Living With Dairy Goats
article and illustrations by Debbie Kunic Gurley
Dairy goats are different than other types of livestock, even Angora goats. They are independent, unimpressed by efforts to thwart their supremacy of the barnyard (or your garden), and like to survey the world from an elevated perch. Some can be quite vocal and demanding, others quiet and nonchalant; these traits sometimes varying with the breed. They are quite finnicky about what they eat, and will rarely eat hay or grain off the ground if a feeder is available. They don’t like to get wet and don’t like to get their feet wet either. Each group has its own “pecking order,” and woe be to the newcomer of a well-defined group. Though creatures of habit, they will usually pull off some quite unexpected performance the minute you “expect” them to do their usual routine. For the herdsperson who can keep one step ahead of them, they are one of the most enjoyable species of livestock to raise and ideal to small farms.
There are six major breeds of dairy goats recognized by the American Dairy Goat Association.
The “Swiss” breeds include the Saanen, Toggenburg, French Alpine and Oberhasli. The Saanen is a large, heavy boned breed, solid white to cream. Toggenburgs are traditionally the smallest of the Swiss breeds, easily distinguished by their chocolate brown bodies and white ears, facial strips and muzzle, legs, and triangle on either side of the tail (Illus. A). French Alpines may be any color or combinations except the coloring and pattern of the Saanen and Toggenburg. Oberhasli have reddish brown bodies with black faces, ears, legs, undersides and along their backs. All the Swiss breeds have erect ears (Illus. B).
The other two breeds are the Nubian and La Mancha. Though both may be any color or combinations, they are easily distinguished by their ears, or lack thereof. The Nubian has long, pendulous ears; ideally as long as the length of their head (Illus. C). La Manchas, on the other hand, have little or no external ear, appearing “earless”, though they can hear as well as any other breed (Illus. D).
An ‘American’ goat (i.e. American Toggenburg, American Alpine…) is merely an individual whose lineage was upgraded by using purebred sires of one breed, until the offspring are 7/8 or more “purebred.” They are often as good or better than their purebred counterpart, and are shown with the purebreds in shows.
“Recorded Grades” are animals who are less than 7/8 purebred of a breed. If successive generations are bred to purebred bucks of the same breed, at a point the offspring will become “American” of that breed (7/8 for does, 15/16 for bucks). Bucks are not eligible to be recorded as “Recorded Grades.”
Next to the goats themselves, fencing is probably one of the most important items to consider for most goat owners. If you have places on your property where you do not wish to have goats (i.e. gardens, back porch, on top cars, etc.), or if you have predators (domestic dogs, wild animals, etc.), then a good “goat-proof” fence is for you. Though it may cost initially, it is well worth the money in the long run.
The best all-around fence is WOVEN wire (NOT welded wire, which will quickly come apart when the goats stand with their front feet on the fence). For smaller, dry-lot pens, the best wire is heavy gauge, six foot high “nonclimb”; V-mesh or 2 x 4″ or 2 x 2″ wire stretched very tight and flush with the ground. A 1 x 4″ board can be secured along the inside, about 18-24″ up from ground level, where goats are likely to stand on the fence with their front feet. This will save your wire and keep everything neater looking.
For pasture situations, sheep or hog wire works well, provided it is at least 3-4 feet high, with heavy barbed wire along the bottom and three strands spaced about 4″ apart along the top, with the lowest of the upper strands flush with the top of the fence. One precaution with woven wire is that sometimes small kids can easily squeeze through. If predators are a severe problem, barbed wire could also be added in the same way to the higher fencing of your drylot pen(s).
We have also had very good success with electric fencing in pasture situations. We now use a New Zealand type energizer (high voltage, low impedence) on both four-strand wire fencing and “Flexinet” fencing. The latter is made for sheep, and is polyurethane netting with small wire filaments running through the horizontal fibers. It is highly portable, with a 150 foot roll weighing only eight pounds, with built-in fiberglass posts every 12 feet, which are pushed into the ground to erect the fence. We use the Flexinet on a portable basis to rotate pasturage, fence around gardens, etc. Eventually, we plan to use 9-strand electrified high-tensile wire on a permanent basis as perimeter fencing, and rotate browsing within with Flexinet.
Another fencing material available is wood. However, making a predator and goat-proof fence of this can be very costly, and often not as effective a barrier. And some goats like to chew on wood (some of these individuals also view creosote as a flavor enhancer), making maintenance a problem.
Regular wooden board corral fencing is usually not suitable for goats unless modified. Most of the adventuresome ones can squirm through the slats of the fence, or with a running jump can climb up and over with the horizontal boards acting as a ladder to freedom. Predators can sometimes enter the pen easily in the same manner. These enclosures can be made more suitable for air-borne goats by stretching 5-6 ft. non-climb wire along the pen.
Goats love to climb, thus it is an asset to have large spools or stairs or other elevated objects in the pen to keep them busy. Be sure they are sturdy and avoid situating any of these next to the perimeter of the pen or nearby roof of similar height, or they may leap out from on top them. It should be noted that older kids and dry yearlings are much more apt to jump than are the more quiet milkers.
The big thing to keep in mind with fencing is to have it be safe for the goats: to keep them in and predators out. By “predators” I mean anything from a mountain lion to your neighbor’s dog… even the friendliest dog can chase stock, especially in a pack. So, build your fences right and keep them up.
Goats do not like to get wet… at all. Though shelter need not be expensive, it must be draft free, clean, dry and with good ventilation. Dairy goats are clean animals and should not be housed in filthy surroundings, as respiratory problems, mastitis and other health problems may arise.
Bed the shelter well with clean straw or non-dusty woodshavings when the weather is wet or cold. Adding a little to the bedding daily will build up a thick, thermal layer. We do this, and thoroughly clean out each shelter every six months. If you have does which will be kidding, be sure to use straw and not woodshavings. The latter can sometimes gain entrance to the doe’s reproductive tract and cause infections.
Allow ample room in a shelter for the herd to be sure that one “boss” goat won’t keep all the others standing out in the rain. About 5-6 square feet per doe should be adequate. If the shelter is small, it may be necessary to have several to accommodate all herd members.
Shelter doorways or openings should face away from prevailing winds or storms. It is advisable to have openings wide (about 3-4 feet minimum) which do not face uphill, as those are apt to flood in rains and cold night drafts will come down from higher elevations. The wide doorways are to allow easy passage for even highly pregnant does if another feels compelled to pass through at the same time.
Dairy goats are very picky eaters, and most would rather starve than eat even slightly soiled hay from on the ground. Though we might think this is done just to aggravate us, in truth dairy goats have more surface area in their rumen in proportion to their size than most other ruminants. They must be careful about introducing adverse bacteria which could quickly cause bloat or scours; instinct takes care of them. Most will also try to waste large amounts of hay unless you are smarter than they are and feed appropriate quantities to be eaten by next feeding, and minimize waste by using an appropriate feeder.
The best feeder we have used is a “key-hole” design. With these, goats are less likely to pull their heads out of the feeders while eating and drag out hay which will end up uneaten and trampled on the floor, to be turned into expensive bedding.
We built our keyhole feeders out of 1/2″ plywood. They are situated IN the shelters along a wall where they can be filled from the outside by lifting the lid. They can also be constructed to be free-standing in the pen, but must have a roof to keep at least the hay, and preferably goats too, dry in rain. They must be securely anchored to avoid toppling over and pinning a goat underneath.
Since most dairy goat herds have quite a “pecking order,” it may be necessary to have feeders in several different locations so all have a chance to eat. Allow enough keyholes for the number of goats you plan to keep in that pen, plus several extra. Some does won’t allow others to eat right next to them. If does are kept from eating, they won’t milk as well.
This is hard to be specific about, as feeds and quality vary so much from area to area. The NRC (National Research Council) recommends the following daily nutrients for maintenance of a 150 lb. doe: 682g TDN (total digestible nutrients), 96g TP (total protein), 66 DP (digestible protein). Pregnant and milking does will need up to 75% more, depending on variables such as stage of gestation or lactation and amount of milk production. Much more information is contained in “Nutrient Requirements of Goats” (National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20418).
Here in the central coast mountain range of California, roughage feed consists of high quality alfalfa hay and oat hay, and native browse. Alfalfa is fed to the milkers, with mostly oat hay fed to the pregnant, dry does. Kids and growing yearlings are fed alfalfa or a mixture of alfalfa and oat hay. Bucks also get either half and half or all oat hay.
Bucks should be fed a little heavier on the oat hay than the alfalfa as there is some evidence that urinary calculi can be caused by excessive calcium in the diet. Alfalfa hay is very high in calcium as compared to oat hay, which is why it is such good feed for milking does who need additional calcium in the diet to maintain high production and not deplete their bodies.
Feed only as much as your stock will clean up before the next feeding, otherwise they’ll eat only the leaves and the stems will build up in the feeders and be wasted. Feed only top quality hay (green, very leafy fine-stemmed alfalfa; sweet oat hay with lots of grain and fine stems), with no mold or weeds. If the hay is poor quality, they cannot be expected to eat it all and will waste much of it, making the good, high quality hay cheaper in the long run.
Most people feed a 16% grain ration to the milking does while on the milking stand at a rate of 1 pound grain per 2-3 pounds of milk produced. There are different types of rations available at local feed mills. Sweetfeed for horses may also be used, though protein content may be low and some goats will refuse it after awhile if there is too much molasses. It is thought that excess sugar is digested first by the rumen microbes, causing the roughages to be incompletely utilized.
Kids and growing dry yearlings can also be given some grain provided they don’t become too fat, which can sometimes cause breeding problems. Also I like to grain the bucks prior to and through the breeding season (September to March), to prevent them from becoming too run down in condition. We have found that 1-2 pounds rolled barley fed daily works well.
Dairy goats also need access to an iodized, trace mineral salt block or loose mixture. Selenium must also be given in many areas. We give injections of Bo-Se, two to three times yearly.
Dairy goats also enjoy access to native browse and poison oak. If a person drinks milk over an extended period of time from goats which are grazing poison oak, it is thought to be possible to develop an immunity to the plant. I have had this experience, so I can’t say it’s impossible.
Goats are browsers and not grazers, like cattle, sheep and horses. Therefore, they prefer taller grasses and shrubbery to short pasture. And, though scrub goats may be able to subsist on native forage, a selectively bred, high producing dairy goat will most likely require additional feed if she is to produce up to her genetic potential.
A milking doe can be expected to consume about 1 ton of hay a year and about 1200 pounds of grain for her 10 month lactation. Plenty of nutritionally high quality forage can also be available, but don’t expect it to account for a large portion of the doe’s diet over an extended period of time.
Lastly; allow your goats access to all the clean water they will drink. This is very important, and can range from almost none to a gallon or two depending on activity, lactation stage, moisture content of feed and weather (cold or hot).
There is much more which could be said, but once the basics are familiar, the best way to learn about dairy goats is to keep them and get to know them. They will often show the observant herdsperson what their needs are.
Milking Practices and Related Management
Dairy goats, like dairy cows, must be milked twice daily for most of the duration of their 10 month (305 day) lactation. But, unlike cows, it only takes several minutes to milk out a doe. Most give from 6 to 15 pounds (3 quarts to 1-1/2 gallons) of very white, sweet milk daily.
Dairy goats will tend to increase in production to about their third or fourth month of lactation, and then begin a gradual decrease. This is known as a “lactation curve,” and it is generally most desirable to have a relatively flat curve; in other words, a doe who milks consistently through her lactation.
Most does under good management will tend to also increase production during each lactation up until they reach 4 or 5 years of age, after which their total yearly production will tend to level out or decrease. Production will vary with the individual doe and is influenced by genetic background and potential, feeding, management, health and age. There is some evidence to suggest that does carrying several kids are more likely to milk more than those carrying just one.
A growthy doe kid may first be bred at 7 months if she has sufficient size (70 to 80 lbs). Gestation is 5 months; thus a kid bred at 7 months of age would freshen at 1 year of age. Or, smaller does can be bred first as yearlings.
When the kids arrive 5 months after the doe is bred, they may be left on the doe or taken from her and bottle fed. Regardless, I don’t milk a lot from the doe her first day, and gradually increase until she is being milked out completely twice daily after several days. Suddenly milking out a heavy producing just-fresh doe can predispose her to ketosis or milk fever by creating a calcium depletion in her body. Feeding oat hay or other hay low in calcium (not alfalfa) for several weeks prior to kidding will also help alleviate this potential problem.
Leaving the kids with the doe, we begin to separate the kids from their dam at about 2 weeks of age. In the evenings, the kids are separated from their dams for the night, and the does are milked out. The following morning the does are milked out completely – and then the kids are turned out with them for the day. We start this when the kids are about 10 days to 2 weeks old. Kids raised in this way grow well, learn early to eat hay and other forages by their dam’s example, and tend to be tamer. Weaning at 3 to 4 months of age is also less stressful.
Milking the Doe
Cleanliness is of utmost importance when milking. Goats are most easily milked on a milking stand specifically made for the purpose. These stands are about 12″ off the ground, with a stanchion to hold the doe’s neck and a tray for grain, which she eats while being milked. The milker can sit on the stand, facing toward the rear while milking. Try to situate your stand in a clean area which may be hosed down (and drains well), and away from contaminants such as loose hay, dust, manure odors and the like. It is also well to situate it away from any bucks during the breeding season (September to March) while they have an odor. Milk readily absorbs odors in the air. Along this line, avoid feeding your milking does less than two hours before milking, especially any feeds with strong odors, as these too may come out in the milk flavor. This can be true of cattle as well (Photo A).
Bring your doe to the milking stand, and secure her in the neck stanchion with grain available. We feed about one pound grain per 2-3 pounds of milk produced, up to 2-3 pounds per milking. We use a 16% dairy pellet in a crimped grain mix.
Now prime the udder with a warm solution of udder wash. Use a clean towel or washcloth, and wash thoroughly the teats and surrounding area (Photo B). Using another clean, larger towel or new paper towel, completely dry the teats and washed area. If using a cloth towel, try to use a new portion of the· towel for each doe, as a safeguard against spreading disease organisms from doe to doe. After priming, draw a few streams of milk from each teat and discard. Then milk quickly and gently. DON’T PULL – SQUEEZE!! Milk let-down lasts about a minute or two, and begins about a minute after priming, so it is important to milk quickly to withdraw all the milk. Milk until she is dry.
Another method is to first draw a few streams of milk from each teat, and then prime the udder. The theory behind this is to prevent any contaminants which may be in the teat cistern from being pushed up into the udder by the massaging action of priming.
Milk into a clean, air-dried stainless steel bucket, preferably one with a half-covered lid made specifically for dairy goats. Besides helping keep debris and hair from falling into the milk, the half-covered lid also helps to keep milk from spattering out of the bucket as you initially start to milk.
When finished milking, dip both of the doe’s teats into a good teat dip. Then immediately strain the milk through a stainless steel (or aluminum) strainer outfitted with a new, clean milk filter disc, and on into a clean container (such as a one quart glass jar or larger stainless steel or aluminum can). Cool right away in an ice water bath inside a refrigerator or cooler for fastest and most thorough cooling (Photo E).
Straining the milk right away is important to rid it of excessive dirt and debris which will create a high bacteria count, since bacteria multiply on the average every 20 minutes in warm temperatures. That can also create off flavored, low quality milk. If the milk is to be consumed raw, every effort must be made to have it clean as possible.
Goat’s milk is easily pasteurized by heating to 165-170°F for 30 seconds. Use a glass candy making or dairy thermometer for determining temperature. After pasteurization, it is important to cool the milk in an ice water bath immediately after pasteurization to bring the temperature down to around 35°F as soon as possible to retain good flavor and quality. However, pasteurization will not make dirty milk “clean,” nor improve quality that is not there in the first place.
Pasteurized milk keeps from a week to 10 days, stored in the refrigerator. Raw milk keeps about a week, though may develop slight off-flavor afterwards. It is best to store all milk in the coolest part of the refrigerator, such as the bottom shelf, towards the rear. Keep milk in a sealed container when storing, as it could absorb flavors from inside the refrigerator.
To further ensure milk quality once it’s in the kitchen, keep it refrigerated at all times, especially raw milk. It won’t keep nearly so well if it sits out on the counter and is allowed to warm up to room temperature. Once warm, it will take a substantial amount of time to cool off again unless placed in an ice water bath. It is far better to never let it warm up. Also, don’t mix warm milk with already cold milk, as you will raise the temperature on the entire batch.
In the barn, milk quality can be enhanced by maintaining clean surroundings and milking clean animals. A milking or dairy clip will help eliminate excess hair and debris from falling into the milk, and a doe may be clipped in this way at any time of the year; perhaps leaving a bit more hair on the rump and belly in winter; or clipping just the udder in severe climates. The udder is easiest clipped when full.
When managing your milking dairy goats, keep note of any that are on antibiotics or have been wormed, as often there is a recommended witholding time on the milk for human consumption. Also note these warnings on animals to be butchered.
First fresheners sometimes have very small teats which make milking difficult. Take heart, these usually lengthen out to a comfortable length within several weeks of kidding. However, some bloodlines will tend to transmit this trait, so avoid breeding to bucks from such lines.
Though mastitis or other diseases are rarely a problem, milk any does with health problems last, so you do not transmit diseases from one to another. Prime these does using clean paper towels for washing and drying, and discard after use.
Bag Balm works wonders on minor abrasions or chapped udders. Uncomfortable animals are not easy to work with, so it is wise to treat problems as soon as they arise. Sometimes, first fresheners will also produce pink milk at the very start of their lactation, and if the milk is normal in other ways, this is not cause for concern. It is most likely capillaries rupturing because of the new gland development, and should subside in several days. It can also be caused by rough milking and squeezing too far up the teat.
After a doe has been milking for seven months, it is desirable to breed her if she is in good health and not too run down by the strain of milking. By doing this, one can maintain a 12-month kidding interval, considered ideal. Gestation for goats is roughly 5 months, or 150 days. First-time does tend to go a few days longer.
Some exceptional does which are extremely heavy milkers should not be rebred, but allowed to milk through another lactation. Does like this would still be milking about 12 pounds daily in their seventh to ninth month of lactation.
Signs of heat are tail wagging, mucous discharge, bleating, mounting other does, head butting and other increased activity. The vulva may become swollen and pinkish. The breeding season is usually from September through February, with most does bred from October through December.
A healthy, normal doe will cycle every 18 to 21 days during the breeding season, and stay in heat usually 2 days. It is best to breed during “standing heat,” when the doe will willingly stand for the buck. This period usually lasts 12-18 hours during the heat cycle.
“Flushing” the doe two to three weeks prior to breeding will get her body in a gaining condition, and increase the chance of multiple births. This is accomplished by feeding extra concentrates (say 1/2 lb. more daily) and worming if that is a problem.
Doe kids may be bred the first time at 7 months, or 70-80 pounds. They may seem a little small at this age and size, but if fed well they will continue to grow as normal. One can also wait and breed them as yearlings, but there is chance of them becoming too fat. Also, a year of production is lost. In our experience, does bred at 7-8 months of age are the same size or larger than their unbred sisters on their first birthday.
Does can also be bred using artificial insemination. This greatly increases the variety and quality of bucks available to the breeder. Although the semen is handled similarly to bull semen, the actual insemination technique is different. Thus, it is best to take a class on dairy goat A.I. or find a person who has successfully inseminated dairy goats.