[This article is part 2 of a series. For the first article, about why you may want to keep dairy goats, click here.]
Here is some of the basic information you should know if you’re considering keeping dairy goats:
- First of all, female goats are called does. Male goats are bucks. Baby goats are called kids. Does have two teats on their udder (unlike cows, who have four), and they “freshen” (or, begin to produce milk) after they “kid” (or, give birth). Bucks never give milk, and does that have never kidded will not produce milk either.
- Goats need companionship. You cannot have just one goat, unless you have other animals (like sheep or cows) to keep it company. We started with just one goat, and she became great buddies with our calves. If you bring one goat home, though, it will be nervous, noisy, and it will likely try to run away to find a herd.
- Goats require good fencing. Goats are relatively intelligent, and they climb on things, and they test fences. If they can figure out how to get through your fence, they’ll make a mess of your fencing, and escape regularly. If they learn quickly that your fence is adequate, they’ll leave it alone.
- Goats need shelter. A three-sided barn or shed is appropriate. It should shield them from wind and rain. It does not need to be big.
- Goats prefer broad-leaf plants over grass. If your goats only have access to grass and nothing else, they will eat it, but they will prefer anything with broad leaves if it’s there. Goats are “browsers”, not “grazers”. They will eat bark off your trees if they can.
- Goats wear collars. A loose-fitting collar is appropriate, and it will make it very easy to guide your goat wherever you would want to lead it. If you do not put collars on your goats, they are considerably more difficult to move around.
- About breeding: Does can be bred when they are about a year old, or when they weigh 70 lbs (for full-size breeds). Does are usually re-bred every year; in some European areas, does are bred only twice, and then they’re kept in milk after the second breeding. Breeding season is usually August to January, and goats are pregnant for five months. It is possible to artificially inseminate a goat, but it is most common to have natural breedings.
- About kidding: Goats usually have two kids, but it is also common for a doe to have one or three kids; four or more kids at once is possible, but very uncommon. Does are usually able to kid by themselves, but it’s good to try to be present if possible, to help with potential complications, and to be sure that the kids are cleaned off and fed.
- Milking: Does are milked 2 or 3 times a day. They can be milked by hand or with a machine. Once you know what you’re doing, it takes about 5-10 minutes to hand milk each doe. Some breeds must be milked as close to 12 hours apart as possible or they will reduce production, other breeds are more forgiving.
- Registration: Standard dairy goats can be registered through the ADGA; the American Dairy Goat Association. Other types of goats have their own registries. Registered goats usually cost more to purchase, but they’re nice because you know what you’re getting, and then also you can sell registered kids for more money. If your goats are registered, you will need to tattoo your kids.
- Goats almost always have horns. Does and bucks are all born with horns, except for some goats that carry a special gene that makes them hornless. Responsible and experienced goat owners will dehorn (or ‘disbud’) goat kids when they are still very young. Goats are constantly butting heads to determine (and re-determine) (and re-determine) (and re-determine) who is the boss of the herd; without horns, their head-butting is not a big deal. With horns, goats can easily hurt each other (or people). It is a bad idea to buy a dairy goat that has horns. You will also have trouble selling a goat that has horns. When your does kid, you will either need to buy or borrow a disbudding iron, have a vet disbud them, or sell the kids very early to someone else who can disbud them.
- About males: Typically, you’ll only need one buck, and you’ll only need him for a little while during breeding season. Once bucks are older than a year or so, they’ll begin to urinate all over themselves, to attract the ladies. Bucks stink! If you keep a smelly buck with your does, it will affect the flavor of their milk. Unless you have several does, you should consider either renting a buck or buying one just for breeding season and then selling it. Since bucks don’t produce milk, usually only the best bucks are kept to breed does. Extra dairy bucks are typically used for meat. Bucks can also be castrated, which will prevent them from becoming smelly; a castrated buck is called a ‘wether’. These guys make decent pets or weed-eaters, or you can let them grow for a year and then eat them as meat.
- Hooves: All goats need their hooves trimmed. This is a pretty easy task, but it needs to be done with some regularity; about once a month is sufficient, or once every two weeks if you want to take the time.
- Life expectancy: Does usually live 10-11 years, and they usually die from complications during kidding. If you “retire” a doe a little earlier than this, she may live to be 18 years old, or close to that.
Now that we’ve covered some basic information about keeping dairy goats, next time we’ll look at some popular goat breeds, and then we’ll discuss how to prepare for keeping dairy goats.