Goats thrive on New Zealand pastures. They are naturally browsers and foragers, rather than close grazers like sheep. Goats can do well on vegetation that is unsuitable for sheep, and can help control weeds. Most goats on New Zealand farms, especially on hill country, are used for weed control.
Early settlers used goats to combat weeds in newly developed pastures. These goats were usually feral animals, rounded up as a herd and fenced onto a problem area. For large bushes of blackberry or gorse there may be 20–30 animals per hectare.
Weeds such as blackberry, thistle and gorse can be controlled and eliminated if goats are tethered or fenced onto areas containing these plants. Fencing can be a challenge, as goats can squeeze between the wires on standard fences. Angora and milking goats are generally less troublesome than other breeds in this respect. Modern electric fences and other fencing techniques can protect areas such as new tree plantations and home gardens. Yard fences should be higher than in traditional sheep yards.
Goats prefer rough pasture and other plants to high-quality clovers. However, if they are expected to produce quality milk or fibre, then a pasture of both grass and clover should be provided. In time goats can manicure pasture into a clover-dominant sward, helping to improve the profitability of sheep or cattle farms.
Goats are often seen tethered on a long rope or chain along a roadside farm boundary, where they graze the rough grass and weeds, and keep the road frontage tidy.
The nutritional value of goat milk has been known for centuries. Because of the size of its molecules, goat milk is more like human milk – it is much more readily digested by babies, and is suitable for a range of dairy products. Goat milk has a different taste from cow milk and is particularly good for making cheese.
The New Zealand dairy goat industry has developed since about 1990. It is centred in the Waikato, where in 2005 there were about 26,000 milking goats. There were about 40,000 throughout New Zealand. Goats may be hand-milked in small numbers, or milked by machine.
Several breeds of goat are used for milking in New Zealand. The Saanen (80% of the total), Alpine and British Alpine, and Toggenburg are all from Switzerland; the Nubian and Anglo-Nubian (which have large Roman noses) are a cross between English goats and goats from Africa and India, and the Sable was developed in New Zealand from the Saanen.
Dairy goats generally produce between 660 and 1,800 litres of milk in a 305-day lactation. On average, a good-quality dairy doe will give at least 2.7 litres per day. Most goat milk is converted to powder, and about 90% is exported to Australia, South Africa, Asia and Europe.
Meat, fibre and pet breeds are not usually milked, and simply produce enough for the kids until weaning.