More Feedback on Raising Goats

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A healthy bill goat in pasture. You don't necessarily have to keep a billy if you're raising goats.
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LEFT: Brushing down a young goat. RIGHT: Milking a stanchioned doe on her milking platform.
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Supervising stanchioned goats at their feed trough.
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LEFT DIAGRAM: Suggested dimensions for a goat pen. RIGHT DIAGRAM: The does' water bucket can sit on a platform at the end of the manger

I’ve just read the chapter on raising goats from Grow It! reprinted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS and I can’t believe that author Richard W. Langer ever really raised dairy goats. His work contains too many nonsensical ideas and factual errors…and some downright dangerous advice.

This is unfortunate for the many beginners who will read and believe Grow It’ s suggestions and thereby get off to a bad start. It’s especially regrettable because the novice goatherd often has no experienced neighbor or informed veterinarian to bail him out if he has trouble. Worst of all, Langer’s most serious mistakes are in the important basics: feeding, milk handling, housing, and breeding.

First off, the grain ration suggested in Grow It! –four to eight pounds a day–is far too much for a milking doe. That amount would turn many goats into overweight non-producers, and could very easily cause a pregnant female to die of ketosis.

On our place, pregnant does get a pound and a half to two pounds of grain a day and milkers are given two to four pounds daily (one pound of grain per three pints of milk produced). All the members of the herd are fed as much good hay as they want.

Nor do I like Langer’s recommended grain mix. It contains no molasses and will, therefore, be dusty and unappealing to goats. The commercial horse feed used by many goat raisers is preferable because it includes molasses, provides enough protein when fed with legume hay, and is usually much fresher than any goat feed your store might sell.

In all my 20 years’ experience, I’ve never heard of giving kids cooked oatmeal gruel from bottles as Langer suggests. Out of curiosity I telephoned an experienced eastern breeder who’s been raising dairy goats since before I was born, and she’d never heard of the idea either. We agreed, also, that it’s a waste of time to feed kids milk four or five times a day. Three meals the first couple of days and two thereafter are plenty.

Grow It! recommends feeding young goats “Dairyaid” and “a commercial kid ration, the result of professional testing.” I’ve never heard of either item. There are dozens of brands of milk replacers made for calves or lambs, any one of which can gradually be substituted for the goat milk in the kid’s diet. Around here we use whole cows’ milk for this purpose.

From the age of one week on, our kids have access to good leafy hay and free-choice grain (the same ration we give to mature does). By the time the animals are weaned–at 10 or 12 weeks–they’re each eating almost a pound of grain every day.

I’ll move on now to Langer’s advice about milking and milk handling, which seems more elaborate than necessary on some points. To begin with, you certainly don’t need “a separate milk house” for the homestead herd of two or three milch does. Just keep the barn reasonably clean, milk on a bench in an aisle away from soiled bedding, and strain and cool the liquid in your kitchen.

In addition, I’m not sure what the author means by “an electric milk cooler”. Chances are he’s talking about the big old farm units which are the size of a couple of caskets and either contain a deep tank of ice water, or spray near-freezing water over 10-gallon cans. You don’t need equipment that large for a three-doe herd! Merely set the container of milk in a bucket filled with water and ice cubes and stir the can’s contents occasionally for fastest cooling (raw goat milk does have a better flavor when it’s chilled quickly).

“Cool the milk down to 45’F,” Langer says. “Use a thermometer to make sure the desired temperature is reached and held for thirty minutes.” Sounds like a fudge recipe! Those directions are a garbled version of the correct advice: Chill the milk down to 45°F within half an hour of milking, and keep it cold.

Finally, I’ve never seen “a small steam generator” for sanitizing equipment in the home dairy. All the dairymen I know–cow and goat specialists alike–rinse their utensils with a chlorine disinfectant before use.

Langer’s ideas of goat housing are just as unrealistic as his views on the building of milk. I don’t think he’s ever seen a real goat barn. Build by his rules and you’ll produce an expensive horror with the sizes all wrong.

Grow It! talks about cement floors which are hosed down daily (the barn would never dry out)…goats stanchioned in a space three by five feet (too large for tie stanchions)…”ten to twelve feet per head” for loose housing (not enough room).

The author also says, “Painting the inside of the barn as well as the outside is a good measure for disease prevention.” Nonsense! No caprine ailment I know of is prevented by paint. I’ve seen painted shelters which housed herds with disease problems, and healthy goats in unpainted sheds. Coated walls look pretty, that’s all.

The most common goat housing is something like this: The animals live in large loafing pens with 15 to 20 square feet of space per mature doe. Along one side of the enclosure there’s a feeding manger with locking stanchions and head openings spaced 20 to 24 inches apart. The floor is bedded deeply with straw or old hay. Fresh material is added frequently, and the accumulation is cleaned out three or four times a year.

Though cement floors are good in aisles and storage areas, most folks avoid using them in pens. Bedding stays drier when it’s put down on dirt (or a dug-out space filled with a foot or so of sand and fine gravel).

Most of a herd of goats is kept together in the same big pen…though there may be separate quarters for kids and pregnant does about to give birth, and for the occasional isolation of sick animals.

Next, a word about equipment: Langer’s wasteful trickling water system tells me that he’s never heard of automatic stock waterers. These devices are sold by most farm supply houses, and many come with electric heaters to warm their contents a bit. Actually, since you have to feed and milk twice a day anyhow, it isn’t that much trouble to carry buckets of water to a small herd. In the winter you can bring them a warm drink, which they enjoy.

Then there’s breeding. “Stud service can be handled by mail,” Langer says, “the animals being shipped back and forth by express.”

How completely silly! Dog breeders use that method, but goat raisers most certainly don’t. For one thing, it would cost too much…and for another, the freight companies are no longer equipped to handle livestock. Surface transportation can’t be trusted. The only safe way to “mail” goats is by air cargo, and even then you must phone the buyer to make sure he’s waiting at the other end when the plane lands.

In real life, breeding is very simple. When a doe comes in heat you load her into the family vehicle and drive to a farm where there’s a buck at stud. You unload the female and lead her to the male’s shed, she gets bred, you pay Billy’s owner a fee, and you and your animal go home.

Sometimes you can leave the female at the breeding farm for a few days or a couple of weeks until she comes in heat. Not all breeders have room to board outside does, however, and those that do commonly charge a daily boarding fee.

Incidentally, since it’s less trouble to use outside stud service than it is to keep your own buck, you’ll be wise to find out what breeds are at stud in your area before you decide what kind of does to buy.

There are other points made by the Grow It! goat chapter with which I disagree:

[1] “A milking doe should not be allowed to jump about too much since the energy so expended will cut into milk production,” Langer says.

That’s ridiculous. All goats need exercise, and I’ve seen milk output rise when does were taken out of cramped box stalls and given some room to run around. (I’ve also seen lack of exercise stunt kids’ growth.) Just be sure the animals aren’t climbing on piles of junk, frail old wooden boxes, etc. The stuff might collapse beneath a doe’s weight and give her a busted leg.

[2] “Trying to stretch out [the doe’s] milk-productive period too long without freshening again will impair her health and generally cause nothing but trouble.”

If you don’t breed a doe once a year, your health may be impaired because she’ll probably go dry and you won’t have any goat’s milk to drink. The “trouble” part is that sometimes it’s difficult to get a dry female bred and settled.

There are, however, occasional does which will produce three quarts of milk or better a day for a very long lactation–two years or more–without rebreeding. We breed such animals every other year, and treasure them for the dependable and continuous flow of milk they provide. They’re certainly healthy and we’ve had no problems with them.

[3] “if you…order [stock] by mail, ask the breeder for bank references and the names of previous buyers. Insist on a written contract….”

We’ve bought livestock by mail and have never seen any of those documents. If a potential buyer asked me for all that paperwork, I’d probably toss his letter in the wastebasket. Such caution simply is not part of the normal routine of buying and selling dairy goats today. When people purchase farm animals sight unseen, it’s presumed they already know the breeder’s goods and reputation and have distinct reasons for wanting livestock from the herd in question.

As a novice, you probably have no business messing around with goats-by-mail anyway (you’re much better off if you see animals before you buy them). There should be some good breeding farms within driving distance of your home. Check around. Often, the breeders in your state will have stock just as good as you might get from afar, and at more reasonable prices.

And while we’re at it, there’s really no honest reason for the homesteader to get involved with registered stock. Grade does–those with only one purebred parent–will often produce just as much milk as registered stock, and you should be able to find a good grade doe locally if you look hard enough.

[4] Langer says Toggenburgs are the most popular breed. Not according to registry statistics. Toggs were most wide spread in the 1940’s, but today Nubians lead and Alpines are in second place. And Langer doesn’t even mention the unique short-eared American La Manchas, which are in great favor on the West Coast and becoming more common in other areas.

[5] Langer is correct in saying that there are disease problems among dairy goats, but his list isn’t a good survey of what you should watch out for. Here’s my own rundown of common caprine ailments:

MASTITIS. Be leery of abnormal milk, and whistle for the veterinarian if it appears. Other infections may cut the udder’s production to half or almost nothing, but the fluid will still look normal.

RESPIRATORY PROBLEMS, especially pneumonia in kids, are common. We take the temperature of suspicious-looking animals (102°F to 103°F is normal) and treat feverish patients immediately with antibiotics.

WORMS are so common and can be so serious that most goat breeders routinely worm their whole herd twice a year. (Use medications made for sheep and goats.) A tip: infested animals usually do not have abnormal droppings.

LICE can cause emaciated goats, so be sure to check for the parasites: Part an animal’s hair in bright sunlight and look carefully for eggs or the little creatures themselves. It’s good practice to dust your goats occasionally with a louse powder made for dairy cattle. Bathe bad cases with “milk oil disinfectant”.

ABSCESSES are the ugly “boils” seen in many herds. The condition is contagious and no cure is known, but there’s debate as to whether or not it’s a serious problem. On the one hand, a doe may have an unsightly swelling on her neck but otherwise seem healthy and produce normally…then again, the inflammations can occur internally and kill an animal.

Abscesses scare beginners because they look like tumors. An inexperienced vet may make the same mistake.

The treatment is to leave the sore alone until it enlarges and softens. This may take months. Then lance the spot, clean out the pus, flush the wound with iodine or something similar and keep the doe away from the herd until the abscess has quit draining and has begun to heal. (The discharge is what spreads the infection.)

PINKEYE is an acute eye infection, known in most livestock, which may cause temporary blindness. It’s highly contagious and will probably go through the whole herd. Vets have good medications for treating the disease, and after two or three weeks the outbreak will be all over and the goats should be back to normal.

SOREMOUTH is another acute and highly contagious ailment. It causes ugly sores around the mouth and can be spread to the udder–with awful results–by nursing kids. The condition lasts two or three weeks, after which the afflicted animal should be immune. Isolate infected stock, sanitize bottle nipples, feed pans, etc., and make sure the patients are getting enough to eat.

KETOSIS or “pregnancy disease” is a metabolic upset which hits does in the last three weeks before kidding and can quickly kill them. The cause is uncertain but overfeeding or underfeeding, lack of exercise, an unbalanced diet and multiple births all fit into the picture.

Be concerned enough to call the vet if a female in late pregnancy goes off her feed or is listless. Ketosis is easy to diagnose with a chemically treated test strip dipped into the urine, and is doctored by various methods such as a drench of glycerine or propylene glycol, heavy feeding of brown sugar or molasses or intravenous administration of dextrose. These means are usually successful if you spot the condition soon enough.

ARTHRITIS, especially in young goats, is a problem in some herds. We don’t know the cause and there’s no really good treatment. Some goats have slight joint and leg troubles all their lives but do OK…others get progressively worse and must finally be destroyed.

“WASTING DISEASE” is a common goat breeders’ term for any ailment which causes loss of weight, emaciation and–finally–death. Sometimes the trouble is simple–severe parasitism, perhaps–but the reason might also be internal abscesses, Johne’s disease, kidney infections and many other sicknesses (including cancer).

TUBERCULOSIS and BRUCELLOSIS are two ailments everyone worries about because they can be passed to humans in raw milk. In reality, TB is unknown in dairy goats in the U.S. and brucellosis is extremely rare. Just to be certain, have your vet test the animals each year for these diseases.

That’s about it. I hope I’ve helped correct some of the misconceptions an inexperienced person might pick up from Grow It!’ s erroneous information. If you’re getting started with goats, get some advice from a veteran if you can…and if you must rely on a book, know the credentials of the author before you trust him too much.

Judy Kapture has raised goats for the past 20 years, currently cares about 100 animals and edits the “Dairy Goat Guide” section of Countryside magazine.

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