Dairy animals are and invaluable asset to the modern homesteader. Consider all the pros and cons of cows or goats by learning about milking equipment, pasture management and types of dairy products you might produce.
Goats will respect a fence if they enjoy what they find inside. Forage pasture should be diverse, and shelter should be dry and clean.
Illustration by Liz Pepperell
Many people dream of having fresh milk from their own homestead dairy animal. Their reasons range from the desire for self-sufficiency to the health benefits of the resulting dairy products to the pleasure of working with animals. But how can you determine whether dairying is an achievable goal for you? And whether a cow or a small goat herd would be a better fit for your farmstead? Let’s find out.
The best-quality milk comes from animals raised on pasture, with supplemental feed to boost production. Both cows and goats need space to roam and won’t be content in small enclosed areas. Be aware that your pasture may not provide sufficient forage year-round, and you’ll need to feed your dairy animal hay during lean times.
For a cow and growing calf, a minimum of 2 to 5 acres of diverse, well-managed pasture is a must. If your available space is closer to 2 acres, select a smaller breed. Goats require much less space. Depending on the breed, four to five goats can thrive on 1 acre of land. They are mixed foragers and will happily browse on shrubs and trees in addition to pasture.
A cow needs minimal cover in warm climates, but requires shade in extreme heat. A two-sided run-in shed with fabric cover is adequate and costs about $600. In areas with harsh winters, a 10-by-10-foot loafing shed with three enclosed sides is sufficient to protect a cow from prevailing winds and extreme temperatures. The cost to build this kind of three-sided shed with new materials will start at about $700. Farm auctions frequently sell — or even give away — small outbuildings and reclaimed lumber for just a fraction of that. You’ll also need a separate, sheltered space for milking that you can easily sanitize.
Goats dislike being wet and need shelter that’s closed off to drafts. They require 12 to 25 square feet of shelter per animal, depending on climate, herd size and herd dynamics. In mild climates, they won’t spend much time inside, so you won’t need to provide as much room. In colder climates, though, you’ll need to offer them as much space as possible. You can build a simple shelter and milking shed for several animals for about $1,000.
During kidding or calving time, mothers also need quiet, private space for delivering their young. Consider using a milking stand to help keep nervous or rambunctious animals still. You can build a simple, inexpensive stand using plans widely available online. (Find our basic plans at Build a Homeade Goat Milking Stand. – MOTHER)
Sand makes excellent bedding for shelters with dirt floors, but must be 6 to 8 inches deep and cleaned several times a week. Deep, finely chopped straw or pine shavings may be used on cement floors but must be refreshed weekly.
Fencing materials for a cow will cost from 70 cents per foot for high-tensile electric fence to $1.40 per foot for woven wire. Fencing for goats is more expensive because they challenge fences more than cows do. If there’s a way out, a goat will find it! Permanent goat fencing should be at least 4 feet tall and limit any gaps to 6 inches or smaller. Woven-wire fencing should include a single strand of high-tensile electric wire at the top and bottom to discourage climbing. Electric netting has proven effective for managing goats with rotational grazing, but shouldn’t be used for permanent paddocks. Expect to pay about $1.50 per foot for netting, not including the electric charger. For detailed information on farm fencing, read Farm Fencing: Horse High, Chicken Tight and Bull Strong.
Even the gentlest cow can be daunting if you’re uncomfortable around large animals. Smaller breeds of dairy cattle, such as Dexter, Kerry or Jersey, may be more approachable for those just getting their feet wet. Temperament varies greatly among breeds and individuals. When shopping for a family cow, look for a mild demeanor. If the animal was handled at an early age, it’s more likely to have developed a good temperament. If you’ve never worked with a cow before, team up with an experienced hand who can teach you the basics.
Goats’ smaller size may be more attractive to beginners, as they are easier to move and handle than a cow. Temperament can still vary, so pay attention to your dairy prospect’s attitude. Goats are often nervous or flighty if they’re not used to being close to people. Look for animals that have interacted frequently with people from an early age.
Some people say they’d like to get into dairying because they don’t want to raise meat animals. The reality is that you can’t have dairy animals without offspring: Cows and does must deliver babies before they’ll produce milk. Remember, half those kids or calves will be male, and not every female will grow into a great milker. Some female offspring may replace your aging dairy animals. A few may even become pets. But unless you have unlimited space, most must either be slaughtered for meat or sold. Selling this surplus stock will offset your production costs.
You have two options for breeding: artificial insemination or live animal breeding. Both are common, although with some heritage breeds, semen may be difficult to obtain. Males are a challenge to manage because they’ll try to stay with the females, regardless of fencing. Keeping a male is usually impractical if you’re raising only one cow or a small goat herd. The best approach is to borrow a male, or send your female to a nearby breeding farm. You’ll risk bringing a parasite or disease back to your place, however, so make sure the farm is well-kept and the animals are healthy. Artificial insemination may be the most practical option for a small homestead dairy, and your vet can provide this service or advise you.
Before the young are born, you’ll need to consider several management methods. If you leave the baby with the mother full-time, almost all of the dam’s milk will go to the baby. If the calf or kid nurses overnight but is separated from the mother in the morning, you’ll need to milk only in the evening, and will collect about half the dam’s production. If you separate them completely and bottle-feed the baby either the mother’s milk or milk replacer, you’ll need to milk twice a day. Smaller dairies lean toward the first two options. Decide early on which practice you’ll follow so you’ll have equipment and infrastructure at the ready.
A good milk cow or goat should produce up to 10 months out of the year and will give milk into its teen years. Careful selection of good dairy bloodlines will pay off. A proven milker costs more, but the saved training time will be worth the added expense. Depending on the animal’s breed, age, stage of pregnancy and the region you live in, you can expect to pay $1,200 to $2,500 for a dependable cow or $250 to $350 for a quality goat. Be cautious of a “good deal.” Make sure you know the animal’s health and production history before you buy. If you buy an animal that has already given birth and is lactating, the owner can give you a reliable estimate of the animal’s future production.
The startup cost of equipment for dairying will vary based on whether you choose to hand-milk or use a mechanical milker. Hand-milking takes more time, but mechanical milking equipment is more expensive. Several types of hand-operated milkers, such as the Udderly EZ, are priced starting at about $190. A new hand-milking kit, including a 3-gallon stainless steel bucket, a stainless steel storage can, a strainer with disposable milk filters, and a strip cup for checking foremilk, sells for about $350. A new electric vacuum pump will cost about $1,000, and the mechanical equipment it requires can double the price tag. Look for used equipment online, in classified ads, and at farm auctions.
The biggest difference between cow’s and goat’s milk is volume. At peak lactation, if separated from her calf, a cow will produce about 6 gallons of milk daily, compared with 3 to 4 quarts from a single goat. This means that one cow will produce about as much as eight goats will. Volume varies among breeds and individuals, and also depends on the stage of each animal’s lactation cycle, with production being highest in the first few months after giving birth.
You may consume the milk raw or pasteurize it on your stovetop by slowly heating it to 145 degrees Fahrenheit in a simple double boiler, and maintaining that temperature for 30 minutes. (You can find detailed instructions online by reading How Do I Pasteurize Raw Milk at Home?) Raw milk has adamant supporters, but those promoting pasteurization are just as resolute. Thoughtfully weigh the decision to consume raw milk, and handle it carefully to ensure there is no chance of contamination. If you think you may sell your extra milk, learn your state’s laws on raw milk sales and take care to protect yourself and your farm from liability.
For cream and butter production, cow’s milk differs from goat’s milk because the cream separates easily. Goat’s milk requires a mechanical cream separator as the fat globules are too small to separate naturally. Both types of milk are fine for making yogurt, ice cream and cheese.
The sweeter side of dairy lies in caramel production, which is a great way to use up extra milk. Traditionally, dulce de leche or cajeta is a cow’s or goat’s milk caramel created by boiling down sweetened milk. It is often used as a dip for fruit or topping for desserts and will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator. Need more ideas? Use some extra milk to make rich soaps. You won’t need much volume and can make multiple small batches with ingredients for specialized purposes, such as colloidal oats, exfoliants, herbal extracts and essential oils. For in-depth information on homestead dairying, check out The Small-Scale Dairy. For more on goats, dig into Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats.
Whether you choose a cow or goats, thoughtful planning will help ensure a pleasant experience for you and your homestead dairy animal.
Jeannette Beranger is the research and technical programs manager at The Livestock Conservancy. She managed cows and goats in New England for 17 years.
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