Goats were first domesticated 10,000 years ago in Asia. They provide milk, meat, fiber, hides and are used to help transport goods.
Goats are browsing herbivores, meaning they eat the leaves, soft shoots, or fruits of high-growing plants, shrubs and trees. They will reach up and around for their food, unlike sheep and cows which eat from the ground. Due to their four-chambered, ruminating stomach, goats can digest plants that other animals cannot. Similar to cows, goats can be seen chewing their cud—partially digested food that has come from one of the stomach chambers prior to moving on to the next stomach chamber. On farms, goats are typically fed hay and alfalfa, along with cracked or ground corn mixed as a supplement.
Worldwide, the majority of domestic goats live in Asia. However, goats are found on every continent, except Antarctica. They prefer mountainous areas as their wide, cloven hooves allow them to climb steep rocks with ease.
Goats spend much of their time eating food and chewing their cud. They eat enough brush to manage the land and prevent overgrowth. As they travel, goats deposit cold manure which composts faster and attracts fewer flies than the feces of other animals.
With approximately 450 million animals worldwide and 200 distinct breeds, goats are among the world’s most numerous domestic animals. They are easy to care for and provide a variety of valuable goods. Some domestic goat breeds, such as the Arapawa in New Zealand are extremely rare.
A herd of goats lives in the Goat and Sheep Barn at the Wells Fargo Family Farm. When the Farm is open, guests are invited to watch the goats and can purchase a pellet diet to feed the goats by hand. During the Farm Babies event in the spring, lucky guests might even be able to see a goat being born! When Zoo staff or volunteers are present, guests can enter the Goat Contact Yard to get an up-close experience, including opportunities to pet the goats and groom them with brushes. During the summer months, goats are sometimes milked in the Demonstration Yard in front of the Farm House.
Meet the Animals
The Wells Fargo Family Farm includes a variety of goat breeds. These may change somewhat from year to year, but generally include Nubian, Alpine, Saanen, Toggenberg, Nigerian Dwarf and Pygmy goats.
- Nubian: Sometimes called Anglo-Nubian, this large multi-purpose breed provides milk, meat and hides. It is the best dairy breed for hot climates. At the Wells Fargo Family Farm, Nubians can be easily recognized by their wide, hanging ears.
- Alpine: Also called French Alpine, this medium-to-large breed provides milk. This breed does not have set colors or markings. At the Wells Fargo Family Farm, this breed is recognized by erect ears, size, and various coloration.
- Saanen: This is the largest breed of dairy goat that originated in Switzerland. At the Wells Fargo Family Farm, this breed is recognized by their white (or cream) color, erect ears, and large size. This breed can sunburn easily due to their pale skin, so shade must always be available.
- Toggenburg: This medium-sized dairy goat can be recognized by the dark brown body color with distinct white face, tail and lower leg markings.
- Nigerian Dwarf: This small but well-proportioned goat was originally bred for showing or as a companion animal. They are also used for meat and dairy production.
- Pygmy: This short and stocky breed comes in seven different color combinations. Pygmy goats tend to be good-natured, hardy and friendly, so are commonly kept as companion animals. They are also used for meat and milk production.
One of the measures of milk quality in dairy goats is the percentage of fat in the milk they produce. Nigerian Dwarf goats have an average of 6.5% milkfat; however, since they are a smaller goat they can’t produce as much milk. Pygmy goats also have a high milkfat content (4.5-11%), but produce smaller quantities. Nubian goats have a minimum milk fat content of 4.5%, Toggenburg have a minimum milkfat content of 3.56% and Saanen have a milkfat content of 3.2%. Alpine goats typically produce the highest volume of milk, with 3.5% milkfat content.
Care at the Wells Fargo Family Farm
Goats at the Wells Fargo Family Farm are cared for from birth through breeding and beyond. The Goat and Sheep Barn includes both indoor and outdoor spaces for the goats. The goats can choose where they spend their time. The outdoor space has shelter from the elements as well as climbing structures and toys to interact with, this space also doubles as the Goat Contact Yard. Inside the Barn, you’ll find kidding pens where female goats prepare for birth, or where newborn kids are kept safe until they’re big enough to join the rest of the herd.
Kids weigh 6-10 pounds at birth. They are most often born as twins—but singles, triplets and quadruplets are not uncommon. Mothers first nurse their kids on a super-rich milk called colostrum. Colostrum contains antibodies to keep kids healthy. If a kid struggles to nurse or if a mother is unwilling, Zoo staff will step in to bottle-feed and raise the kid. Once kids are weaned (finished with the nursing period) they are switched to grass hay and water, as well as a diet of cracked or ground corn mixed with oats and molasses.
Around 12-14 weeks of age, males not intended for breeding will be castrated, while breeding males will be separated to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Does are ready for breeding between 6 months and a year of age, while bucks are ready at 3-10 months of age. Breeding occurs most often in late fall or early winter. Pregnancy lasts about 5 months, leading to spring births.
After giving birth, a doe can produce 3,000-5,000 pounds of milk per year. Larger breeds tend to produce higher amounts of milk than smaller breeds. The Zoo’s large dairy breeds–Alpine, Toggenburg, Nubian, and Saanen—are particularly strong milk producers. Some of the goats born at the Zoo are sold in the fall after they are weaned.
- Goats belong to the family Bovidae. Other bovids at the Wells Fargo Family Farm include cows and sheep. Takin, American bison and musk oxen can be found along the Minnesota Zoo’s Northern Trail. In the Zoo’s Tropics Trail, Transcaspian urial can be seen living with the red panda.
- Goats are prized for their ability to eat weeds bushes and vines, thus clearing land for farming.
- Since goats are able to digest plants that many other herbivores can’t eat, the Minnesota Zoo began putting the Farm goats to work to help combat invasive buckthorn growing on Zoo property in the fall of 2019.
- Around the world, more people drink goat’s milk than cow’s milk—or the milk of any other single animal.
- Goat’s milk is naturally homogenized, meaning it doesn’t separate out into layers in its original state. It’s easier to digest than cow’s milk, even by people who are lactose intolerant. It’s also higher in calcium and vitamin A.
- Historians believe domestic goats were aboard the Mayflower in its 1620 voyage bringing Europeans to North America.
- Like many hooved animals, the pupils in a goat’s eye are rectangular. This gives them vision for 320-340 degrees around them without having to move their head. They are also thought to have excellent night vision.
- Goats are burpers! This is due to the role of their rumen. The rumen acts as a fermentation vat which naturally produces gas. That gas escapes in the form of loud, healthy burps.