There are many good reasons for raising dairy goats.
Maybe your children are looking for a 4-H project. Perhaps you have always dreamed of providing your family’s milk supply. Some people would like to start a home business based on goat milk. It’s possible that you aren’t even sure why you want goats, and you wouldn’t be unusual if you said you simply like the fascinating animals.
But the reason is important because to a great degree, that will determine how you will raise them, and how you should get started.
Therefore, our goal will be to help you explore the possibilities. We’ll tell you what you must know about goats before you start raising them for any reason. But only you can decide why you want to raise them, and therefore how much time, money, effort, study and sheer dedication you will allot to the enterprise.
Even if you have never met a goat in person, you probably know, from pictures and reading, that they are friendly, docile, curious and intelligent. And of course, they produce rich, delicious milk.
A good milking doe will produce an average of about 2-3 quarts a day, but that’s extremely misleading. The main reason is that most goats will produce a lot of milk— often a gallon or more per day—soon after kidding. After that peak, production declines, sometimes slowly, sometimes not so slowly. A good goat should produce for 9-10 months of the year, although the last part of the lactation (milking period) might only amount to a few cups a day. A not-so-good goat might only produce for a couple of months before going dry.
Breeds of dairy goats
Naturally you’ll want to know what kind of goat will best suit your purposes.
While there are hundreds of breeds of goats throughout the world, only eight are generally recognized as dairy breeds in the United States.
The most popular is the Nubian. While these animals can be any color or combination of colors, they are easily identified by their long drooping ears and “Roman noses.” Many people say that Nubians don’t produce as much as other breeds, but their milk is richer (higher in butterfat). More on that in a moment.
Another common breed is the Saanen, which is always white or light cream and has a “dished” or concave face and erect ears. Saanens have a reputation for being the best milk producers, but with the lowest butterfat production. (Again, please reserve judgment for a moment.)
Sables are Saanens that are not all white or light cream. Like Saanens, their ears are erect but their face may be straight or dished. The Sable may be any color or combination of colors, solid or patterned, EXCEPT solid white or solid light cream.
One of the easiest breeds to identify is the La Mancha, which often appears to be earless. The ears are very short. La Manchas can be any color or combination, and are generally considered to be fine dairy animals.
Toggenburgs are easily identified by their color pattern, which is always a shade of brown with white markings, most notably stripes on the face. The common generalization is that Toggs have long lactations but with butterfat on the low side.
Alpines come in the whole spectrum of goat colors and patterns, which the official breed standard describes in great detail.
Less common is the Oberhasli. These are bay-colored, or reddish-brown, accented with black markings.
And finally, the Nigerian Dwarf. Some people claim they are easy to milk and good producers despite their small size… or even that they’re ideal for people who don’t need much milk and want an easily handled animal.
Goats of any breed and either sex can have horns. It’s best to start with one that is naturally hornless or has been disbudded or dehorned at an early age.
Breed averages are meaningless
There is no best breed. There is far more variation among animals of the same breed than there is between one breed and another. Some Nubians produce much more milk than some Saanens. Some Saanens produce more butterfat than some Nubians. And “breed average” milk production means nothing when choosing an animal.
If you just want a little milk for home use, or if you still don’t know why you want goats, there is nothing wrong with starting out with “grade” animals which are often crosses of two or more breeds. Some are very good milkers. More importantly, you will learn from them.
Buying a goat
Much more important than the breed is the overall health and condition of the animal. It would be helpful to get knowledgeable help, but a basic analysis can be fairly intuitive.
Look for a shiny coat. Bright eyes. Good body condition.
The animal should be alert and lively, and it should move easily, without limping or acting stiff or sore. It should have firm, pelleted manure. Be sure it has no abscesses, and of course you’ll want a well-shaped udder and teats on a milking doe. Check the feet.
This is the minimum. In some cases you might want to go much further, even having a veterinarian examine the goat. This might include tests for mastitis, blood tests to check for CAE, TB, and brucellosis; and fecal tests for internal parasites.
Most beginners don’t go to such lengths, but this does demonstrate the importance of buying from someone who is both knowledgeable and conscientious.
Of course, you won’t bring a goat home until it has a place to stay and something to eat.
Goats are hardy animals, but they do need a dry, draft-free place to sleep and to escape from the hot sun or rain, and an outdoor space to exercise.
In hot areas where protection from sun and rain is important, a simple roof or lean-to might suffice. In cold climates the concerns are chilly drafts, drifting snow, and adequate ventilation. And of course, a real, licensed dairy requires what most of us can only dream of: electricity and hot and cold running water and drains; separate areas for animals, feed, milking, and milk handling; and much more.
Experienced goat raisers recommend anywhere from 12 to 25 square feet of shelter per animal, the lower figure being adequate in warmer climates where they will spend more time outdoors. In cold or wet areas the goats will often be fed indoors and will spend more time there, increasing the space requirement.
Outdoor spaces are equally flexible. You might need little more than a small exercise yard for few goats. Or you might want a pasture area that will provide at least some of the goats’ nutritional needs. You might even opt for a complex series of rotational pastures to maximize forage utilization. The number of animals you have and the kinds and amounts of plants available are primary considerations, along with how much time you can devote to pasture management, and how much you want to spend on fencing.
Fencing is the key element of any yard or pasture. (Tethering goats is not recommended.) Goats are notoriously difficult to confine, and they are hard on fencing—especially the cheaper kinds. One good choice for smaller areas is stock panels. These are made of 1/4″ welded rod and come in 16-ft. lengths, 48 inches high. Other options are limited to such fencing as woven wire, chain link, and electric—either the common single-strand type (typically using 2-3 strands), the high-tensile variety, or the netting often referred to as “New Zealand” type fencing. Goats can be trained to respect electric fencing.
Note that one acre will require 825 feet of fencing—and more if it’s not square. Get prices on the kind of fencing you’d like. Don’t forget to include line posts, corner posts, insulators and a fence charger if applicable, gates, and perhaps such items as fence staples, a fencing tool and a posthole digger or post driver. Then base your decision on a cost/benefit analysis — or on your budget.
Goats are ruminants. The term refers to the rumen, the large first compartment of the four-part stomach in which cellulose, mostly from forage, is broken down by organisms living there. This is the basis of feeding goats.
Forage, consisting of hay, pasture plants, and browse from trees and bushes, is the mainstay of the goat diet. Such coarse materials are indigestible to the goat, but the rumen microbes break them down. You are feeding the microbes, and the microbes feed the goat.
Roughage is essential for goat nutrition. Grains are secondary.
For many people the best, easiest and cheapest way to feed goats is to provide good leafy grass or legume hay free-choice, plus 2-3 pounds a day of a commercial goat feed (grain ration). Others prefer feeding their goats on pasture as much as possible. This can be quite simple, or it can become management-intensive, with controlled rotational grazing, pasture maintenance and renovation, expensive fencing and predator control, to name a few concerns.
Whatever your chosen method, for whatever reason, prudence would suggest that you start small and learn as you go—in every area of goat husbandry.
Goats need a constant supply of fresh, clean water.
Dairy goats give milk, but only after giving birth. This means they must be bred, which requires a buck.
Very few beginners would be well-advised to own a buck for reasons including herd improvement, expense, and the infamous buck odor. It’s simply too convenient to locate a good buck and transport the doe when she’s in heat.
Does can be bred when they weigh 85-90 pounds, usually at about nine months of age.
Female goats are only receptive to breeding (“in heat” or estrus) for 2-3 days at a time, every 18-23 days or so, usually from fall to late winter. Signs to watch for include increased tail-wagging, nervous bleating, a slightly swollen vulva, and frequent urination. Take the doe to visit the buck, record the date, and watch for signs of heat again about three weeks later. If you see none the doe is probably pregnant.
Again mark your calendar, anticipating kidding about 145 to 150 days after breeding.
Several days ahead of the due date, put the doe in a well-cleaned pen by herself with plenty of fresh bedding, water, and good hay. Don’t be surprised if you check on her one morning and find her attending to 2-3 newborn kids, even if you didn’t know she was in labor.
At the onset of labor she might paw the floor and lie down and stand again repeatedly. If she is in actual labor more than two hours or seems to be having trouble, be ready to call for help from either a knowledgeable neighbor or a veterinarian. The best way to learn to deal with rare difficult births is by watching someone with experience.
The normal procedure after kidding is to clear the nose of mucus or membranes to prevent suffocation (the mother will do this if you aren’t there), disinfect the navel with iodine, and dry the kid. Gently draw a small stream of milk from each teat to be sure it’s functional and not plugged. Clean up the soiled bedding and add fresh, if needed. Watch to be certain the kids get that all-important first drink of “colostrum,” or first milk, or milk the doe and feed the kids with a bottle and lamb nipple. This thick, yellowish milk produced for the first few days after giving birth is essential for any newborn.
There are many theories of kid-raising, most related in some way to why you raise goats. The “natural” way would be to leave them with their mother. This won’t work if you’re raising goats for milk. Kids can ruin udders on show goats. And concerns about certain diseases (CAE) lead many goat raisers to remove kids from their mothers immediately after birth.
Kids to be hand-fed should be placed in a well-bedded draft-free box, preferably out of sight and hearing of the mother. They can be fed from bottles or pans. It requires time and patience to teach a kid to drink from a pan, but cleaning and sanitizing bottles and nipples is more work.
Most people feed warmed milk (a goat’s normal body temperature is 103°) three or four times a day. Start with 12-14 ounces a day, total, the first few days, working up to as much as 24 ounces a day by the end of the week, if the kid will take it. Some won’t. By the second week this will probably increase to 36 ounces a day.
Be sure to provide fine-stemmed hay, which kids will start nibbling at when they’re only a week old. This roughage is essential for the proper development of the rumen. They will nibble at grain (18% kid ration) soon after, but the hay is more important. Limit feeding milk at this point will encourage hay and grain consumption, but always offer as much clean water as they will drink.
Wean by weight, not age, usually around 20 pounds. The primary consideration should be whether they are consuming enough hay and grain to continue to thrive without milk.
Milk your goats every 12 hours on a regular schedule.
The milking area should be away from the dust of the housing and feed areas.
Wash the udder and teats with warm water and an udder washing solution (available from farm stores), and dry thoroughly. This promotes clean milk but just as importantly stimulates milk “let-down.”
Milking might seem difficult at first, but most people get the hang of it after a little practice.
1. Close off the top of the teat with your thumb and forefinger so the milk in the teat will be forced out of the teat, not back into the udder.
2. Next close your second finger, then the third, and finally your pinkie, forcing the milk out of the teat. Use steady pressure, but don’t “squeeze” in the sense of pinching: be gentle. Do not pull on the teat.
Discard the first stream from each teat, as it will be high in bacteria.
3. Repeat the process with your other hand on the other teat. Alternate like this until the milk flow ceases.
Milk should be weighed and recorded. Weight is used rather than volume because the numbers are easier to work with but also to eliminate guesswork caused by foam.
Strain the warm milk using an approved filter, and cool it immediately and thoroughly. Milk should be chilled to 38° within one hour. The best way to achieve this is by placing the milk container in a pan of ice water for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then it can be refrigerated.
Like nails on humans, goats’ hooves need regular trimming. In the wild these growths are kept under control by constant scrambling over rocks. Left untouched, overgrown hooves can cripple an animal by throwing bones out of alignment.
Hoof trimming can be accomplished with a sharp knife (and a great deal of care), but the ideal is a hoof trimmer, a shears made for the purpose, available from goat and sheep supply houses. An alternative is an ordinary sharp rose pruning shears. Leather gloves are a good idea. Most people will want to have a helper, or a milking stand to help restrain the goat.
Moving the leg back so the hoof faces up, first clean out any manure and dirt. Next trim off any bent-over parts of the hoof. It should be even with the bottom of the foot, but just take a little at a time until you gain experience. The hoof will show pink as you near the blood supply.
The toe, or point of the hoof, wears down less than the sides and requires more trimming. Heels seldom need trimming, but check them just in case.
Goats are hardy and generally healthy animals. With proper nutrition and management, illness is rare. But of course, any living creature can get sick.
Some people prefer self-medication, for themselves and their animals. This requires a certain amount of information and knowledge, whether gained from a medical school or an experienced neighbor or relative. Most of us are better off relying on trained experts, and many medications are available only to licensed practitioners.
However, you can learn to perform some common tasks. For example, many busy veterinarians might be glad to show you how to administer routine inoculations yourself. (Asking a vet about basic health maintenance programs will tell you what vaccinations are recommended for your area, but will also establish contact before some dire emergency arises.)
The four most common vaccinations for goats are for tetanus, white-muscle disease, enterotoxemia, and pasteurellosis. Remember, vaccines are not cures: they’re preventatives.
The most prevalent goat ailment is probably caseous lymphadenitis (CL), and caprine arthritis encephalitis (CAE) is the most talked-about disease, but there are no vaccines for either of these. They can be controlled by prevention, beginning with purchasing animals from herds known to be free of the diseases.
Goats as a business
There are several ways to make money with dairy goats. But the few doing it will assure you that it’s not easy, and you won’t get rich.
Selling milk sounds logical. The problem is lack of markets. Selling raw milk retail is next to impossible due to numerous legal and economic barriers. Most goat milk is sold to small cheesemakers, and there are fewer than three dozen of these in the entire country. There are even fewer fluid milk processors. Both of these usually have enough producers under contract, plus a waiting list.
Some goat milkers make and sell cheese or yogurt themselves, while others have found such specialty niches as goat milk soap and goat milk fudge. These, of course, involve all aspects of milk production from feeding and fencing to milking and manure hauling, but also manufacturing the product—after which it still has to be sold, at a profit. They are not enterprises to be taken on without a great deal of research and planning.
Sooner or later every goat breeder will have animals to sell. Registered, pedigreed championship show animals often bring high prices, but buying and breeding champions, attending major shows and keeping up the records that justify those high prices can be time-consuming and expensive.
Milkers with good records are often in demand. A few wethers are sold as pets, and there is a growing market for both milk-fed kids and culls as meat. These are sidelines that might help defray part of the feed bill, but they won’t provide an income.
But most people don’t raise goats to make money. Raise them to enjoy their friendly personalities, to watch the frolicking kids in springtime, and to savor their delicious milk. For the goat lover, that is reward enough.