I’m doing this episode specifically at the request of one of the listeners, thanks for the suggestion Rich! I hope this info is helpful for everyone who has been considering adding some dairy goats to their small farm or homestead. It’s a lot of work but definitely worth it to have one more need met and covered by on farm production. Definitely a big thing in self-sufficiency to be able to not only keep larger animals on your property, but to meet the dairy needs of a family with on farm production. I started taking care of dairy goats when I was ten years old. My dad taught me how to drive his little white Datsun pickup truck and I would drive out to the goat barn to take care of the goats twice a day in all sorts of weather. At the time I really didn’t like the work, but I appreciate the experience and the lessons learned now that I’m older.
Why get dairy animals?
Well the most obvious answer is because you use milk and want to have a source of it yourself. You might need an affordable source of goat milk for health reasons, or you may just be looking for a way to supply one of the normal needs for a family. I’m sure there are dozens of reasons to have a dairy animal such as a milk cow, or dairy goats. But since I have the most experience with goats. That’s what the focus is going to be with this episode. So let’s kind of hit some of the main reasons to get dairy goats.
- They convert brush and undesirable plants into a valuable product.
- They will clear forested or marginal land for you and convert it into more valuable and usable pasture.
- You can keep goats on a smaller piece of property than you would need for something like milk cows.
- A breeding herd with a buck and 3 does will produce all the milk you can drink with far less in feed costs.
- Goats are easier to handle than a thousand pound cow.
- With multiple milkers, you have redundancy in milk production. If one gets sick or dies, you still have production.
- With multiple milkers, you can spread breeding out over a longer time period through the year to have a goat in milk year round.
So those are just some of the main reasons that I could think of right off the top of my head. I’m sure I’m leaving out lots of good reasons, but I can’t just keep talking about it all day! We have specifics to cover here!
Let’s Get Specific
Before you go out and buy some animals, I suggest you know what you’re getting into first! You will be well advised to get a book or two on raising dairy goats so you have something to reference in the event you need to troubleshoot an issue. And you will definitely need to make sure you have all your infrastructure in place first! Don’t buy animals just because it’s a great deal! Those deals happen all the time so proceed with caution. Goats are notorious for breaking or destroying fences. I don’t want you to get into trouble with goats eating your fruit trees, or rampaging through your garden. They’ll do a number on anything that is living that you specifically want to stay alive. It’s like they have importance radar built into their small annoying little brains. They can somehow home in on the specific thing that you absolutely do not want them to get into, and just…. I can’t even describe the behavior… It’s amazing really.
They are a powerful tool. That tool can be wielded with negligence, or care and forethought. If you can’t focus their energies to benefit you, they will do things that will make you want to cry.
We’re going to talk about lots of things today, and I hope I cover everything you need to know to get started with dairy goats. Things like infrastructure, such as a milk stanchion, housing and fencing. Equipment, like milking jars, buckets, milk filters. Milk quality and hygiene, cleaning udders, filtering the milk, chilling, keeping bucks separate. Breeding time, gestation, kidding, separating kids. And what to and what not to feed them. We’ll get into some specifics on animal breeds, and a whole lot more.
I put this first because after you decide you’re getting dairy goats and you are a little educated on what all they need to be healthy and happy. This is the first and most important thing to get right. We’re going to talk about, Housing, Fencing, and a few other odds and ends. But above all else! Make sure to have all your fencing finished, done, and airtight first and foremost. Don’t skimp here! Don’t think you can get away with doing it next week, that they’ll be fine with it being halfway done. It needs to be all the way done. If it won’t keep a chicken in, it won’t keep a goat. If it won’t keep a bull in, it won’t hold a goat. If it will keep a housecat in… you’re probably good to go. Seriously, I was looking for a good analogy… Keeping a housecat contained is a good one.
I covered this pretty well in my previous episode E0015 | Keeping Goats – The Basics But I’ll touch on it here again. I like to use regular woven wire cattle fence with a minimum of 1 strand of electric at animal shoulder height. This setup is the most cost effective while being secure and preventing destructive behavior like walking the fence down and rubbing on it. If you can though, I suggest adding a strand to the bottom about 4” above the ground, and another at the animal’s eye height, and another at the top of the fence for a total of 4 strands. That will keep them from pushing under the fence, as well as walking up or rubbing on the fence. This should keep everything secure and safe from caprine houdinism. You can get more complicated and expensive with fencing, and with proper training of the animals, you can get away with less, but if you’re coming here to learn about getting started, go with the fencing setup I suggested. It’ll be cheapest in the long run and you will be more likely to have success.
Unless you are in the frigid great white north, most goats only need a simple 3 sided structure where they can get out of bad weather and have a warm corner to curl up in for sleeping. You can get super fancy and expensive, or you can simply throw together a plywood and 2×4 shack that’s 4’ tall on the low side and 6’ tall on the other side with about a 2’x4’ floor space for each goat to lay down at night. I think this is important because it’s one of the things that people get really wrapped up in and overdo. The primary thing to make sure you get right is to make sure they can lay down someplace dry and out of weather. My barn is open on one end and half the time they sleep outdoors. But they really appreciate a place to retreat when it rains. Goats hate water and mine won’t even cross a 4’ wide ditch filled with water. I have a wooden floor made of treated plywood that allows me to put enough bedding down to absorb urine and keep everything dry. This means I do have to clean out the barn yearly, but it means I have some amazing manure to compost and turn into super fertile soil for my garden. So it’s worth the work. In fact that’s the main reason I chose a wood floor, so I could harvest the manure. If you use wood shavings from a planer like I do, then you can use the manure straight away, or compost it. Either way it’s black gold. So whatever you do for housing, make sure they can get high and dry and out of the rain. Keep it simple, or get more permanent and substantial, it’s all up to you. But I suggest until you are positive you will want everything set up exactly where it is, I say make it portable so you can reorganize and rearrange your housing and milking setup.
If you can afford it, a nice milking parlor is a wonderful thing to have. It’s going to be a clean room that is screened off to keep out bugs like flies, and a space you can keep closed up when not in use to reduce or eliminate dust. The cleaner you can keep it, the better for your milk and your sanity. So for that reason I think a concrete board faced wall or a plastic lined wall that can be hosed down or scrubbed is a wonderful thing to have. Super easy to clean and sanitize. Short of that, just make sure it’s someplace you can keep tidy and relatively dust free. One thing to keep in mind with this is that the doe being milked will often relieve herself while she’s standing there eating and getting milked. Goat droppings will just start plunking down on the milk stand, so leave yourself a means to quickly and easily clean up the mess afterwards.
This is practically a must have if you’re going to be milking a goat. If you are getting a goat that has been trained to be milked without a stanchion, and is a veteran milker, then you don’t need one. But for every other instance, you absolutely need one.
This is basically a platform that sits at around knee height and gives you a place to sit, the goat a place to stand, a little platform to place a feed bowl in (we use an old colander) and most importantly of all, a sliding board that closes loosely around the neck to prevent the goat from backing out of the stanchion. This allows you to sit down next to the goat while she eats peacefully and you can milk her without worrying about her running away. You can find lots of plans online for free.
The other thing you will want to either make for yourself or purchase is a Goat Hobble. This fastens around the upper part of both the goat’s rear legs and compresses the ligament back there which prevents kicking altogether. If you’re a pro at hand milking you can see when the goat is about to lift her foot and prevent a hoof going into the bucket or jar, but that takes years of experience and honestly I’d skip all the ruined batches of milk and years of experience to have one of those when I started milking goats at ten years old. Man that sure would have been nice! So do yourself a favor and get one of those, you’ll train her to not kick after a short time and you will be much happier for it I promise.
When it comes to dairy animals, the feed is where it’s at. If you have wild alliums, either garlic or onions, I guarantee the milk will taste awful. If you have anything that is the dominant food that smells gross when you crush the leaves, or that is very pungent, you will likely have off smelling milk. We thankfully don’t have those things in our woods. It’s mostly brush and trees. There are a couple things to think about here. If the goats are not in milk, and not pregnant, and don’t need to put on weight, they can generally just subsist on browse if there is enough for them to get full every day. Otherwise you might need to keep a hay feeder full and supplement with sprouted grain type fodder, or a concentrated feed like a 12% sweet feed, and alfalfa pellets. That’s our go-to feed for general purposes. We use a 12% sweet feed all-stock feed and alfalfa pellets mixed 50/50, and have free choice hay. The only goats who get the concentrated feed are the does when they are getting milked, and any animals that specifically need it for growth or conditioning. You can use those specially formulated goat feeds, but honestly I think they’re disgusting, the goats don’t seem to like em, and often they make the milk taste weird.
Grazing: What to do, and what to not do
The best thing in my opinion for a dairy goat to eat is some good browse. That’s tree leaves and branches, and brush, along with some forbs and grasses. They will naturally prefer low growing brush and tree limbs, then when that is mostly gone, they will eat grasses.
I think the best thing to do with goats is to have a central housing area that is easy for you to get to for milking purposes. From there you should have a laneway that you can open up into multiple paddocks for browsing. It all depends on how quickly plants grow in your area and how many animals you are supporting. But I would say each paddock should have enough browse to keep the goats fed for at least a week to prevent them from getting hungry and starting to eat the less palatable species. That’s when poisonous plants become a problem. If you have a cherry tree in there (which are toxic to goats) it’s not really a problem unless they’re very hungry. If there is a wide selection of species, they will nibble a little here and a little there until they are full. Just a little bit of something poisonous won’t hurt them, it’s when they have no other choice but to eat only poisonous species that you end up with toxicity issues. So manage your animals and prevent overgrazing. It’s not good for the animals, and it reduces the holding capacity on your land. Overgraze long enough and it won’t support a fraction of the animals it could if managed properly.
Overgrazing will push the goats to start feeding on low growing plants and leaves and will promote ever increasing parasite loads. The parasites inhabit the soil and generally about 6-8” off the soil surface. So if all their grazing is done up around head high, then they will naturally pick up fewer parasites and you’ll have healthier animals as a result.
So the trick is to rotate them through paddocks or zones on your property, keep them from hammering any particular area too hard. And if possible get real intensive with your management by opening up glades where saplings will grow. Coppice or pollard appropriate species. I tell ya what, a paddock filled with coppiced trees will produce far more usable forage than a paddock filled with grass. It will mean you are left with lots of usable small firewood every year and happy, healthy goats.
I always had Nubians, and dipped into Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats. I love and hate them both for different reasons. The nubians are notorious for being obnoxiously loud. It’s a well deserved reputation. The nigerian dwarf goats are notorious for ignoring fences. I had one buck who would stand inside the electric fence eating contentedly while the fence was making his whole body convulse with the electric pulses. He didn’t care. It was a 3 joule energizer and he was on moist ground about 20’ away from the ground rods. Just standing there munching on some sweetgum saplings. I’ve heard wonderful things about LaMancha goats, but despite the noise. Were I to increase our goat population again, it would be with Nubians. They just have the best and richest milk of any that I’ve tried. And I think they look the best. I like the floppy ears and rounded noses.
Goats will generally breed once a year in the fall/winter and kid (have babies) in late winter to early spring. They have a gestation period of about 150 days and you can go to this link to find a handy gestation calendar that will help you to plan for kidding time.
Everyone has their own opinion and way they think is best. I’ll tell you what worked for us for a long time and what I currently do. I keep the buck with the does year-round. When they come into heat, they get bred. When it’s kidding time, I generally find out because I hear little goat noises when I walk up to the barn. I have never had a goat die from kidding problems and any goats that were too sickly were quickly culled from the herd. I believe in animals that are robust and healthy enough to not be coddled. So my goats are tough and healthy. If you want to get super technical and involved, be my guest. But I for one like low maintenance, easy to care for, healthy animals. That’s why I let them do their own thing and I partner with them to help care for and meet their normal needs. I’ve medicated a breeder buck once with penicillin. Other than that, I haven’t needed or desired to administer specific veterinary care. Culling will eliminate most health issues unless you allow those animals to keep breeding. So I guess you can say we are very relaxed with breeding. I make sure I have good healthy stock and we don’t allow extensive inbreeding, other than that the buck knows what to do, when to do it, and he takes care of it. If you want to know what a doe looks like when she’s in heat, I suggest looking it up on youtube. You can find examples of a buck in rut there too. Once you’ve seen it once, you’ll never need clarification. Bucks in rut are the most disgusting creatures I’ve ever seen. They stink, and pee on themselves to get good and smelly for the ladies. Apparently does like the smell of disgusting nastiness. So other than put the buck in with the does in the fall. I don’t have much for ya!
I’ll tell ya what we most commonly did while I had a full time job away from the homestead. I would head out to the barn in the evening after I got home, most of the year it was after dark. I’d take care of feeding and checking on all the animals, and the kids would get separated into either a kennel or a separate stall apart from the does for the night. And here’s a little trick that helps with separation anxiety and upset mommas. Cut a hole between the stalls and put in some rigid, strong fencing. I used hardware cloth because I had some laying around. I made the hole about 1 foot tall by 2 feet long and framed it out well so no animals could break through it. This let the babies see and smell their mommas, and vice versa. If you separate them and they can’t see or smell each other, then they’ll cry and holler and carry on. Too stressful. So make sure they can interact with each other but that the kids can’t nurse for the night. Then in the morning, you head out there and milk for the morning. After you get most of the milk, let the does into be with the kids and out into the paddock or laneway with the rest of the herd. I normally leave a little bit of milk for the kids in the morning but not much. This way you get half the production, and the kids will nurse pretty hard for a while. This signals her to produce a little more milk than she would have otherwise, and you don’t have to buy milk replacer or give up on production until they are old enough to wean.
So that’s what we do. Separate at night, milk in the morning, leave the kids with the doe all day. This gives you so much flexibility in your schedule. You’re generally going to be up the same time every day so it’s not normally an issue to milk. If for some reason you’re running late and MUST be gone as soon as possible, then just let the kids and the does all out into the paddock with the rest of the goats and go on your way. You’ll have a drop in production but at least everyone will be taken care of. If you need to take a break from milking for several days because of illness, all you have to do is make sure someone can feed the animals and check health and water and the kids will take care of milking them for you.
- Mason Jars to store milk in. We prefer the half gallon jars. They take up less space in the fridge and you can store more in the fridge than regular quart jars. But you should definitely use glass or stainless steel. Plastic is very difficult to get clean enough and almost impossible to sanitize.
- A milk filter of some sort. If you’re on a budget, a stainless steel mesh colander and coffee filters will work. If you can afford a purpose built item, get a milk filter funnel from most suppliers. Here’s a link to an example of what I’m talking about. We really like ours and it’s well worth the savings in time to buy one.
- A milk bucket is easiest for most people to get started with. I can milk directly into a small mouth jar sitting under a goat. Most people can’t do that and it takes lots of practice milking by hand to get there. So if you have a hobble, and you keep the goat clean, then use a bucket. Stainless steel is best, it’s easiest to sanitize and keep nice and clean.
- Cleaning materials: A container of soapy water and another container with a clean wet rag, and a baggie with a dry towel or paper towels in it for drying the udder. We wash the udder with soapy water, then wipe again with the wet rag, then dry with a dry towel. Then you can use a teat dip or what I suggest is to use some iodine udder wash in a spray bottle. You spray it on the teat tip and it sanitizes the udder to help prevent mastitis and keep the goat and you healthy.
- A bucket or tub to carry your jars and washing materials in.
- And one of those electric fly zappers to zap mosquitoes and other annoying flying insects. You’ll be so happy you got one.
There are a few things that affect milk quality.
- Cleanliness during milking
- Filtering the milk
- Rapid and immediate cooling of the milk
The first one, diet, is something we already covered. We experienced a slight sweetening of the milk and it generally got better tasting when we gave a little bit of alfalfa during milking time. Dunno if the alfalfa did it, or something else, but it seems like whenever the milk tastes just a little off, adding some alfalfa to the diet sweetens things up.
Cleaning the udders well before milking will help prevent debris from falling in the milking container which keeps bacteria count lower and makes the milk taste better and keep for longer in the fridge. Hygiene is important, keep that goat clean so you don’t have bits of poop and hair falling in your milk.
We use pro milk filters but you can use coffee filters if you want. We used them for years when I was a kid. The pro milk filters go faster but are a little bit more expensive. And the stainless steel milk filter funnel is a wonderful tool to have.
As soon as you’re done milking, get that milk processed and chilled ASAP. I make sure that milking is done and that I can immediately head home to filter and chill the milk. We put it in jars in the freezer and set a timer for 45 mins to make sure it’s good and cold. If you want to get even more extreme, keep a container of cold water in the fridge and immerse the jar in the cold water to chill it even quicker. But the trick is to not let it sit around hot for a long time. The faster you can get it filtered and cold the better it will taste. Best of all would be to use a mechanical milker, filter in-line, and run through a chiller coil before dumping into a storage vessel in a fridge. That’s what I would set up if we went with a larger milk animal or a whole herd of milking goats in the future.
And last of all, this one surprised me. We had gone without the free choice loose minerals I give my goats for about a month because the feed store was out. So as soon as I could, I had minerals back in the feeder for the girls and I noticed a big change in flavor and sweetness of the milk the very next day. Tasted the milk for a couple days before, and a couple days afterward. It wasn’t my imagination. The mineral supplement really did improve the milk taste. So don’t go without giving those goats good minerals free choice.
So let’s kind of recap what all we’ve covered so far. Infrastructure is important to get finished before you get animals, so make sure you have good fencing set up and gates at key locations. Get their housing finished, and you definitely want a covered milking area of some kind because it’s no fun to sit in the rain to try and milk a goat. The goat won’t be happy (if you can even get it to go into the stanchion) and you sure won’t be happy. Make sure you have some good browse or pasture for the goats, or at the very least a generous amount of hay they can pull from. And pay attention to the grazing pressure so as to not over pressure your paddocks. Keep them light on the land and you will have more productivity as a result.
Pick the breed that will suit you best, some people like to have more volume in milk production, if so go with something like an Alpine or Toggenburg. If you want creamier milk, get a Lamancha or Nubian. If you think you’ll not mind milking a goat with tiny teats, then get a Nigerian Dwarf! I’ll say one thing, those nigerian dwarf dairy goats are nearly bulletproof and make some wonderful milk, they’re just such a pain to milk.
When it comes to separating a buck from the does, we’ve determined it’s not necessary, some people contend that it makes the milk taste like buck. We think that buck taste is due to not cleaning the doe well enough at milking time and getting that milk filtered and chilled quickly. So follow good clean procedure and you most likely won’t have a problem leaving that buck in with the girls.
So I hope this has been a good little primer on what to think about and get ready for when you decide to get some dairy goats for your small farm or homestead. I think they are a fantastic tool to get land cleaned up and cleared while simultaneously earning you a high quality and expensive product in the form of goat milk.
If you liked this episode, then check out the other podcasts for lots of other good ideas and insights. We’ve done several interviews and conversations with other homesteaders over the past year and those can be chock full of some good little tips and tricks to make your life easier and more productive on the farm.
Until next week, I hope you have a wonderful day, God Bless. And as always “Go Do Good Things”