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Dairy goats: A basic introduction of what you need to know

Jun 3rd, 2017 | Category: Animals, Features, Skills

by Corina Sahlin

I’m a sucker for baby goats.  There’s nothing cuter than a couple of caprine kids headbutting each other, twisting and turning as they jump high into the air, and egging each other on to cause mischief.

Goats are very smart, so be sure your fences are sturdy. Moveable electric netting is effective in rotating their areas (top left). The author, Corina Sahlin, demonstrates goat milking (below) to a group of children. PHOTOS BY CORINA SAHLIN

Goats are very smart, so be sure your fences are sturdy. Moveable electric netting is effective in rotating their areas (top left). The author, Corina Sahlin, demonstrates goat milking (below) to a group of children. PHOTOS BY CORINA SAHLIN

In 15 years of raising goats, I have attended every single birth of all my goats. I adore their fun personalities, love making cheese and soap with their milk, and attribute my thriving vegetable garden to the compost made with the bedding from the goat barn.

Goats are an integral part of our homestead, workshops and retreats. I couldn’t imagine life without these gentle, lively critters.

But before you run out and get yourself some goats, make sure you know what you are doing. Read books, learn online, and/or take a course. Reach out to network with others who raise goats.

Keep in mind that keeping a goat, or any animal, is a big responsibility and commitment. Make sure you’re up for it! Here is some very basic information to get you started.

Goats are very social animals and will not thrive if they are alone; keep at least two goats. Female goats are called does, females less than one year old doelings, male goats are bucks or billy goats, and castrated male goats whethers. All baby goats are called kids.

There are many different breeds of goats, including the tiny-eared Lamanchas (my favorites), or Nubians with their long drooping ears and Roman noses, or the more dish-faced Saanens, or tiny Nigerians.

Get a high quality goat from a reputable breeder who tests their goats. There are weird diseases out there that can kill a goat and infect others, and someone could sell you a diseased animal without knowing about it.grow 6

 

Fences

Goats are escape artists and talented climbers! They are very smart and can open latches or find their way over, under or around fences. Make sure your fences are sturdy and effective. Along our field fence, I like running a strand of electric fencing 8 inches from the ground, and one 18 inches from the ground, and then touch the goats’ noses to it so they know it hurts. I only do this once, and they learn very quickly to respect the fence. I like moveable electric netting to rotate their browsing areas.

 

Housing

Goats aren’t fussy when it comes to housing. Each goat needs at least 20 square feet of space. Their shelter needs to be dry, clean and offer protection from drafts, since goats can be susceptible to pneumonia.  It should be practical (make sure you can maneuver a wheelbarrow), with enough storage for feed, hay and bedding. It’s handy to have water and electricity out there. Goats like to chew on things and climb on everything, so make sure everything is sturdy. grow 3

Dirt floors are ideal, but opinions on this vary. If you have concrete floor, make sure to cover it with enough bedding for warmth and absorption.

 

Feeding

Goats are ruminants (they have four stomachs and chew their cud) and need lots of roughage like hay and browse to keep their rumen in good shape. Don’t expect them to mow your lawn, because they are not like sheep who graze neatly, but are browsers who like to eat brushy stuff.

Never overfeed goats or switch their grain on them suddenly, and don’t overfeed them with lush green grass if they are not used to it, because this can cause bloat and death.

Pregnant and lactating does need a 16 percent grain ration, and dry mature does and bucks a 12 percent ration.

The author, Corina Sahlin, and a baby goat.

The author, Corina Sahlin, and a baby goat.

They need lots of calcium and other trace minerals in the form of free choice goat minerals. I also offer baking soda to keep optimal acidity in the rumen.

Since our soils in the Pacific Northwest are deficient in selenium, we need to supplement it as well.

 

Maintenance

When keeping goats, you need to perform not-so-pleasant chores like trimming hooves, deworming, and possibly disbudding, castrating, vaccinating and tattooing.

Goats can be crippled if their hooves aren’t trimmed correctly. If they don’t have access to climbing on rocks or other hard ground, they need their hooves trimmed more frequently. I like to trim hooves after the goats walked on wet grass instead of being dry, because it’s easier. Take a course (I teach them) on how to properly trim hooves, or watch a friend or youtube video.

Deworming is important because a parasitic overload can kill a goat. I raise all my animals naturally and avoid medication, so I have used herbal dewormer for years with great success. Other people use chemical wormers available at farm stores or online.

 

Milk

I love goat milk and have made hundreds of wheels of artisan goat cheese and many bars of goat milk soap over the years (I teach how to do this in my retreats). Goat milk is easier to digest than cow’s milk because the fat globules are finer and more easily assimilated.  t’s also rich in antibodies, with a lower bacterial count than cow’s milk when freshly milked.

The peak of the lactation curve is two months after giving birth, and then it gradually drops off. I milk my goats for ten months, then dry them off two months before they give birth (gestation is five months). They need a break before giving birth again because the demand on their bodies is too great if they have to produce milk and grow babies at the same time.

Some people claim goat milk tastes “goaty”, but I’ve never had this problem. When you milk in a very clean environment and cool the milk down immediately in ice water in the fridge, it tastes wonderful and is safe to drink. Goat milk can take on the smell of your surroundings, so if things are clean and you don’t keep a stinky billy goat nearby, you’ll be fine!

There is so much more to know about goats, but hopefully this will get you motivated to learn more.  Most importantly, enjoy these critters!

 

Corina Sahlin homesteads with her husband and three homeschooled children on five acres in the Upper Skagit Valley. On their homestead, they teach homesteading and wilderness survival skills, and they also lead retreats and summer camps. Corina also offers online courses available at www.courses.marblemounthomestead.com.

 

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