Why Goats Aren’t a Resilience Plan

March 24, 2020

All of a sudden, people are concerned about being able to get the basics. Toilet paper. Hand sanitizer. Fresh milk. It’s natural to cast about for alternatives, and try to build a more resilient life both on a household level and at community scale.

This is good, important work, and as a homesteader, I’m thrilled to see more people getting interested in providing for themselves. I don’t intend to discourage anyone, but in the interest of honesty you should know that some resilience steps are much easier to accomplish than others. Depending on where you live, goats aren’t necessarily one of the easiest ones.

There is a goat in my bathroom tonight. Not loose, of course, or she would be standing in the sink, because that is how a goat do, even a sick goat. She’s tucked snugly in an oversize dog kennel with soft fluffy shavings, a little hay, some soy hull pellet to nibble. She’s not a particularly little goat, maybe thirty pounds. She’s not that sick anymore, just underweight, and it’s cold in the barn at night. So she’s in the house.

Several goats in a pasture

Here are some makers of delicious milk.

Goats have a reputation as the toughest ruminants around, handy for producing fresh dairy during the zombie apocalypse and willing to eat tin cans, but that reputation is undeserved. Okay, sheep are more fragile. And cows too. So maybe goats are the toughest. They’re famous for getting dropped by the half-dozen on isolated islands and exploding within a few years to populations in the thousands. But their tough reputation isn’t quite accurate. It’s less about the goats, and more about the islands.

Because I know something (not everything) about goats, I can tell you some oddly specific things about those particular goat-covered islands. First, they have moderate soil selenium levels. Not high, like parts of the American Southwest, where certain selenium-accumulating plants must never be munched by ruminants unless your management strategy includes a quick and ugly death. And certainly not low, like parts of the American Southeast including my little county; our weathered red clays are some of the lowest-selenium areas in the country. If you live in the contiguous US, check out this map to see how your soil compares.

Who cares about selenium? After all, mammals only need it in tiny amounts. That’s the definition of a micronutrient. Goats very much care, because selenium is absolutely essential for muscle and reproductive function, and it is rare upon the earth, unevenly distributed. So precious maybe we shouldn’t even supplement our soils with it, because some will wash away and we can’t afford to waste it.

A doe goat low in selenium will struggle to get to her feet. Her muscles will fatigue so easily that even if she’s able to successfully birth her kid, she’ll fail to expel the placenta, resulting in death. A kid born selenium-deficient will exhibit white-muscle disease. They’ll be weak and floppy and suckle poorly, so that they may starve to death even if bottle-fed.

News flash: humans get selenium-deficient, too. I had it bad, and it took me a year to figure it out. I thought I was just soul-crushingly tired from my second summer building a straw-clay house by hand in the hundred-degree heat, but I rested and rested and didn’t get better. I went to the doctor, who tested me for every deficiency they test for, and then shrugged.

Doctor: “Your levels are fine. Your thyroid’s a little enlarged. Go have an ultrasound.”

Me: “Okay.”

Doctor, next week: “Your ultrasound came back. It says your thyroid’s a little enlarged.”

Me: “What exactly was the point of that?”

My doctor told me she wouldn’t “drill down” on my fatigue any more, in spite of the fact that it was ruining my perfect homesteading life, because a medical cause simply cannot be found for 70% of cases of major fatigue. She all but insisted I try an antidepressant. As if I don’t know the difference between being depressed and being tired.

Now I wonder: how many other people have inexplicable fatigue or are taking an antidepressant, when actually they’re selenium-deficient?

Then I manifested other symptoms: hair falling out, super achy elbows and knees. Like the goat, I couldn’t get up. My clever husband figured it out.

Husband: “They tested you for low selenium, right?”

Me: “They don’t test for selenium.”

Husband: “It’s selenium.”

After a couple of months on a cheap over-the-counter supplement, my fatigue was 80% improved and I had my life back. It was a revelation. Like Douglas Adams famously said, it was as if a man blind from birth one day discovered he’d simply been wearing too large a hat. I felt that stupid. We supplement the goats with it. Of course the people need it, too.

The point is that in contrast to people and domesticated animals, wild animals are adapted very well to their environment, as long as the environment doesn’t change too fast for their genes to keep up. Deer have lived in North Carolina since deer evolved, and they manage to glean enough selenium to reproduce a little too successfully.

Humans and goats are more recent transplants, and we are not well adapted to low-selenium soils. I believe the problem may be partly rectifiable by altering our respective diets, eating more wild, nutrient-dense things. This means more browse such as brambles and tree buds for the goats. For the people, properly fed goats, goat products and maybe a deer. But for now, if we don’t have supplements, we get miserable. Or die.

Those goat-tastic islands must also have plenty of copper and zinc. Without regular pills full of copper filings forced down their throats, North Carolina goats get orange frizzy hair, their hooves split and rot, and they grow skeletal deformities. Without enough zinc, their reproductive systems shut down, including their milk production.

Those islands must be low in the many pathogens that will kill a goat in a matter of days if they’re not managed with antibiotics and dewormers. Without a tetanus shot, even the smallest wound causes a horrible death. And a goat will happily eat beautiful fall leaves containing enough cyanide to kill them almost instantly, so there had better not be any red trees on those islands.

In short, goats may thrive in some bleak places, but in North Carolina they are a no-go without an industrial economy to provide the interventions that keep them alive.

Even with those interventions, I’ve lost a fifth of the goats I’ve had on my land, mostly to a rapid-onset mystery illness. It doesn’t fit the pattern of the usual pathogens like coccidia.

According to an egg count performed by my veterinarian, our parasite load is very low. The illness lacks the neurologic symptoms of the various types of toxicity. It doesn’t happen on any of the farms I got my animals from. It takes the healthiest, strongest animal in the herd and kills her in 48 hours, no matter what I do for her, while leaving vulnerable kids untouched.

Of course, in order for a herd to adapt to the local environment, weak and unsuitable animals must be culled. But according to my experience, the percentage of goats unsuitable to North Carolina equals approximately 100. Meat breeds do seem to be less prone to the parasites than overbred dairy animals. This isn’t much help because the whole point of goats is milk (plus adorable shoe-lace nibbling, kid bouncing and sink standing, of course).

It’s true that goats belch methane, contributing to global warming. But a well-rotated pasture system can draw down greenhouse gasses, too. We’ve modified our diet to be more planet-friendly, cutting our muscle meat consumption below a third of the US average, utilizing parts of the animal that are often wasted and divesting entirely from industrial meat. With our health restrictions (growing kids, diabetes risk and some sort of absorption issue in my case), if I took us completely vegan I would have to rely heavily on ingredients we could never hope to produce ourselves. That doesn’t move us toward resilience, it increases our dependence on fragile global supply chains.

So what do we do, we well-meaning citizens trying to take responsibility for our diets? Chickens certainly have their charms, and it’s more likely I’ll be able to bring all their needs on farm in the near future, bringing their planetary impact close to zero. But they don’t produce a nice chevre. A garden can be fertilized locally for free and grown from seeds I start, but it probably won’t ever fruit any ice cream.

If goats aren’t a great component of a resilience plan because they’re just not very resilient here, even before the industrial props are removed, what then? Give up milk and cheese, because sheep and cows are even less robust? Yes, probably, if the supply chains for selenium paste and tetanus vaccines eventually fail. Then there will be no cheese. And in a situation of serious unrest they would become a liability rather than a resource, because they are LOUD.

A goat eating a coat.

This is what happens to innocent photographers who wander into my pasture. Yes, she is attempting to eat my zipper pull.

But I just can’t help myself. I love these sweet, funny animals with their sink-standing and their walleyed stare. So until then, I guess I’ll keep putting my time and energy into an endeavor that probably cannot be fully localized. And I will probably keep putting goats in my bathroom, too.

Kara Stiff

Kara Stiff

I have a BS in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Maine, and I worked on sustainability issues in Native Alaskan communities through Cooperative Extension before moving to North Carolina. My goal with my writing and in my life is to inspire others to think critically about their choices in order to build communities that are happier, healthier and gentler on the planet.

Tags: building personal resilience, Building resilient food and farming systems, goats