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Good Beginnings in Goats

Ask the Right Questions
to Help Define the Search

By Shelene Costello

There are many things which attract new buyers to the world of dairy goats. The appeal often lies in the age-old ideas of self-sustainability, or in the heart-string pull of an adorable kid. Maybe lactose intolerance is a family problem; maybe the children need a 4-H project. Whatever the reason, once someone decides they want to get a dairy goat or two, there are many questions to ask—and answer—in order to make sure a good match is made between expectations and results, between the search and the find of a perfect dairy goat.

First, a potential dairy goat buyer needs to decide what traits are most important and what needs are expected to be filled. Things to consider include: breed characteristics, as in looks and personality, as well as milk components and size; management requirements: health, good structure, show quality, high milk production, or ease of kidding and average number of kids born. Addressing these questions prior to making an actual goat purchase will go a long way toward ensuring that a happy match between human and dairy goat will occur. It will also help determine what the individual herd goals will be and how much can be expected in the initial purchase price.

From my experience, prices and quality of dairy goats vary a lot throughout the United States. A good dairy doe, capable of being a functional milker, should cost anywhere from $100 to several hundred dollars or more. In the part of the country where I live (northeast), prices tend to run a bit lower for a decent milker, as one which might bring $100-150 here might run as much as $1,000 elsewhere for the same quality. A good show-quality doe or buck might start around $200-$250 here, but bring upwards of that in other, more populated areas. Anything which runs less than $100 falls into the suspicious category in my book, leading me to wonder what is wrong with the animal or why it is being offered for less than it might be worth. Ask why an under-priced animal is for sale.

Registration papers may make a difference in price in some areas and not in others. Most buyers like the idea of being able to trace the pedigree of an animal through a registry organization like the American Dairy Goat Association (ADGA) or the American Goat Society (AGS), to name two examples. It is important for those who have an interest in breeding and raising quality dairy goats of their own to be able to find out information about relatives and their genetic strong and weak points through pedigree information.

People looking for a dairy goat often place more emphasis on choosing a breed than on finding a functional animal, but anyone can find a decent, functional dairy goat of any breed that may work for your situation. One should not discriminate only on the looks of each breed. Instead, it might be more important to look at what is available in the nearby area. Sometimes the best part of buying a dairy goat is finding a good breeder who can help after the point of sale. It really helps to have someone close by who is knowledgeable about dairy goats and willing to give advice so you can become a dairy goat breeder extraordinaire.

Finding a breeder who can help after the sale is a real plus.
Finding a breeder who can help after the sale is a real plus.

An important tip to remember when buying that first dairy goat is to always plan on buying at least two goats, not just one. Dairy goats are herd animals and need a companion of their own kind. It may be cheaper and easier, at first, to buy a wether (a castrated male) for a companion animal if the cost of two does is prohibitive. Some breeders even give away a companion wether, if requested. Personally, I think that if the investment is going to be made into two goats, the buyer might as well purchase a second doe so that production cycles can alternate or be staggered so fresh milk is available year round.

The buyer should decide if they want to start with raising kids, so that the introductory phase is easier without the demands of twice daily milkings. However, there is merit to buying a doe already in milk, already trained to the milk stand, and already used to close interaction with human caretakers. There are pros and cons to each beginning scenario. Some important points to consider include: is milk expected right away, how will doe(s) or kid(s) be bred when the time comes, what feed sources are available (does in milk may have greater nutritional requirements than growing kids), will hand milking be an option, how will the goat adjust to time schedules, environmental stresses, other animals on the farm, etc.

With a kid purchase, the buyer does not have to milk right away, but there are no guarantees that this future doe will freshen well either. Knowing if the dam and other ancestors are good milkers helps, but as with anything in life, there are no guarantees that all kids will fulfill their potential. This same consideration applies to a bred doe purchase, though one will not have to wait as long to find out how she will milk as with a young kid who needs to grow several months before breeding.

For someone looking for milk production, buying a doe already milking might be the best option as a farm visit will lend insight as to how the doe is to be milked, how easy she is to handle, how easy she is to milk and how much milk she gives. Some new buyers do not realize that it is normal for a doe in milk to drop off in production when she goes to a new home due to the stress of changing her life. New home, new feed, new companions—it all adds up to some stress and each doe reacts differently. But given good feed, lots of attention and time, she should pick back up to near what she was doing at her former home.

Farm visits are the best place to address new buyer questions and considerations like, do we want just a good milker to put milk on the table? Is show quality and top production ratings in performance programs a priority? Is a long, level lactation important to keep milk on the table year round, or would a goat that milks quite heavily for a short time of the year be a better fit?

Likely one of the most important aspects to look at for a dairy goat purchase is the quality of udder structure. A good dairy goat can be in milk production for 10 or more years, but the longevity of production depends on good udder health and physical make-up. A goat with an udder which drags so low that it gets stepped on or drags in the dirt, will not last long in any situation. From my personal experience, I have learned that larger udders are not always good indications of better production. A well held-up udder that is higher off the ground may be the secret of the better goat. The shape and size and placement of teats can make a real difference in any milking experience. A functional udder is easier to find than a show quality one, as small variances that may hurt in the show ring may not make a difference on how well a doe can make milk and continue to be sound for life.

Along that line of thinking, teat placement is very important. A teat set too high up on the side or front of the udder so that it rubs against the side of the leg, will make it hard to remove all the milk from the udder, leaving some milk in the udder at all times and giving a much higher chance for mastitis to develop. Having a teat size that is comfortable to milk out by hand or machine, depending on which method is chosen, can make a big difference in buyer choice. Teats should not be so small that the milker cannot get a hold of them. Nor should they be so large the goat steps on them getting up and down. And, the size of the teat orifice can make a difference in milking enjoyment, as it is easier to get milk out of a nice sized opening if it’s not too tight, or so loose as to leak milk between milkings.

boy with a goat

I would advise buyers to look for a goat that is generally built sound, one that has strong feet and legs, a good solid topline with wide hips and rump, and one that is deep and wide through the body to give lots of room for plenty of food and room to carry kids and ease of having them. It would be beneficial for the buyer to check the bite and note if the jaws meet evenly, without a noticeable difference of top and lower jaws, so that they can eat efficiently.

A healthy goat will have clean, clear eyes, nose and mouth, and no noticeable discharge from any orifice on the body, and a full shiny coat. The whole herd should look healthy and (as my husband says) appear bright-eyed and bushy tailed, brimming with vigor and vitality. Goats should be curious of their environment and they should eat with good appetite.

More first-time questions to ask include finding out about disease or management techniques in regards to CAE (caprine arthritis encephalitis), CL (contagious abscesses), and what types of vaccinations (if any) are used in the herd. There are things to be said for each management style and the buyer might want to choose a goat from a herd with similar management preferences. For instance, will goats be asked to browse for most of their diet or will they be fed hay from feeders? How much supplementation with grains or extra feeds will be utilized? How much vaccination and worming does the herd manager do? Do hand-raised goats that are extremely personable appeal to the buyer, or is it just necessary to have goats willing to comply with the basic milk stand acquaintance each day?

Every new goat buyer should visit several herds to determine what methods might work best for them and then try to purchase goats from herds that have a similar management style already established. The transition time for the goats will be shorter and more enjoyable that way. While it is best to visit several goat farms to get an idea of what is available, it would not be prudent to go from farm to farm on the same day, as germs and microbes could be spread from one farm to the next.

There are many places to find goats to purchase. There are dairy goat clubs that have listings of their members in most states. Dairy goat registry associations often have member lists organized by states as well. There are online groups for each breed and many times areas of the country, as well as sites for cheesemaking and more. There are members in each of these groups that will either have goats for sale or know someone who does. Many rural newspapers have classifieds that may list local goats for sale. There are bulletin boards at most feed stores where people may advertise animals for sale. Spending time looking into these questions before buying can make the shopping and buying experience a rewarding one, and the end result a beginning of a wonderful life with dairy goats.

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