My foray into the world of self-sufficiency began with two animals and a dream: two Nubian dairy goats, to be exact, and a whole load of criticism and laughter from those who thought I was crazy! “What do you know about raising goats?” , and “Why bother, isn’t it easier to just go buy milk at the store” Smirk, smirk. Little did they realize, this made me ever more determined to have the last laugh.
My husband was grudgingly tolerant, and my children were excited and blindly trusting their mother to know exactly what she was doing. After all my thorough research I jumped in feet first….and fell. And fell and fell again. But, after some blood, sweat, and tears I believe I have learned a lot and would like to share what wisdom I have gained with those who might be considering the dairy goat as a fresh milk source for their family.
Goats are an excellent choice for family dairy needs! They are intelligent, inquisitive creatures and they each have their own unique personality. Some have endeared themselves to me more than others and I am only a tad ashamed to say that I have my favorites. Most of my does (females) weigh around 130 pounds, and are easily handled by both myself and my small children. Their senses are sharp, and they are curious to a fault. I have one particular doe who will refuse to hop on her milk stand when I have swept the floor underneath it, because she knows something is different.
In comparison to a family cow, goats are much smaller, and obviously require less feed. They are less intimidating than a cow, and again easily handled by children. The only exception to this would be the buck (an intact male goat). Bucks can grow quite large, and some become aggressive or try to show dominance. We have a rather large buck on our property with enormous horns, and my children are strictly forbidden to go into his pen.
Goat’s milk, if handled properly, is delicious. It is not “goaty”, bitter, or distasteful. It is creamy, sweet goodness, and is good for you! Goat’s milk is easily digested, and some folks who cannot tolerate cow’s milk will have an easier time with goat’s milk. Please do yourself a favor and never judge fresh goat’s milk by the vile concoction in the can at the store.
I will only briefly touch on the subject of pasteurization. I believe this is a personal choice, and I do not believe there is a right or wrong choice. Please do your research and make an informed decision regarding what is best for your family. Regardless, your milk will need to be filtered before drinking. Filtering will ensure that any bits of dirt or hair will be removed from your milk. I use milk filters bought from a dairy supply catalog (Hoegger’s, Jeffers or Caprine Supply). I have personally tried using coffee filters and several layers of cheesecloth and those methods did not go over well for me. If you choose to pasteurize, it can be done stovetop with a stainless steel double boiler, or you can purchase a pasteurizer. You will need a thermometer if you go the stovetop route. I use a simple candy thermometer, but there are dairy thermometers available for purchase. Dairy thermometers come in handy if you so choose to try your hand at making cheese! In reference to raw milk please check with your individual state’s laws and regulations. In many states it is legal to drink raw milk [produced by your own goats] but illegal to sell it. Again, please do your research and try to be respectful of others personal decisions.
That said, I would like to provide readers with some insight that I wish I had had when I started out. I love and respect my goats for being providers(of milk or meat), however, should you choose to neglect or abuse them do not expect much in the way of getting anything back.
1. You will become a doctor. You must learn your goat’s body language, and recognize immediately what might be “off” behavior. Once a goat is obviously very sick, I would say you have about 24 hrs. to diagnose them or have them seen by a vet, or you will likely end up with a dead animal. There is a saying “A sick goat is a dead goat”. Most of goat care is focused on prevention, because once a catastrophic illness hits, very rarely will a goat pull out and be “normal”.
2. Do not expect to find a vet easily or at the last minute. Waiting until your goat is in the throes of a difficult birth, or until they are off feed running a fever are NOT the time to try to find a veterinarian. First of all, veterinarians who are well versed in goat care, or even those who will give it a half-hearted attempt are in incredible short supply. For reasons unbeknownst to me telling a vet that you have a goat is like telling them the black plague has infected your household. Most vets do not want to even talk to you-I have, in fact, had vets actually hang up on me when I mention the word “goat”. I have been so lucky to find a wonderful veterinarian who actually has been spot-on with most of my goats vet needs. It took me five years to find him. Until then I had to read everything I could get my hands on regarding goat care, illness, disease, etc. I wrote everything down in a “goat notebook”, and wrote down vaccines, antidotes, medications, side effects, common diseases, etc. I learned to recognize symptoms and make decisions quickly. There will be times when you just have to guess and hope you’re right, when death is imminent. Do not feel guilty for this, it is part of the trials of raising livestock.
3. Goats will not eat tin cans (although they may nibble on them out of curiosity). In all reality, goats are pretty picky eaters. They are small ruminants, meaning they have a four chambered stomach. They need roughage(hay, pasture, weeds, tree leaves) to maintain a healthy rumen. They love to browse, but will do very well grazing on pasture like a cow or a horse. Growing kids and lactating mothers are benefited by a grain ration. I use a loose grain mix with 16% protein mixed at my local grain elevator. Please do not overfeed grain or let children feed them grain unless you are certain they will not overfeed them. Grain can be measured or weighed, but if consumed in massive quantities can cause death by acidosis. Regular over-usage will result in fat goats which causes difficult births and overall unthriftiness. This can also cause susceptibility to goat polio, which I can tell you first hand is a heartbreaking disease. Goats also need certain minerals to maintain good health. There are minerals in block form, loose mixes, or you can even mix your own if you are so inclined. Please educate yourself by reading as much information as you can on maintaining a healthy rumen for your goats - it is vital to their well-being. In my experience the local extension office and 4-H manuals have been very informative!
4. Buy a good book or two. This is something I wish had done years ago before writing down enough information to write a book myself!
5. Goats require a certain amount of dedication and perseverance. You will have to milk every day. If you cannot commit to this please save yourself the trouble of purchasing any dairy animals. You will also have to learn to give your own vaccinations, trim hooves regularly, assist with birth, deworm them regularly, provide fresh water and food daily, and much more. You will watch them give birth and you will eventually watch some of them die. You may even have to shoot them (or have hubby do it) if they are suffering. In a large herd euthanasia is not a realistic option.
6. Learning to milk will bring frustration and tears. Please do not give up-it is worth it. It will come naturally over time. I did have days that I ran from the barn kicking whatever happened to get in my way, tears streaming from my face, ready to commit a mass murder of those *!#! Goats. You will cry over spilt milk! Or at least feel a tinge of joy at the prospect of committing physical violence against those stubborn creatures!
Remember, just as a new nursing mother cannot “let down” her milk if she is anxious, or in pain. If her baby screams in frustration, she will tense up and the whole thing goes down from there. A goat will sense your nervousness or frustration, or even your anger. The best bet is to try to stay calm even if you must walk away for a few minutes and come back. Learning to milk my Jersey cow was one of the worst times in my life. I know now it was because I was deathly afraid of getting my head bashed in every time I put my face next to those enormous legs. My cow knew this-knew I was afraid, and she decided to become “boss”. Another reason to never let your livestock dominate you. If they refuse to back down, even after time, they become a danger to you and yours, and I would recommend sending them to slaughter.
Milking can become very relaxing as you get better and better at it. Music helps, too. Milking should always be done in a stainless steel bowl/pail and all your milking supplies meticulously washed after each milking. There are commercial washes you can buy, although I think Clorox and soap and water work pretty well. After time your equipment may develop a residue of sorts called “milkstone”, and you can also buy cleaner to take care of that.
Please don’t let this deter you. My six year old can milk (until her little hands get tired!). As with any new skill, it takes practice. One more thing-if your hand muscles tire even after you master milking, or you have arthritis, there are many kinds of milking machines out there. Some are even just simplistic pumps, similar to a breast pump.
7. Most of your does (females) will need to be bred once a year to keep a steady supply of milk. Many people who choose not to keep a buck for this purpose can usually find someone in their vicinity who is willing to let their buck “service” your doe for a small fee. You will need to do this when your does go into heat. Watch for these heat signs-Excessive bleating, tail wagging (called flagging), swollen, red vulva, discharge, riding other does. Some will display all, some, or none of these behaviors. One of my does has a few hour window where she will stand to be mounted by a buck. This is called “standing heat”, and sometimes it’s difficult to catch! Some breeds of dairy goats will go into heat year round, some only in season (usually September to March).
If you decide to keep [an intact] buck he will grow big and usually pretty stinky! He will urinate on himself, and do some pretty obscene things! A buck needs care as well, so even though it is difficult sometimes, please don’t neglect him. Hoof trimming is an area where bucks often get neglected. Who wants to pick up that smelly, urine soaked leg? I always enlist my husband’s help in dealing with my buck, especially if he is in rut. Please don’t ever turn your back on a buck in rut. That is unwise at best, dangerous or deadly at worst.
8. Have an idea beforehand what you want to do with your surplus goats. It is always exciting when kids are born, but then you have to figure out what to do with those boys. It is not realistic to think you will be able to keep them all. Yes, they are adorable when little, but they grow quickly.
Castration can be done in a few different ways. There is banding, which is simply placing a string latex band around the testicles with an Elastrator--a tool designed for that purpose. This will of course cut off circulation and cause the testicles to go necrotic and fall off after some time. If done too early, you risk the urethra not maturing enough and susceptibility to bladder stones. If done too late, it will be agonizing for your goat. I know this because it happened to me recently and after watching said goat literally screaming and writhing on the ground, I had to cut the band off. Now I have a young buckling trying to breed all his sisters, and I have to rid myself of him ASAP. He will either be sold to slaughter or will go in our own freezer. This was a huge mistake on my part, but being the softie that I am, I could not bear to see an animal in so much pain. This method seems to me more torturous as time goes by and I can hardly bear to do it anymore.
Another method is to find and crush the cords carrying the sperm to the testes using a tool called a burdizzo. This involves no blood and is considered a “closed” castration. I have no personal experience with this tool however there is a lot of support for it on the Internet.
The last option is surgical castration which , in my opinion, is not a feasible option for most folks, considering the price tag. A lot of people are in support of keeping a wether (castrated male goat), as a pet. In my experience they are sweet and wonderful for about two years. Then it seems that this would be about the time a buckling would be coming into maturity, and they get some dominance issues. I have known many goat people who have sweet and loving wethers. This has just not been the case for me. Your excess males can be sold for meat or 4-H projects, or as pets. It will be a decision you will have to contend with.
9. Last of all, try to find "goat people" to help you out especially the first few years. There were many times when I called upon others who knew way more than I did. I even called some late at night in desperation. They will be your best support system!
In closing, all of this may seem intimidating, but as with anything new you will find what works for you. As raising my own "kids", it has been a challenging , yet rewarding experience. And I promise you, you'll never see any sight more joyful than children playing with all their new "babies". It doesn't get any sweeter than that!