I’m a strong advocate of the family dairy animal. Milk cows are great, of course, but let’s be honest, cows are a huge undertaking. A goat isn’t as big of a leap because they’re not any bigger than a large dog. Or you could get a Nigerian dwarf, and they’re not any bigger than a small dog.
Anyway… I like the idea of all of us going back to the land a little bit and being more self-sufficient.
I like the idea of families drinking milk that’s really, truly healthy – not that commercial, sterilized stuff you see on shelves.
I like the idea of kids growing up knowing where their food comes from, and understanding responsibility.
And I believe that goats can save you money.
But what do you need to get started with dairy goats? And yes, it’s goats. They’re like potato chips – you can’t have just one.
The short answer? Dedication, a sense of humor, tough forearms, and a little bit of work.
Now for the long answer:
- Research. What kind of goat do you need? Nubians are really popular for their rich milk and heat tolerance, but if you live in a more heavily populated area, your neighbors might not be so thrilled with their noisiness. Alpines are nice and quiet but don’t tolerate the heat as well. Everything’s a trade-off. Do your research, and decide what works best for you and your unique environment. Natural Goat Care by Pat Coleby is full of information on breeds and what to look for in a dairy goat, from nose to udder to tail.
- Room. I honestly don’t know the smallest area you can keep a goat in, but they do need room for exercise, even if their pen can’t provide all of their foraging needs. When we got Sage, she had been kept on a dry lot, and all of her feed came in the form of hay and concentrates. It’s not ideal and certainly not as cost-effective, but it is doable.
- Shelter. Goats don’t like being out in yucky weather any more than we do. They need a roof to get out of the rain and a wind break – especially during the winter. Since we rotate through different paddocks and need something mobile, we often bed down our stock trailer and use it for our goats’ shelter. If you only have a few goats, something as small as a large dog house could work.
- Water. This one kind of goes without saying, right? Goats need clean water, just like everybody else. Except for my pig, apparently, she likes her water dirty, but that’s another story altogether. Point is, make sure your goats always have clean water on hand. For a while, I was taking water out to my goats in buckets two or three times a day, and that was a real pain. Now they have a cut-off barrel out there, and boy, is my chore load a lot easier!
- Fencing. Good fencing is essential to having goats. Good fencing doesn’t have to mean expensive fencing, though. Our goats are currently in a two-strand electric fence. As long as the fence charger is on, they stay in. If the fence charger is off, well, it depends on how hungry or bored they are.
- Feed. If you’re milking an animal – goat, cow, sheep, llama, camel – any animal, you’re going to have to feed it some sort of concentrated feed. It simply cannot get enough nutrition to keep up good body condition and produce milk without some help. Is it natural? Heck no, It’s not natural to produce that much milk! These animals have been selectively bred for many generations, and as a result, they have a higher nutritional need than their non-dairy cousins. Depending on your forage, you may need to supplement with alfalfa and/or oats, and/or black oil sunflower seeds (BOSS), and/or barley, and/or ad infinitum.
- Minerals. Goats, in general, have high mineral requirements, and dairy goats even more so. Unlike sheep and cows, goats are browsers. They like to eat the leaves, twigs, and bark from trees that have deeper roots than grasses and pull minerals up from further down in the soil. So, if you’re goats have good browse available, they may not need as many minerals, but you still need to put them out there for them. The good news is that you can feed minerals-free choice, and the goats will only take what they need. All of these things, by the way, fencing, feed, and minerals, can be found at pretty much any farm/feed store.
- Milk Pail. Preferably stainless steel. Plastic and other substances are really hard to keep sterile. Why is sterility important? All those fun little germs can really give your milk an ugly flavor after a while. Are they harmful? Well, they can be. I’ve never known anybody who got sick from drinking raw milk, but it can happen. Besides, you want milk that tastes good, so get a good bucket. A four to six-quart pail is usually a really good size for a goat because eight quarts or larger is a little too tall to fit underneath them comfortably when you milk.
- Filter. This can be anything from butter muslin to a coffee filter, to pantyhose (yes, seriously – a country boy will survive), to an official made-specifically-for-straining-milk filter. Personally, I use thin nylon material, which has been cut into one-foot square pieces and wash them after each milking.
- Jars. Half-gallon jars are really handy for goat milk. Right now, our goats are each giving half a gallon at a milking, so, you know, it just makes sense. . We also like gallon jars. Sometimes you can get them empty from restaurants, or you could always buy a couple of gallons of pickles from the bulk section at Walmart, and have a pickle party.
- Milking stand. I put this one last because you don’t have to have it. It’s nice, that’s for sure. I find goats too low to comfortably sit on a bucket or stool while milking, and squatting eventually starts to put a strain on my lower back. Plus, goats seem to get a little snarky about standing still if they’re on the ground where they can step away from you as you milk. Gabriel built our milk stand. It’s very simple, and as long as you’re not milking a crazy-wild goat (you’re not, are you?) who needs her head locked into a stanchion, simple is all you really need.
- Consistency. I guess the milk stand isn’t going to be last after all. Animals need constancy. Especially dairy animals. You can’t decide to sleep in an extra hour when you have a goat outside needing to be milked. It’s just rude, for one thing, and it causes your milk production to decrease. Not to mention, if you have a goat who’s producing heavily, it can lead to all kinds of problems, like mastitis and damaged udders.
Maybe all this stuff seems a little overwhelming at first, and you may have to write everything down for a while just to keep track of what you need to do, and when, but before you know it, taking care of your goats will be second nature, just like washing dishes, or folding laundry, and you’ll be branching out into things like feeding baking soda, putting apple cider vinegar in their water at breeding time (some folks believe it causes them to conceive doelings), and stocking cheese and yogurt making supplies.
Having a milk goat will go a long way toward self-sufficiency, your family’s health, cutting your grocery bill, and teaching your kids responsibility, and I highly recommend it!
Your turn to chime in! What would you add (or subtract) to my list? Is there anything that you feel needs clarification?
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