Livestock Lessons: Are There Goats in Your Future?

There is no doubt that goat production is a hot topic in southwest Wisconsin. Over 300 people attended a recent goat seminar at Barneveld. Ground will be broken on April 18 for a new goat milk processing plant in Lancaster. Questions on goat management come into the Extension office on a daily basis. If you are contemplating adding a goat enterprise to your operation, read on!
Let’s start at the very beginning. There are two basic types of goat enterprises: meat goats and dairy goats. Some producers combine the two systems in their operation. There are also additional sources of income such as breeding stock sales, sales of excess males from a dairy operation, leasing meat goats for brush clearing, etc. Since this article is going to be brief, let’s just consider the basics of goat dairying here and save the meat goat operation for another time.
Goat dairying is big business in southwest Wisconsin. In fact, the largest concentration of dairy goats in the country is here in this corner of the state. If you are thinking about milking goats, there are a number of things that you must take into consideration. The first is labor – do you have the ability to milk your goats twice a day throughout their ten month lactation? Milking goats is not much different than milking cows in terms of the commitment necessary.

Second, do you have the physical resources necessary to feed, house and milk your goats? Housing need not be complicated – older farm buildings are commonly used. The important
thing is to have a clean, dry place for your animals. Goats do not do well in wet, muddy conditions. They need 15-25 square feet of space per goat inside the building, depending on size of the animal and the amount of outside lot space.
Feeding can also be relatively simple. Most goat rations consist of good quality alfalfa hay and a coarse-ground or pelleted grain ration (plus salt and mineral). Pasture can certainly contribute much of the forage needed during the growing season, but you must keep in mind that goats are browsers, not graziers, so they prefer nibbling on woody plants, but they will eat grasses and weeds. For more detailed nutrition information, check with your Extension office or the local feed dealer.
Milking systems are fairly simple to put together as well. You can even hand milk if you only have a few does. Most of the area milk equipment dealers can provide you with the equipment you need and advice on setting up your system. Keep in mind that if you want to market your milk, you are subject to the same rules as dairy cattle operations. Also, if you intend to make this a full-time occupation, you will need a more sophisticated milking system to handle the numbers required to generate adequate income.
Since economics has reared it’s ugly head, let’s stop and consider what you want to accomplish with your goat dairy. Several questions need to be asked: is this the main enterprise on the farm? How much income does it need to generate? Is this meant to be a full-time occupation for the operator(s)? Do you have a market for your milk? This point should be taken very seriously, since in the past, there was a considerable waiting period to be able to sell milk to the processors in the area. Remember that there is a lot of difference between milking a few does to provide milk and maybe cheese for your family and friends and trying to produce enough goat milk income to live on. Enterprise budgeting is another area that Extension personnel can help with.
Third, what breed(s) of goats do you want to milk? The most common dairy breeds are Saanen, Nubian, Alpine, Toggenburg and La Mancha. There are other breeds as well, but their numbers tend to be lower, so finding breeding stock could be difficult. Each of these breeds has its own strengths and weaknesses, so pick the ones that you like and you will probably be just fine. When purchasing goats: buy well-bred, healthy stock with good conformation. Buy from a reputable producer and visit the farm to get a feel for the management practices in place there. Try to buy goats that are used to an environment similar to what you have to offer. Ideally, you will buy goats from a producer that tests for production, is willing to share his health protocols and will provide tests for the major contagious diseases.
Let’s talk a little about health concerns. First, if you intend to raise goats, it’s important to find a veterinarian who is knowledgeable about goats and is willing to help you set up your health program. There are a number of diseases that affect goats. Some of these can be avoided or at least minimized by purchasing healthy, tested stock. Others can be controlled with a good vaccination program, while some will require diagnosis and treatment by your veterinarian. One of the biggest health issues that goats face are internal parasites. You will need a strategic program to manage internal parasites and you will need to follow it religiously.
This article is just a brief overview of dairy goat production. In no way is it meant to be a comprehensive how-to guide. Instead of answering your questions, it probably has raised more of them. If you are considering goat dairying, you will need a great deal more information. Please feel free to contact me if you have specific questions or if you need a list of information resources for goat production.

Author: Dave Wachter
Dairy and Livestock Agent
Grant/Lafayette County UWEX

Originally Published: The Weekend Farmer, Spring 2007