Crossing Goat Breeds for Milk Production
Breeding the Best Dairy Goats
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Some people raise a particular goat breed for milk, some for meat, and still others for fiber. Many breeders focus on one breed and develop a whole herd of purebreds, usually registered with The American Dairy Goat Association or the American Goat Society. This may be a preferred approach if you are planning to show your goats or if you just really like the traits and appearance of a particular breed. But many goat owners find that there are benefits to crossing certain goat breeds, depending on what their particular goals are, such as milk production.
Goat Breeds for Milk:
The American Dairy Goat Association currently recognizes eight dairy breeds with one more in review.* Each has slightly different strengths and assets:
Alpine – high milk production; thrives in any climate
Saanen – high milk production; calm disposition
Sable – same as Saanen but coat color is not white
Oberhasli – calm disposition; good milk production for size
Lamancha – calm disposition; produces well in variety of climates
Nubian – high butterfat and protein content in milk; mild tasting milk
Toggenburg – sturdy and vigorous; moderate milk production
Nigerian Dwarf – small size; high butterfat milk
Golden Guernsey* – calm disposition; smaller size; good conversion rate (food intake to milk production)
Many goat owners raise these dairy goat breeds for milk, but often they want to combine the strengths of two different breeds. This is known as breed complementarity. Some breeds excel in one area but not in another so choosing two different breeds for their different but complimentary traits can give you both traits in one crossbred package. For instance, when I started raising dairy goats many years ago, I loved the look of the Nubian (who can resist those long, floppy ears?) and I wanted that high butterfat and protein content for my cheesemaking. But since I had small children, I was drawn to the smaller size of the Nigerian Dwarf. So, I decided to cross the two breeds and began raising Mini Nubians. Another example of crossing goat breeds for milk production in a complimentary way is one than many commercial dairies utilize: the Saanen-Nubian or Alpine-Nubian cross. This gives the breeder the higher production of the Saanen or Alpine with the higher butterfat and milder taste of the milk from the Nubian.
Crossing goat breeds for milk production not only offers the advantage of breed complementarity but also of “hybrid vigor”, known as heterosis. Heterosis is the increase in performance of crossbred offspring relative to that of its purebred parents. The biggest impact that heterosis can have on herd improvement can be seen in traits that have low heritability. Examples of these lowly heritable traits are reproduction, longevity, maternal ability, and health. These traits are improved upon very slowly when just using selection as the tool, but when using heterosis as the method of improving a herd, the improvement is much quicker and more effective.
Other benefits of crossing goat breeds for milk production may also include hardiness and disease resistance. While most of the research on crossbreeding in goats focuses on improving production in meat goats, there is much anecdotal evidence that crossbreds can be healthier than their purebred counterparts.
David Miller and his wife Suanne run the Western Culture Farmstead & Creamery in Paonia, Colorado. David is in charge of the goats and Suanne makes the cheese. Together, they raise purebred Nubians and Saanens and often cross them. When they first started their operation in 2015, the Millers bought a few purebred Nubians and a few purebred Saanens from reputable breeders with good stock. The goal was to combine the benefits of both breeds in crossbred offspring (breed complementarity) while also maintaining some of their stock as purebreds. The Saanens were selected for their high output and long milking season along with a calmer disposition, and the Nubians for their higher butterfat and milder tasting milk. They breed some of them as purebreds, especially the Nubians because they like their genetics and adore the breed. They also crossbreed so they can combine traits as well as to have hardier and more disease resistant offspring. At this point, though, they are considering phasing out the Saanens because they are susceptible to UV damage and Colorado is very sunny. Seven years into their goat and cheesemaking venture, David says that their crossbreds have fewer health issues along with great milk yield and high butterfat. During the most recent kidding season, he found that the best all-around goats in his herd were the mixed breeds which had no health issues and easier births as well. Suanne enjoys having so much milk throughout a long milking season while also having the high butterfat and protein content that makes their cheese so delicious!
Goat breeders may also wish to cross breeds for milk production to enhance and support meat production. Desiree Closter and Matt O’Neil at Broken Gate Grove Goat Ranch in Sundre Alberta, Canada are a good example of this. They raise goats primarily for meat but found that the Boer does weren’t as good at mothering and feeding their babies as the Lamanchas they now use as their main cross. With the unpredictable weather where they live and the hands-free lifestyle they aim for, the Lamancha does just make their job easier. Early on, they experimented with different breeds including Nubian, Kiko, Saanen, and Spanish goats but in the end, they found that the Lamancha breed was the most complementary to the Boer breed for their purposes. Desiree says that the great meat qualities within the Boer billies goes very well with the hearty dairy qualities of the Lamancha nannies. She finds that the Lamancha does are the quickest and most efficient at kidding as well and getting the kids cleaned up and feeding in record time. And if they need to bottle feed some of the babies, the Lamanchas are great for hand-milking. By crossing Boer bucks with Lamancha does, they get the hands-off freedom they are aiming for while achieving their goals of meat production and herd expansion. Plus, they have enough milk to not only feed all their babies but to also have a little left over to enjoy themselves.
Another benefit of crossing some breeds may be parasite resistance. It is well-known that gastro-intestinal parasites have developed resistance to all of our currently available dewormers. The main cause of this resistance is overuse or frequent deworming, particularly when there is no clinical need. Until a new, less-resistant drug is developed, one option that goat owners have is to select breeds or individuals within a herd that have higher resistance to parasites and cross them with those who are more susceptible. For instance, the Kiko, Spanish, and Myotonic goats tend to be more resistant to parasites than Boers, Nubians and other breeds so crossing with one of these more resistant breeds may help improve a herd’s overall ability to resist the ravaging effects of parasite infection.
When it comes to figuring out what the best dairy goats for you might be, don’t rule out the many benefits of crossing goat breeds for milk production, meat production or just for that cuteness and sweetness factor!
Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.