Thursday, March 1, 2012

Considering A Dairy Goat?

Based on my own experience, I'm guessing that there's a lot of you out there who are considering a dairy goat, but you aren't really sure if this is something you can do. Most people don't know a lot about dairy goats unless they were raised with them, so you may be concerned about the learning curve. Perhaps you're wondering if it's feasible based on your particular piece land. Or maybe you're just afraid it's too much of a commitment.

I hear you! Many a day I wondered these things myself. But now that I'm on the other side of meeting this challenge, I'm very glad I've given it a try and I'd like to share some thoughts that may help some of you make a decision one way or the other. Having a dairy goat is not for everyone, but I do believe it is a good fit for more of us than we realize.

Do I Know Enough To Start Raising Goats?

Learning about dairy goats isn't any harder than learning anything else in life. Books, blogs, and other on-line resources abound, but even if you want real life answers, I've found that goat people LOVE to talk about their four legged friends! It isn't that hard to find someone who is willing to share some knowledge and maybe even some personal hands on experience, but because a mentor will guide you in every aspect from selecting a goat to how you'll manage the herd, choose wisely and carefully! Here are some ways to locate people in your area:

• Attend a 4H meeting as a guest. You don't have to have children, just tell the leader you're an interested adult and that you are looking for a dairy goat mentor and would like to meet anyone connected to their club regarding goats.

• Contact your local FFA chapter or high school Ag teacher for possible leads.

• Look on Craig's List, newspaper, or other similar selling venues for people selling goats and ask if you can meet them and see their herd because you're considering getting into goats.

• Join some on-line forums for specific goat breeds or goats in general. Inquire about people in your area raising goats.

• Start a homesteading community group and ask your friends for leads. (I get most of my good local info from this source!)

• Visit a local farm that sells eggs, produce, or other items and ask if they know anyone. Farmers network, too, you know!

So if you find a lead and meet some people, find one that would be willing to mentor you in dairy goat knowledge. Ask to watch them trim hooves, deliver kids, milk, give medical care, and anything else that might come up. And be sure you really are reading books so you know how to ask good questions! 

Is My Land Suitable?

Your next thought might be, is my land suitable? Really, the land size is not nearly as big of an issue as something like fencing, but I wanted to address the land issue because this is typically a bigger concern when one starts to think about getting a couple of dairy goats. You can change your fencing situation a lot easier than you can change your location! Oh, and by the way, for their safety, you will need to contain your goats when you're not with them unless you have superior knowledge for free ranging them correctly. But that would probably not be for most beginners. 

Most people with a large piece of land won't worry about land size, but for those of us who don't have 10 acres or more, it's good to know that it doesn't take as much land as you might think. Depending on how you plan to feed them, you could raise a goat even in an urban area, but there are definite obstacles you would need to overcome, such as zoning laws, neighbors, and Homeowner Associations or CC&Rs. Just keep in mind that you do not want to raise only one goat (they are a herd animal and social, meaning they need a friend), bucks smell and it permeates the area, and some goats or noisier than others. 

That said, Nigerian Dwarfs require less space and feed than a large goat like a Saanen, but then they don't give as much milk. You'll have to weigh your family's needs, dairy consumption, and space requirements to select a breed that will be the right fit for you. A good book, such as Storey's Guide to Raising Dairy Goats, will give you a synopsis of each so you can begin to think about a breed. For more information on raising goats in urban areas, visit The Goat Justice League. (Every goat breeder will tell you their breed it the best choice. PLEASE consider what you are comfortable with before deciding. It really isn't a one size fits all.)

Am I Ready For This Commitment?

This is the thing that kept me from getting a goat for years. For some reason it paralyzed me to the point I almost gave up the idea. After mentoring under a friend for over 2 years, I still didn't feel ready. 

• Could I really milk twice a day, every. single. day. without. excuse?
• What about vacations?
• Could I help a doe deliver kids?
• Could I keep the milk clean enough that it would be safe to drink?
• Goats seemed so much more "sensitive" when it comes to feed. Was I ready to deal with that?

At some point I realized that I would never really know unless I actually did it. So after praying about it for several weeks, an opportunity presented itself that seemed to be the right fit for my family. I decided it was a now or never moment and far be it from me to not at least try! 

Could I really milk twice a day? As it turns out, yes, I really can. It's pretty much like having an infant, but less demanding in that you don't have to milk 5 times a day! As long as you can carve out 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening, you can do it. Honestly, my mornings and evenings were the busiest part of my day and I didn't think I could make room for one more thing, but it's amazing what you can do when challenged. I'll talk more about our milking routine at another time, but routine IS a key word for milking. If you're already home when you wake up and back home for supper, you're at least in the right place at the time you need to milk. But if you're out and about every evening and eating dinner on the run, then maybe it's not the season in your life to get a goat quite yet. Maybe it's something you could work towards.

Vacations? We really don't go on a lot (typical of most homesteaders), but when we do, it's usually for 2-3 weeks at a time. Again, having a homesteading community is awesome for trading off with vacations. And often, other homesteaders have teenagers who are up to the job. Getting to know a few 4H or FFA students doesn't hurt either. And if you're really wise and thinking ahead, you'll find another person who has been hesitant to get into goats and you'll mentor them and teach them to milk. Letting them do this while you're on vacation might be just what they need to show them they can raise goats, too!

Delivering kids is way out of my comfort zone, but I've learned over the years that I can do a lot of things that I didn't think I could do. And having friends who are willing to help when kidding time comes is HUGE! Thank you in advance to all my local goat friends reading this who are going to help me when Fiona delivers! (Seriously, this is the third time I've mentioned it in this post alone... build a homesteading community network in your area!)

When we first started milking, I wouldn't let anyone in the family drink the milk. I either saved it to freeze for making soap or I fed it to the animals. And rightly so since we had trouble keeping it clean enough between the goat stepping in it or me not getting her prepped well. But once it started looking cleaner, drink it we did! Each person must be comfortable with their decision to drink raw milk, but you could still pasteurize it if you were super hesitant. Don't let contamination fears keep you from milking. People have been drinking this stuff for thousands of years! Unless your herd management and milking practices are grossly negligent, you'll be fine. Today we have the advantages of things like stainless steel milking pails, cleaners, filters, and disposable wipes or towels. So we're probably way ahead of the game on this one. Some people sterilize their equipment. Because I only use a milking pail and glass jars, we just wash everything really carefully with a dish soap that has grapefruit seed extract and orange peel extract to fight bad bacteria issues (we don't use a dishwasher because it doesn't work and I prefer hand washing anyway). 

Finally, goats can be sensitive in terms of feed requirements, but it isn't that hard to learn. Like most everything in homesteading, it's finding out what you need to do and do it routinely. I haven't even begun to explore all my options regarding feed, but in the meantime, a basic feed regimen will give me time to research other choices. Eventually, I would love to find a renewable plant source that I could grow on my own property to meet their feed requirements, much like Marjory Wildcraft does with her meat rabbits. But that's probably down the road a bit. 

I hope this has helped you with three major hurdles people face when considering goats. They certainly aren't the only things to consider; not by a long shot! This would be a good time for me to add a quick word about fencing and housing... Obviously these are two BIG issues one must consider as well. But typically if one has resolved the concerns I've already addressed above, then the fencing and housing is just a matter of budget, availability, and preferences. I think for most homesteaders, the old saying is true... where there's a will, there's a way! But perhaps that would be better stated as... if the Lord is willing, He'll provide a way!

What questions or concerns have kept you from considering goats as part of your homestead? Throw them out here and let's talk! And for those of you who are already keeping goats, feel free to chime in with your comments! 


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