The fun of having goats starts with choosing which goat breed to get and plenty are available to choose from. More than 200 goat breeds have been developed worldwide, not all of which may be found in North America. Each breed has characteristics that are useful to humans in different ways. Your decision, of course, will be narrowed by your purpose in wanting goats, whether for milk, meat, fiber, or just for the fun of it.
A dairy goat, sometimes called a milk goat, is one that produces far more milk than it needs to nurse its kids to weaning age. In the United States, we have six main dairy goat breeds: Alpine, La Mancha, Nubian, Oberhasli, Saanen, and Toggenburg. Three additional options are Sable, which is a Saanen of a different color; Nigerian Dwarf, a miniature dairy goat; and Kinder, a cross between Nubian and Nigerian Dwarf.
Alpines, Oberhaslis, Saanens, and Toggenburgs all originated in the Swiss Alps and are therefore referred to as the Swiss, or European, goat breeds. These goats are closely related and are similar in shape. They all have upright ears and straight or slightly dished faces. They may or may not have wattles consisting of two long flaps of hair-covered skin dangling beneath their chins. These goat breeds thrive in cool climates.
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La Manchas, Nigerian Dwarfs, and Nubians, on the other hand, originated in warmer climates and are therefore grouped together as tropical or desert goat breeds. The Nigerian Dwarf and the Nubian originated in Africa, and the La Mancha comes from the West Coast of the United States. In general, these goat breeds are better suited to warm climates than the shaggier Swiss goat breeds.
Alpine Goat. The Alpine goat has a long neck and a two-tone coat that comes in several color patterns, each of which has a specific name. Generally, the front end is a different color from the back. A mature doe weighs at least 135 pounds, and a mature buck weighs at least 170 pounds. The Alpine averages the highest annual milk output of any breed, producing about 2,000 pounds per year with an average milk fat content of 3.5 percent.
Kinder Goat. The Kinder goat (pronounced KIN-der), is a cross between a Nubian doe and a Pygmy buck. The resulting kids are smallish, muscular goats with high feed conversion efficiency and a rapid rate of growth, making this goat something of a dual-purpose milk and meat goat. The Kinder has longish ears that stick out to the side, and its coat may be any goat color. Its size is midway between the Pygmy and the Nubian; does weigh 115 pounds or more and bucks weigh 135 pounds or more. A Kinder doe produces about 1,500 pounds of milk annually, with an average milkfat content of 3.5 percent.
La Mancha Goat. The La Mancha is considered the calmest and friendliest of the dairy goat breeds and comes in just about any color a goat can be. La Manchas are easy to recognize because they have only small ears (elf ears) or no visible ears at all (gopher ears). A mature doe weighs 130 pounds or more; a buck weighs 160 pounds or more. A La Mancha doe produces about 1,900 pounds of milk in a year with an average milkfat content of 3.9 percent.
Nigerian Dwarf Goat. This miniature dairy goat breed produces less milk and meat than a full-size goat but is ideal for a small family with a small backyard, provided the goats come from milking stock and not pet stock. The Dwarf has smaller teats than a full-size goat, so milking may be difficult for someone with large hands. And because this goat is lower to the ground, milking requires a smaller pail to fit underneath. Nigerian Dwarfs come in all goat colors. Mature does weigh 30 to 50 pounds; bucks weigh 35 to 60 pounds. A good Nigerian Dwarf doe can be expected to produce about 750 pounds of milk in a year with an average milkfat content of 5 percent. Milk from a Nigerian Dwarf tastes sweeter than other goat milk because of its higher milkfat content.
Nubian Goat. The Nubian is popular among makers of cheese and ice cream because its milk is richer than that of other full-size goats. This breed comes in many colors, most typically bay or black, and is the most energetic, active, and vociferous of the dairy breeds. You can easily distinguish a Nubian from any other dairy goat by its rounded face (called a Roman nose) and long floppy ears. A mature doe weighs 135 pounds or more; a mature buck weighs 170 pounds or more. A Nubian doe produces about 1,500 pounds of milk per year with an average milkfat content of 4 percent.
Oberhasli Goat. This goat breed, which is common in its native country of Switzerland but relatively rare in North America, is known for its gentle disposition. Its coat color is reddish brown with black markings, although some does are solid black. A mature doe weighs at least 120 pounds, and a mature buck weighs at least 150 pounds. An Oberhasli doe may be expected to produce 1,600 pounds of milk in a year with an average milkfat content of 3.6 percent.
Saanen Goat. The Saanen is the most popular goat breed worldwide, often referred to as the Holstein of dairy goats. It is a big goat with an extremely mild temperament and a white or cream-colored coat. A mature doe weighs 135 pounds or more; a mature buck weighs 170 pounds or more. A Saanen doe produces about 1,900 pounds of milk in a year with an average milkfat content of 3.5 percent.
Sable Goat. The Sable is simply a Saanen of any color, or color pattern, except solid white or cream. Colors typically range from tan through black. Like the Saanen, the Sable doe weighs 135 pounds or more and a mature buck weighs 170 pounds or more. A Sable doe may be expected to produce about 1,900 pounds of milk in a year with an average milkfat content of 3.5 percent.
Toggenburg Goat. The Toggenburg is a gentle, friendly goat. It has white ears, white face strips, and white stockings setting off a brown coat that may range in shade from soft brown to deep chocolate. A mature doe weighs 120 pounds or more. A mature buck weighs 150 pounds or more. A Toggenburg doe produces about 1,950 pounds of milk in a year with an average milkfat content of 3.2 percent.
Meat Goat Breeds
In many countries, more goats are kept for meat than for any other purpose, and many people prefer goat meat to any other. Goat meat is lower in calories, total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than other meats and is easier to digest than other red meats. It’s a good dietary alternative for anyone who eats mostly chicken and fish because of difficulty digesting other types of meat or to reduce fat intake.
Since slightly more than half of all goat kids are male and only a few mature bucks are needed for breeding, most young dairy bucks are raised for meat. Surplus goats of any breed may be used for meat, but a goat breed developed specifically for meat puts on more muscle, and does so more rapidly, than other goat breeds.
Boer Goat. The main meat breed today is the Boer goat, developed for rapid growth, large size, high-quality meat, and uniformity of size, meat quality, and color. The Boer has a white coat, a brown or dark red head with a white blaze, long ears, and horns that curve backward and downward. A mature doe weighs 150 to 225 pounds; a mature buck weighs 175 to 325 pounds.
Kiko Goat. Coming up fast behind the Boer in popularity as a meat goat is the Kiko, bred for hardiness and its ability to efficiently convert grass into meat. This goat may be any color but is most commonly white. Bucks sport an awesome pair of spiraling horns; the does horns are somewhat less spectacular. Does weigh in the 100-pound range, bucks about 180 pounds.
Pygmy Goat. The Pygmy is a miniature goat with the muscular build of a meat breed; its body is blocky, deep, and wide. The most common color is agouti, meaning two-tone hairs that give the coat a salt-and-pepper look. Mature does weigh 35 to 60 pounds, and mature bucks weigh 45 to 70 pounds. Despite its stockier build, a Pygmy doe produces nearly the same amount of milk as a Nigerian Dwarf with about the same amount of milkfat, but Pygmies are not often milked because of their tiny teats.
Spanish Goat. Before Boer or Kiko goats became popular in the United States, most goats raised for meat were left to roam over rangeland or forests in the South and Southwest to keep the land cleared of brush and undergrowth. Called Spanish goats because the first feral herds were brought to this country by Spanish explorers and sometimes left behind to furnish meat for future expeditions they are variously known as brush goats, briar goats, hill goats, scrub goats, or wood goats. Since these goats vary widely in shape and color, the term Spanish doesn’t really refer to a specific goat breed. A mature doe may weigh as little as 65 pounds or as much as 130; a buck may weigh anywhere from 80 to 200 pounds
San Clemente Goat. During the 1500s, Spanish goats were left on San Clemente Island, off the California coast near San Diego. A few descendants still survive as a kind of living history, showing us what goats must have looked like 500 years ago. At one time, so many goats populated San Clemente that they nearly destroyed the island’s vegetation. However, because of a successful eradication effort, the goats became in danger of disappearing. San Clemente goats are smaller and more fine-boned than other Spanish goats, and their horns grow more upright. They come in all colors, the most common of which is tan or red with black markings. A mature doe weighs 30 to 70 pounds. A mature buck weighs 40 to 80 pounds.
Myotonic Goat. A rare goat raised for meat and as something of a curiosity is the myotonic goat, also called the Tennessee fainting goat, the Texas nervous goat, or the wooden leg goat. Myotonic goats are not a specific goat breed, but share a genetic disorder called myotonia. When a goat with myotonia is frightened by a loud noise, its muscles contract and its legs go stiff. If the animal is caught off balance, it falls to the ground and can’t get up until its muscles relax. Frequent tensing and relaxing of the muscles gives myotonic goats heavy thighs, making them suitable as meat animals. Myotonia also keeps these goats from becoming aggressive, making them good pets. Because they cannot climb or jump like other goats, they are more easily confined, but they also make easy prey for dogs and coyotes. Myotonic goats come in a variety of colors. Mature weight varies all over the map. A ranch in Texas breeds large, meaty myotonics under the name Tennessee Meat Goats.
If you’re into spinning and weaving, you might prefer a goat with long hair that may be spun into yarn and woven or knit into fabric to make clothing, drapes, and upholstery. The two kinds of fiber that come from goats are mohair and cashmere.
Angora. The Angora goat has long, silky, wavy hair called mohair. Like sheep, Angoras are sheared twice a year, in spring and fall. The average amount of mohair sheared from a doe per year is 10 to 14 pounds; a wether (castrated buck) averages slightly more. When selecting an Angora, spread the hair with your hands and notice how much pink skin you see. The less skin you see, the better. The best Angoras have hair that is neither light and fluffy nor dark and greasy. Avoid a goat with a chalky white face and ears; it is likely to have lots of straight, brittle, chalky white hairs, called kemp, that are undesirable because they do not produce quality yarn.
Pure mohair is creamy white. Colored hair results from crossing an Angora with some other goat breed. Naturally colored mohair is popular among hand spinners, even though the hair of a crossbred goat is usually lower in quality and quantity than the hair of a pure Angora.
Angoras have floppy ears and short faces that may be straight or slightly rounded. A mature doe may weigh 75 pounds or more; a buck weighs about 150 pounds.
Cashmere. Cashmere is not a goat breed but a kind of downy undercoat hair that is softer and finer than mohair, and is combed out as the goat begins to shed in early spring. Cashmere is found on more than 60 goat breeds worldwide. In the United States, it most often occurs on Spanish and myotonic goats. Cashmere is usually white but may be gray, tan, brown, or black. The best way to determine whether a young goat will produce cashmere is to ascertain that both of its parents are good producers. Cashmere is valuable because of its rarity; the average cashmere goat produces only about one-third pound of down per year. You may be able to find a good cashmere goat at a reasonable price, but top-quality mature animals cost thousands of dollars.
Pygora Goat. The Pygora is a cross between a Pygmy and an Angora. Each Pygora produces either a mohair-like fleece, a cashmere-like fleece, or a blend between the two. Those with a mohair-like fleece are sheared; the other two are combed. Fiber color comes from the Pygmy side and may be caramel, agouti, black, or white. Mature does weigh 65 to 75 pounds; bucks 75 to 95 pounds. Although Pygoras are small and costly, they may be considered tri-purpose goats. In addition to producing fine fiber for spinning, wethers make a nice family-size meat goat and the does produce about 600 pounds of milk per year.
Getting Your Goats
Goats are easy to handle and transport, and besides producing delicious milk, healthful low-fat meat, and fine fiber they also fertilize your fields. Every day each goat drops a little more than one pound of manure, which may be used to make your garden grow.
Goats do not need elaborate housing. All they need is a shelter that is well ventilated but not drafty and provides protection from sun, wind, rain, and snow. You’ll also need a sturdy fence. Each goat requires at least 15 square feet of space under shelter and a minimum of 200 square feet outdoors. A miniature goat needs at least 10 square feet under shelter and a minimum of 130 square feet outdoors.
Given more land than the minimum required for exercise, goats will both graze pasture and browse woodland. If your goats can harvest at least some of their own food by grazing or browsing, they will remain healthier and cost less to maintain in hay and commercial goat ration.
Goats are social animals that like the company of other goats, so you’ll need at least two. If you get goats for milk, you must goat breed them every year. If you can’t resist keeping some of the kids, your herd may grow larger than you initially anticipated; when setting up your goat facility, it’s wise to plan ahead.
Originally published in Countryside November / December 2010 and regularly vetted for accuracy.