Efficient handling of meat goats
Why do we need to handle goats?
Goats need to be handled for deworming, vaccinating, hoof trimming, sorting operations, and other occasional tasks. A well-constructed handling system or set or working pens will go a long way in minimizing the stress to both the producer and animals when these various tasks are performed.
Reduced stress will improve productivity. In addition, when adequate facilities are lacking, many management tasks get delayed or overlooked. For small producers, a pen where goats can be gathered in close confinement is usually sufficient, whereas larger herds require a more sophisticated system of working facilities.
Behavior characteristics of Ruminant Livestock
The best way to handle livestock is to work in harmony with their natural behavior.
Livestock have excellent peripheral (wide angle) vision.
They have excellent distant vision, though they may have difficulty judging distances.
There is recent evidence to suggest that livestock do perceive colors.
Livestock prefer to move towards lights and do not like to enter dark buildings.
Livestock have a keen sense of hearing.
Ruminants have a natural herding instinct. They become distressed and agitated if they are separated from the rest of the herd.
They like to follow the leader.
They move in a circle around the pen or handler.
They are easily distracted by noises or sudden movements.
Shadows will cause livestock to balk.
They are creatures of habit and will remember bad experiences for up to a year.
How do goats differ from other livestock?
Goats are more difficult to handle than cattle or sheep when using handling equipment. They do not flow through the system as easily and stress more easily.
When they are frightened, they may lie down and sulk and pack in a corner, risking injury to other goats.
They can become aggressive towards each other.
They move in family groups, with the older females moving first.
They may need higher gates than sheep and will find the escape spots in the handling system, if they exist.
Basic concepts of livestock handling
The flight zone is the animal's personal space. It is where it feels comfortable. The size of an animal's flight zone depends upon its degree of tameness or wildness and how calm it is. It may also vary according to the size of the enclosure. When a person enters an animal's flight zone, the animal will move. When the handler is on the outside of the animal's flight zone, the animal will turn and face the handler and maintain a safe distance.
Approaching the animal's head will cause the flight zone to increase. Handlers should not penetrate too deeply into an animal's flight zone because the animal may bolt. It may become unpredictable, risking injury to itself and the handler. It is best for a handler to work on the outside of the flight zone. The flight zone will diminish with frequent, gentle handling.
Though livestock have excellent peripheral or wide angle vision (up to 300°), they have a blind zone behind their shoulders. Animals do not like for you stand in their blind zone. They like to know what or who is pressuring them. An animal will likely move forward when you stand in its blind zone.
Point of balance
The point of the shoulder is the animal's point of balance. All species of livestock will move forward if the handler stands behind the point of balance. They will back up if the handler stands in front of the point of balance. Walking quickly past the point of balance at the animal's shoulder in the opposite direction as desired movement is an easy way to induce an animal to move forward.
Tame animals, in addition to having a smaller flight zone, experience less stress when being handled. However, they can be difficult to drive. Tame animals can be led with a halter or bucket. Animals can be trained to accept restraint voluntarily.
Small producers can usually handle their goats by crowding them into a small pen. If you feed them in the crowding pen, they will get used to going in. When handling goats at close distances, care must be taken to avoid injury from sudden movements of the goats, especially from the horns.
Goat hooves are usually trimmed while the goat is standing, unlike sheep which are tipped on their rumps. The easiest way for small producers to restrain a goat for hoof trimming is to put the goat on a milking or trimming stand. A goat can also be restrained against a wall. If the goat is placed on its side, someone will need to hold the legs to prevent injury to the handler.
Several pieces of handling equipment can be used to restrain a goat for hoof trimming. These include a turntable or crush, which holds the goat firmly and turns it on its side or upside down for easy access to the hooves. In a handling system, a chute leading to a raised platform with a head gate and side gates that open works well for hoof trimming and other task.
For larger herds, a handling system or set of corrals and working pens is recommended. Portable or permanent facilities can be utilized. Handling equipment may be constructed of wood, metal, pipe, or stock panels. Metal surfaces are safer.
USDA plans for sheep and goat handling equipment may be available from county extension offices or from various land grant university web sites. Commercial handling equipment is also available from several companies. It is generally more portable than homemade equipment. In most situations, sheep handling equipment works fine for goats.
The basic components of a handling system for goats are a crowding (or gathering pen), a chute (or raceway), and sorting/cutting gates. A crowding pen is used to direct the animals into a single or double file chute. The radius of the crowding pen should be approximately 8 feet. It should be half as long as the chute. Round (curved) or straight panels may be used. The panels should be solid. The handling system should be set up on level ground, and all the components of the handling system should be the same color.
The chute is where the animals will move in a single or double file. While in the chute, they can be vaccinated or dewormed. A foot trough can be set in the chute for foot bathing. A heat gate at the end of the chute will enable the goat to be restrained for better access to its head. For goats, the chute should be approximately 10 feet long, 4 feet high, and 12 inches wide.
A chute that is too long may cause crowding and trampling at the forward end of the chute. Longer chutes should be divided with sliding gates. The entrance to the chute often has a sliding or drop down gate to prevent entry of more goats. For horned goats, the sides of the chute should be tapered, with the top twice as wide as the bottom. Some sort of anti-back-up device will keep goats from changing directions in the chute.
Handling systems may also include other components, such as a turntable (or cradle or crush), head gate, elevated platform, scales, and foot baths. Two or three-way sorting and cutting gates are used at the end of the chute to direct animals into different pens or pastures or up a loading ramp. The exit of the handling system should be oriented towards a "home" pasture or pen.
Horns can be both an asset and a liability in goat handling. Goats can be restrained using horns. You should restrain the goat by holding the base of the horn not the tips. Goats should never be caught or dragged by the horns or hair. Keeping the horns tipped or blunt may help to prevent injury to the handler, as well as other goats.
Safety when working with goats
Care must be taken when working with any type or class of livestock. Animal-related incidents are the leading cause (30%) of non-machine farm injury, and though goats are small in comparison to cattle, swine, and horses, injuries to handlers do still occur. Proper attire is necessary when working with livestock. Long sleeve shirts and long pants may help to prevent injury.
Steel toed shoes or boots are recommended when working with livestock. Protective clothing is necessary when working with pesticides. A back brace will help to prevent back injury and strain. Adequate lighting in the handling area is a must, along with non-slip surfaces.
Be the "Goat Whisperer"
The key to handling goats, or any livestock for that matter, is to work in harmony with their natural behavior, to practice "low-stress" handling. You should be calm and patient when working with animals. You should speak softly and in a low tone. You should move slowly and deliberately and not rush them. You should move back and forth in a straight line and not haphazardly when working with livestock. You should not probe or force goats.
References and further reading
Dr. Temple Grandin's Web Page
Lowering stress in transported goats - Ontario, Canada
Low stress livestock handling - University of Idaho
Using stock dogs for low stress livestock handling - University of Idaho
This article was originally written in 2003 by Susan Schoenian.