Dairy products are expensive. Wherever you live, I’m sure you’ve noticed. Here in Canada, a gallon of milk can easily exceed $14, depending on where you reside in the country. And that’s just the cost in money. But the ecological cost and the cost in pain and suffering are staggering. Modern dairy is produced by vastly unsustainable methods, from cattle that are heavily immunized, treated with hormones and pushed to the utter brink. Most of this milk is produced by grain-fed cattle that could be far more reliant on sustainable grass. The milk is then shipped extraordinary distances, wasting fossil fuel. The typical cow in old times was milked twice a day, morning and evening, for a reasonable few gallons. Now cows are milked three times a day, hybridized and given hormone treatments to boost production artificially, and pressed for productions exceeding 27 liters per day. Old breeds of cattle treated well could live 20 years, producing most of that time. Under modern farming methods, a cow is now considered burned out in three or four years at most, and is then sent for slaughter to become cheap hamburger meat.
But there is a better way. An older, more natural way that is gentler upon the land and kinder to the animals. This is an article about obtaining balanced dairy, produced locally from happy animals. The article is, naturally, very apt for the homesteader or hobby farmer, but it can be very informative, too, for the person who cannot produce milk at home but would like to know more about how it’s done in order to make more informed purchasing decisions.
A lot of animals can produce dairy, including humans (don’t blanch now). The simple fact is, all female mammals can produce milk. It is one of the defining characteristics of the mammalian class. Humans around the world use various animals for milk, including cattle (bovines, water buffalo, buffalo, oxen), sheep, llamas and deer–but in my experience the humble goat is the most efficient and “user friendly” dairy animal. All cattle take a lot of space, including the diminutive dwarf cows now appearing. But even a person with just a yard on the outskirts of a suburb or town can produce dairy with a goat.
Goats have numerous virtues as dairy animals. (1) They are efficient feeders and don’t require an excess of food per body weight. (2) They are versatile and can adapt to a variety of grasses, grains and forage. (3) They are good natured and easy to guide from stalls to meadow, and cooperative in milking. (4) They are creatures of habit and not inclined to wander (except perhaps into your rose garden) if they get out of their meadow. (5) They are easy to contain with a low power electric fence. And (6) unlike much larger cattle, if a goat steps on your foot while you’re milking her, you won’t end up making a trip to the doctor for broken bones. For these reasons my wife, daughters and I have been raising goats for years and chosen them to be the dairy animal of Twa Corbies Hollow.
There are a lot of goat breeds. Some are warm weather breeds; some are cold weather breeds. Some do better in dry climates; others manage damp ones better. There are more than a few dwarf breeds, as well, though I don’t care for them. They are so small they are a pain to milk and hardly give enough to make it worth the effort, and they are too little to defend themselves from domestic dogs and common wild predators. A full sized dairy goat doe produces a manageable couple liters of milk per day at the peak of production (late spring to early summer when there is lot of tender, nutrient-rich browse)–just about right for a couple people, and you can easily tailor the size of your flock for the number of people in your family. And goats take up such a small amount of space it is easy to keep a couple almost anywhere livestock is allowed.
Twa Corbies Hollow Homestead sits near the summit of one of Nova Scotia’s many low mountains in the highlands. Our winters are more comparable to those of southern Newfoundland, so we have to choose breeds that can handle cold weather. We’ll see snow weeks earlier than other parts of the province, and it’ll last til weeks after. We have opted for Saanens and Alpines, both good milkers, mild mannered and hardy in the cold. We find them to be gentle, lovable animals, and even the buck–ornery like all male goats–is none too difficult.
Goats Through the Year
Goats are bovidae, one of many species of mammals with four stomachs. They are designed by Nature to be able to consume cellulose (something impossible for humans and a biological marker of predators and omnivores). Goats are also seasonal breeders and domestic goats are creatures of habit, quite content to inhabit the same meadow day after day and finding change distressing. Our goats bleat come sunrise to start their daily routine: fed their daily ration of grain, get milked, then be led out to their meadow. Come sundown they bleat to go back to the barn and get their second grain ration and milking. And they would bleat a lot more if that routine ever changed.
The goat life cycle is based around reproduction. For all intents and purposes, it begins in autumn, which may be why ancient peoples regarded autumn as the start of life, whereas modern persons regard it as spring when foliage greens up. But for the ancients, their lives were tied to closely to the welfare of their livestock. So . . . goats breed in early autumn, usually between September and October. They rarely mate out of this season. I have heard of it happening but have never myself seen it.
After breeding time the goatherd may milk them for another month or so, but milk production will rapidly dwindle. We milk our goats till they are producing half a liter per day or we reach the end of October–whichever comes first. At that point we stop so that the does’ bodies can devote all their energy to developing fetuses.
Gestation takes five months, give or take a week or two. The kids will come in February or March. Births are usually trouble free, and if there is going to be trouble it will usually happen at a new doe’s first birthing. But the goatherd should endeavor to always be there when a goat begins birthing. This can be tricky since a smooth birth can take less than half an hour. I was once working in the loft of the barn, sorting hay, and saw one of the does begin to give birth. She never made a sound and by the time I descended from the loft by climbing down a hefty rope suspended from the rafters, the kid was already delivered. We’ve lost kids at birth, though, with goats who were birthing the first time because we missed the birthing even though we were checking on them hourly. Usually it was because the first-time mom was too weak after birth to properly care for the kid. Occasionally–though it hasn’t happened to us–there will be a breached birth and the goatherd will need some skill to assist in delivery by helping turn the kid and draw it from the birth canal.
Once birthing is complete, mothers will usually take over on their own. You can assist the mother by giving her a little baking soda to lick and warm water with a little apple cider vinegar in it to drink, and making sure there is a salt lick for goats in the stall. Change the bedding once the doe and kid are settled in and calm.
Do not milk the first day the kids are born. A special milk called colostrum is produced by the doe the first few hours after birthing. It tastes foul and the babies must have it. It is extremely rich and full of antibiotics. However, it is a good idea to milk a couple bottles worth of the colostrum and freeze it for an emergency, just in case a mother should be too weak to nurse after a rough birth. It is imperative new babies get colostrum promptly.
The day after a kid is born, you should try milking the doe morning and evening. You won’t get much milk at first, but that’s not the goal at this point. You must drain the udders or milk production will be reduced. This also lets you know if the baby is eating well, and it will help you spot any chapping that may occur on the teats as a result of nursing. If there is chapping, rub Bag Balm on the teats and udder. If the baby is feeding well, there may well be no milk in the udder, and if this is the case you can set aside milking for a week. Check again the following week to make sure the udder is always drained morning and evening. Repeat every week until you start to get milk.
Does will nurse their kids all through the summer if you let them, and you shouldn’t. It is a drain on the mother and you would never get milk if you did. By the first of June you have to separate the kids by putting them in a small paddock of their own. By now the kids are ready to eat grass and grain–they just don’t want to. The kids will pine and the does will fuss about this, but it is essential. After a couple weeks, the kids will take to browsing and frolicking as normal, and the does will adjust even faster. But it will be a month or two before the kids lose the nursing impulse. If you put them back with the flock too soon, they will promptly go back to nursing. You have to watch them when you try to reunite them to make sure the nursing doesn’t start up again.
For the rest of the year, raising goats is very routine. Milk the goats everyday, morning and evening twelve hours apart. Be sure to milk them at regular times or milk production will decline rapidly. Be sure to “strip” every last bit of milk from the udder or the does will produce that much less milk the next day, also leading to fast production decline. Bring them to the meadow everyday after milking and let them graze. But if it is right after the thaw or has been raining and the grass is wet, leave them in their stalls. Best to wait till the ground is dry. To a goat, wet grass is like candy and they will gorge themselves. It can form a fatal blockage in their guts. We’ve lost one doe this way. Bring the goats to the barn every sundown and milk them, then put them to bed in their stalls.
Contrary to folk myth, goats don’t eat tin cans. The myth probably arose due to the fact that goats, unlike cattle, are browsers. Cattle will graze a field, concentrating on the same food stuffs all the time, but goats go through their territory sampling a little of this and a little of that: grass, blossoms, leaves of shrubs, bark of trees . . . In fact, you can probably kiss goodbye any trees growing in the goats’ meadow because they will eventually strip off all the bark and the cambium underneath to as high as they can reach standing up on two legs with their necks stretched (about five feet). Goats are smart and inquisitive, and I suspect they just enjoy tasting things, too, just like foodies. I’ve seen them taste test fence posts, hard rubber feeders, tin roof siding, tractor tires, slabs of stone, and even chicken feathers without ever indicating any intent to eat those things. They are never happier than when they are climbing around their meadow, sampling this and that.
In the morning, give them each a liter of oats at milking time, and the same in the evening. The does, when pregnant, get a little molasses and vegetable oil in their feed to up the calorie content. Keep salt licks available in their stalls. Be sure to use salt licks for sheep or goats only. Salt licks for cattle may contain minerals in concentrations that are harmful to goats. You might also want to throw in a couple cups of cracked corn each day into their diets. My daughters swear it greatly improves their milk production.
This is very important: despite the fact that goats are browsers and samplers, they cannot tolerate radical, sudden dietary changes. For example: goats that spend their days in meadows of clover cannot just be switched to diets consisting primarily of corn stalks gathered after the harvest. A goats’ four stomachs have the amazing capacity to break down and digest plant cellulose, but this is accomplished by bacteria in the stomachs that ferment the plant matter. These bacteria (or flora) are finely adapted to processing the goat’s usual diet. If it changes, the flora will not be able to process it effectively, if at all. If the goat cannot digest what it eats, its stomachs and gut can become jammed. For humans, a jammed gut merely means unpleasant constipation. For bovidae, with their complex digestive systems, constipation is often a fatal condition. Goats can be accustomed to alternative diets, but it takes time. It is best done over weeks in which the new food is gradually introduced .
You should also keep good quality hay on hand. Good hay has a sweetish odor and is free of dust. Goats have small mouths and good goat hay should be fine, made of slender stems and leaves. No tough, big plants like you might give cattle. Make sure the goats, especially the does who work all year round producing milk or babies, get–in addition to their daily grain and graze–all the hay they want.
Finally, note that goats do not take up much space. In lush country you can keep as many as twenty goats per acre. The Firefly Meadow, where we keep our goats, has a southern exposure and is well watered by a brook and spring, so lush grass always grows there. We keep all five of our goats there and their kids, and it is a mere quarter acre. They haven’t ever even come close to over grazing it and sometimes we even have to put a horse in with them to help control the excess growth. But on typical ground, you can figure maybe ten or fifteen goats to the acre, or a mere 1/10th of an acre to keep a doe or two.
Fencing is the most challenging aspect of keeping goats. Goats like to climb and lean on things. If you build a fence, they will lean against it, press against it and stand up against it ceaselessly. They won’t mean to break it, but it will eventually happen–just because the fence was worn down.
The most effective way to contain goats is with a combination of grid mesh fencing and electric fencing. The grid fencing deters them from trying to leap between the electric fence wires, and the electric fence deters them from leaning on the fence. Such a fence is also relatively easy to set up. I can lay down fence posts around a half acre in a couple days, then Daphne and I, working together, put up all the fencing over the next couple days. The grid fencing should have a grid too small for a goat to stick its head through. In front of the grid fencing run at least two lines of electric fence, one at the goats’ knee height, the other at the goats’ chest height. This will keep adults and most kids from testing the fence. You might also run a third electric fence line a hand-length (about eight inches) off the ground to deter very young kids–who are amazingly wiry and annoyingly, suicidally adventuresome–from trying to slip under the electric wire and through the square grid fence. It is unbelievable what good escape artists very young kids are. Fortunately, after they get out they usually stop, think *Oh my god, I’m outside the fence!*, and turn around and bleat for their mothers while the entire flock gathers at the fence side to try to figure out how to get the goofy kid back in.
You can also easily run a couple extra electric wires outside the fence too to deter predators.
By the way: never electrify the grid fence. A goat could get trapped in it. Only electrify the wires specifically intended for electric fencing.
Note that you should not have anything near a fence a goat can climb or it will slip out of the meadow. You’d be amazed how effectively a goat can climb, and if it can climb it, it will. They won’t climb trees, but they’ll find a way to climb almost anything else.
Where (and How) to Keep a Buck
Many goatherds do not keep a buck, assuming they are difficult to manage and are only good for breeding–making them mostly a waste of feed and stable space. So once a year during the does’ estrus cycle they travel to have their does bred by a goatherd who does keep a buck. This is often a considerable distance as there are not a lot of goat keepers around. Such an approach might make some sense if you only keep one or two does, but even then I’m not so sure. We only keep between four and six does to meet our family’s needs, but I’ve always found it useful and rewarding to keep a buck with the flock, and they don’t consume much extra. If well treated, I find them pleasant beasts, though admittedly they can be a bit ornery but never mean-spirited. The does are comforted having a buck around, and a buck can help defend the flock more effectively than a doe. And it is much handier come breeding season.
Ultimately, if you want milk there has to be a buck involved. A buck impregnates the doe in autumn, causing a new winter gestation period which leads to a new milking cycle upon birthing at the dawn of spring. When a goat starts to produce a new year’s milk, you say it was freshened. I find the whole process of breeding and freshening and keeping the flock just goes smoother when there is a buck around.
Some books advocate keeping the buck separate from the does, often in a small stall by itself. This is cruel. Goats are social animals and angry bucks are created by isolating them in this way. They even go so far as to say that having the buck with the does will make the milk taste bad. This is complete nonsense. We’ve always kept a buck with our does year-round and it has never affected the flavor of the milk and the goats are all happier spending their days together.
Unless you are looking at starting a commercial dairy goat operation, one buck is plenty for the entire flock. Though every couple years you will want bring in a new buck for breeding to keep the flock’s genes varied and strong. For this reason, many goatherds share, trade or rent bucks out.
It must be understood that at birthing 50% of the young will be bucks. This inevitably results in a surplus of bucks. The surplus must be culled or sold or given away. We have always been able to give away or sell our surplus bucks but if we can’t one year, the plan is to raise the buck to maturity and butcher it for goat meat (called chevon) in autumn. Chevon is a delicacy in many countries, and especially throughout Africa.
Shelters and Milking Stands
Two types of shelter are required, and a specialized platform called a milking stool is very useful.
The primary shelter is the stable or barn where goats are kept. Our homestead came with a huge old barn, but a small stable is quite adequate for goats. Within the stable, each goat needs its own space. They come to see that space as their “bedroom” and come evening each goat will shortly learn to head to its own stall. The does need this special space in particular for birthing and the first couple months of raising their kids. A stall needn’t be very large–six feet by six feet is adequate.
The barn or stable must be draft free, which is to say be sure the walls are tight. However, a lot of newer studies have indicated that livestock do better with three sided shelters with one side always open. This improves air flow and decreases problems with dust. Because of this, we always leave the main barn door open unless the wind shifts and is driving in snow through that direction. Then we just hang plywood over the opening.
Make sure the floor in goat stalls is built off the ground so it can be warm and dry. Goats are highly susceptible to pneumonia. They can tolerate the cold just fine, but if they get wet and cold you will almost surely lose them. Keep lots of warm, dry, clean bedding under them and keep that floor off the dirt. During the winter in the north the old bedding may freeze. You don’t have to remove it. Just scatter a thick layer of fresh bedding over it every few days. But be sure to clear it out as soon as the spring thaw makes it possible.
Goats also need a run-in in the meadow where they will pass their days. Like the stable, it need only be enclosed on two sides (if pie-shaped) or three sides (if square). Make sure the open side faces the direction least likely to be exposed to blowing rain or snow. The run-in needn’t have a raised floor or bedding. It’s just a roof for the goats to get under during precipitation, or a place to warm up if it is windy.
In the stables you will want a milking stand. This is just a little ramp going up to a platform with a feeder trough and a guide to keep a goat’s head in place while it feeds and is milked. It doesn’t so much pin the goat as help keep it stable to simplify and speed up the milking process. Most goats are quite happy to be milked and willingly cooperate with the whole process. The stand just keeps them from shuffling about which would likely knock over the pail, and makes it much more comfortable for the goatherd, allowing you to sit comfortably beside the goat while you milk. The goat is occupied during the process with a bucket of nice oats where its head is positioned.
As stated earlier, goats need to be milked regularly. And I mean regularly! Every day, morning and evening, at the same time. If you are lax about milking them twelve hours apart, milk production will quickly decline. If you skip a day, you can forget milk for the rest of the year because it will trigger “drying off”. It literally ties you to the land and its creatures. To me, that is an upside, though if you like to be off and about all the time, you can see right now goatkeeping is not for you.
If you are up north where there is a lot of variation through the year in the amount of daylight you get, you can slowly alter milking times to accommodate the sun. During the height of summer we milk at 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. As the year progresses into autumn and the days shorten from 16 hours of light to a mere 10.5, we adjust milking times to 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The most important part of keeping milk production up is regular milking times, roughly half a day apart.
As to how to milk–that takes practice and there is no way around that. But anyone can learn the skill. Goat teats lean toward small though not always, so learning to hold them takes some practice. Large or small, you grasp the teat at the base of the udder. Squeeze gently starting with the index finger and thumb and working down through middle, ring then little finger. There is no downward pull, as if often misportrayed in movies showing persons milking animals. You’re not pulling the milk out–your letting the teat fill, then pressing out with gentle, rhythmic finger movements that drive the milk flow with gentle pressure.
Milk till the udder is drained. You’ll know it’s drained. A healthy milk flow abruptly reduces to a mere few drops. At that point you have to strip out the last of the milk. To do this, release the teat, then firmly but not harshly press your thumb and index finger to the teat at the base of the udder and run them down to the end of the teat. This gets the last few drops out. Doing this helps keep milk production up. It is an important final step because any milk left in the udder tells the goat on a biological level that it need produce that much less milk from now on–Nature is always seeking to conserve energy. You want to leave no milk in the udder at the end of a milking.
Milk production runs a cycle. It will be near maximum from the time the kids are born. The kids in the first couple months must get all they want, but the doe will produce more than they need. Be sure to milk the doe every morning and evening to get the excess and keep the milk production up. When spring comes and the new grass greens, the goats will get lots of energy from the tender new growth and milk production will reach its peak in quality and quantity. After green-up milk production will slowly decline over the course of the warm months. Doing everything right only slows this process; it does not prevent it. The does will come into estrus in autumn and about October they will be producing very little milk. Stop milking by the end of October so they can dry off and turn their energy to gestation.
Now and then I’ll hear someone say something along the lines of: I like cow milk but not goat milk. I have to be honest and say this strikes me as one of the most absurd statements I’ve ever heard. If there is a difference in the taste of goat and cow milk, neither I nor my wife or daughters can sense it. And I would lay money that if I were to do a blind taste test with complete strangers, they couldn’t tell the one from the other either. In other words, the difference in taste is all in the head. Or, perhaps, the difference comes from the fact that most dairy cattle are raised on corn and antibiotics, and by the time the milk gets to the consumer it is so refined, pasteurized, homogenized and treated that it doesn’t taste like fresh milk anymore. So when a person thinks she likes cow milk over goat milk, what she really means is she likes processed food–not knowing the better.
In any event, goat milk tastes not only like cow milk, but it is far healthier. Few persons have allergic reactions to it, even persons with severe lactose allergies. And even persons who cannot tolerate soy milk can usually have goat milk. Plus, goat milk freezes well. If you freeze cow milk it will separate. But goat milk can be frozen and thawed with only a little separation.
You can make anything with goat milk that you can with cow milk, but there are some differences. If you are making ice cream or yogurt, treat goat milk the same. If you are wanting to make cheese (als called chevre), bear in mind that goat milk doesn’t need to be aged to develop sharpness and pungency (unlike cow milk). We make a lot of our own cheese and it is sharp and flavorful from the moment the curds are pressed into a cheese round. We never bother aging it anymore, though sometimes we smoke it for additional flavor.
It is rumored that you cannot make butter from goat milk, but this is not true. The cream in goat milk is thoroughly dissolved, so it will not naturally rise to the surface like with cow milk. But it can be made to rise. Just spread the milk out onto cookie sheets and place them in a fridge overnight. The cool, dry air draws out the cream. Next day, skim the cream off the surface of the milk and use that to make butter.
You can also make vinegar cheese from goat milk. The result is a flavorless product almost indistinguishable from tofu and which can be used exactly like tofu. But during the making, it can be flavored with various herbs and condensed to improve its texture. For complete instructions on making vinegar cheese, see my book: Seasons of the Sacred Earth.
Goats are largely trouble free and hardy, yet for all that they are susceptible to a variety of illness, and when they do get ill they can go downhill amazingly fast. So it’s important to be able to recognize and respond to common goat ailments as fast as possible. Many farmers, us included, keep remedies on hand and spend a lot of time learning to identify symptoms. I keep various injectable antibiotics such as penicillin and Triple Sulfa on hand for bacterial infections and intestinal ailments. I also keep worm meds on hand. I only use any medication when it is needed, as when a goat shows signs of weakening.
As to worm meds, a goat’s relationship with worms is complicated. Goats are not quite meant to be worm free, and if you use worm meds too frequently you run the risk of the worms developing immunity. I also feed the goats a bit of diatomaceous earth (DE) with their grain at each feeding which helps kill worms in the body without allowing them to toughen up. And since DE is completely inert, it does not contaminate their milk or harm the goat in any way.
I also sometimes cultivate a tobacco plant or two. The leaves I dry and set aside to feed the animals if the need arises. It is a natural dewormer. Tobacco: so good for you it kills worms!
There is a lot to learn about goat illnesses, though. This is best done by studying tomes such as Sheep & Goat Medicine by Pugh and Baird. Also, do not hesitate to call a vet. Like I said, a goat can go downhill very fast. Like frolicking in the morning to dead by evening. For hardy creatures, they are surprisingly delicate in many ways. If they develop an illness, move fast in treatment.
From Here . . .
There is, of course, much more to learn. I have kept goats for many years and every summer I learn something new. Usually multiple things. The initial learning curve is large but not daunting, and once you get the hang of it keeping goats is straightforward and generally problem free. It’s also fun, but more so, I find it very rewarding. Like I noted earlier, it ties you closely to the land and its sacred cycles. There is a fey beauty in the ritual of rising with the sun and milking, bringing the milk pails to the cottage and driving the goats to their meadow. The whole process is calming and meditative to the point of being shamanic. With a little space and only a small investment, anyone can keep goats and benefit from their company and gifts in so many ways.