You’ve decided to get a goat or two and try them for awhile, but don’t know where to start. If you have never owned any livestock before, but want to learn how to raise goats in your backyard, getting started is a simple but big step. Goats are only one choice for backyard livestock, but their versatility and small size allow them to fit many different needs. Maybe you want an animal for brush control, or you’re tired of chasing cows and want something smaller to deal with. I don’t blame you!
Everyone knows that goat milk is healthy, but many people wonder: Is goat meat healthy? Turns out, goat meat is lower in cholesterol than beef. You can take a goat to be butchered without a trailer and not have several hundred pounds of meat to freeze. Goats make just as good (or better) pets as dogs or cats, but they give back more than just companionship.
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Before buying your goats, consider how much land you have to raise livestock on, paying particular attention to existing fences. If you have no fences, you can try electric wire or build fences as you go along. A holding pen is necessary for any animal, as you will need some way to contain them occasionally, such as to give vaccinations or other care.
How much time you plan on spending caring for the goats will be a major factor in what kind of goat(s) you get. For fresh goat milk, a dairy goat near the end of her lactation will provide you with an idea of what is involved in milking without an excessive amount of milk. A Pygmy goat is wonderful entertainment and companionship for children (both young and old). If brush control is your main concern, any breed of goat will do an adequate job, whether it gives milk or not.
Although you may be tempted by the price and convenience, as a new buyer, it’s best not to start off purchasing your first goats from a sale barn, as you won’t know anything about the animal’s background or why the owner is selling it. There is usually a good reason why the price seems so cheap. Even a goat that has registered papers is no guarantee that the animal is free of diseases; it just means it came from registered parentage.
Your local library should have at least one good book on how to raise goats in your backyard, with associations and other resources for raising goats listed in the back index. Send off for free information on the different breed associations and compare the information about each goat breed. Most associations have a list of members and can tell you where to find other goat farmers closest to your area, or a district representative to help you.
Look in your local paper (including the small newsletter types) for several issues in a row and make phone calls to find out what goat breeds are available in your area. You will also save time driving around until you have a better idea of what you want. You can also place an ad to find a specific goat breed, requesting other goat owners and goat farmers to contact you.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions when buying your goats. Check the animal thoroughly, taking note of things like how many teats it has and if its feet are trimmed. Take some time to handle the animal, too. A reputable seller will welcome your interest and be more than happy to allow you to give the goat a good “look over.”
It’s usually best, as a new owner learning how to raise goats in your backyard, to start with a few animals instead of starting out with a sizable herd. Give your goats time to get used to each other. Remember, goats multiply fast every year, and three females can turn into ten in a matter of about a year if you keep all of them. Some people sell or even give away the male kids almost as soon as they are born, so that they can have extra goat milk for home use, and keep the females. Be sure newborn kids have had an adequate supply of colostrum, even if you don’t plan on keeping them.
If you are looking for a bred doe, in hopes of milking her when she freshens, ask for a written guarantee that the doe is truly bred. Size is not an indication of being bred or how many kids a doe has inside of her. Ask questions to determine how many kids the doe has had in her previous year, if the kids were free from abnormalities, and how old the doe is now. Make sure that you also request copies of any lab tests for things like CAE, TB, or Brucelossis to keep for your own records.
When buying goat breeds for milk, it’s a good idea to watch the goat being milked to confirm that there is no mastitis, damaged teats, or unusual tasting milk. You should also ask for a lesson to get you familiar with handling the goat if you’ve never milked a goat before! Temperament on the milking stand is an important factor – some goat farmers will be unwilling or unable physically to deal with training the animal. Just remember that no goat is perfect, no matter how good the genetics or pedigree records are, so don’t be shy about asking the owner why they are selling the animal.
Once you’re ready to actually buy your goats, ask for a bill of sale or some kind of receipt to prove your ownership, and if the goat is registered, be sure that the registration papers are part of the deal. Don’t be afraid of repeating the question clearly until you get a “yes, with papers” or “no, not with papers” answer. Some registered herd owners sell quality animals at regular “milk stock” prices (without papers), keeping the best show quality goats for their own breeding purposes. There may be an additional cost to change registration papers to reflect new ownership. Fees can vary, depending on whether or not you are a member of an association, so you may want to consider becoming a member at the same time that you register the animal or animals in your name.
Having a buck is recommended if you have several goats, but if a friend or neighbor has one nearby, find out if you can borrow it in order to get your does bred. (It usually takes about 30 days.) Most goats are bred in August and September, although some are “held back” until about February in order to stretch the milk supply through the year.
Dairy goats usually freshen (or kid) in the spring and the heaviest peak of milk production seems to be about the same time that the grass and clover are growing the thickest. This gives the milking goat the best possible browsing arrangements available all year long, and the young kids are easily tempted to start eating more grass and nursing less.
Baby goats are usually available in abundance in March and April, with a few born in February. If you plan on starting your herd slowly by raising them as kids on bottles, it will be awhile before you can expect to have fresh milk, but they will be very tame and easy to work with come milking time. It’s a pleasure to see them grow up this way.
In September and October, prices start a seasonal drop going into winter. This is the best time to buy goats to increase your herd size. Owners decide to sell a few of their “extra” does before carrying them through another winter. Chances are that the breeding buck has already bred them in August or September, and it is only a matter of waiting a few months before milking time.
If you’re ready to learn how to raise goats in your backyard, do your homework. You’ll be an educated buyer, a future producer, and a whole lot happier for having made the right decision before picking up your goats. You will be prepared to make the best choices possible and get a goat!
Originally published in 2002 and regularly vetted for accuracy.