Pack goats: Are they the best pack animal?
A pack animal is defined as any domesticated animal that is used to carry freight, goods or supplies. The donkey initially paved the way for pack animals with examples of it being used as a packer dating back to 3500 B.C. Since then, several other animal breeds around the world have been used for packing and include oxen, elephants, llamas, sheep, horses, donkeys, mules, yaks, reindeer, goats and dogs.
For Western hunters, horses and mules are the most common and respected pack animal. These equine species can carry the most weight while also providing a ride for the exhausted hunter and are regularly used in guide and outfitting operations in every western state. Llamas have also gained popularity among western hunters over the last two decades due to their ease of handling, sure footedness and low water consumption. The llama has proven to be a solid choice and easier to care for than horses. But what about the easiest of all pack animals? While the goat has been used as a pack animal for several years, it has only recently gained popularity. Social media has been a great launch pad for the pack goat, proving their legitimacy as hunters share experiences using pack goats on big game hunts.
Pack goat, llama or horse?
Horses, llamas and goats are all viable and worthy options. It is not possible to say which is the best because that can only be answered based upon your individual needs and limitations. Instead, I will address the pros and cons of each along with information on the costs of purchase and annual care to help you decide for yourself.
The first thing you need to do is buy the animal. Just like anything else, there is a good, better and best when buying an animal. Genetics, immunization and nutrition are very important considerations that ensure that you have a healthy animal. When searching, consider a breeder or seller that takes pack animals seriously and strives to provide a healthy animal with the right temperament. It is also nice to purchase an animal that has been worked with and exposed to trail life and packing. Buying a young, but seasoned, packer will make this a more “turn key” investment for you and avoid a lot of hassle down the road. Horses are the most expensive while the goat is by far the cheapest to purchase.
Which goat breed is best?
When selecting a goat breed, it is important to avoid a pygmy or meat goat breed because of their short stature. Dairy breeds are the best option for packers because of their longer legs and bigger frames. Select Alpines, Oberhaslis, Saanens, Toggenburgs, La Manchas or Nubians. I would also recommend buying a wethered goat (a male that has been castrated). Females can be a challenge if they are carrying milk in the backcountry over rough terrain and un-castrated billies can be aggressive, difficult to teach and smelly to be around.
It is best to purchase a goat that was bottle-raised by humans. Goats that are not bottle-raised can be difficult to catch and will most likely never develop an attachment to you. This is extremely important on the trail and in the backcountry. My goats will actually lay down next to me around camp or while resting on a hike.
The amount of land that you need to board your pack animals is also an important consideration if you are planning to keep them on your own property. Regardless of the animal that you choose, make sure that your property covenants have animal privileges that allow you to board. The number of goats will also determine the area size that you will need to house and raise your new goats. Pack goats are capable of carrying about 25% of their body weight. My goats each weigh 180 lbs. and can carry about 45 lbs. each. Two goats are adequate for one or two hunters venturing into the backcountry, but if your hunting group is larger, then you will want to have more goats to help carry the load. Obviously, horses and llamas outshine goats in the payload department, but goats definitely pull their weight in many other ways.
Feeding your pack animal is a 365 day per year job. They require quality food and fresh water daily. The horse will require the most feed, while the goat will consume the least. A goat will consume roughly 25% of what a horse will eat, while a llama will fall in the middle. I personally feed my pack goats a leafy alfalfa hay, either loose form bales or compressed cubes. Fortunately, I live in an area where I can purchase the alfalfa hay cubes at a reasonable price. I prefer these over loose form hay because the goats tend to be somewhat finicky and eat only a portion of the loose form leaving a lot of uneaten hay to lie on the ground and go to waste, making a mess.
Travel to your hunting location
Getting goats to the trailhead is a lot easier than horses and llamas. If you do not have a small horse trailer or you need to travel down a rough road to the spot where you will begin hiking, then you can simply tie your goats into the bed of your truck or install a short rack in your pickup bed.
Prior to the season, it is important that any pack animal be exercised and conditioned for the backcountry. The only way to train them is to get them on the trails and start hiking. I like to take them out with only the pack saddle and empty panniers the first time and gradually increase the weight in the panniers each training hike. Remember to load the panniers with equal weight to avoid an unbalanced load that could lead to leaning or sliding. Just like yourself, conditioning is necessary prior to any backcountry adventure to avoid a painful or dangerous experience.
Hoof care is also important. For llamas and goats, this is a relatively simple maintenance item. A pair of hoof trimmers are inexpensive and the trimming process is very simple as long as your llama or goat is at ease with you working on its hoof. I have placed two large boulders in my goats’ pen. The goat’s natural instinct is to play “king of the hill” while the boulders do a great job of keeping their hooves filed and in good shape. Horses are not as simple because trimming and shoeing them requires skill and training as well as a lot of hard work. Most horse or mule owners will opt for hiring out the shoeing process.
The big debate
Unfortunately, there has been some debate when it comes to pack goats. Wild bighorn sheep are a fragile species. Pneumonia and other diseases have become devastating to many populations of bighorn and desert sheep across the West. While domestic sheep are the most common animal that comes into contact with bighorn sheep and their habitat, the domestic goat has also been under fire for the spread of devastating diseases on wild sheep. While the West allows for large grazing contracts by domestic sheep, it is not uncommon to see domestic sheep herds feeding in waves of 500 animals or more in areas where bighorns coexist. If diseases are spread or contact is made, then it would seem far more likely that domestic sheep spending months at a time in sheep country are the most likely culprit. I cannot find any documented case where a domestic pack goat was the cause of any disease transmission that lead to a catastrophic die off in wild sheep. Most pack goat owners take great care in making sure that their goats are fed only clean quality hay and grain. We also make sure to stay current on all immunizations and wormings. The likelihood of a pack goat coming into contact with a wild sheep is incredibly low.
Domestic goats can be the most loyal and hassle free pack animal around. Prior to jumping in the goat packing business, I would recommend that you do your research. A great start would be to purchase the book, “The Pack Goat” by John Mionczynski. This is a great book full of information on what to consider and how to go about getting started with pack goats. It can be purchased here. In addition, I would recommend that you begin to spend time on www.packgoatcentral.com and PackGoats.com to gain further insight and opinions from others. I cannot promise that pack goats will help you to harvest bigger deer or elk, but I can assure you that they will make it easier to go further into the backcountry and stay longer. They can also help alleviate a lot of stress and strain on your knees, back and hips enabling you to hunt the backcountry for many years to come!