How to Raise Dairy Goats for Organic Goat Milk

A Helpful Guide to Organic Goat Farming Basics

organic-goat-milk

By Cheryl K. Smith – When you’re learning goat farming basics, it pays to ask yourself if you want to raise your dairy goats for organic goat milk. It’s a question asked more frequently, as people in the U.S. get more interested in growing and eating organic foods. People are looking to change their diets to include not only organic fruits and vegetables, but organic dairy products and meat as well.

The Organic Trade Association, a North American trade organization for the organic industry, polled Baby Boomers in 2010 and found that about three-quarters of them had purchased organic or natural foods. The market for such foods is growing by about 20% a year, so dairy goat farmers who sell their milk or dairy products need to give serious consideration to changing their methods if they want to be part of that trend. Switching to certified organically raised goats can mean a higher price for dairy products, as people grow more concerned about GMO crops, exposure to pesticides, out-of-control use of antibiotics, and other chemicals in food animals as well as the perception that organic is better for health.

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Besides providing organic goat milk and other dairy products to meet growing market demand, learning organic goat farming basics also promotes sustainability. Organic manure produced by the goats can be used as fertilizer (and become another product to sell); less soil is lost to erosion with organic processes; raising goats organically causes less pollution (particularly to groundwater); and less fossil fuel is used because chemical fertilizers have been eliminated.

This article covers organic goat farming basics, as well as the requirements for raising goats that can be organically certified, some of the difficulties in meeting these requirements, and some alternatives that may meet the needs of dairy goat farmers who want to make a change for the better.

So, what is the definition of organic when it comes to goat farming basics? Organic goat milk or meat is from goats that were raised according to the standards of the National Organic Program and certified by an accredited state or private agency.

Organic is not the same as natural, which refers to products that are minimally processed with no artificial ingredients, coloring agents or chemicals. Organic is also not the same as pasture-raised or grass-fed, although this is a requirement for the organic certification. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) further restricted the definition of organic milk and meat to require that it come from livestock that graze on pasture for at least one-third of the year, getting 30% of their feed from grazing. Previously they only had to have “access to pasture.”

Making the switch to raising goats organically may not be easy, and for some farmers, it may be impossible. Some farmers may find the requirements for organic certification difficult to meet, depending on their farm and the local conditions, but they can at least begin moving in that direction.

In addition to federal organic standards, some states have even more restrictive requirements. Dairy goat farmers need to check with their state Agriculture Departments to find out what, if any, requirements the state will impose before getting too far into development of a plan to go organic with their goats.

Organic Goat Milk Requirements:

  • Produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations
  • From goats that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones
  • Produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation
  • Farm where organic goat milk is produced is inspected and certified by a government agent to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards
  • Companies that handle or process organic goat milk before it gets to the local supermarket or restaurant must be certified organic
  • Source: USDA Consumer Brochure: Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts

Living Conditions

The requirement that goats be on pasture at least one-third of each year entails more than just putting them in just any outdoor or indoor area for the required amount of time. The Standard also requires that they have shade, shelter, exercise space, fresh air and direct sunlight.

The shelter provided must promote the healthy and natural behaviors and maintenance of the goats. This includes ensuring that they are safe (minimize hazards to prevent injury), have an opportunity to exercise, are protected from severe temperatures, have adequate ventilation and have appropriate bedding (clean and dry).

A few exceptions to the Standard allows temporary total confinement at times. These include inclement weather, health and safety issues and risk to soil or water quality. Nevertheless, to be certified organic, dairy goats cannot be totally confined for all or even a majority of their lives.

The Organic Standards also address pasture fencing. They prohibit the use of treated wood, where it may come into contact with soil crops or the goats. While most older fencing may be grandfathered in, farmers who are starting with a new farm or replacing old fencing need to be aware of this prohibition and avoid using treated wood in fence construction.

Pasture Requirements 

In order to be certified organic, goats must be raised on pasture that is certified organic. This requires that no pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers or any other restricted materials be used. Unless the pasture land to be used for goats is already certified, obtaining initial certification will take time.

In order to get initial certification for pasture land, a farmer must be able to show that no prohibited substance has been applied for 36 months prior to full certification. Dairy goat farmers who recently purchased property may have a harder time getting certified unless the prior owner is willing to assist with proving that no prohibited substances were applied. This is something to keep in mind when purchasing new property with plans to raise organic dairy goats.

Another important aspect of raising organic dairy goats is the need to avoid overstocking—which will lead to overgrazed pasture land. Overgrazed pasture, or pasture otherwise lacking vegetation, is not considered pasture under the certification standards anymore than a feedlot.

To ensure that the requirement for no spraying is met, if a pasture abuts a roadway where a county or other municipality may spray the roadside for weeds, put up signs indicating that the property is an organic farm and spraying is prohibited. Contact the municipality as well, to ensure that you meet their needs for any other required documentation. In organic management of goats, pasture rotation is extremely important because using most chemical dewormers is prohibited. Pasture rotation discourages parasite overpopulation, especially in warm, wet regions, as well as discouraging overgrazing and allowing time for vegetation to rest and regrow.

ATTRA—National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service has a helpful publication for educating farmers regarding organic pastures, Pastures: Going Organic. It can be obtained free of charge. This publication discusses all issues relevant to organic pasture for goats and other livestock to be certified organic, including fence construction.

Feed and Supplements

Organic livestock may be fed only hay, grain, milk replacer, minerals and any other supplement such as kelp or beet pulp that is certified organic. This means that it may not be genetically modified and may not contain synthetic hormones, antibiotics, coccidiostats or other restricted materials. Goats may not be given any of those additives directly, either. The bedding used for goats must also be certified organic, whether it is straw, wood chips or wood pellets, because goats may eat the bedding.

Restricted materials for organic livestock include:

  • Animal drugs and synthetic hormones
  • Plastic pellets
  • Urea
  • Manure (including poultry litter)
  • Slaughter by-products
  • Excessive amounts of feed supplements or additives
  • Synthetic amino acids

An exception to the 100% organic requirement is for a dairy goat herd that is being converted to organic management. The products from these goats may be marketed as transitional while the farmer is working toward organic certification. The goats may be fed up to 20% conventional feeds for the first nine months of the transition, but then they must receive 100% organic feeds.

One major change that some dairy goat farmers who are switching to organic production will have to face is how they handle raising baby goats, or kids. Kids may be bottle-fed with milk replacer only on an emergency basis. This is because dam-raising is more natural and sustainable, and no organic goat milk replacer currently exists for goat kids, although in the UK one was introduced in 2008 for calves. Kids may still be bottle-fed, but some of the milk that would otherwise be sold now must be given to the kids for several months, or kids have to be left on their dams for the first few months.

Another potential impediment is meeting the feeding requirements for their dairy goats. The area of the country, as well as the amount of land a goat farmer has available, may make 100% organic feed impossible. Farmers with a small acreage, and in the desert, for instance, will be unable to grow their own hay, alfalfa, and grain and will need to rely on what is available commercially. In some areas, finding organic feeds is next to impossible. In many cases, despite availability, the cost is prohibitive. Each farmer needs to determine what these costs will be, along with the market rate for organic goat milk or other dairy products, to determine whether raising organic goats is economically feasible. Those with small dairy goat herds who want to go organic for purely personal reasons may find it worthwhile to search out organic feeds, despite the high prices.

Feed mills are often willing to work with a nutritionist and create a custom feed mix using organic products, if they are available. Ideally, the feed mill will be local so that shipping costs can be limited. One way to provide custom organic goat feed for less cost is to find a group of people who are interested in purchasing as a cooperative and having large quantities made at one time. It may take some coordination and time to get the bugs worked out of a distribution system, but once a group of local, like-minded farmers have signed on and prepaid, you are ready to go.

Health Care

Caring for goats and health care can be one of the most challenging aspects of organic goat farming basics. A goat cannot be certified organic if it has been treated with antibiotics, or a synthetic or non-synthetic substance that is prohibited by the law. Yet goats do get sick with diseases that require the use of such substances. In fact, producers must treat sick animals, even if doing so will cause them to lose their status as “organic.” So the challenge is, whenever possible, to find treatment methods that are organic and that are effective.

The Livestock Healthcare Standard requires producers to use preventive health care practices (vaccination is allowed), not treat goats that are not sick (e.g., giving antibiotics or dewormers routinely), and make sure the goats’ living conditions and feed ration promote good health.

One of the most difficult health care problems encountered with organic goat farming basics is controlling parasites. Ivermectin is the only chemical dewormer that is allowed for use on organic goats. However, it may only be used if the goat is determined to have a parasite overload based on fecal egg counts. Even though it is allowed under those circumstances, farmers may not administer Ivermectin to breeding stock during the last third of gestation or when they are nursing kids that are to be sold, labeled or represented as organically produced. When used in dairy stock, the dewormer may not be given to goats for at least 90 days before milk production or the production of organic goat milk products.

Besides prohibitions on when dewormers may be administered, another problem exists: In some areas, parasites have become resistant to Ivermectin, so goats that are treated with this allowable dewormer may still have problems. Some farmers use herbal dewormers, but they have not been shown in controlled studies to be as effective, so may not be the best choice. Fortunately, a lot of research is being done on alternatives to chemical dewormers. Alternative parasite control methods that are being studied include tannin-containing plants, such as oak leaves or sericea lespedeza; copper-oxide wire particles; biological controls such as earthworms, dung beetles and fungi; and pasture rotation, which was mentioned earlier. Dairy goat farmers who are interested in organic goat farming basics and keep good records can also learn which of their goats seem to be more resistant to parasites and other diseases and cull those that aren’t.

The Organic Health Standard also requires that physical alterations—such as tattooing or other identification, disbudding and castration—be done only in a way that promotes the welfare of the goat and minimizes pain and stress. Although there are no hard and fast rules, these are areas that must be addressed in an Organic System Plan and farmers need to be able to show that the way they perform these procedures meets the criteria.

Organic goat farmers need to educate themselves and make sure that their veterinarian is aware of organic standards in regard to medications that are often recommended or prescribed for goats. Consider giving them a copy of the regulations or the Livestock Workbook if they are not already familiar with the program. That way you can work together to determine how best to treat your goats when they do get sick and not mistakenly give a prohibited drug.

Other Considerations for Organic Goat Farming Basics

The National Organic Standard contains other requirements that farmers need to take into consideration. Manure management may or may not be a problem, depending on the acreage and number of goats being kept. One major intent of this provision is to keep manure out of waterways—a problem for larger farms and less so for small farms.

Recordkeeping is critical to raising goats for organic goat milk and dairy goat farmers need to set up a recordkeeping system prior to applying for organic certification. Required records include “all records of the operation,” and they must be understandable and available for inspection. Some of these records include identification for each goat including whether it was born on the farm or purchased, all veterinary and other health records for each goat, and feed information, which includes keeping all feed tags from feed that is purchased. These records can also serve a secondary purpose of tracking health issues to determine whether a certain goat or a certain line should be culled.

The standard also addresses the requirement for processing of goat products. For example, organic meat may not come in contact with non-organic meat and no synthetic materials may be used during its processing. Farmers need to review the standard to determine whether other requirements for food processing will affect their operation and whether they can be met.

Certification Process for Raising Organic Goats

Obtaining an initial certification requires the following steps:

  • Find a certifier in your state. (A list can be found at the USDA Agricultural Marketing Site, www.ams.usda.gov.
  • Complete an application form. (Note: Some federal funds are available through states to reimburse applicants for obtaining organic certification.)
  • Describe, in writing, practices and procedures to be used.
  • Make a list of each substance you will use in production, noting its composition, source, and where/how it will be used.
  • Describe how the plan will be implemented and monitored.
  • Describe the record keeping system(s) that will be used to comply with requirements.
  • Describe practices and procedures to be used to ensure that organic and nonorganic products are not mixed.
  • Schedule an on-site inspection by a certifier.

Initial certification is granted in perpetuity, but farmers must pay a certification fee and update their initial Organic System Plan every year—it isn’t a one-time deal. Small farmers who market less than $5,000 of organic products annually are not required to apply for organic certification, although they must still comply with production and handling requirements. While the milk from such a small goat farm may be marked “organic,” farmers who rely on this exemption may not use the organic seal on their products.

Conclusion

Dairy goat farmers who think they may want to get into organic goat production should first learn everything they can about organic certification under the federal and their state laws. A good resource is the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s (NCAT) Livestock Workbook: A Guide to Sustainable and Allowed Practices. This book not only includes much information on organic livestock practices and organic goat farming basics, but also contains a checklist that farmers can use to prepare to switch to organic systems. It can be used to determine what steps to take to begin working toward certified organic production.

The first step in organic goat farming basics is to begin transitioning pasture and cropland. Remember that this step may take as long as 36 months if the land is not already certified organic. While implementing this step, farmers have time to think through and create their required Organic System Plan, talk with a someone who can help you get organic certification, start thinking through policies and procedures to be implemented, and develop a good recordkeeping system.

Farmers who don’t have the acreage, or the right locale to grow feed, need to start looking for feeds that are grown organically or made with organic ingredients. Although this may be an insurmountable barrier for some, one alternative is to use as many certified organic ingredients as possible, and then find “no spray” ingredients to make up the rest of the feed. Although this will prevent organic certification, it will still be a good marketing point for sales and can possibly help a farmer obtain a higher price for milk and dairy products. It also can be a positive first step for future certified organic production, because we can expect more feed producers to switch to organic.

Originally published in 2011 and regularly vetted for accuracy. 

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