Sooner or later, almost every homesteader considers buying a dairy cow or goat. There’s something about the idea of rich, fresh milk, straight from a gentle animal, that appeals to the homesteading spirit. Sometimes the appeal is economic — the milk you get from an animal you raise may be less expensive than what you buy in a store. Sometimes the driving notion is one of self-sufficiency, and sometimes it’s the appeal of clean, honest food produced in exactly the way you wish. Usually it’s a mix of all these reasons.
Unless you have a large family, a dairy goat is almost certainly more sensible for the family milk animal than a cow. Although cows have their merits, they produce more milk than a small family can practically use. The average Jersey cow gives about 6 gallons of milk per day over a 305-day “lactation cycle,” the 10 months from the time she calves to the time she needs to be rested before her next calf is born. The average Holstein cow gives much more — nearly 9 gallons per day, according to Holstein USA. By comparison, a sound Nubian dairy goat — sometimes called the Jersey of the goat world because its milk compares in richness to the high butterfat of Jerseys — may give 1 to 1 1/2 gallons of milk a day. A good LaMancha dairy doe, comparable to a Holstein, may average nearly 2 gallons a day.
Unless you plan to start a small-scale dairy (small-scale equipment is available through Bob White Systems) and process all the government paperwork that a dairy or cheesemaking plant requires to operate legally, in most cases a family dairy goat will give you years of good, rich milk — in just the right amount for your family.
First, let’s get some terms straight. A dairy goat female is a doe, not a nanny. She’ll be a doeling until she kids (or has babies) for the first time. A dairy goat male is a buck, not a billy. Until he reaches breeding age, he’ll be a buckling. If he’s castrated, he becomes a wether. There are two reasons to refer to dairy goats properly: Using the proper names will lend you some credibility as you talk to breeders, and if someone you’re talking to about an animal uses the wrong terms, you can be pretty sure the animal in question is not well-bred.
Now let’s consider the main dairy goat breeds. While you’ll hear stories about the brush goat who turned out to be a marvelous milker, I counsel you to buy your doe — especially your first doe — from a breeder who specializes in the breed you’re interested in. It costs the same to feed a worthless animal as it does a good one, so why not start with a good one?
Working with a breeder invariably gives you a mentor who is only too glad to answer questions and provide advice, while that guy with the bargain goat on Craigslist is likely not to return your phone calls once your check clears. Moreover, a reputable breeder will only sell a healthy animal from good bloodlines, while that Craigslist person may be trying to dump a sick animal. Start with the breed organizations first to locate a reputable breeder in your area.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss each breed in depth, but the breed associations, the American Dairy Goat Association, and other sources can tell you more about the breeds you’re interested in. Still, you’re reading this because you’re interested in milk, so here’s a little about the milk qualities of each breed.
The standard-sized breeds are the most familiar and what most people think of when they imagine a goat, whether it’s a Nubian with its Roman nose and pendulous ears or a LaMancha with its tiny (completely normal) ears. (Bonus goat joke: A Nubian and a LaMancha met on the street. Both said at the same time, “Something about your ears just bugs me.”)
Alpines. Many people are drawn to Alpines for both their high milk production and because they come in many colors. Coming from the Alps, Alpines also are popular in France, which is why the names for those colors are in French — cou blanc, for example, means “white neck.” Alpine milk averages about 3.5 percent butterfat.
LaManchas. Despite their Spanish-sounding name, LaManchas are the only dairy goat breed developed in the United States, and they’re famous for having tiny — or no — ears. Their milk averages 4.2 percent butterfat.
Nubians. I kept Nubians because I loved the high butterfat that the breed is famous for, and because their milk is especially good for cheesemaking. Nubian milk averages 4.6 percent butterfat.
Oberhasli. Another breed originating in Switzerland, Obers are usually a rich bay-brown color with black points. Like the other Swiss breeds, they are good producers. Oberhasli milk averages 3.6 percent butterfat.
Saanens. The all-white Saanen is another Swiss breed with a reputation for excellent production, and the breed is popular with commercial goat dairies. The top-producing dairy goat for 2011 was a Saanen doe who gave 6,080 pounds of milk in 305 days — or 2 1/2 gallons a day! Saanen milk averages 3.5 percent butterfat. Some breeders have introduced color into their Saanen herds; these colored Saanens are called Sables.
Toggenburg. Toggs, another Swiss breed, became famous because the poet Carl Sandburg’s wife, Lillian “Paula” Sandburg, raised them. They are usually mousey-gray (they can be chocolate brown) with white ears and two white stripes running down the face from above the eyes down to the muzzle. They are good producers. Toggenburg milk averages 3.3 percent butterfat.
There also are two main small milk goat breeds. Among their benefits is the fact that they produce terrific milk on less feed than the standard sized breeds. Because of their small size, they also are easier for children to handle.
Nigerian Dwarf. Nigies look like a miniature standard-sized goat, but their milk is unusually high in butterfat — averaging 6 to 10 percent. Because they are smaller, they produce less milk per day — a Nigie might give you 1 to 2 quarts of fine, rich milk a day. That may be just the right amount for a 1- or 2-person household.
Pygmy. Despite its tiny size, the “cobby” (squarely built) little Pygmy is an excellent dairy goat. Pygmys’ rich milk ranges from 5 to 10 percent butterfat, and good does give 1 to 2 quarts a day. Pygmy fans say that their goats’ milk holds for up to two weeks with no loss of quality.
You may run into other breeds, including Kinders, Miniature Nubians and “Boerbians.” These are the offspring of the main dairy breeds above, usually crossed with meat goats in an attempt to produce kids with meatier carcasses. Because the bloodlines used in the crosses vary greatly, their milking qualities aren’t necessarily as predictable as those of the older breeds.
Study up on the breeds you’re interested in, and consider looks very important. You’re going to spend a lot of time with these animals, and you’ll bond better with them if you get pleasure from the way they look. I kept Nubians as much for their beauty as for their rich milk; every time I went to the barn, the sight of them made me happy.
Make sure everyone in the family is on board before you launch your dairy goat enterprise. While one person will certainly be mostly in charge of the dairy, everyone gets sick or needs to go away now and then, and you want to make sure there won’t be resentment if someone else has to step into the milk room. By the same token, make sure everyone knows how to milk, whether by hand or machine, and knows the basics of milk-room etiquette. Milking time should be peaceful and low-stress, without dogs, children or strangers pestering the goats.
Milking time also is a great time for you to check your animals’ hooves to see if they need trimming; to administer vaccinations; and to otherwise make sure your does are happy and healthy. You may find it a good idea to brush the does before you start milking; they like the grooming and it focuses your attention on the animal.
Pay attention to what pleases your animals, too. My does gave 30 percent more milk if I turned on the radio; they liked rock and roll and country, but their production went down with opera or classical music. Their production also dropped whenever someone else milked for me; dairy goats are creatures of habit, and they just wouldn’t let down their milk as well for someone they didn’t know.
I know those things because I kept scrupulous records at each milking, and you should, too. A sudden drop in milk production is often an early sign of illness. Milking time was sacred to me, in an almost literal sense: The goats and I were both mother and child to one another — each of us giving food and nurture to the other — and I treasured that bond. That’s one reason why I made sure to thank each doe when we finished, and to tell her that she’d done a good job for me.
There’s an old adage in goat circles that if a goat’s milk tastes bad, you should blame the goat keeper, not the goat. While some breeds’ milk may tend to taste “goatier” than others (a quality that is sometimes prized by cheesemakers), the flavor of milk is largely the result of how the animals have been fed and housed. Top-quality goat’s milk is sweet, rich and flavorful, and can be distinguished from cow’s milk only because goat’s milk is whiter — it has less carotene than cow’s milk.
Bad housekeeping in the dairy barn and milk parlor will contribute off-flavors to milk, as will housing a buck too close to the does. So will mediocre hay. Feed the highest protein alfalfa you can afford — second cutting is usually deemed best — and leave lower-protein hays to the horses and cattle.
Additionally, plan to supplement your milking does’ diet with a good browse in the pasture and grain on the milk stand. You’re asking your does to give you good food; be wise enough to give them the same. Top-dressing grain rations on the milk stand by sprinkling in a handful of black-oil sunflower seeds — the same ones that cardinals adore — makes for happy goats and higher milk production.
Check your pasture for noxious weeds, especially wild onions, which can give milk off-flavors. Some weeds are toxic to goats; make sure your pasture is clear of the weeds listed at Cornell University Department of Animal Science.
Your does also will need mineral supplements, either in block form or free-choice in loose form. In some parts of the country, low selenium in soils may mean you need to supplement. Your county extension agent should be able to tell you whether that’s a concern in your area.
If the breeder you buy from is nearby, you may not need to provide the separate pen and housing — as well as the companion — that a buck requires. Consider that carefully when deciding on a breeder, especially if your acreage is small.
Bucks are smelly — they urinate on themselves to appeal to the does and help bring them into estrus — and many people find that “bucky” odor offensive (I always liked it, though). They’re also strong and determined. Wrestling with a stinky buck who’s gotten out of his pen is not fun, even if you don’t mind his odor.
But somehow or another, you’ll have to get your does bred once a year — because if they don’t have kids, you won’t have milk. You might as well go ahead and start planning for how you will manage those kids (sell them? keep them? butcher them?) because dairy does have from one to four kids at a time, so two does could give you as many as eight kids next year. And about half of them will be bucklings. The key to it going smoothly is to have this part of the equation worked out ahead of time.
Are you? Committing to keeping dairy animals is serious. Not only must you provide care for them in every kind of weather, no matter how you feel, but you’ll also need to be available to milk twice a day for 10 months of the year.
Overslept in the morning? Better call your boss — you still have to milk.
Drinks after work with the folks from the office? Sorry, your does are tapping their hooves impatiently.
In keeping with the responsibilities, the rewards of keeping dairy animals are immense. The happiest time in my life so far was when I had my dairy herd. And that’s why I’m pinching every penny until Lincoln squeaks — I’m saving for fencing at my new place so I can do it again.
Read More: Making delicious goat cheese, or chevre, is easy in MOTHER EARTH NEWS's How to Make Goat Cheese.
Robin Mather is a senior associate editor at Mother Earth News. She started and operated Cariadus Creamery in Batesville, Mississippi, raising an ADGA-registered and linear-appraised herd of Nubians in the late 1990s.
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