Goats are a practical dairy animal to have in a small setting, and they are delightful company, but there are a few things to keep in mind before you run out and get some. If you have a job as well as an urban-farming impulse, pay close attention to the timesaving techniques listed here.
1. Goats require excellent fencing, because they prefer brush, shrubs, and trees to grass and will destroy your plantings if they get a chance. The fencing also has to be sturdy enough to protect them from other people’s dogs, as well as coyotes and other wildlings.
2. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t “eat anything,” and in fact are picky eaters who can be expensive to feed.
3. They are very productive. This doesn’t sound like a problem until your refrigerator is crammed with mason jars of milk and you have no time to do anything useful with it.
4. To have milk, they have to have babies, and you have to have a plan for what to do with the babies.
With that in mind, here’s how I manage my “yard goats.”
They have a long thin pen, about 8 feet by 50 feet, very well fenced. There is an inside fence and gate allowing the paddock to be subdivided 1/3 to 2/3rds.
Housing is a large old wooden doghouse. They go inside in wet weather, but most of the time they lounge and sleep on the roof.
The bulk of their diet is good alfalfa. During the green season I cut armloads of Siberian elm branches and various weeds for them. I take care to know all the toxic weeds in my area so that I can avoid them, and there are some perfectly wholesome plants that they won’t touch. In late pregnancy and when in milk, they get a daily grain ration. I would like to produce milk completely on green feed, but they get too thin, so I haven’t pushed it. All grain ration needs to be formulated specifically for goats, since they have exacting mineral requirements.
They get routine clostridium and tetanus vaccinations yearly, twice for kids.
I don’t invest in milking stands or other expensive equipment. I just chain the doe to her feeding post, kneel down on a pat of straw, and milk directly into a stainless steel milk strainer with filter in place; this is set in the mouth of a sanitized mason jar, and I have a second jar ready. The jar, filter in place, is set in a clean food-grade plastic bucket to prevent kicking and to avoid any contact with the ground. Each jar is capped as soon as it’s full, and I put them in the refrigerator as soon as I’m done. This only works with quart jars, because they are small enough to cool rapidly in the refrigerator. If you use bigger containers, you would need to chill the containers quickly in an ice bath. This adds up to more hassle and expense. I prefer to keep it simple. I use standard udder wipes to clean the udder before milking, but I don’t dip the teats afterwards because the babies are going to be nursing.
Now here’s the part that is a little unusual compared to standard practices. I only milk once a day. This is because my career doesn’t allow me the luxury of milking twice daily and bottle-raising the kids. So I let the kids grow as nature intended. After the does freshen (give birth,) I leave the kids with mama full-time and milk out any excess milk once a day. For the first two weeks, I feed the milk to the chickens because it contains colostrum. There isn’t a lot of milk these first two weeks anyway. After that the milk supply will gradually increase, reaching full production after two months. I continue to milk once a day, and about a month after the birth, when the kids are growing fast and drinking nearly all the milk, I start to shut the kids in the small end of the pen for about 12 hours a day. I do this in the morning before going to work, and in the evening I milk and then let mom and kids back together overnight. Both doe and kids have access to all the alfalfa they can eat, and the doe gets a grain ration while being milked.
By the time the kids are two months old, I can take a day off milking here and there if I want to, just by not separating them in the morning. If I have to go out of town, doe and kids stay together and, as long as a reliable person feeds them, they do fine until I get back. Managed in this way, my Saanan doe Magnolia gives two quarts of milk a day plus what her offspring drink, and the kids are raised with no trouble to me, which seems like a good deal. After about 8 months the doe will start kicking the kids away when they try to nurse, but at this point I’m ready to quit for the year anyway, so I let her dry up. Along the way she’s been bred, and we can all wait quietly through the winter for the next batch of kids. It wouldn’t work commercially, when a steady supply is crucial, but it suits me fine to be free of milking chores during the short days of winter.
If you are thinking of getting goats, keep those kids in mind, because you have to do something with them. You may be able to place the females as “yard goats” for others, but about half your kids will be male and the only real market for them is for meat. If you don’t eat them yourself, someone else is likely to. Goat is one of the most widely eaten meats on the planet, and the meat of young goats is delicious, so do consider having your excess kids butchered for your own use. It’s a good healthy meat source
To get milk you need babies, and to get babies you need access to a buck. In my opinion, it is unwise even to think of keeping a buck in an urban or suburban setting. They smell terrible in breeding season, and your family and neighbors will not appreciate it. This is the sort of thing that gives urban homesteading a bad name. Find a breeder with a buck, or pair up with a rural pal who is willing to keep a buck.
Set a firm limit on how many goats you are going to keep, and stick to it. For me, that limit is two adult does, with kids in season, but no additional goats kept over the winter. And get the wonderful cookbook Goat, to help you stick to your limit.