Let’s talk about goats, the kind bred for milk production. A healthy doe will produce milk for you up to 10 months a year for 10 years. In her prime, she will produce 6 to 8 pounds, or 3 to 4 quarts, of milk a day. Milk characteristics vary among breeds and between animals. Generally speaking, though, its nutritional profile is comparable to cow milk with respect to protein and fat, and it is a good source of calcium, riboflavin and phosphorous. It is also valued for its naturally homogenized state, and many folks who are allergic to cow milk or have trouble digesting it can consume goat milk without ill effect. It can be drunk from a glass, or made into cheese, yogurt, ice cream and soap, and an acre of pasture is more than enough for a couple of milking goats that can supply your family with all the dairy it needs.
There are five principle dairy goat breeds that have long been recognized by the American Dairy Goat Association (www.adga.org):
Origin: Descend from French Alpines imported in the early 1920s.
Distinguished By: Upright ears and medium to large size.
2009 DHI Averages: 2,147 pounds per doe with 3.3 percent butterfat.
Origin: The only American breed, developed in the 1920s and 1930s when short-eared goats brought by Spanish missionaries were crossed with other purebreeds.
Distinguished By: Extremely small ears.
2009 DHI Averages: 2,108 pounds per doe with 3.9 percent butterfat.
Origin: The British crossed their English goat with Nubians from Africa and India. The “Anglo” Nubian was first brought to the U.S. in 1909.
Distinguished By: Roman nose and long, floppy ears.
2009 DHI Averages: 1,402 pounds per doe with 4.6 percent butterfat
Origin: Imported from Switzerland in 1936.
Distinguished by: Bay coat with black markings on face, spine, belly and legs.
2009 DHI Averages: 1,669 pounds per doe with 3.7 percent butterfat.
Origin: Imported from Switzerland in 1904.
Distinguished By: Pure white coat and the largest dairy goat breed.
2009 DHI Averages: 2,045 pounds per doe with 3.3 percent butterfat.
Origin: Imported from Switzerland in 1893.
Distinguished By: Short to long, soft hair that is light to dark brown with white on ears, face and legs.
2009 DHI Averages: 1,771 pounds per doe with 3.2 percent butterfat.
Nigerian Dwarf goats are also increasingly being used for milk production and more and more farms are specializing in them. They can produce about 2 quarts of milk a day and human kids involved in 4H and FFA projects find them particularly easy to handle. The American Dairy Goat Association has been registering them since 2005. Nigerian dwarfs, that is, not human kids.
According to 2009 averages for DHI goat herds, mixed-breed does produced 1,696 pounds with 3.6 percent butterfat. These numbers are nothing to sneeze at and comparing them to those of pure breeds will prove it. I am all for maintaining distinct breeds and holding them to standards, but crossbreeding can produce some interesting results that are of benefit, not only for the one doing the milking, but also for the one producing the milk. I myself have considered committing to a dairy goat, but my aging, drafty barn sits on an 1,800-foot hill and Old Man Winter’s north wind cuts like a knife for six months out of the year. A pure Nubian may not appreciate these environs, but a crossbreed might tolerate it. When it comes time to purchase your dairy goats, crossbreeds, hybrids, mixed-breeds, mutts or whatever else you want to call them, they will also be easier on your wallet. Unless you’re interested in maintaining a specific breed, there’s no need to spend hundreds of dollars on an animal.
Ultimately, if you are in the market for a couple of goats (and you should get at least two as animals do like to spend time with their kind), take a good look at the animals up for discussion. Look at their hooves and stature. If adults, look at their udders and assess their form. Are the teats appropriately shaped and sized? Look at the other goats around the farm and get a feeling for overall health and cleanliness. The extent to which you want to investigate depends on whether your goats are for your household dairy supply or to add to a growing herd destined for production.
I’ll give you some time to cruise the classifieds and purchase a couple of goats. Then we can talk about freshening and milking.
The author is a biologist who lives and farms in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.