Getting Started with Dairy Goats
Published on Wed, 08/12/2020 - 4:56pm
Getting Started with Dairy Goats.
By Heather Smith Thomas.
Goats are fun and many people (and families with children) get a few goats to raise and enjoy, and some decide to milk goats for their own household use (for milk and cheese or other goat milk products) and may eventually milk goats commercially. Goats can be more than just a hobby if a person is dedicated to pursuing this venture.
Caroline Lawson (TLC Farms, Franklin, Texas) got her first goats in 1992. “My husband and I bought property in south central Texas and needed an agricultural exemption, and goats seemed a good fit for us. We purchased grade Nubians from a petting zoo south of Houston, and they became the foundation of our herd. After a couple years, I became interested in showing goats, and needed some purebred Nubians,” she says.
She came from a horseshow background and had ridden competitively for 25 years. “When it became too expensive to continue doing that, I thought breeding and showing dairy goats would be fun and more cost effective,” she explains.
“One thing led to another and today we keep a herd of about 30 goats. I attend 10 to 12 shows a year, and also have a business making soap and lotions from goat milk, a business I started about 18 year ago—ten years after we got the goats,” she says.
Caroline worked as a legal secretary at Texas A&M University, but was hoping to boost the family income with her goat enterprise. “I took a class from a friend on soap-making using goat milk. Since my husband and I both have backgrounds in retail sales, and he knew a lot of people with feed stores, he started taking the soap to those stores and they all loved it,” she says.
“We sold soap products at local craft shows and had a few wholesale accounts. I started making lotions as well. In 2011, an opportunity came up to join a new farmers market at Waco, about 70 miles north of us. I started selling my products as one of the original vendors at that market and have been there ever since.” Caroline considers her goats a hobby, but her enterprise makes enough money to pay their feed bill.
“There are a couple sides to the goat industry. Besides commercial dairies, there are many people who get goats but don’t do it in a way that is sustainable. They end up 5 or 6 years later deciding they can’t continue. It’s time consuming and they want to do other things, so their goat venture is short-lived. There are always other people coming along to pick up the slack, however, getting goats to raise,” she says.
If more of the newcomers could figure out ways to make it a sustainable venture, they might stay with it longer. “There’s a lot of information out there, with Facebook groups and local clubs. Agriculture-based universities have classes. Our local goat club puts on a clinic every January that covers 6 or 8 different subjects, with speakers to talk to the group. People can come to those clinics and learn a lot, but the best way to learn about raising dairy goats is to find a mentor who has many years’ experience,” she says.
Agricultural enterprises and raising animals is not for everyone, however. “I have found that a lot of people who come into the goat raising business from a non-agricultural background are the ones who have the hardest time sustaining it. It’s too much work, too much trouble, too steady. They want to be able to go on vacation, or don’t want to get up at 6 o’clock every morning and milk their goats.” They didn’t grow up taking care of animals and don’t have that kind of work ethic.
“The other thing is that many people get into goats because of their children. Maybe the children can’t drink cows’ milk but can drink goat milk, so the family gets a couple goats. That’s great for a while; the kids love the goats and maybe show goats in 4-H or FFA, but once the kids graduate from high school mom and dad are not interested in taking care of the goats,” says Caroline. Goats are great for children, however, learning how to take care of them and be responsible for their welfare.
Some people make money with skin care products made from goat milk, and you don’t need a license to do that, like you would for selling milk or making cheese to sell. There are also people who are doing well with commercial dairies.
“Many of the larger dairies have family members helping. For me, it’s just me and my husband, which makes it more difficult because you can’t ever get away; milking goats is twice a day, every day, and it is almost impossible to find someone trustworthy enough to leave in charge of a working farm while you’re away for several days.”
There are several breeds that work well for dairy, and others are more for meat. “Even with the dairy goats there’s a wide variety of breeds. Nigerian dwarf goats can be milked but people often sell them as pets for more money than full-sized dairy goats. You can raise them on a small acreage, and some people keep them in their back yards in areas that don’t have restrictions on farm animals.”
The dwarf goats are generally not hand milked. “If they are, it’s usually for a short time. People who breed dwarf goats often just let the does raise their kids until weaning, then dry the does up. That breed has been very successful for a lot of people because there is a good market for them.” Even though they don’t give as much milk as some of the larger goats, their milk is high in butterfat and makes wonderful cheese.
Jennifer Bice (Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery, Sebastopol, California) started raising goats as a child in 4-H more than 50 years ago and this enterprise evolved into a large commercial goat dairy. She says there are many more goats being raised today than there were 50 years ago.
USDA livestock census have shown dramatic increases in number of goats in the past 20 years, and social media gives a clue about how many goats there are, with people posting photos and anecdotes about their goats. “People often post photos of their goats, and there is even goat yoga (yoga exercises done with goats). There is more knowledge and acceptance of goats today with this increase in popularity and not such a negative stereotype view of goats,” says Bice.
Some families buy goats as pets or because their children want to raise or show them as 4-H projects. Goats are often easier for children to handle/care for, especially on a small acreage or in the back yard, than other livestock. “Some folks think they have a lighter hoof print on the environment than some other kinds of livestock,” she says.
Goats are also being used for brush and weed control on many landscapes. “Here in California with all the risk for wildfires, some businesses use goats for natural brush control. A herd of goats can be rented, to come in and prune the brush. They have many uses besides milk. Some people use them to carry small packs when hiking/backpacking. The baby boomers are getting older and don’t want to carry the weight of a pack and can take a goat along to carry the pack.”
Joan Dean Rowe, DVM, MPVM, PhD (a veterinarian on faculty at University of California Davis) first became involved with dairy goats as a 4-H project, as a child, learning about animal care and health, and this led to her becoming a veterinarian.
Dairy goats are great for young people to help teach them about responsible care, milking twice a day, etc. “This can build a sense of responsibility. For people who are into goats as a family project, it’s a great springboard for learning about foods of animal origin and food production/livestock production,” she says.
Goats are a little easier for children to take care of than larger livestock. Goats also have a short generation interval. “In the course of 1.5 years you can breed the goats, have kids born, raise them, and have them giving birth themselves at a year of age. This is ideal for 4-H and FFA projects, for young people to learn about genetic selection and be able to see the fruit of their efforts as breeders,” says Rowe. Within a few years, they can achieve success in their breeding programs.
People who want to start a goat dairy need to understand the importance of proper nutrition. “To have high-producing animals they need to feed a balanced ration, just as you would with dairy cattle to get the best health and production over a long lifespan. Careful reproductive management includes adequate identification of animals (to know the genetics of offspring), accurate breeding records and health records, just as you would for maintaining a healthy herd of dairy cattle,” she explains.
There are many similarities between cow dairies and goat dairies, but goats are more labor-intensive. Cows and goats both need proper care to maintain a healthy udder, such as pre-milking hygiene and post-milking teat-dipping. “Milking machines need to be properly maintained and monitored, and the animals need clean bedding areas to prevent mastitis,” says Rowe.
As smaller animals, you need more goats to achieve the same level of milk production as cows (about 10 goats to one cow). “One of the costs of production that would be higher with goats would be labor. And to maintain healthy udders (using teat dip, single use paper towels, etc.) your per liter/gallon of milk cost would be a little higher with goats because you have more goats than cows—even though a cow has 4 teats and a goat has two. Some of the preparation steps come to a higher unit cost, per gallon of milk produced. These are important steps, however to maintain healthy animals at full production,” she says.
“Goats are fun to work with and are well socialized because the kids are often hand-reared so the milk can be harvested twice a day. There are also disease prevention programs that involve pasteurizing milk for the kids. Even with a large dairy the goats are fun to be around; they are very gentle creatures. They do require a lot of care, however, and attention to their welfare and social needs,” says Rowe.
“There are some public misconceptions about goats. For instance if they are used for brush control (such as to reduce wildfire risks), those diets would not be sufficient to support reproduction and milk production.” These are very different careers for goats.
“I live in a fire-impacted area, and in California there are many municipalities that are hiring goat herds for fuels control. As a herd-health consultant, I usually recommend that these not be animals that are actively kidding and raising kids. You’d want to manage what time of year the reproducing does would be going out and working—and not during the time their kids are being born and raised,” she says.
The ADGA is a good place to go for information about goats—raising them, milking them, etc. Their website includes information for people interested in starting into dairying. “There are Cooperative Extension resources at land grant universities. For example the Dairy Goat Production Handbook is one I would recommend to people interested in seriously working with dairy goats.
This handbook was a collaborative effort, with many authors, published by Langston University. Its many chapters give a lot of background on how to house, manage and care for dairy goats—and all aspects of husbandry.” For people interested in meat goats or use of goats for brush control or fire risk reduction, there is also a meat goat production handbook.
Commercial dairies, or anyone producing food for the public, must follow state and federal regulations. “I think there are some misconceptions among herd owners in remote areas or who just have a few goats. They may not be aware that every state has laws governing wholesome food production. For food safety, it’s important to work with the local dairy inspector and dairy foods division, to understand what things can legally be done with your own dairy goats. It would be sad to have a public health problem because of inappropriate handling of milk or production of cheese. Commercial dairies that invest in monitoring, licensing, etc. want to ensure a wholesome product for human consumption,” says Rowe.
Do your homework; make sure you are complying with all relevant regulations. “The AGDA has directors from each of the 8 districts, who can help direct local goat owners to appropriate resources in their area. This might be the Cooperative Extension services, or veterinary practices/services, or breeders as a source of stock and information. There are also educational events in many states,” she says.
“For example, in California the University of California Davis has an annual goat day every January. With the pandemic we’ll be going to a virtual format for the next one. There are also many state dairy goat associations and some universities that offer educational programs for dairy goats. Iowa State University has public health and safety resources available on the web, including many topics of animal and human health. Dr. Paul Plummer’s group at Iowa State has conducted a lot of research on animal care and welfare, relative to goats,” she says.
For more information, here are links to several goat dairies (producer-processor operations). They also have a social media presence; it’s easy for readers to learn more about their farms: