Getting Started with Dairy Goats: One Homesteader’s Experience

Reader Contribution by Eric Reuter and Chert Hollow Farm
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Our first goat trotted into our lives on April 14, 2008, accompanied by two kids and a herd of homesteader dreams. Our rugged Central Missouri landscape had limited growing areas, the open ground and good soil concentrated in a narrow belt of creek bottom. On the other hand, the overgrown pastures and brushy hillsides, unfarmed for 30 years or more, begged for an infusion of caprine management.

As cheese lovers on par with Wallace and Gromit, we had visions of self-sufficient dairying and our own meat supply. But when that first goat, Perry, vanished the next day, having crawled under her electric fence on a mission only she understood our life as goat herders really began.

Learning to Be Homestead Goat Herders

Over the following 6-1/2 years, goats became an integral part of our lives. We experimented with shelter designs, pasturing methods, the elimination of grain and chemical de-wormers, fencing styles, and milk management. Composting the manure turned our rugged pastures into solar fertility collectors for our growing fields of vegetables. We learned to make diverse cheeses, got our annual fall kid-butchering down to a routine science, and settled on ways to preserve milk and cheese through the non-milking winter months.

Selling raw milk brought income and was our window into the dangers of bureaucratic barriers to individual freedom. Discovering poisonous white snakeroot in our pastures and fighting disease- and parasite-laden deer greyed our hair and taught us much about integrating agriculture into ecology.

With one early exception, we did all our own slaughtering and butchering on the farm, taking responsibility for death as well as life. Handling the life cycles that shaped the herd brought us joy, satisfaction, and sorrow. Throughout it all, we began to understand goats, both as a species and as individuals.

We didn’t understand goats when Perry dismissed our first electric fence as irrelevant. Certainly we’d read plenty on the subject, being scientists whose natural tendency is to research an unknown. We’d built an electric fence that seemed adequate: five strands of tensioned steel wire strung along T-posts and farm-cut cedar posts. Her home farm comfortably relied on 3- to 4-strand fences. She had a nice shelter, a shed sided with cedar lumber we’d cut and milled on-farm and roofed with salvaged shingles. Yet she was gone, vanished into the hilly woods like her relatives, the deer. What had we done wrong?

Tending to the Needs of a Homestead Goat

The short answer lay in our fence, which she taught us after being retrieved from a neighbor’s house a half mile away. When she thought our backs were turned, she headed straight for a low point in the ground, a subtle trench left over from running a water line to an all-weather hydrant. It was barely noticeable to us, but to the calculating eyes of a goat, the swale left just enough space to wriggle under the fence’s lower wire. She had spotted it instantly, the fiend, and made use of her superior intelligence in this unequal battle of wits.

The real answer, though, wasn’t how, but why. A goat that wants to escape is a goat that doesn’t want to stay, and that means something isn’t being done right. Well-managed animals should feel secure, but not imprisoned. After consultation with Perry’s former home, a pasture-based dairy, we collectively concluded that she was lonely.

Despite their distinct personalities, goats are herd animals deep in their genes, and we had taken that away. Soon two more adult does arrived from the same source, and we set about building a cattle-panel hoophouse to accommodate the expansion. We now had a herd far larger than we’d initially intended, but Perry never escaped again.

Finding a Goat Management System that Worked

And so we set about learning, not just about goats, but with goats. Over time, we settled into a management system that worked well for everyone involved, achieving our goals and producing a stable herd of healthy, comfortable homestead dairy goats. Sometimes things went wrong, and we learned from the mistake or the new wrinkle.

We experimented with shelters and eventually built a full barn from on-farm cedar. New does were bred, born and raised on the farm, becoming integral parts of the herd. Extra kids were born, lived happily, and were respectfully butchered. Adults lived through the same arc of seasons and years as us, an inseparable part of our days. The only escapes were our fault, not the goats’. We told everyone who visited or asked that we couldn’t image life without goats. Until we could.

The year 2014 brought a string of stressful difficulties to our now full-time farm, and forced some excruciating life decisions. One of these was to (temporarily?) step back from raising goats. So over the course of a long autumn and early winter, we culled the herd one by one, packing freezers with our favorite meat, though this time seasoned with tears.

We weren’t comfortable passing along the adults to an unknown future somewhere else like commodities to be discarded when inconvenient to us; their life, comfort, and death were our responsibility. Their end was quick and painless, in a setting familiar and comfortable until the last moment. This was our last gift to animals who had given us so much.

Sharing Lessons

We don’t yet know whether, or when, goats will again be part of Chert Hollow Farm. I’m currently working part-time at the same artisanal dairy that helped found our herd, staying in touch with goats and their ways.

In the meantime, I’ve been invited by MOTHER EARTH NEWS to share our hard-won knowledge of homestead dairy goat management, and look forward to passing on many lessons, frustrations, and inspirations to the readership.

Joanna and I have already generated a full page of tightly-packed notes on all the different aspects of goat management we could talk about, and look forward to advocating the joys and frustrations of these intelligent and worthwhile creatures.

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