By Alexis Griffee, New Mexico
New dairy goat buyers should remember housing, breed traits, feed, and health before bringing animals home.
Although being a dairy farmer comes with its own unique set of challenges, it can be one of the most rewarding aspects of farming. Farm fresh milk is one of the most versatile items that can be produced on a farm. Milk can be used to raise other livestock, for your own consumption, for cheesemaking, or even sold to bring income to your farm (where legal, so be sure to check your state laws and regulations). While dairy farming is rewarding, it is not something to be entered into lightly. There is a lot to know about dairying as well as caring for goats to ensure that your venture is a success.
With numerous different dairy goat breeds, eight that are recognized by the American Dairy Goat Association (ADGA), there is a breed available to fit all needs. The breeds recognized by ADGA are Alpine, LaMancha, Nigerian Dwarf, Nubian, Oberhasli, Saanen, Sable, and Toggenburg. Each breed brings unique qualities to the farm. For example, the tiny Nigerian Dwarf offers a lot of punch for such a small package. On the other hand, the milk from Toggenburgs is sought for cheesemaking.
It is important for goat buyers to be familiar with the different qualities and characteristics of the breeds before you purchase your first animal. In the dairy world, milk is not measured by gallons but weighed in pounds. The average gallon of milk weighs approximately 8.6 pounds. Each breed has a different production average and quality to their milk. Nigerian Dwarf goats are credited with having the highest levels of butterfat in their milk yet only produce an average of two to four pounds of milk a day. This small amount is great for a small family, but not ideal for dairyman with commercial aspirations.
However, goat buyers wanting some serious milking capability may want to look at a Saanen. Saanens are the heavy hitters of the dairy goat industry and produce an average of 2,577 pounds of milk per lactation! However, heavy lactation comes at a price. Saanens milk does not have the same butterfat levels of other breeds. Familiarity with the different breeds will help you to determine what breed will fit your needs the best.
Preparing for Your New Goats
Despite the jokes, goats need more than a stakeout in the yard and a tin can to eat! The first need that should be addressed is housing. The housing requirements of a dairy goat are not very in depth, but certain issues need to be addressed. An average rule of thumb for the large breeds of dairy goats is 12 to 15 square foot of barn space per goat. Barns or shelters for goats do not have to be in depth and can actually be humble structures. The main requirement of a shelter is to keep the goats out of the elements. Goats do not like rain and leaving them out in it can result in illness. Likewise, strong winds can also be damaging to their health.
If you live in a warmer climate, it is wise to not make the barn fully enclosed to allow heat to escape. This can be achieved by placing lattice at the top or having large door openings to allow for the heat to escape. In these situations, you want to have shelter from elements but not cause the animals to overheat.
Dairy goats, especially those in milk, do have specific feed requirements that must be met. Do not assume that just because your goats have access to fresh grass that their nutritional needs are being met. Goats should always be offered hay and a quality grain. When feeding grain, it is important to use a properly balanced feed and not overfeed. Overfeeding grain may cause health issues as it can cause an imbalance in the rumen. For a lactating doe, you want to find a complete or dairy balanced grain that is 16 percent protein or more.
Since a goat cannot rely solely on grain to make up their diet, they must also get proper nutrition from hay. Does should have access to high-quality hay. Hay-like alfalfa and perennial peanut hay are top choices when it comes to feeding kids and does. Both of these hays are very high in protein and calcium, both things required by lactating goats.
Bucks, or intact male goats, do need to be fed differently than does to prevent problems like urinary calculi from developing. Mature bucks can generally get enough nutrition from quality pasture and quality hay. In cases where the pasture is poor or non-existent, or with young maturing bucks some supplementation may be needed. With bucks, grain should be fed sparingly. It is also recommended that you supplement your bucks with ammonium chloride to prevent urinary calculi from developing.
Aside from feed, goats do need minerals. Minerals will help with everything from coat condition, hoof problems, and even parasite control. Minerals are very location specific. Some areas may be deficient in certain minerals while others may have them in abundance. Many companies will make different formulations for different parts of the country. Additionally, it is highly recommended that goat buyers feed loose minerals in lieu of a mineral block. Goats are unable to fully get the amount of minerals that they need from just licking on a mineral block. Loose minerals are easier to administer and easy for the goat to consume. A word of warning to producers that run goats and sheep: Copper is a vitally important mineral for goats and is in almost all goat mineral formulations. However, copper is toxic to sheep. If you have sheep, be sure that you keep them away from mineral formulations with copper as well as many goat feeds.
Another trick when keeping goats is to offer free choice baking soda. This cheap supplement can literally be a lifesaver for a dairy goat producer! Free choice baking soda allows the goats to essentially “self-diagnose” when they may be starting to bloat or get a buildup of gasses. The consumption of baking soda will help to balance the goat’s system out and prevent or manage slight bloat.
The health of a dairy animal is of paramount importance. Far more than just a pet, a dairy animal will be providing milk for your family or for other animals on your farm. Due to this special role, it is vital that goat buyers start with healthy stock. Additionally, diseased animals simply will not have the longevity to be long-time producers for your farm. While some breeders may try and downplay the severity of certain diseases, always remember that it costs the same (and sometimes even more!) to feed a sick animal as it does a healthy one.
Parasites are a main concern for dairy goat owners. Even seasoned breeders are not immune to the fight against parasites! Far more than just an annoyance, improper parasite control can have lasting damaging effects on an animal even after the problem has been resolved. Certain parasites can cause permanent damage to the lungs, which will predispose the goat to pneumonia or other respiratory woes. Also, damage to the gastrointestinal tract can result from poor parasite management. This can result in the animal not being able to properly absorb nutrients from its feed.
When starting out with goats it is best to take a fecal sample to a veterinarian. This will tell you specifically how you need to deworm the animal to target specific parasites. For goat kids, it is vital to keep them on coccidia and worm programs. As with any medication, the dosages must be done precisely. Underdosing or improper administration is leading to parasites developing resistance to certain medications.
When buying a goat, there are some things that you can look for to determine the possible parasite load of an animal that you are considering. The first step in evaluating an animal’s health is to look at the big picture. An animal with a dull coat, or longish curly hair, have signs that they are carrying a parasite load. An important test for any goat is to check their lower eyelid for color. By gently pulling down on the bottom eyelid, you should see a nice healthy red color. Lighter colors of pink or even white are indicative of anemia associated with parasites. Animals that are extremely pale need immediate medical attention to develop a plan for safely eliminating a heavy parasite load.
A common disease that plagues dairy goats is Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis (CAE). While the name sounds inconspicuous enough, CAE can have very damaging effects on your animals as well as their ability to produce milk and their longevity. CAE is passed through white blood cells. CAE has been known to be transmitted through blood, milk and even saliva to other her members. Although this virus is easily transmitted, it is also one of the easiest to prevent. The biggest way to prevent CAE is to never start with it. When starting out your herd, it is wise to only purchase animals from people that run CAE-free herds themselves. Testing is very easy and affordable for this disease so there is no reason why a reputable breeder, especially one who claims to have a clean herd, cannot show goat buyers negative test results that are completed annually.
If you have an infected animal, you will always have to be mindful of the risk of spreading the disease to other members of your herd. It is recommended that goat buyers keep the infected herd animal separated by at least 40 feet and do not use any common buckets. Even while doing these steps accidents can happen. There have been numerous cases where a farmer had to go away for an emergency and goat kids were fed the wrong milk or pastures were mixed up.
Another common disease that is very important to watch out for is Caseous lymphadenitis (CL), also called cheesy gland. CL is a bacterial infection that causes abscesses to appear both externally and internally on goats. CL is a major concern of dairy goat producers since it is zoonotic. Since this bacterium affects the lymphatic system, common places for these abscesses to appear are in the lymph nodes. When CL manifests into an abscess, it begins as a small hard lump that grows in size. Once the abscess has reached a maximum size, it ruptures. The pus from the abscess is what carries the bacterium. This is especially contagious and can be transferred to humans! When dealing with an infected animal, especially with an active abscess, it is recommended to wear gloves and wash appropriately. Since the bacteria can spread easily via transfer like shoes and clothing, it is wise to adhere to proper biosecurity protocols to not infect other animals on your farm.
Whenever goat buyers go to a farm to look at a new potential goat, it is wise to ask about CL on the farm. CL is harder to deal with since the test for it is not as reliable as the blood test for CAE. The only way to get an accurate result is to test a sample of an abscess to see if the bacteria are present. Due to this, you have to rely on the breeder’s honesty and also a bit of detective work. Whenever you go to a new farm, ask questions. If you are about to purchase an animal for your herd it is not insulting to ask about the herd’s health. If this offends the breeder, it is a sign that maybe you should look elsewhere. Knowing common locations for CL abscesses allows you to investigate on your own. Even if there are no active abscesses, there will often be scars leftover in those locations. Getting hands-on with the animals will allow you to get a better feel for the overall health of a herd.
The American Dairy Goat Association (ADGA) has created several performance programs to evaluate the quality and ability of dairy goats. The top two programs that they offer are the Linear Appraisal and Dairy Herd Improvement for the Registry (DHIR). Breeders who are members of ADGA can sign up to participate in these programs. It is always helpful to purchase an animal from a breeder that participates in these programs, as they will be able to provide you with a complete picture of not only the animal that you are buying but its lineage as well. This is especially nice information to have if you are buying a young animal that is not currently in milk.
The Linear Appraisal program will have a certified judge come out and score the animal. They will score everything from the strength of the animal to all aspects of the udder. Being able to look at the scores of each animal is a great help to goat buyers that are not yet familiar with dairy goats. This will help them to learn to identify faults and weaknesses in animals and also show them what to avoid in their own programs.
Clearly, one of the most important aspects of a dairy goat is their udder. When looking for a good dairy goat you want to look for things like udder capacity, the texture or feel of the udder, how the animal stands, teat placement and size and also any faults or damage to the udder. Unlike cows, goats only have two teats on their udders. It is extremely important to inspect the udder before purchasing an animal.
An extra teat is not only a fault in the show ring, but it can also be a major problem for the homesteader too. Some “extra” teats are simply that, extra and cosmetic without the ability to function as a way to release extra milk. However, it can be a big problem to have an extra teat that is capable of “milking”. Generally, due to the placement of the teat, it can impede the hand milking process. Often times extra teats are attached to the main teat. The problem lies when you go to milk that main teat, the extra one will milk out as well, but all over your hand and not in the bucket. Even though you should always milk with clean, freshly washed hands, this can go beyond annoying and become too risky, since the milk is coming into contact with your hand and all of the accompanying bacteria, before running down into the bucket.
If you are considering a purchase of an animal that is already in milk, it is strongly advised that you milk the doe before you purchase her. Some goats can have a nasty habit of kicking while on the milk stand. While not exactly a huge threat to your health, like a larger animal that kicks, this never bodes well for the milk pail full of milk. Whoever said, “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” clearly was not a dairy farmer! Especially if this is your first dairy animal purchase, it is best to try and find a seasoned and well-behaved milking doe.
Milking the doe will also give you a chance to get hands-on with the udder to inspect for any issues. Make sure that the teats are well placed, and not too large or small for your hands. Goats with poor udder attachment or extremely large teats can be a big problem down the road as well during milking time. Also inspect the udder for any lumps that can be felt internally or unnaturally hot areas that could be a symptom of mastitis.
Furthermore, if goat buyers plan on consuming the milk from dairy goats, it is wise to taste the milk before purchasing a new doe. Certain breeds and even certain animals may have “off” tasting milk. Sometimes this is due to what the animals are fed but other times this can just be a genetic trait of that animal. Some animals produce more of the enzyme lipase. While lipase does not make for the most appealing plain milk, it is excellent for making goat’s cheese! Most cheese-making recipes actually call for added lipase powder. If an animal is found to produce higher levels of this enzyme, it may not be one for the regular milking line, but it can be a fantastic addition to the herd of a cheesemaker.
Generally, it is recommended that goat buyers not purchase a dairy goat that has horns. It is common practice for most dairy goat producers to “disbud” all kids. Disbudding is a quick process where the horn buds are removed to prevent the eventual growth of horns. This can be done in a couple of different ways. The most common way of disbudding is to use a disbudding iron. The iron will heat up and can then be applied to the horn bud for a very short period of time. The heat from the iron will kill the cells that cause the horn to grow. Great care should always be taken when disbudding with an iron as you have to be very cautious about how long you leave the iron applied to the horn bud. Leaving the iron on too long can result in injury or possibly death. The second common method is to use a dehorning paste. Some people use this with success but it also has its drawbacks. One of the many enjoyable aspects of goat kids is their energy and quirky actions. When using a dehorning paste, you have to be extremely careful that the goat kid is unable to get the paste on themselves or others.
While there are some risks associated with disbudding and dehorning goats, the benefits are truly great. Goats with horns are notorious for wreaking havoc on fences. In fact, most of the old horror stories about goats demolishing fences are due to the fact that the goats had horns.
Another reason for goat buyers to purchase an animal with no horns is for safety, both for the goat and for you. Goats with horns are notorious for getting them stuck. While this can result in annoyances like damaged fences, the outcome can also be far more deadly to the animal. There have been numerous cases where a goat with horns has become caught in everything from a fence to a hay feeder, panicked, struggled to get out and either broken its neck or severely injured itself.
Goats do use their horns for defense, which means that in times of dealing with a scared or ornery goat, they can and will be used against you! On another note, I have seen firsthand where horned goats can unintentionally injure a person with their horns as well. A friend of mine had a few horned goats. At the time, they thought nothing of it because they were going to be butchered for meat. While standing in the pen one day by the feed trough, another goat, older and higher ranking in the herd, came and butted the horned goat out. Unfortunately, the little-horned goat tossed its head up and jumped back in an attempt to get out of the way of the dominant goat. While the young goat escaped reprimand by the older goat, my friend was not so lucky. When the goat threw its head back it managed to impale her leg with its horns. The wounds ended up requiring stitches. This little goat was in no way being aggressive to its owner or even the other goat; my friend simply became a victim of its horns due to the circumstances. Also, if you have children, you have to remember that horns are at eye level for many kids. All it takes is one accident, even if the goat does nothing wrong, for a child to be injured around a horned animal.
When it comes to dairy goats the old adage is true, you really do get what you pay for. There are numerous aspects to consider before you purchase your first dairy animal. Educating yourself on the breeds, conformation, diseases and milking practices is vital to having a successful dairy venture. Dairy of any type is a large commitment on the part of the producer, regardless of whether you’re milking one or one hundred animals. Rain or shine, you need to milk your animals, vacations have to be scheduled around farm sitters, and the cost of the required quality feed generally outweighs the price of just buying milk from the store. However, dairying can be an amazing and rewarding aspect of the farm. The routine can be a welcome break from the rush and chaos of society today. In our barn, milking time was always our time to just stop, be able to think and catch our breath for a minute. Milking is not something that you can hurry It is nice to know that you have to stop and slow down sometimes. Dairying is a true labor of love and the reward is great. As a responsible dairy producer, we must remember that with the amazing gift of milk we get from our animals, we are also responsible for their resulting offspring. It is vitally important that as a goat buyer, breeder and dairyman, that you breed to improve the animals, not breed just for the milk. Always start with the best stock that you can, and never stop seeking to improve and learn more as you go.
What lessons have you learned while buying goats? Do you have any tips for new dairy goat buyers?
Originally published in Countryside March/April 2017 and regularly vetted for accuracy.