Anyone who’s ever raised dairy goats will tell you they can be difficult in the wrong situation or utterly wonderful in the right one. Deciding which side of the fence your farm falls on is the best place to start when considering adding them to your menagerie. As with any new farm venture, there’s a lot to think about with dairy goats—time, money, property, et cetera. We’ve laid it all out for you to help you decide—ahem, when push comes to chèvre—if milk goats are a good fit for you.
What You’ll Need for Fencing
As the old adage goes, “If it can hold water, it can hold goats.”(In other words, goats are not easily contained.) Fencing is one of the biggest necessities for dairy goats. Some goats can jump more than 40 inches high, and most love to climb.
You have two general fencing options: If you don’t want to rotate their pasture every few days or so, you’ll want to erect tall, permanent fencing, ideally 45 to 52 inches with at least one strand of electric or barbed wire at the top and middle. If you want to rotate your goats’ pasture frequently, 42-inch electrified netting works well. More athletic goats can jump it, but they won’t if they’re moved often, have plenty of food and are kept happy; however, you can choose to fence the perimeter of your property so if they do jump, they don’t head straight for your neighbor’s houses to eat their garden or play King of the Mountain on their cars.
What You’ll Need for Gates
It’s not only a goat’s ability to jump a fence that makes it a challenging farm animal; it’s also the fact that a goat can literally open gates. Goats are inherently curious creatures and are amazingly resourceful. They will use their tongues or noses to pop open latches, push open heavy gates, or climb over or under them. Short of a padlock, your best option is anything that requires an opposable thumb to open—maybe even a key.
What You’ll Need for Breeding
Because a goat has to have a kid to start producing milk, a new owner should consider how they want to handle the breeding process. There are two main ways small-scale farmers breed their goats: Finding a nearby friend who keeps a buck and borrowing it in the fall to mate with your ladies, or keeping a buck yourself.
There are complications, of course. Bucks can be a stinky, head-butting mess when they go into rut (their annual period of sexual frenzy). When the does begin lactating, you have to separate the buck by a good, insurmountable distance so that its smell doesn’t taint your milk and leave it tasting “goaty.” This may require a separate barn or paddock with extra-sturdy fencing.
What You’ll Need for Weaning and Kidding
After the kids are born, you’ll eventually separate them from your mama goat—this is called weaning. Some farmers wean after the kids have had colostrum, then bottle-feed the babies and keep part of the milk for themselves. Others separate the kid and doe for half the time—taking them away at night, for instance, and keeping the morning’s milking for themselves before letting the kid back in. Either way, weaning is no easy task. You either need to separate the doe from her kid by a great distance, a great fence or an enclosed structure because they’ll fight to get back together.
What You’ll Need for Shelter
A common rule of thumb reminds us that goats can get cold or get wet, but they shouldn’t get cold and wet. Provide your goats access to shelter that will keep them dry in the wetter parts of the year, preferably with wind protection, too. Goats also need a chance to dry their hooves to prevent rot, so if you’re using a mobile shelter, either install a floor or make sure you always have rocks for them to occasionally stand on. The rocks also help you from needing to trim their hooves frequently.
What You’ll Need for Milking Parlor and Stanchion
Throughout history, plenty of farmers milked their animals right in the pasture, but if you have the option of taking them somewhere covered to milk them, do so. When it’s raining, snowing or sleeting,or temperatures are extreme in either direction, you’ll be happy for the cover—and so will the goats.
The milking parlor doesn’t have to be fancy—in fact, it can be a preexisting structure or a mobile stanchion, so long as it can keep the rain and other goats out while you’re milking. Of course, many of the structures you need can have multiple roles; just make sure your milking parlor is not where the goats sleep, to avoid contact with manure and urine. You can find plans to build a stanchion online, and a simple one will take little more than a handful of boards and an hour or two to construct.
What You’ll Need for Forage
Goats are some of the least picky eaters on the farm. They love to browse on grass, weeds and trees, and you can keep them on pasture or in forestland. That being said, certain plants, such as wild garlic, mint and onion, will affect the milk’s flavor, so many milk and cheese producers keep their goats on well-maintained pastures. Also, there are poisonous plants, including rhododendron and horse nettle, that your goats need to avoid. Read up on these plants, learn to identify them, and remove any that exist in potential goat-grazing territory.
What You’ll Need for Water
Water is essential for any animal, but especially for cold, lactating mama goats. Although goats drink surprisingly little water, they like it fresh, and you’ll find they drink more after they kid. Typically, a 5-gallon bucket refilled every other day can be enough for a few goats.
What You’ll Need for Feed, Salt and Minerals
Few dairy animals will produce enough milk on grass alone, and goats are no exception: They need high-quality hay, alfalfa pellets or a grain supplement to produce sufficient amounts of milk. Of course, unless you grow grain or mow alfalfa hay, these things cost money. Before you welcome dairy goats to your farm, see what feed is available locally and price it out. A goat will eat 2 to 4 pounds of feed per day—roughly 3 percent of its body weight. If you’re keeping them confined, bear in mind you’ll need to provide that entire amount. (Letting them forage, in this case, is a great way to save some money.) The feed should be high quality, and you’ll have to find a way to keep it off the ground so the goats can’t ruin it with their manure. Goats won’t eat spoiled hay, but they also love to spoil it. Go figure.
While you’re at it, price a good salt block and goat minerals. They’re essential, though not expensive. Deciding whether these costs meet your farm budget is necessary before adding dairy goats, because without them, you’ll be disappointed by either sick or non-productive milkers.
What You’ll Need for Your Sanity
Maybe more than anything else, milk goats require patience and a sense of humor. They will frustrate you, but they’ll also misbehave more if you let them know they’ve gotten under your skin. If you are able to keep your cool, be patient and have fun, goats will fit right into your farm.
Learn more about dairy goats on HobbyFarms.com:
- When to Breed Young Dairy Goats for Milk
- 9 Items You Need to Start a Goat Dairy
- 6 Milk Facts to Know Before Starting a Farm Dairy
- Prepare Tasty Goat’s Milk That Keeps Well
- How to Milk a Goat