Packgoats: Are They Right For You?

Taking a break on the trail

My hunting buddy, Brandon, and I have been hunting with packgoats since about 2005. Most people we run into on the trail are surprised and full of questions; some express interest in getting a pack string of their own. Are packgoats a good solution for you? Read on and let’s find out…

How much can they carry? The rule of thumb is, any four-legged animal can carry about 20% of its body weight. A full-grown packgoat weighs about 200 lbs, so they can carry about 40 lbs. At times we have loaded some as heavy as 60 lbs, but 40 lbs is a good target for a trail that has some up and down to it.

How many goats do you take with you on a hunt? Six goats can pack out one deboned elk in a single trip (no hide, you carry the head). We’ve found that we can pack out one elk plus the camp in one trip on 10 goats. Ten goats on the trail is a bit of a circus; we prefer to keep it to 6. On a deer hunt, it’s nice to take 2.

Goats eating flowers on the trail

What do you do about feed on the trail? Unlike a horse, you don’t have to carry any feed for a goat. While it’s not quite true that they can eat anything (some vegetation is poisonous to goats), goats are browsers and survive just fine on a variety of foodstuffs including grass, leaves, flowers, and bark. They will also happily eat your bagels, peanut butter, dried fruit, and granola bars when you aren’t looking.

Thirsty goats

How much water do they need? The goat digestive system is a miracle of efficiency, squeezing the maximum amount of moisture and nutrition from every bite of food. As such, they don’t need water every day. It’s good to give them the option of drinking water daily, but many times on the trail, they cross streams and never drink. Under severe circumstances, our goats have gone as long as four days without water, but they were certainly thirsty by that fourth day.

Do you have to tie them together into a pack string on the trail? No, that’s not necessary, nor does it work. Our goats are bottle fed as babies, which causes them to partially imprint on humans. They instinctively want to stay together as a herd and they just follow us around like dogs.

Goats packing out a cow elk

Do goats need to be trained to pack? Mostly, no. You can put a saddle and panniers on most goats without any fuss the first time. I did have one goat who freaked out the first time I put a saddle on him: he ran circles around the truck and trailer and then dove into the trailer and tried to hide in the corner. I pulled him out, loaded him up, and then he was fine. Weirdo. The one area where it pays to put in some training time is crossing streams. Goats can be unsure about flowing water and taking the time to lead them across shallow streams is worthwhile. It also helps to have another trained goat present to show them that walking through the stream isn’t something to fear.

Do they hunt with us or stay in camp? We’ve done both, but usually we tie up the goats in camp using a dog leash tied to a highline or a ground anchor. In general, deer and elk aren’t spooked by goats (the goats’ long ears make them look like deer), but there’s no stalking with goats. If you tie them to a tree and then try to walk off to make a stalk, the goats will bawl and make a fuss.

Black bear

Are goats afraid of wild animal or blood scent? Generally, no. They don’t have a problem carrying meat. They do not like the smell of a dead bear and won’t walk up to one, but once you get the bear meat into the panniers and onto the goat, they pack it just fine.

Do we tie up the goats in camp at night? Definitely, yes. Goats have to be tied up at night else you’ll have a goat rodeo on your hands: non-stop head butting, crashing into the tent (which pulls out your tent stakes), and general mayhem. Another favorite goat trick is to stand next to your tent and paw the ground, filling your tent with dust and dirt. Nobody wants that!

How much health care and maintenance do goats need? Goats need to have their hooves trimmed regularly (ideally, monthly) and they need annual vaccines. Intestinal parasites and lungworm are a constant battle in damp locations like the Willamette Valley and goats need to be observed and medicated several times each year for these maladies.

What do you feed goats at home and how much do they eat? Goat nutrition is a tricky business. In the wild, they eat a wide variety of plants in order to get the nutrition they need, but in captivity we have to try and guess what is best. In general, they get by on pasture grass and hay but they prefer more variety (leaves, fruit, the bark off your favorite apple tree). Goats start to lose weight almost immediately on poor quality hay, so we’re faced with buying expensive hay or low quality hay plus supplements (which add up to the cost of expensive hay). My rough estimate is that I feed about 1,000 lbs of hay each year to each goat. I also supplement their hay with black oil sunflower seeds, goat mineral, sodium bicarbonate, and kelp meal. This year I am doing an experiment where I’m saving my lawn clippings in airtight barrels with a little salt and letting it ferment into haylage. The goats love it and it appears to be more nutritious and easier to digest than dry hay.

Is it true that goats will eat blackberries [vines]? Yes and no. The goat mouth is tough and while they could eat the thorny blackberry canes, most goats won’t. They will eat all the leaves off the canes and then the canes will die. Goats will also gobble down the fresh new shoots in the spring. If you have a blackberry patch that you want gone, hogs will wipe it out in one season; goats typically need a full year. Mash down the vines with a tractor so the goats can reach the leaves, then mash down, grind down, or rip out the canes. The following spring, put the goats on the new shoots and then your blackberry problem will be gone.

How long do goats live? There’s a lot of variability in the goat lifespan. In my own herd, the average lifespan is about 10 years. My oldest goat is now 14 and I’ve seen poorly fed goats die at 7. The #1 packgoat affliction is a condition known as “urinary calculi” where the goat develops a stone that blocks their urinary tract, leading to a painful death. There are many unknowns and factors involved in the development of urinary calculi, but the consensus is that unbalanced nutrition is a primary factor as is castrating goats before the urethra is fully developed.

Goats navigating a blown down tree

Are packgoats male, female, or does it matter? Technically, you can put a saddle and pannier on any adult goat, but most people use wethers (castrated male goats) exclusively. Buck goats (uncastrated males) have an unbearable stink that comes from their scent glands combined with the endearing practice of urinating all over themselves in order to attract the ladies. Experience that smell once and you won’t ever consider adding a buck to your pack string. Does (female goats) pack just fine, but if you’re going off-trail where the goats have to jump logs, the does will scrape their udders on logs and that’s no fun. I have heard of people taking one or more lactating does on a pack trip so they can have fresh milk and yogurt on the trail, but that’s not something I’ve ever been exposed to.

Goats enjoying the campfire on a cold night

How do goats perform in hot and cold weather? In general, hot weather is more of a problem than cold weather. The saddles have a felt pad that adds extra heat and can cause goats to overheat in the summer. In the winter, goats develop an extra layer of fluffy wool-looking hair that they can puff out to keep warm. I took a pair of goats on a fall deer hunt when it was 7 degrees Fahrenheit at night and they were fine (it was also dry; wet weather combined with those temps would not be good). One problem we run into is that our goats will lose their winter coat in early spring because the Willamette Valley often reaches daytime temps of 80 degrees in April/May. Then we take them to the mountains for a bear hunt where there’s snow and hail and the goats get chilled. We sometimes have to make a fire for them in camp when there’s spring snow or early snow in the fall.

How do you fence goats in? The best option is a hard fence with two electric wires around the inside to keep the goats from climbing. I do have pasture with only two electric wires on the perimeter, but the goats stay in because they want to, not because they have to. When there’s better feed on the other side of a two-wire electric fence, the goats just take the shock and go under the fence.

Why did we choose goats instead of llamas or horses? Brandon had a pair of llamas for a while and they were difficult to deal with. One had to be sedated before its nails could be trimmed. Llamas also spit at each other, which means humans get caught in the crossfire. We didn’t buy horses or mules because we don’t have much experience with them. We have an ongoing debate as to whether it’s better to have one horse to keep track of and manage or six goats. You can pack out an entire elk on one horse, but a horse is a big animal and is more likely to cause injury or death when spooked. Horses also need a lot of grass and water on the trail, so you’re limited as to where you can camp/hunt. My anecdotal impression of horses is that they also need more (and regular) training and have fussy digestive systems which leads to vet bills. I’m not sure that goats are any cheaper in the long run, but I do think they are less dangerous.

Why don’t your goats have horns? We had the horns removed for safety reasons. If a goat gets his horns caught in the fence or under the collar of another goat, the rest of the herd may beat him up to the point of death. Horns are also a safety hazard for humans while trimming hooves, adjusting saddles, etc. Horn removal (disbudding) is a painful procedure for the goats and we don’t like it, but we think it’s better than the alternative. The other thing to consider is that you really can’t have a herd that’s a mix of goats with and without horns: it’s all or nothing. Goats with horns will beat up and terrorize the disbudded goats to the point where they have to live separately.

The aggravation factor. People rarely ask how much trouble goats can be. The answer is: a lot. The goat mantra is: sniff it, chew it, destroy it. Goats beat on each other daily and by extension, they beat on everything they can touch: barn, fence, feeders, waterers, trailer, you name it they can break it. They climb and jump on everything. They chew on their saddles. They chew on your arrow fletching, your expensive pack, your bow, and your gun. Somehow they know exactly what matters to you and they mess with it. Last spring, my goats shorted out the electric fence, crawled under a woven wire fence, pushed a hole in a second woven wire fence and proceeded to strip all the bark off my neighbor’s favorite pear tree. They got out of their pasture twice on my birthday and then the alpha goat charged me, leading to a fist fight. Goats make me about as mad as I ever get. After 15 years, I should be used to their antics by now, but they are relentless. Even worse, goats can be terrible to each other. Goats have a pecking order and the lowest goat is often exiled from the barn and pushed out of the feeder. Bring home a new goat and the others will reject him until/unless he can fight them all off and establish himself as the alpha. Goats have zero empathy for the young, elderly, sick, or injured, leaving them to starve in the rain or beating them to the point of death. Preventing and dealing with these problems eats up your time and patience. It’s a factor that should not be underestimated or ignored because at most, you will spend a few weeks on the trail each year and the rest of the time the goats will be home causing problems. I despise carrying a heavy pack, so I put up with goat madness. Would you? How about your partner who has to take care of them while you’re away from home? Caring for goats is a team effort, so be sure you have a team and they are on board before you bring home your first goats.

Still interested in getting goats? If the answer is still Yes, I’ll be posting more information for you to consider: how and where to buy goats and equipment, how to care for them, and tips for the trail. Stay tuned.

Cud chewing time on the trail

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