Herbicide costs slashed by goat herd – by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA)

Location: Peake, SA

Enterprise: Babbling Brook

Producer: Peter Lauterbach

Soil type: Undulating sandy, loamy hills with smattering of rocky outcrops

Pasture type: Crop stubble, unimproved pastures

How goats came to be part of the enterprise mix

The need to control summer woody weeds in a cropping program and falling wool prices were catalysts for Peter Lauterbach to introduce goats into the enterprise mix on his 920 hectare property at Peake in South Australia.

Peter’s goat enterprise was established in two stages.

The collapse in the wool market in the late 1980s triggered the initial move into goats with an emphasis on cashmere as an alternative income stream to wool production. Goats were cheaper than sheep to buy in, low maintenance, had a low cost of production for fibre and didn’t have the costs associated with treating and managing fly strike, making diversifying an attractive option.

A subsequent fall in goat fibre prices in the early 2000s resulted in the business shifting its emphasis from fibre to goat meat and introducing Boer genetics.

Goats and cropping

While the goats complement the Merino operation, the grazing management of goats is also reaping benefits in the cropping enterprise.

The region’s low rainfall makes storing soil moisture from spring and summer rain an important component for cropping, so summer weed control is essential. Summer weed control options vary depending on rainfall, but usually involve a number of chemical applications.

Grazing of summer weeds by goats and sheep reduces the reliance on chemical control and is a crucial tool in managing and slowing the development of herbicide resistance in cropping weeds. The result is lower chemical use, lower costs and preserved soil moisture.

Peter said the goats have also proven to be well suited to the environment and have less impact on the sandy soils.

“They don’t bare-out big areas like sheep do. They have less impact than sheep on our fragile sandy soils and they’re better at eating some weeds than sheep are,” he said.  

Peter estimates he has slashed his annual herbicide costs by approximately 30% by using goats for summer weed control.

Grazing goats as part of the cropping system has a projected saving in chemical spray costs of $6 per ha for summer weed control ($14/ha compared with $20/ha) and has improved cropping gross margins.

Grazing management

“I think there are a lot of people who still believe that goats eat everything and anything in sight and can’t be contained. In my experience, this isn’t true as our goats have adapted to living in the same environment as the sheep,” Peter said.

Stock camps are less of a problem compared to sheep due to the browsing habits of the goats. This results in less fertility transfer and weedy areas typically associated with sheep camps in both the cropping and grazing programs. During extended grazing periods, goats will establish two to three camps compared with one major stock camp for sheep.

Goats require a high fibre diet so prefer woody weeds, making them highly effective in controlling summer and woody weeds in the cropping program.

Peter uses high stocking densities grazing cropping paddocks with sheep to control summer weeds but this isn’t necessary with goats.

Smaller mob sizes of up to 100 does have been more effective for weed control than crash grazing, but a longer time frame is needed than with sheep.

Good fencing is essential to manage grazing goats for effective weed control. A fence able to contain crossbred lambs or the newer breeds of fleece shedding sheep is suitable for goats, Peter said. The existing sheep fences are goat proofed by the addition of an offset electric “hot wire” at 30cm height. 

Providing ample feed and water in the paddock reduces the likelihood of goats attempting to break out of a paddock.

Integrating goats

Before he introduced goats, Peter’s original grazing business involved a breeding flock of 500 Merino ewes plus replacements, producing 21-micron wool and turning off cast for age ewes and store weaners.

Bringing goats into the business was relatively cheap as goat breeding stock were less expensive than sheep to purchase. The different grazing habits of goats meant they complemented the sheep grazing operation rather than competed with it.

Before introducing goats, the carrying capacity of the Merino sheep enterprise was 800 DSE. The current grazing system, with 400 ewes and 160 does has a combined carrying capacity of 1,000 DSE, representing a 25% increase due to the introduction of goats.

An economic analysis of replacing 100 wool ewes with 160 meat does shows: 

  • a 41% return on the marginal capital required to make the change due to savings in sheep husbandry costs
  • a cost saving due to reduced sheep husbandry costs and lower goat husbandry costs which compensates for the loss of income from reduced wool and lamb sales.

The capital cost ($70/head) to purchase the breeding does and the sale value of surplus sheep are both factors which could alter this analysis.

Breeding

Peter’s 160 breeding does run in two groups of 80 for ease of paddock management and grazing pressure.

Joining starts on 1 April with two bucks per 80 does and lasts until late May or early June. Stock handling has to fit in with the cropping program and sowing is the priority at this time, so the joining periods have been flexible. Peter plans to have greater control on joining length in the future, to allow for better feed utilisation and more even grow-out rates in the kids.

Kidding starts in spring and kidding percentages average approximately 150%.

Husbandry

Does are generally drenched prior to kidding, based on faecal egg counts, but high worm burdens have not been an issue.

Overgrown hooves in adult does can become an issue. All does are inspected in a cradle prior to kidding and hooves are trimmed where required.  Does kidding with poor feet have lower milk production and are less able to access feed and water.

The property’s annual pastures of ryegrass, clovers and grasses can grow to produce an early green pick with a break to the season. While these pastures provide adequate protein they can lack energy and fibre causing a condition known as “winter stasis” where does drop in body condition score and kids have reduced growth rates.

Goats selectively graze grass before clover in lush pasture and Peter ensures the early green pick is balanced by providing hay or straw in early autumn and winter so the goats have adequate fibre and a balanced diet to maintain growth rates and body condition score in kids and breeding does.

Once the dry matter content of the pasture starts to increase, the growth rates of the kids also increase without the need for supplementary feed. The availability of a natural browse for breeding can eliminate the need for supplementary hay or straw and reduce labour and feed costs.   Additional information on grazing management for goats can be obtained from Going into Goats- Module 7 – Nutrition – Grazing Management.

Marketing

Kids are turned off at approximately eight months with an average growth rate to turn off being 140 to 150 grams per day. This is in line with, or slightly above, the industry standard for a grazing operation in an area with less than 400mm annual rainfall.

Kids are sold at 32-35kg live weight direct to works, over the hooks, targeting the 14-16kg carcase weight. Achieving target live weights are dependent on adequate seasonal rainfall to support pasture growth.

A late break in the season may mean that supplementary feeding of grain is necessary to maintain average growth rates over winter for weaner kids, along with some hay or straw for fibre over the winter feed period.

Key lessons

  • Goats can be successfully integrated into a mixed cropping and livestock system if the principles of best practice goat management for reproduction are applied to the breeding flock, parasites are managed through strategic drenching based on faecal egg counts and there is adequate dry matter intake during periods of winter feed stress.
  • Complementary grazing by goats within the sheep system has the potential to increase total carrying capacity. Goats have the ability to graze rougher areas where grazing of sheep or cattle may be limited.
  • Grazing goats on crop stubbles through summer has the potential to deliver cost savings for the cropping system through reduced reliance on chemical weed control.
  • Reproductive performance and growth rate to turn off are key drivers of profitability in both goat and sheep breeding enterprises. Adequate nutrition to maintain body condition scores pre-joining and pre-kidding, and access to good quality water are critical components and need to be properly understood.
  • Fibre supplementation may be required on lush autumn/winter pastures to maintain growth performance of does and kids where a natural browse is not available, to ensure a balanced diet is maintained and parasite burdens are managed.
  • Market product definition and product pricing may limit the introduction of a goat breeding enterprise in a farmed system. A good understanding of the target market specifications and costs of production are necessary to mitigate this risk.

Further reading: Meat & Livestock Australia – Going into Goats: Profitable producer’s best practice guide.  

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