When we started our homestead we planned to raise as much of our own food as possible . . . but we intended to begin with chickens and vegetables. Our schemes were turned upside down, however, by a visit in July to a goat dairy.
We had gone "just to look around" because we did want—eventually—to produce our own dairy products. While at the dairy, though, we were surprised to learn that kids are usually available only from February to July . . . so, naturally, we bought the only kid still for sale and drove home with her in the back seat of the car. This was our first step in learning about raising goats.
We didn't even have a place to house the little 3-month old Alpine grade doeling and for several weeks "Bunnie" shared quarters with our pump. We bought a dog collar and used a length of clothesline to tether her in the backyard, near the pumphouse. Meanwhile, we erected framing for our 12 foot by 21 foot all-purpose barn and dried-in the first 3 foot square kid stall. Then Bunnie moved in while we completed the 9 foot by 12 foot goat section, the 12 foot by 12 foot hen house and the feed room area of the barn.
During construction, we used a metal drum for dry feed storage. Now we keep feed in a freezer cabinet which we obtained free-for-the-hauling from a local appliance dealer.
Finding that first goat is sometimes a problem. A friend of a friend directed us to ours and the local grapevine is often the best source of information. Some states publish a Market Bulletin—available at no charge—that lists goats for sale. County agents can also help would-be buyers who are interested in raising goats.
Choice of a breed is entirely an individual decision. The uniformly-white Saanen is reputed to produce the most milk and the milk of Nubians has the highest butterfat content. Nubians may be any color but always have long drooping ears and a Roman nose. Toggenburgs, always some shade of brown with a white stripe down each side of the face, are popular in some areas and Alpines (which may be any color or combination) are gaining favor among breeders.
Our first goat was an Alpine, mainly because she was available. We've now switched to Nubians because a Nubian buck is handy in our area and because we like the appearance of this breed. Since a buck must be quartered separately and fed year-round we've found it impractical in the past to keep our own. We've now decided to give it a try, however, and we're raising our own purebred buck.
Our first doe was a grade (not necessarily purebred) Alpine. gave a gallon of milk daily after freshening and tapered to a pint a day at the end of lactation. The registered Nubian we now milk is in her first lactation and—after eight months—consistently gives a quart and a half of milk daily. We expect her production to double or triple within the next three years.
The grade Alpine was purchased in 1961 for $6.00. This spring (1970) we bought two grade Nubian doelings for $12.50 apiece and a registered Nubian, ready to freshen, for $75.00. The grades were named Lassie and Heidi and the registered (as Marlu Laura's Susie) doeling—because of her temperament—is called Lady Susan.
By the way, one doe can be kept alone but goats are sociable animals and prefer company.
Our acre is bounded on two sides by brush-lined drainage ditches. We first drove sturdy stakes into the ground at 30-foot intervals and tethered Bunnie with a 15-foot chain attached to a dog collar. Later, we purchased a mule hawser for a tether. We've learned, when staking out two does, to separate them enough so they can't get their chains tangled together.
We tether our goats outside for grazing every day except during very cold or rainy weather when they could get pneumonia if not sheltered.
Our goats have all preferred leafy browse to grass. They'll eat briars, small brush and leaves from the low-hanging branches of trees. One of their favorite browsing spots is a patch of wild privet. They also eat pea or bean vines that are not withered, cornstalks, young wheat and clover and tomato plants (including the tomatoes). Alfalfa makes good goat pasture and hay but it doesn't grow in our area.
Do not plan to feed goats on kitchen scraps. They'll eat very little of such offerings. It's also wise to keep the animals away from ornamental plantings. We have pine and magnolia trees that are well-bushed due to impromptu pruning and our goats have nearly killed a pear and an apricot tree!
A well-fed animal will instinctively avoid any plant which is injurious to its health. Apparently our goats are well-fed: We have azaleas, (azaleas are poisonous to goats) and ours have never bothered these flowers.
Other plants that may poison a goat are rhododendron, chokecherry, death camas, Dutchman's breeches, jimson weed, loco-weed, milk-weed, polk root, water hemlock, cocklebur in the sprouting stage and wild cherry or peach which is wilted or frosted.
Goats are also susceptible to lead poisoning and—since they'll chew on wood—it's best to use non-toxic paint, whitewash or no paint at all on barns. Our barn is unpainted cypress.
We have a 40 foot by 60 foot exercise yard made of 5 foot high woven wire fencing. Goats will crawl under or through strand wire or board-enclosures. If one persists in jumping a fence, the cure is a Y shaped piece of wood wired to her collar so the leg of the Y hits her in the chest when she rears to jump.
A doe must be bred yearly if you want milk. The breeding season extends from October to February, with a doe coming in heat about every three weeks. Gestation is five months and the first kid may be a singlet. After that, twins are most common, triplets not uncommon and quads or quints are born occasionally.
A doe must be dry for two months—during which time she is fed well-before kidding. Although modern dairymen use the pressure method of drying off, we prefer the tapering-off procedure. For the first approach; leave the doe unmilked for a week, then milk her out and do not milk again. With the second plan, we cut from two to one milking per day, then one every other day, once a week, etc.
Though a doe seldom needs help at kidding, the keeper should be nearby. The first three days milk—the colostrum—should be fed to the kids; it's not good for human consumption.
Most breeders recommend taking the kids from the doe immediately after birth. This is done to protect the doe"s udder and extend her productive milk years. We go against this thinking and leave the kids with their mother for about a week. After this, they're shut in a kid stall at night and the doe is milked, but not stripped, in the morning. The kids are left with the mother during the day. She is stripped out at night and the kids given kid ration and hay.
After six weeks the kids are let in with the mother for only an hour after the morning milking. They're weaned completely when about ten weeks old.
Unless you have registered stock, buck kids are of little value except as meat animals. As such, they may be sold or raised for butchering. At 4 to 5 months, a buck will provide 35 to 45 pounds of dressed meat called chevon. The flavor is similar to lamb.
We found that milking our first doe was uncomfortable and difficult until we built a milking stand 16 inches by 42 inches and 20 inches high in the corner of the barn. The stand has a feed box at one end and a ramp at the other. The milker sits on the stand, right shoulder against the doe's right shoulder.
We secure the doe with a chain hooked to her collar and fastened to a spike in the corner, above her head. The book says you can keep a doe from kicking by pressure of your left wrist against her right hind leg . . . but we never developed this ability. We fasten her leg with a wrapped wire attached to a spike underneath the end of the stand. If the doe is especially uncooperative the device can be used to hold her slightly off-balance so she cannot move either hind leg.
During each milking we feed about 1 1/2 to 2 quarts of 20% dairy ration. Goats will not eat finely ground feed and tire of the same food so we vary coarse-ground with pelleted. In winter we add a little corn or hen scratch. Too much corn can cause scours but a little in cold weather gives extra fat to help a doe maintain body heat. Goats will not drink stale or dirty water and a doe needs fresh drinking water at all times, especially in hot weather.
To milk a goat, grasp the teats firmly and squeeze from the top down. Use both hands from the start, no matter how clumsy you may be. Practice will improve your technique. Frequently pause to massage the udder: This will keep the milk flowing.
Strip the udder by running the thumb and fingers from the top to the bottom several times until every drop of milk is out. Failure to do this may cut production gradually throughout the lactation and can invite udder trouble.
Off-flavored milk is usually due to improper sanitation or careless handling that allows bacteria to get into the milk. When our barn needs cleaning; when wet weather causes soggy odors beneath the bedding; or when a doe has eaten wild onions, we are alerted to the trouble by the flavor of the milk.
Sometimes a deposit builds up on the rim of the tea strainer that we line with flannel and use for straining milk. This can also taint milk so we've learned to never reuse a filter and we replace the strainer as necessary.
Since odor near a doe can be absorbed and transmitted to her milk, the buck must be housed separately. Poor health can be another cause of off-flavor milk. Occasionally, an individual doe gives bad milk and must be sold (this happens with cows too!) or her milk may be strong because of something in the feed. We've found that our Nubian gives strongly-flavored milk if her feed has a high molasses content.
Do not let this discussion of flavored milk alarm you. Dairymen have much the same trouble with cows and it's actually not really a serious problem with either animal. You will find—if the question ever arises—that, almost invariably, an unpleasant flavor is the fault of the keeper and not the doe. A little investigation and care should eliminate the trouble.
It should be remembered, however, that goat milk does taste different than store milk . . . but, if you're like us, you'll soon grow accustomed to that difference. When we dry off our doe, we have to mix goat milk half-and-half with the boughten variety to get used to the latter.
Very possibly the reason goats have a bad reputation is that they are often owned by homesteaders who tend to be careless . . . perhaps we might say lazy! Cow milk can be bad-flavored but dairymen are forced to eradicate the cause. They can't afford to be careless. Neither can we!
We follow standard dairy procedure and milk twice a day, at not less than 10—nor more than 14—hour intervals. Before milking, we wash the udder with warm water to which is added a drop or two of chlorine bleach. We then dry the udder, and our hands, before milking.
Strain the milk immediately and chill. All utensils should be sterilized after use. Occasional clipping of the udder reduces the chance of hair falling into the milk and a hooded pail helps keep milk clean. You can also use a cooking pot (not aluminum) for a milk pail. We use a stainless steel mixing bowl.
If this sounds like rigid procedure, remember that dairymen are forced by law to take all due precaution against bacteria.
If the keeper will do his part, dairy goats are an amusing and profitable addition to the homestead. Children usually love the fluffy kids better than any other pet and it's been said that "kids" and kids seem to belong together. Goat kids are very playful and will appreciate a few old tires or a box to climb on. Take care to have no sharp objects on which they can injure themselves.
Young kids and cleaning the barn occasionally require a bit more time but we generally spend about 30-45 minutes per day caring for two goats. In return, the goats provide nutritious and inexpensive dairy products (we recycle much extra garden produce through them to cut feed costs) and high-quality manure for the compost heap.
I know of no reason why you can't raise a goat or two on your homestead for the same return. You'll even find, if you breed your does to a quality buck, that the sale of kids can provide a little bonus income.