For those of you on your retreat property and wanting to add sustainability to your food supply, I present this article to give you an overview of goat-keeping. Why choose goats? The advantages of goats are manifold:
• Goats are smaller, therefore require less feed, space and fencing than a cow.
• Goat milk is less allergenic and more closely resembles human milk than cow milk.
• Dairy goats typically produce two quarts to a gallon of milk per day – a usable amount for a family, especially if no refrigeration is available.
• Goats kid (give birth) five months after breeding, so you can have a year-round supply of milk and meat fairly easily and inexpensively.
• Goat manure comes in convenient pellets – much easier to clean up and use for compost or mulch than cow pies.
How to Choose Your Dairy Goat
Let’s start with breed selection. There may be a certain breed prominent in your area, they may do better in your climate or just be more available. See if that breed will meet your needs. Here are the basic dairy goat breeds:
Saanens are pure white and used in many commercial and small dairies. They are calm and bred for good milk production. They need fences well-attached at the base as they have a tendency to burrow under them.
Toggenburgs came from Switzerland. They are tan-colored with white and black highlights. They are adventuresome and tough with a typically short lactation period – a good thing if you do not want to milk during a long-cold winter.
Alpines are my favorite breed. They have long lactations and many will continue to give milk year after year with only one or two breedings. I can attest to this fact because my dear Helga, grown when I bought her, was never pregnant in the 14 years she lived with us, but she gave milk enough for my children, orphan lambs and a few calves.
Nubians are a large breed with distinctly large hanging ears. They were originally a meat/milk breed, but now are mostly known for rich milk production. La Manchas are a milking breed from Spain, with miniature ears and weigh about 130 pounds.
Nigerian Dwarfs , an African breed, are small with rich milk. Easier to fence and feed than the larger breeds. Crossbreeds are excellent for hybrid vigor and to develop characteristics you prefer. We want medium to small goats with rich milk and long lactations, so we are using Nubian/Alpine/Nigerian crosses in our herd.
Once you have a breed in mind, start looking at animals. Around here (the Pacific Northwest) Craigslist is a great source if you are careful! Plan to buy at least two goats, preferably already acquainted – they are herd animals and need companions to thrive. You want a healthy, bright-eyed doe with a shiny coat. Her udder should be large and well-attached under her back belly with two large nipples that squirt milk straight down. Watch her being milked to be sure she can be handled. Her legs should be straight, her tail should be up in the air and she should like humans. However, if goats are used to a man, they may have a bit of trouble adjusting to a woman and vice-versa. Our Nubian lead goat, Dee-Dee, adores my husband, talks to him and follows him around. Luckily, our milking doe, Zella, was reared by a woman. Zella loves me, comes off the hillside if I call her and would rather spend time with me than the herd. Our 14-year-old son is able to milk her, but he spent a lot of time winning her over with carrots and apples before she was comfortable with him.
With each goat you purchase get their date of birth, breeding, number of kids, any kidding or health problems, when she was last wormed, etc. If she is bred, be sure to get a good estimate of the kidding date. Stay far away from runny noses, respiratory noises and anything that makes you think a goat is unhealthy. Expect to pay anywhere from $40 to $300 per goat. We paid $45 each for our seven brush eaters, which includes a fine Nubian doe and a Nigerian Dwarf doe. Watching Craigslist we were able to purchase three large well-bred Alpines for a total of $125 because the people couldn’t take care of them.
I have transported goats in the backseat of my car, but nowadays, we use the pick-up with a canopy, tossing one of the dog cushions in the back with some hay to nibble during the trip. Be sure you have a safely fenced pen and shelter all ready.
Food and Shelter
We got back into goats when we found that our retreat property was heavily infested with poison oak. Goats are browsers more than grazers, so brush like poison oak, blackberries, scotch broom and other noxious weeds are delicious to them, as is tree bark and most of your flowers, garden vegetables and fruit trees. Good fences are a must. We use welded cattle panels about 5 x 16 feet costing about $24.00 each to fence off our gardens and orchards, topped with deer tape to a height of about 6 feet.
Our herd roams free on about 30 acres with a creek and mountain as natural boundaries. At night they are locked securely in a well-ventilated barn for protection from predators. We built sleeping stands out of plywood and blocks to keep them off our damp ground. Five or more goats cuddle on each stand.
Our goats forage year-round along the creek and hill. They receive regular supplements, mineral blocks and occasional hay if we get snow. Most goats will be on hay – a mixture of grass and alfalfa seems to produce the best milk – but fresh feed is highly desirable. Goats will not touch dirty feed so be sure your feeders are off the ground. We mix our own grain from bulk oats, whole wheat, split peas, flax, kelp and molasses. Always provide plenty of clean, fresh drinking water and wash the container often.
The most common killers of goats are domestic dogs. Do not ever leave your herd at the mercy of anyone’s dogs, including your own. We have one dog that we trust around the goats at any time and one dog that we keep an eye on whenever we bring a new goat around.
Liquid Gold – Start Milking!
Realize that milking is a twice-a-day-365-days-a-year chore. We share milk with a neighbor and she milks whenever we are away. Milking every twelve hours is best, but we milk at 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. because it suits our schedule better. If you have never milked before, the best way to learn is from an experienced milker. Here is a description of the process: The milk goat is placed in a stand, usually wooden with a slot for the neck that can be closed at the top to keep the goat in. A pan of grain with cut up fruits and vegetables is placed at the front of the stand so the doe can eat while you milk. You come alongside the goat and sit on a stool that gives you adequate reach as you face the udder. Loose hairs and soil are gently brushed off the udder area so none can fall into the milk pail or jar. To begin milking, you place your thumb and first finger about two inches above the bottom of the teat. Squeeze these fingers tightly together to capture the milk in the bottom of the teat. Then bring your middle, ring and pinkie fingers around the teat one at a time to push the milk out and into your container. Release your thumb and the teat fills with milk so you can repeat the process. Nothing came out? Try again. Most children and adults are able to catch the system and rhythm of milking in a few minutes; they just need practice to strengthen hand and finger muscles.
One method is to milk into a seamless stainless steel bucket. This allows you to use both hands, saving time. However, if your goat tends to kick or move around, or if you have weaker hands, I suggest using a pint or quart jar. You hold the jar with one hand, milk with the other and change hands as you go back and forth between the teats (goats only have two; cows have four). Goat teats are larger and easier to milk than cow teats. When the flow slows down, massage the udder for 20 seconds or more and she will drop more milk. Massaging is the key to maintaining and increasing production. If you watch a young kid nurse, you will see it butt the udder like a punching bag to get more milk let down. Massaging is a gentle version of this. Immediately put the milk into clean jars and place in the refrigerator. Three things can put an off-flavor in your milk: strong weeds, dirty containers, and nearness to a buck. Watch the diet of your milk goat, keep milk utensils spotlessly clean and keep that buck far away from your milker during breeding season.
Flowing with Milk
So what do you do with all that milk? I love to drink it warm within a few minutes of milking, which the teens find pretty disgusting! They mix their chilled goat milk with a little vanilla or hot chocolate powder. Their new drink is a blend of oranges, milk, egg and some sweetener for an Orange Julius type drink. Very tasty. We also make kefir and yogurt, use it in pancake batter and bread dough, chowders and other dishes. In the past I have made goat cheese, which seldom got beyond the curd stage because cheese curds are delicious. We also use milk and eggs for the dogs and cats so we are not dependent on store-bought kibbles. I have experimented with leaving the goat milk out to replicate a no refrigerator scenario (like most people in the world experience daily!). The milk clabbers – that is, it gets a bit thicker and tangier day by day. After about three days it has the consistency of cream cheese with a tart flavor. Whereas pasteurized, homogenized store milk will rot, clean raw milk will be usable warm or cool.
Adding a Buck
Keeping a buck (intact male goat) is not for novices. I’ve had goats for several decades but this is the first time I have kept a buck. We are doing it for sustainability reasons. It will not be practical to take the goats to a buck in another town if gas becomes too expensive or travel becomes hazardous. My husband and I considered the pros and cons very carefully before taking this step. A buck means extra fencing, working out breeding plans so you have a consistent milk supply. Your goat herd can triple with one round of breedings, so we discussed what to do with the offspring. We decided that we could handle a smaller buck with good milkers in his pedigree. Wanting richer milk for calories and a higher fat intake also influenced our choice. When we saw a Nubian/Nigerian Dwarf cross for sale on Craigslist, we were pretty sure we had found our herd sire. Cappy (Cappuccino) is currently five months old and already capable of breeding all but our tallest does. Be fully aware of the bizarre habits of bucks during breeding season! Even our cute young buck does things too gross to describe in this article that make him appealing to does in heat.
Caring for the Kids
Having a buck brings babies in five months. And goats can seldom have just one; twins and even triplets are not uncommon. Called “kids”, nothing is cuter than newborn goats! We try to keep our animals in as natural a setting as possible, so our does will stay with their kids for the first week while the colostrum (first milk with special antibodies and nutrients) is used up. The second week the kids and mothers stay together at night, but separate for part of each day so we can begin milking. This saves us from having to bottle-feed kids several times a day. Doe kids that are going to be saved for milkers will be kept on the mother for 12 weeks, but young males will be castrated in the first few weeks (they are capable of breeding at 2 months!) and weaned at 6 weeks. The best tool for castrating is a side-crusher. We bought ours from Premier1 Supplies for $94.00 and printed off instructions from the internet. All kids are disbudded (have their horn buds burned off to prevent horns from growing) at 2 to 3 days old. We do not have horned goats and the two cannot be mixed because goats establish their pecking order with head-butting. We bought a Rhinehart X-30 disbudding iron for $70. The other tool needed is a pair of hoof trimmers for about $30. If your goats have hard surfaces to walk on, their feet will wear down naturally and little trimming is necessary. Have an experienced goat person help you learn these techniques. You will be a pro in a short time.
What you will love about goats: they have lots of personality, coupled with high intelligence. What will drive you crazy about goats: they have lots of personality, coupled with high intelligence. So if we leave the property gate open for a few minutes because the goats are grazing elsewhere and we will be “right back”, you can count on the goats being out and over the hillside for an adventure in the blink of an eye. If you store your hay in the barn with a simple latch, they will open it up, same for your chicken coop, your yard with the prize roses, and any other area that contains food or interest to them. On the other hand, the night that Dee-Dee refused to go back to the barn and was insistent that the herd spend the night in the garage near the house, we are pretty sure some sort of predator was waiting in there for goat dinner.
The best source of information about dairy goats is visiting people who have them. Most of these dedicated goat-lovers enjoy teaching a newcomer the ropes. I use Pat Coleby’s “Natural Goat Care ” book because I prefer natural remedies. Amazon has lots of goat-keeping books, read the reviews to find the best ones. Your local County Extension office should have free information about goats, as will 4-H goat clubs. There are excellent web sites with detailed information about every imaginable goat situation. I make herbal remedies for the few illnesses the goats have, mostly related to parasites. We prune our friend’s honeysuckle as a safe and effective wormer which the goats devour eagerly.
Having a safe, healthy supply of fresh raw milk helps me care for my children in the best way possible. We sell extra milk for $6.00 a gallon, but others sell it for much more. So goats can be a home business as well. Products can be milk, wethers, young does, buck service, etc. Others make goat milk soap for a niche market. I hope this article piques your interest in adding these capricious creatures to your survival plan.
Happy independence to all of you Preppers!