This is a question many homesteaders seriously grapple with when they consider getting a dairy animal. Goats or cows? Cows or goats? There is no one clear-cut answer for all, but rather, many points to be considered while you make the decision about what kind of dairy animal is the right one for you.
Size – goats are a lot smaller than cows, and less intimidating to be around and handle, especially if you have never milked before, or owned any livestock bigger than chickens. Naturally, goats will require less housing space, too, and can be easily transported in a back seat of a regular family car when hobbled.
Pasture – Cows are grazers; goats are browsers. Cows do best on wide grass meadows, while goats are particularly fit for rugged, rocky landscape, a variety of brush, grass and trees, and uneven terrain. This explains why people keep goats so much more often than cattle here in our hilly area, which has rather rough, sparse vegetation throughout most of the year.
Fencing – Despite being much larger animals, cows are considerably easier to keep fenced in than goats, and will stay inside a rather light fence they could probably trample down in a minute if they were so inclined. Goats, on the other hand, need veritable barricades to be kept in. They are clever, curious, mischievous, and extremely good at jumping and climbing.
Milk yield – One little Jersey cow will give you about as much milk as three or four Saanen goats. This can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the size of your family, how much milk you regularly consume, whether you want to try your hand at cheese making or sell some extra milk, etc. I personally am probably most comfortable, quantity of milk-wise, at the point of having two dairy goats.
Nutrition – While both cow milk and goat milk are delicious and nourishing when fresh and handled properly, cow’s milk will give you more cream; not because it’s fattier than goat milk, but because the cream separates more easily. On the other hand, goat milk can be more easily digestible and is often well-suited to people who have poor tolerance to cow’s milk. It is also slightly lower in lactose.
Price – A cow is a much larger initial investment than a couple of goats, and not anyone is up to that. I don’t know the prices in your area, but around here, the price of a cow is astronomic compared to goats; buying a cow is definitely a deep plunge.
Breeding – Packing your does off to a honeymoon with a buck is a lot easier than hauling your cows to visit a bull, or dealing with artificial insemination.
Maintenance – People don’t often talk about this, but for me it’s definitely a consideration. Goats are easier and pleasanter to muck out than cows, and their smell is less overpowering. Sweeping aside some goat pellets is way more manageable than squelching through cow patties. Just go into a goat barn and a cow barn and judge for yourself.
Either way, if I were ever to get a cow, I’d probably go for one of the smaller breeds, such as Dexters, Jerseys or Galloways.
Overall, as I have already said, I am inclined to think that goats are probably the easier and more obvious choice for small homesteaders who are just making their first tentative steps in dairy animal ownership, and are trying to ease their way into a milking routine without feeling overwhelmed. On the other hand, I do nourish a secret dream of a sweet little Jersey cow and lots of lovely cream. One thing is certain: having your own milk is great, and being the owner of dairy animals is an unforgettable adventure.
The post above was an excerpt from my new book, The Basic Guide to Backyard Livestock
Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here.
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