Putting dairy goats onto pastures

Commercial dairy goat operations in South Africa traditionally use complete feed systems for their animals, but Roy and Sue Caldecott of the KZN Midlands have developed an efficient pasture-based feeding system for their Saanen flock. Lloyd Phillips repor

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Commercial dairy goat operations in South Africa traditionally use complete feed systems for their animals, but Roy and Sue Caldecott of the KZN Midlands have developed an efficient pasture-based feeding system for their Saanen flock. Lloyd Phillips reports.

HUSBAND AND WIFE TEAM ROY and Sue Caldecott, of Hillandale Farm at Hidcote in the KZN Midlands, have been farming with Saanen dairy goats for nearly a year now. The flock currently consists of 220 does in milk and another 120 maiden does which will come into milk this season. Roy and Sue gave up their family business of agricultural contracting nearly two years ago and took up goat farming in search of a less stressful, more profitable venture. They began farming with a large flock of indigenous and Boer goats, but now plan to focus on the Saanens.

“We intend to buy in more milk goats and milk at least 450 does from August,” Roy explains. “Our ultimate aim is to grow our dairy goat flock in parallel with needs of our goat-milk buyer, who’ll need to keep up with the growing demand for goat’s milk products. What’s different about our enterprise is that we’re running our animals on a pasture-based system as opposed to the complete feed system more commonly used for milk goats.” The complete feed system involves buying in most of the goats’ feed in concentrate form, supplemented with hay. A pasture-based system aims to provide the animals with as much quality home-grown dry matter as possible, and supplement with as little concentrate feed as possible, which serves to provide a balanced ration. As with dairy cows, you need to produce milk as cheaply as possible, and concentrate feed is far more expensive than home-grown grass.

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The pasture system

A goat eats about 5% of its body mass in dry matter per day, which is about 3,5kg per average 70kg goat. The aim is to get each goat to consume 2,2kg/day of dry matter from pastures, 0,3kg of good quality hay and 1kg of a custom-developed balanced concentrate ration. The concentrate is fed to the milking goats in the milking parlour, split between the morning and afternoon milkings. The goats go out onto pastures immediately after morning milking, which ends at about 6:30am, until the afternoon milking at 3pm. Afterwards, they’ll be kept overnight in a holding yard. “Goats don’t enjoy grazing in cold and rainy weather,” Roy points out. “They stay in their holding yard under-cover on cold, wet days or may come in earlier before a thunderstorm. They always have grass silage and hay available ad lib in the holding yard.”

To maximise milk yield, Hillandale’s Saanens must eat as much quality grass as possible every day. Pasture management must ensure the success of this feeding regime. The grass provided must be as low as possible in non-digestible fibre, with optimum protein and energy content. About two-thirds of the goat’s grass intake is from pasture. The balance is provided as haylage (forage baled at a 40% moisture content, higher than dry hay, and stored in sealed plastic wrap) fed to the goats in the holding yard overnight in specially made mangers which limit wastage.

Roy explains, “Goats can’t seem to get their daily dry matter requirements from grazing fresh pasture alone because of its high moisture content. The haylage, being much drier, provides the balance of what they need. The grazing cycle on the pastures, or for the making of haylage, is on average about 28 days, which varies depending on temperature and rainfall.

“In summer, from November to March, kikuyu and teff pasture is used, while during winter, from April to October, annual ryegrass and oats are provided,” explains Roy. “Grazing quality pastures, at the correct stage, provides not only the bulk of the energy and protein, but most of the minerals the dairy goats need. It’s important to have the pastures regularly analysed to enable the animal nutritionist to maintain a balanced concentrate ration to supplement the grazing.”

Hillandale Farm currently has 15ha of arable irrigated land that Roy plants to annual Italian ryegrass, 45ha of kikuyu pastures, and 65ha of arable dry-land are planted to teff and oats. The farm’s carrying capacity is a lot more than the current flock needs, so all the excess grass produced is made into hay, or baled as haylage for sale to the horse industry. “This past season our Saanens’ milk production peaked at over 3ℓ/doe/day, and averaged just over 2ℓ/doe/day over the 300 day lactation,” Roy continues. “This will improve as the goats adapt to our pasture-based system, and with careful selective breeding.”

Fending off worms

When grazing goats on pastures, managing stomach parasites is vital. Roy says goats are susceptible to worm infestation under intensive production conditions. He manages this problem by having his flock use as much annual-planted pasture, for example oats, teff and ryegrass, as possible, to break the worms’ life cycles through the yearly land preparation process. It’s important not to return the goats to a grazed pasture for at least 28 days, to break the worm cycle. Roy explains that kikuyu pastures are notorious for harbouring parasite worms. The plan is to rotate the grazing of the kikuyu pastures over a three-year cycle, using 15ha of kikuyu out of Hillandale’s 45ha every year. By year four, when the Saanens return, the worm populations in the first grazed pasture should be minimal.

“Alternating grazing with making grass silage on a pasture also helps reduce parasitic worm burdens,” says Roy. “We carefully manage the worm population in our flock by dung sampling and selective dosing. We use the Famacha system, which requires regular visual appraisals of the goats’ eyes to look for symptoms, and dose accordingly. We only use worm remedies without withdrawal periods, to ensure our milk is suitable for consumption even during treatment. We also plan to plant poor man’s lucerne (Sericea lespedeza), for future use as a natural anthelmintic.”

The Caldecotts say the secret to pasture management and worm control in a dairy goat enterprise is to use a moveable bonnox-type electrified fence. This allows a new 0,25ha block of grazing for 250 goats to be sectioned off each day. The goats are forced to thoroughly graze the allocated section, minimising waste, and are prevented from grazing on grass previously infested with worms. The final challenge when intensively running goats on pastures is foot rot.

“We keep our goats relatively free of foot-rot,” he explains. “Firstly, regular trimming of hooves is important. The shedding and holding yard is cemented, with fresh bedding provided daily where the goats sleep, and the outside area is kept free of dung and mud. This prevents a build-up of bacteria, and allows the goats’ feet to remain dry for much of the day. “If the odd goat does get foot rot, it is immediately quarantined, treated, and only allowed to rejoin the flock when the infection is fully healed.”

“We’ve enjoyed a steep learning curve this past year, and look forward to the challenge of not only producing milk, but in the future providing new dairy goat farmers with quality registered milk goats to meet the ever growing demand for goat milk products,” Roy concludes. Contact Roy Caldecott on (033) 263 2951 or e-mail [email protected]