If you’re running a small homestead, you might think in terms of sustainability milestones. Setting up graywater and rain collection, or digging a well, might be a milestone that means you can disconnect from any “grid-based” water supplies. Getting into solar might mean being able to get off the power grid. Having a root cellar could mean not having to buy potentially disease-ridden vegetables from who-knows-where during the winter.
One big obstacle that you might encounter, however, is dairy. Even if you have a meat source, veggies, and other production on your farm, you might not have the room for a dairy cow, or want to deal with all that goes along with it. For many of us, “milk” means “cow milk” by default, and the idea of drinking goat milk sounds a bit…third world-ish. The truth, however, is that we were all wrong. Setting up to produce a bit of goat milk on your homestead is one of the best decisions you’ll make. Before you run out and buy goats, however — or make the sign of the cross to ward off the idea — read on for a (very) basic overview.
Why Goat Milk?
It turns out that goat milk has higher butterfat content and different proteins than cow’s milk. In fact, it’s naturally homogenized as well. For those who think goat milk tastes, well, “goaty,” the trick is twofold: the right hay (alfalfa/grass mix), and getting the milk down to 34 degrees as fast as you can. For us, that simply means throwing an ice pack in the milking bucket; the result is milk that is every bit as yummy as whole cow’s milk — and doesn’t taste any different than the milk you probably bought this week.
If you or a member of your family is lactose intolerant, goat milk is easier to digest and can cause less issue. I know someone who’s lactose intolerant but consumes all manner of goat dairy products without any problems. You could invest in cheese presses and calf rennet and other things to make more advanced products, but you can also make cheese with nothing but your goat’s milk, a heavy-bottomed pot, some salt, and a bit of white vinegar — and it takes about 20 minutes.
That’s not even counting all the non-dairy uses for goat’s milk; you can make soaps, creams, lotions, and a host of other things — all from a little animal that also likes to kick its heels up and run around like a crazy dervish.
How Many Goats Would You Need?
The first question you should be asking is how much milk you want; secondly, you should look at the facilities you have or are willing to put together. Goats need at least a deep, three-sided lean-to shelter; they’ll grow a winter coat to help handle the weather. A quick search engine trip shows hundreds of shelters built from scrap wood, pallets, and a host of other materials.
A Nigerian Dwarf goat — producing the sweetest and least “goaty-tasting” milk of all — needs about 200 square feet of space, with a little shelter in it. Throw a few toys, wire spools, or even old tires in the space and they’re happy campers. A Nigerian doe in milk will give you up to 2 quarts per day, and the milk or cream can be frozen to keep it fresh.
Nigies aren’t large or overly heavy (about 20 inches tall and less than 75 pounds), and they’re easy to care for. They don’t need traditional pastures; they’re just as happy browsing through wooded areas and eating the weeds you find nasty.
They’re also the most precious little creatures ever. If you handle them often, offer treats, and teach them that you are the source of all good things, they will follow you around for scratches. One of our little wether goats likes to put his tiny hoof on my leg to ask to be picked up and cuddled.
There are other dairy breeds as well; LaManchas and Nubians are also excellent milkers. For taste, however, you cannot beat Nigerian Dwarf milk.
Do Lines and Quality Matter?
If your goal is sustainable dairy, then you’ll need more than one goat. They’re herd animals, and so you will need to buy two to start. The best way to do that is to buy from a reputable farm, that’s been tested for diseases. If you want them to be super tame, come when you call them, be friendly and cuddly etc., get bottle babies and raise them yourself.
You might be tempted to buy a male and female to use for breeding. Don’t do it. You need to keep any males separate, and that means two lonely goats. Your best bet to start out with is a doeling, or young female, and a wether, or castrated male. He serves as a companion to your someday-milker, and will let you know who’s in heat — which can be extremely helpful later when you do have a buck.
When it comes to paying $350 and up for a little milker you’ll raise yourself or just jumping on Craigslist and grabbing the first “milk goat” you see, keep in mind that you’re after not just a lot of milk, but solid quality milk with high butterfat content. You’re also going to be breeding down the road (sustainability means not leasing a buck every year to breed your girls) so you’ll want to buy the highest quality doeling you can afford. Most farms that sell good quality, registered doelings sell the wethers at a heavily reduced rate; expect to pay in the neighborhood of $350-$450 total for your milker and her wether buddy depending on where you live. If you breed and sell her kids, you’ll make your money back and then some.
Do a bit of research; every area has a few farms that are doing really good work with their breeding lines. One excellent place to check is your local 4H club, or county fairgrounds; they will either know who to buy from or know the person to talk to. In fact, it would be a good idea to attend your county fair this year, and spend some time in the livestock barn watching, asking questions, and learning. The 4H families love to talk about their livestock projects, and you can learn a lot of tips and tricks to make raising your goats easier (such as tucking any necessary pills or supplements into a Fig Newton cookie because goats cannot resist them).
To Breed or Not to Breed
Anyone who is around goats learns a very critical lesson: Don’t buy a buck (intact male) unless you need to — and “need” is not what you think it is. Plenty of successful farms lease a buck each fall to breed their girls; keeping a buck on the property can be smelly, annoying, and visually disgusting or uncomfortable, depending on the type of people you have over on a given day. They need to be separate at all times from the does, and if they can see a doe in heat, they will do just about anything to get to her.
There is, however, a pretty compelling argument for having a buck around somewhere so that you can breed your own goats, and technically as long as you have a separate pen for them, they aren’t really much more work than a doe. Leased bucks are sometimes disease carriers just from literally being farmed out all over; if you want to guarantee a clean, disease-free herd, buy only from tested farms, and keep a “closed herd” — don’t take them to shows or around other goats, and don’t bring strange people into your goat pens or let them wear shoes in your pen that were in their own herd’s pen.
There’s also the line argument. If you are using the same buck(s) everyone else in the area is using, then eventually you’re going to have a harder time finding new, unrelated goats for your herd. Getting into goats is a long-term thing, so always buy with a long-term purpose.
The short version about breeding is this:
- If you want total sustainability for dairy, then you will need access to a buck to keep your goats “freshened” (recharging their milk every year, so to speak, by breeding them and birthing kids; it’s also where you’ll make back the money you put into them).
- Bucks need buddies too, so if you want a breeding pair, you’ll end up needing four goats.
- If you want year-round milk, you’ll need at least two does, and stagger their pregnancies so that one is always in milk.
- Buy goat babies in the spring (now); breed them in the fall for spring babies. You can also stagger their breedings so that you 1) always have milk and 2) aren’t trying to kid out multiple does on the same day or week.
Wait, What’s Goat Math?
Goat math is a bit of a joke among us goat folks, referring to the exponential growth that always seems to happen in goat herds. You see, when people start out, they often think they’d like a goat; a single, solitary family goat. Well, as we mentioned, you can’t really get just one goat because they need a friend. So you’re already starting with two. Technically, if one gets sick and dies, you’ll need a third one to fill in as buddy, so you might as well buy the third one in advance, and it might as well be another little doeling so you can make money off of her kids, etc.
Now that you have two does and a wether buddy, you’ll probably want to breed them yourself so now you’re in the market for a buck. Meanwhile, you see a pregnant doe in the paper’s farm section; for a decent price you can have pregnant mama and her babies — all of whom come from excellent registration lines and will bring good money when sold. You’re excited about making your investment back so you purchase the mama, and she gives birth. Suddenly now in only a few weeks you’ve gone from no goats to seven, since mama had triplets…and they’re so cute you decided to keep at least one. Oh, and you’re still looking for a buck.
While the story above might be amusing, it’s also very, very common. Every other goat farmer I know started out with two, and now own many of them — and are either fully sustainable in the dairy department, or are raising meat goats and are eating like kings.
Goats are a bit of work, just like anything, but they’re also a lot of fun and excellent additions to the homestead. Don’t let the goat math scare you off; they are worth every single penny and minute — and they’ll take you one step closer to true sustainability. Besides, if you have children, goats are an excellent way to teach livestock management, work ethic, and the value of home-produced goods.
The cuteness doesn’t hurt either.