Linda Heitman shares info on goat breeds and gives pointers on raising goats.
These goats are standing in the doorway of a barn.
You are tired of paying $4 per gallon of milk and close to $3.50 per pound for ground beef at the grocery store. It’s even got you thinking about taking another step toward food independence by purchasing a few goats. Great! But now what? How do you decide what kind of goat to buy? What is the difference between a milk goat and a meat goat? How about a milk and meat cross? Is there a difference among breeds? How much does it cost to buy a goat? How much does it cost to keep a goat? Do I really need a buck? And most importantly, how do I keep my goat from jumping on my car?!
First and foremost you must decide on your main purpose for buying a goat: milk, meat or both. Milking goats are bred for maximum production of high-quality milk. A really good milk goat can produce a gallon or more of milk per day for about 10 months. We recently butchered a 7-month-old Alpine (a popular Swiss dairy breed) buck; however, it yielded less than 15 pounds of meat. To be fair, the meat was very high-quality, low-fat, 100% organic and totally delicious.
A meat goat butchered at the same age, in comparison, would likely yield more than three times as much meat. You can milk a meat goat, too, but the milk yield will be substantially less. A milk/meat cross will give you both, but not as much of either as a purpose-bred milk or meat goat. It’s a tradeoff, so before you choose a breed, think carefully about how much milk and meat you want, and select your animals accordingly.
If you are choosing to milk goats, you must accept that you will be required to milk them at least once per day and probably twice per day, every day for up to 10 months a year. Owning milking animals is a decision that will significantly impact your lifestyle. Unless they’re nursing or dried off, goats have to be milked 12 hours apart, at the same times every day. Failing to do this can cause resentful goats and chronic health problems. If you work all day, this can make it difficult to run errands or go out after work. Also, you’ll want to plan trips well in advance, arranging for friends to milk your goats while you’re gone.
Did you know that there is a wide variance of butterfat content in goats’ milk depending upon the breed? Butterfat content usually ranges from 2 to 6 percent, and starts low, increasing over the lactation period. High butterfat breeds are great if you want rich milk for cheese, butter or ice cream. The quantity and quality of milk a goat gives will vary by breed, forage and individual genetics.
The fat globules in goat’s milk are much smaller than cow’s milk, which makes it easier to digest for those with milk sensitivities or digestive problems. The flip side, however, is that it is more difficult to separate the cream. Cow’s milk cream naturally rises to the top within a matter of hours, but goat’s milk cream rises very slowly. If you want a lot of cream, consider investing in a cream separator specifically designed for goats. They can be expensive, but consider how much you spend a year on store-bought butter and ice cream; a cream separator will last for years and will pay for itself many times over.
There are three origins of milk goats: Swiss, African and American.
All of the Swiss breeds (Alpine, Oberhasli, Saanen and Toggenburg) are very cold-hardy, producing high volumes of low-fat (2 to 4 percent butterfat on average) milk. The Saanen is often called the Holstein of dairy goats with production up to two and one-half gallons per day. It’s a Toggenburg, however, that holds the Guinness World record for dairy goat milk production with 1,140 gallons produced in one year. That is an average of well over three gallons per day! Toggenburgs have uniquely long lactations. Many will “milk through,” milking for 18 to 20 months without rebreeding.
If you want naturally low-fat milk, take a look at Alpines (my personal favorites). They are among the lowest breeds in terms of butterfat content with 3 to 3 1/2 percent on average (according to the American Dairy Goat Association) with high production. Our average Alpines give close to a gallon, and our highest production girls give nearly one and one-half gallons per day! Not record-breaking, but they are beautiful animals with gentle dispositions.
Nubians and Nigerian Dwarfs are of African origin. As a result, they are the most heat-tolerant of all the breeds. Nubians are most recognizable because of their long ears and Roman noses. Both breeds are known for their high-butterfat (4 1/2 percent or higher — some Nigerian Dwarf goats have recorded higher than 10 percent), high-quality milk. The Nigerian Dwarf, while small, can give around one-half gallon per day.
LaManchas are an American breed from stock of Spanish origin. At first glance, it looks like they have no ears. They do have ears, but they are shorter than an inch long. They also produce high-butterfat (3 to 5 percent on average), high-quality milk. They thrive in almost any climate, hot or cold.
If you live in a cold region of the country and want to kid in late winter or early spring, I recommend a Swiss breed because the kids have a lot of vigor and will typically jump right up and start nursing without assistance. The hot-weather breeds may need assistance in getting up and nursing in the cold; they may also need supplemental heat to help keep them warm. Nubians are susceptible to frostbite on their ears.
Goat meat is delicious. It is a mild-flavored meat similar to venison and lamb. Also, since you raised and fed your goats, you’ll know exactly what’s in the meat.
Four of the meat goat breeds are: Spanish, Boer, Kiko and Savanna.
Spanish goats are small to medium size, and are descended from stock that Spanish explorers brought to the Americas in the 1600s. They were historically bred for self-sufficiency, and they are extremely hardy, and disease- and parasite-resistant. The meat is of excellent quality because the goats are aggressive foragers, but because of their smaller size, Spanish goats tend to have a lower meat yield.
Boer goats are the most popular meat goat breed in America. They are of African origin and are serious meat production animals with does weighing 150 to 225 pounds and bucks weighing up to 350 pounds. They are often docile in disposition. They produce high-butterfat milk and cross well with dairy breeds. They are recognizable by their red or black heads and white bodies. Because of their origins, Boer kids have less cold tolerance and need supplemental heat if born in the cold, and they may need assistance getting up and to begin nursing.
Kiko goats originated in New Zealand. They’re small when born, but are very active and are up and nursing within minutes of birth, often without assistance. They are hardier and more cold-tolerant than Boers and grow very quickly with a size similar to Boers.
Savanna, or Savannah, goats arrived in North America in 1994. Like the Boers, they originated in Africa, but are slightly smaller. They are exceptionally hardy, excellent mothers, often having two to four kids. They are vigorous in hot, dry environments. Does weigh 120 to 200 pounds and bucks 200 to 250 pounds. They also will kid year-round. They have the same hardiness as a Spanish with the high meat yield of the Boer.
Another alternative is the milk/meat cross. Crossing a meat goat with a milk goat, you will end up with a meaty milk goat! You will lose milk production, but you will gain meat. If you choose to go this route, buy a high-quality meat buck to cross on your dairy does. Breed a meat buck to a fully grown milk doe.
Kinder goats are a recent American breed that resulted from a cross of Nubian does and Pygmy bucks. The result was a medium-sized, hardy, meaty milk goat with very high butterfat, often higher than 5 percent on average. The Kinder goat will often produce high numbers of offspring and provide an average of one-half gallon of milk per day.
Remember the old adage, “You get what you pay for.” Buy the best you can afford. I have bought goats at auction and have had good luck and bad. For some, the auction is the only venue they have for selling excess stock. For others, it is a way to ditch some of their culls.
I prefer to go directly to the breeder so I can see their operation and stock. It also is helpful to have a conversation with the breeder so I can find something that suits my needs and budget. Beware of the inexpensive animal that sounds too good to be true — it usually is.
To find a good breeder, start local and go from there. Your county extension agent may know who raises your breed. Also, check for state goat associations. You can also check the breeders’ listings on the national website for your breed. Lastly, Google your chosen breed.
Personality traits vary from animal to animal. It is important to talk with the person you are considering buying from and discuss your fencing situation, the personality you are looking for, and the milk production you desire. Most reputable sellers will be happy to set up a meeting to answer your questions.
If buying purebred stock, specify that your purchase is for home use. The qualifications (and price) are higher for show animals — you are just looking for a disease-free animal with good production and conformation. Make sure there are no lumps — even if the abscess is from a thorn, I still won’t buy her because the abscess could eventually affect other goats.
If you look over the animal and you don’t like her, don’t buy her. If the coat is ragged (a sign of old age) and the feet are untrimmed, curled up or broken, or if she is alone, there is a reason. You don’t want to buy someone else’s problem goat. I ask about personality, especially about whether she jumps. If she jumps, you will have a problem with containment that may well spread to other members of the flock.
A nice young buck or doe kid can cost anywhere from $100 to $250 for purebred stock. A crossbred goat will be less expensive. A freshened doe can be as high as $350 for a young one. Generally, milk goats will produce until they are 8 years old, but exceptions can keep producing up to 11 or 12. The peak production years are generally from ages 2 to 4. Ask about number of kids per birthing. I like twins best. We leave the kids with their mom during the day and shut the kids in the barn at night. That way, we milk once per day (in the morning) and the does raise their young. After weaning, we milk her twice daily. This works well for us and helps keep the chores down a bit.
Goats are ruminants that prefer to browse, rather than graze. They will go straight for the tough, woody plants in your pasture, if you let them. Their digestive systems can actually be upset if you give them too much lush green pasture all at once. One good way to counter this is to feed them a little grass hay before turning them loose on lush green pastures, so that they don’t overeat. You also can provide them with free-choice baking soda, which they will eat as needed to balance the acidity of their rumen.
Assuming you have enough pasture for your goats, you should not have to supplement hay during the summer and early fall. You do need to have enough hay to last the winter and spring. When pasture is sparse, I give my goats one or two flakes of alfalfa hay per head per day. An average small square bale of hay has 10 to 12 flakes in it. If you buy the first cutting, you may get a price break, especially if you buy a pickup load or two. Stack the hay on pallets or something similar, and cover. If hay gets moldy, make sure you don’t feed it to your goats. It’s helpful to supplement hay and grazing with some grain for growing kids and milking does; adjusting this ration will help you control your goats’ weight. Milo, oats, corn and wheat are all fine. Corn is less preferable in the summer because it has a lot of “heat” calories in it.
Don’t park in the goat pen! Goats need their own defined space with a great fence. Good fences make good neighbors and happy couples. We use a five-wire electric fence, 4 feet high. If you have goats with horns, be cautious about using cattle panels or woven wire fencing, as horned goats will put their heads through and not be able to get back out, panicking and injuring themselves.
Raising your own meat and milk has many benefits, and goats are wonderfully rewarding creatures to raise. Be sure to think carefully about your requirements, do your research, and you’ll be providing your family with excellent food and companionship in no time.
Read more: GRIT blogger Alexandra Reel tells the story of the Winter Kidding Season: Part 1 on Terra Dei Farm.
The Heitmans raised meat and milk goats, heritage hogs, and rabbits organically for over 10 years. Linda also runs her own business, Linda's Heirloom Hand Quilting Service.
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