Getting Started With the Best Goats for Milk
A Guide to Getting Started in Goat Farming
Reading Time: 7 minutes
By Heather Smith Thomas
Goats are fun to raise, and many people milk goats for their own use (for milk, and maybe cheese or other goat milk products) and some milk goats commercially. Here are some tips for getting started with the best goats for milk.
Caroline Lawson (TLC Farms, Franklin, Texas) got her first goats in 1992. “My husband and I bought property and needed an agricultural exemption, and goats seemed a good fit. We purchased Nubians from a petting zoo, and they were the foundation of our herd,” she explains.
“One thing led to another, and today we have about 30 goats, and I make soap and lotions from goat milk.” This enterprise makes enough money to pay for their feed.
“Many people who get goats don’t do it in a way that is sustainable, however. They eventually decide they can’t continue,” she says. If more of them could figure out ways to make it pay, they might stay with it longer.
“There’s a lot of information available, with Facebook groups and local clubs. Agriculture-based universities often have classes. Our local goat club puts on a clinic every January covering various subjects, with speakers to talk to the group. A good way to learn about raising dairy goats, however, is to find a mentor with many years’ experience,” Lawson says.
Before you get goats, check with your local zoning regulations to see if raising goats is permitted and, if so, how many you can legally have. You also need a goat-proof fence so they can’t get out and bother your neighbors.
Do some homework before selecting a breed. There are many breeds, but only a handful commonly considered the best goats for milk — such as Alpine, Saanen, Oberhasli, and Toggenburg goats that originated in the Swiss mountains. These breeds do well in cooler climates. Nubian goats do well in hot summers.
Lawson says several breeds work well for dairy in addition to specific dairy breeds. “Nigerian Dwarf goats can be milked, and you can raise them on a small acreage; some people keep them in their back yards in areas that don’t have restrictions on farm animals.”
Dwarf goats are generally not hand-milked. Their teats are too small for easy hand-milking. Even though they don’t give as much milk as some of the larger goats, their milk is high in butterfat and makes good cheese.
Most goat people recommend getting at least two goats because a lone goat won’t be happy. You might want two does (females) or a doe and a wether (castrated male). With two does, you can stagger the breeding to produce milk year-round. If they both have kids at the same time, you’ll have some months with lots of milk and some months without any.
You need access to a buck to breed females, but a buck is not worth the hassle or expense for just one or two does. You might make arrangements with a local goat breeder to borrow a buck, or use artificial insemination (AI). The does usually have twins (sometimes triplets) so you need a plan for what to do with kids after weaning. You can keep doelings if you want to expand your herd, or sell them, and butcher the castrated bucklings or sell them for meat.
Dr. Joan Dean Rowe (a veterinarian on faculty at University of California-Davis) first had dairy goats as a 4-H project when she was a child, learning about animal care and health, and this led to her becoming a veterinarian.
She says dairy goats are great for children, to help teach them about responsible care, milking twice a day, etc. Two of the best goats for milk will produce enough — with each doe averaging three quarts a day for up to 10 months — to feed your family all year.
Goats have a short generation. “In the course of 1½ years, you can breed the does, have kids born, raise them, and have them giving birth themselves at a year of age. This is ideal for 4-H and FFA projects, for young people to learn about genetic selection and see the fruit of their efforts as breeders,” says Rowe.
Does are typically bred in the fall. They should be eight months old or at least 80 pounds (unless it’s a small breed) before being bred. Does come into heat for three days every 18 to 21 days. If you have a buck, keep does separate from him until they come into heat. Once bred, they should be separated again, or their milk (if they are lactating does) may have a bad flavor.
Kidding takes place about 150 days after breeding. If she is continuously milked, a doe will lactate for up to 10 months. She should be allowed to dry up for at least two months before having kids again.
Dairy goats produce so much milk that you can let their kids nurse and still have plenty for your use. After the kids are at least two weeks old, you can confine them overnight and milk the doe in the morning, and then let the kids be with mom through the rest of the day before locking them up again for the night.
Most people feed grain to the does while they are being milked. Proper nutrition is important for lactating females. “High-producing animals need a balanced ration for best health and production over a long lifespan,” says Rowe.
A lactating doe needs good-quality hay or pasture. She also needs grain that’s 16-18% protein, fed twice a day for a total daily intake of about 2½-3% of her body weight. A 200-pound doe needs about five pounds of concentrate, plus high-quality hay. The concentrate ration can be divided between milkings, if you are milking twice daily.
Many goat dairies remove the kids at birth and bottle-feed them, first with the doe’s colostrum and then with her milk for 10 to 14 days while transitioning them to milk replacer. Colostrum can be heat treated (133 degrees F for one hour) to avoid infecting the kids with caprine arthritis-encephalitis (a virus that can be passed from the dam to the newborn kid via her colostrum), but heating colostrum destroys the antibodies, and it cannot provide passive immunity to other diseases.
“Goat kids are often hand-reared, so their dams can be milked twice a day. Goats require a lot of care and attention to their welfare and social needs,” says Rowe.
It’s important to keep milking time consistent, about 12 hours apart. Ensure your milking equipment is clean (and your hands, if milking by hand), and chill the milk as soon as you’ve milked.
There are similarities between cow dairies and goat dairies, but goats are more labor-intensive. Cows and goats both need proper care to maintain a healthy udder, such as pre-milking hygiene and post-milking teat-dipping. “Milking machines must be properly maintained and monitored, and the animals need clean bedding areas to prevent mastitis,” says Rowe.
You need more goats to obtain the same milk production level (about 10 goats to one cow). “The main cost that’s higher with goats is labor. To maintain healthy udders (using teat dip, single-use paper towels, etc.), your per liter/gallon of milk cost would be a little higher with goats because you have more goats than cows — even though a cow has four teats and a goat has two. Some of the preparation steps come to a higher unit cost, per gallon of milk produced,” she says.
When it’s time to dry up a doe, do it gradually by reducing the concentrate portion of her diet over seven to 10 days and feed her lesser-quality grass hay or pasture. If she doesn’t start to dry up, reduce the hay and restrict water for a few days. The doe may be uncomfortable with a full udder, but if you feel sorry for her and milk her, it will take longer for her dry up. The pressure from a full udder stops her milk production, and the milk within her udder gradually resorbs.
“Many people have misconceptions about goats. If they are used for brush control, that diet would be insufficient to support reproduction and milk production. I live in a fire-impacted area, and in California, many municipalities hire goat herds for brush control. These should not be animals that are kidding and raising kids,” she says.
The ADGA (American Dairy Goat Association) is a good source of information about goats — raising them, milking them, etc. Their website includes information for people who want to start dairying. “There are also Cooperative Extension resources at land grant universities and a Dairy Goat Production Handbook,” says Rowe.
Commercial dairies, or anyone producing food for the public, must follow state and federal regulations. “There are some misconceptions among herd owners in remote areas or who have a few goats. They may not be aware that every state has laws governing wholesome food production. For food safety, it’s important to work with the local dairy inspector and dairy foods division to understand what can legally be done with your own dairy goats. No one wants a public health problem due to inappropriate handling of milk or production of cheese. Commercial dairies that invest in monitoring, licensing, etc., want to ensure a wholesome product for human consumption,” says Rowe.
Do your homework; make sure you comply with all relevant regulations. “The AGDA has directors from each of their eight districts, who can help direct local goat owners to appropriate resources in their area. This might be Cooperative Extension services, or veterinary practices/services, or breeders as a source of stock and information. There are also educational events in many states,” she says.
“In California, the University of California-Davis has an annual goat day every January. With the pandemic, we have used a virtual format. There are also state dairy goat associations and universities that offer educational programs for people with dairy goats.”
Originally published in the May/June 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.