Raising Goats: A Beginner's Guide | Almanac.com

Raising Goats: A Beginner's Guide

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Raising Dairy Goats

How to raise backyard goats! Let's get started.

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Ever considered raising goats in your backyard? Learn about the space, shelter, and feeding needs of dairy goats, as well as a few basics of milking. We’ll review everything the beginner needs to know to get their goats going and the milk flowing!

Although goat cheese is a common accouterment to a fancy salad or charcuterie board, many Americans are still unused to the idea of goat’s milk as a component of everyday life. However, goat’s milk is delicious and nutritious, and though it has a different flavor profile to cow’s milk, it has the same or even more nutritional value. 

However, the main appeal of switching to goat’s milk is the ease of production and expense—or rather, lack of expense—of raising goats, especially when compared to cows. 

Space and Shelter for Goats

One of the best things about raising goats is that they need much less space than other dairy animals, particularly cows. However, they do absolutely need indoor or sheltered space, which cows and sheep can do without. This can be a shed or lean-to—anything to protect them from the elements, provide shade in the summer, and keep them out of the rain. It varies on the breed, but a good rule of thumb is to have 20 square feet of indoor space for each goat and 200 square feet of outdoor space.

The other thing to know about goats is that they are determined foragers and accomplished escape artists. When we picture grazing animals, it’s usually a herd of cows or deer munching happily and peacefully on a field of grass and, crucially, not moving very much. Goats, however, are browsers, not grazers, and are much more active in seeking out what they consider the best plants or parts of plants to eat. This can be a big advantage—ever since I got goats, I haven’t had any poison ivy in my yard—but no one ever told goats that the grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence, and they will try to get over there to find out.

Additionally, goats are determined climbers and will not hesitate to put their full weight on a fence or barrier to reach what they want. They’re also very intelligent and have a talent for figuring out locks and latches. All of this means that sturdy, secure fencing is probably the biggest concern for any first-time goat keeper. I would recommend having a conversation with your local feed, farm supply, or hardware store and seeing what they suggest. Still, your key features should be strong latches, a relatively high fence line, and a material strong enough to hold the full weight of your goats. It might get expensive, but it’ll be worth the investment when you’re not chasing your goats up and down the neighborhood every other week.

See more facts about goats!

Goat Food

Goats aren’t quite the living garbage disposals that you’ll experience when raising pigs, but they aren’t picky, either, and they’ll quite happily cobble together a diet out of just about any sort of plant matter or greenery. That said, the three mainstays of a healthy, nutritious goat diet will likely be browsing—i.e., the plant matter they find while foraging, hay, and grain pellets. The exact types and proportions of each of these food types will vary by flock and time of year, but we’ll give a basic overview of each here.

As discussed above, goats are active and determined browsers, and each goat will have their preferences for plants they seek out or avoid. Luckily, they’ll generally avoid anything that is toxic to them, like honeysuckle, rhododendron, and azaleas. However, it’s obviously a good idea not to grow these plants where goats can reach them, just in case. Once you find out what your goats’ favorite plants are, you can plant more of those.

Hay is a great way to supplement your goats’ diet in the winter months or whenever browse is less available. The two most popular kinds are grass hay and alfalfa hay. Grass hay is the cheapest and most readily available, but alfalfa has more nutritional value. The extra calcium, especially, can be helpful for dairy goats. Alfalfa is also available in a pellet form for easier serving and cleanup.

The third element of a goat’s diet is grain feed. This can come in several forms, including pellets, whole grains, and rolled grains. The form you feed doesn’t affect the nutritional value, so which you prefer will come down to cost and availability in your area, as well as the preferences of your goats.

Milking goats on the farm. Credit: LiAndStudio

Goat Milk

Of course, if you’re keeping goats for milk, you’ll want to know how much you can expect and how to get it. A lot of the details of milk production are breed-specific, so you’ll have to research any breed you’re considering, both to make sure it’s a dairy breed and also to ensure you know the specifics of maximizing milk production for that breed.

The first and most important thing to know about raising goats for milk is that, in order to produce milk, goats must breed and birth young (kids). Some breeds must be bred yearly to keep producing, while others only need to be bred every two or three years. Except for dwarf or miniature breeds, which can breed year-round, goats will mate and conceive in the fall or winter, giving birth in the spring.

Once the kids are born, production will generally peak at about eight weeks and then start to decline, but it can continue for anywhere between 8 months and three years. In that time, keepers will have to decide between bottle feeding the kids, which can ensure that more milk is left over for human consumption, and allowing the dam (mother) to feed the kids, which can ensure greater production overall and for longer periods of time. Lactating goats should be milked at least once daily, although twice-daily milking can increase production.

Milking itself is the kind of thing you can only really get the hang of from trying it yourself, not reading about it in an article (although I found video tutorials to be extremely helpful). There are a few important hygiene and cleanliness practices to note, though. First, obviously, wash your hands before and after milking your goats. You’ll also want to clean off the goat’s udder with soapy water or a commercial product beforehand to minimize potential contamination of the milk. Straining the milk afterward is also necessary to remove hairs, dirt, and other debris. It’s also a good idea to have a designated, partitioned area as a “milk shed”—even if it’s just a corner of the goat shed—that you keep the goats out of and know is at least a bit cleaner than the rest of the goats’ area.

Keeping goats for milk is a big commitment, but it’s also a great joy and a lot of fun—and best of all, a source of delicious, nutritious, fresh, and frothy goat’s milk all year round!

Learn about five easy animals to raise for beginners.

About The Author

Chris Lesley

Chris Lesley has been raising backyard chickens for over 20 years and is a fourth-generation poultry keeper. Read More from Chris Lesley

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