Southeast, goats need protection from cold driving rains, as well as the occasional snow and sleet. They tolerate cold weather rather well, as long as they are dry and out of the wind. A sturdy shed, dry and open to the south, can usually provide adequate protection. Rear eave heights of 4' to 6' and front eave heights of 6' to 8' are adequate; 8 to 10 square feet per goat is desirable. Ruminants also need a good fill of feed to help them combat the cold. Goats also like to be in or near a shed during the night hours. If the facility is part of the farmstead, so much the better. Nearness to human activity plays a part in predator control.

Working Facilities
Goats are agile, quick, and to the untrained, quite unpredictable. They also need occasional handling, particularly for worming, marking (identification), foot trimming, and sorting operations. This is reason enough to construct a set of handling pens which gives the owner something closer to an even chance.

Small operations can make do with a small pen, with some means of getting the goats into the pen. The pen should be sturdy, preferably solid­sided, and at least four feet tall. Thus equipped, the producer can place his or her body in the pen and assume whatever anatomical contortion is required to catch and manipulate the goats.

One should be extremely careful when handling goats at close range. Small sharp horns can create a lot of one­eyed goat people.

As goat numbers increase, (in the absence of predators this happens with surprising speed), the need for more elaborate working facilities arises. Really, the basic necessities are three. Our Australian friends call them the race, the crush, and the draft. The race is what we call a working chute. The crush, we usually term a "squeeze chute" or headgate, and the draft is some sorting (or cutting) arrangement of alleys and gates that we use to separate the goats.

A working chute should be about ten feet long, four feet high, and 12" wide. Longer chutes tend to cause crowding and trampling at the forward end, and should be divided into sections with sliding gates. Also, a series of canvas flaps suspended about half way down into the chute keeps the goats' heads down and eliminates riding.

The sides should be solid. Ideally, for horned goats the chute should be tapered, with the top nearly twice the width of the bottom. To avoid jamming, it helps to mount a vertical roller, about 30 inches in length, at one side of the entrance to the chute. The crowding pen should be half again as long as the working chute and up to 12 feet wide at the open end.

A word or two about goat behavior. Goats are motivated by instinct, tempered with a very sharp memory. Domesticated goats rarely jump fences, unless pressured, but they do like to climb. Therefore, fence lines should be clear of rocks, stumps, and fallen timber. When gathering goats, they tend to drift to the tops of hills, and will move further and faster than cattle or sheep, but if hurried, tend to balk, or become aggressive toward each other.

Goats should be handled quietly when penned. Excessive noise and rough handling will "spook" the animals. Women generally are better than men in handling goats, and will perform the required jobs in a manner that creates less stress.

Goats exhibit a natural "flocking" behavior; when one or two start to move, they all do. They frequently come into pens in family groups, with the older females first. They are creatures of habit, and once familiar with a set of pens or handling procedures, will expect to be treated the same way each time. They instinctively move in a circle around the producer, or around a pen.

Compared to sheep, goats respond positively because of superior intelligence, but also tend to stress more easily. Use of dogs should be held to a minimum. Working goats is definitely not a "hurry up" task. In fact, the faster you go, the longer it takes. Extension services in the Southeast should be encouraged to draft working plans for goat working pens on a scale suitable to smaller producers.

For separating goats, a cutting gate can be mounted at the head of the working chute, or a "cutting" chute can be erected for this purpose. More elaborate designs for handling large herds of goats are available, but probably should not be attempted until a producer acquires experience. This will allow a particular fit between the farm, the goat herd, and the owner.

Goats should be handled quietly during working operations. Excess noise creates agitation, and may well cause goats to go over, under, or through whatever stands in the way, which may be the owner. Goats do not flow as smoothly as cattle, tending to rush toward an actual or expected opening. They readily drop to the ground under crowding pressure and are at greater risk from trampling and smothering.

Predators
The predator problem can be acute. Predation may come from several sources, and demands constant vigilance. For best control, a combination of methods, i.e., a guardian animal and a good fence, is necessary. In certain circumstances, total control may be difficult to achieve.

The use of traps and poisons for predator control has fallen from favor recently, augmented somewhat by preventive legislation, but perhaps more so by a movement toward biological rather than technological farming practices. The federal ban on Compound 1080, a substance particularly lethal to coyotes and other canines, and concerns with all toxic substances finding their way into the food chain have renewed interest in more traditional ways of guarding livestock.

Sometimes coyotes, bobcats, eagles, or feral hogs may be the culprit, but in the Southeast it is more likely to be the neighbor's faithful dog, who only an hour before was out romping on the front lawn with the children. A pack of domestic dogs can wipe out the better part of one hundred adult goats in less than an hour. If the bankbook and community friendships did not go out the window because of the goat's curiosity, they no doubt will when ­ not if, but when ­ the dog attack comes. A guardian animal can head off this calamity.

Dogs usually fill the guardian animal role, but donkeys sometimes are preferred. More recently, the use of llamas has surfaced, mainly because neutered male llamas are now within many producers' price range. Llamas are reputed to be superior guardians.

Livestock guarding dogs originated in Europe and Asia where they were the method of choice for guarding sheep and goats from wolves, bears, and wildcats. A variety of breeds fill certain niches in the predator control spectrum. In a 1986 USDA survey (a) of predominantly western handlers, the Great Pyrenees was found to be most widely used, followed in order by the Komondor, Akbash, Anatolian, and Maremma. Interestingly, American Indians in the desert southwest used mongrel dogs for similar purposes.

Many confuse guardian dogs with herding or "stock" dogs. A herding dog is essentially an extension of man, helping to move and sort the livestock. Guardian dogs act largely independent of man, doing what instinct and conditioning tell them to do. That includes confronting and chasing away intruders, attaching themselves to the herd or flock, and staking out a territory (usually a pasture or paddock) which they patrol regularly.

Guardian dogs and herding dogs can be utilized on the same operation, but it requires time and patience, and may require penning the guardian while the herd is being maneuvered. Uncontrolled, some guardian dogs can gobble up a stock dog like a handful of peanuts.

Experienced, mature guardian dogs are harder to find (and more expensive) than puppies. Genetics plays a major role in a particular dog's effectiveness, although conditioning and a very limited amount of training are helpful. As to training, the willingness to come when called, and to understand what "no" means, may suffice.

Conditioning consists largely of placing puppies in the environment where they will spend the rest of their lives. They should spend their time as one of the herd or flock, and be discouraged from detrimental habits, such as chewing the ears of goats, excessive playfulness, or a tendency to wander.

The number of guard dogs per herd of goats is more dependent on size and pasture terrain than on goat numbers. Angora goat owners commonly use two dogs on two 400 acre pastures, but if the herd scatters, two will not be enough. Rough, brushy terrain increases the work load. If the goats remain in a cohesive unit, particularly at night when predation is high, most pastures in the southeast may be adequately protected by one dog.

By nature, guardian dogs are aloof, independent (some might say hard­headed), and identify more with their charges than they do with people. At the same time, they should be submissive to human control when called for, such as for routine vaccinations. Many goat owners believe neutered males and females are superior to intact dogs. Current prices fall in the $150­$250 range.

Although the livestock guarding dog works independently, certain responsibilities fall to the owner or handler. For top performance, the dog should be well fed, free from abuse, attended to for health needs, and sheltered from severe storms. An occasional kind word or pat on the head is helpful. Beyond that, little is needed.

Some goat owners have found donkeys to make excellent guard animals. A single donkey, usually a female but sometimes a gelding, is introduced to the flock or herd and undergoes a bonding stage. Males (jacks) seldom work because they can be too aggressive, particularly with younger goats. After the donkey is bonded with the goats, it will protect them against canine predators as if they were its own.

A jenny with a young foal will obviously have her attention divided, and may be overly protective of her young when goats become inquisitive. Donkeys are felt not to cover as much country as dogs, but in the Southeast, this may not be a problem.

The donkey will bed down with the goats, and sound a fearsome alarm at a strange noise or smell. Good guard donkeys will chase and trample a predator(c). When compared to dogs, perhaps a smaller percentage of donkeys make excellent guard animals, but owners who have a good one swear by them; those who don't, swear at them. An obvious advantage lies in the fact that, since the donkey eats what the goat eats, no daily feeding is required.

A few producers use llamas as guard animals. They are probably quite good at the task, but reliable printed information is hard to come by. The American livestock owner, as do farmers in general, seek out innovative ways to do things better. Sometimes these innovations become fads, and an end in themselves. Llamas are one of the mainstays of the exotic animal industry, along with ostriches, emus, water buffalo, and pot­bellied pigs.

Work at the University of Wyoming (b) with llamas on sheep indicates that their effectiveness comes from their curious and fearless nature, complemented by their rather awesome size. Sheep that attach themselves to the llama are seldom bothered; those who wander may not receive protection. In almost no cases have they recorded confrontational activity by the llamas.

Despite its history in this country as an exotic oddity, the llama has become financially accessible. Male llamas not suitable for breeding now sell for as little as $200, with castrated animals perhaps two or three times that figure. Intact males should probably not be used with goats. There are reports of sexually aroused males chasing and injuring female sheep.

The llama's use as an environmentally friendly pack animal, and as a guardian for goats and sheep, is increasing. Like the donkey, they consume about what their charges do. Llamas' longevity, about thirty years, offers another advantage.

About the author: No information is available about the authors.
The following sources are cited for this article:
(a) Livestock Guarding Dogs: Protecting Sheep from Predators, Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 588, APHIS, USDA, 1990.

(b) "Llamas May or May Not Be Solution to Sheep Predation", National Wool Grower, July, 1985.

(c) "Donkeys", promotional brochure, The American Donkey and Mule Society, Inc., 1992.

Agricultural Research Service

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