Comparing Milk from Different Dairy Goat Breeds
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Whether one is looking for a better cheese, a creamier milk, great quantity, or some other nutritional factor, there is certain to be a dairy goat breed that can meet the need.
Sherri Talbot When talking about “milk” in the United States, most people automatically think of the product of cows, the juice from an almond, or perhaps soy milk. However, since all mammals produce milk, sheep, water buffalo, yak, camels, and horses have had their milk harvested in various cultures throughout history. Cow milk is actually the outlier for much of human history. Even today, goat milk nourishes about 65% of the world’s population.
There are many reasons for the goat’s popularity. Goats are excellent at transferring roughage to meat and milk, and goat milk is a reasonably cheap source of protein in many parts of the world. Goat milk nutrition has been described as being complete enough that goat milk can actually be used as a meal supplement. Goat milk is healthier, easier to digest than cow milk, and medicinal uses have been suggested for goat milk. These include benefits to those suffering from ulcers.
Despite this, goat milk is one of the least purchased types of milk — or non-dairy replacement — in the United States. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports moderate increases in goat milk purchases in the last decade, but it remains far down the list of preferences after cow milk and most non-dairy substitutes. Perhaps because of this lack of awareness, few people — even in the dairy industry — study the nutrition differences between goat milk from different breeds. One can find innumerable papers on the differences between goat and cow milk or even between goat milk and milk from humans, but breed comparison studies are harder to locate.
There are about 500 breeds worldwide, and while the breeds of goats kept for milk vary throughout the world, eight are generally considered the best milk producers. These included Saanen, Alpine, Nubian, Sable, Toggenburg, La Mancha, Oberhasli, and (in the United States) the Nigerian Dwarf. The Nigerian Dwarf is an interesting addition since its production levels are too low to even be considered a dairy goat in most countries. However, its high butterfat content and convenient size make it a popular choice for small-scale farming in the United States.
While some or all of the above breeds were included in all the studies surveyed, some research also compared the milkers to native breeds or discussed dual-purpose breeds. Researchers noted that their studies were affected by the goat’s diet, stage of lactation, and the environment in which they were raised, resulting in variations between studies.
Alpines and Saanen are the peak of dairy production in goats, both averaging around 2,700 pounds of milk a year. Even here, there are comparison differences. The Saanen is considered by many to be the superior goat because its milk production is more consistent in quantity over time. Alpine production is often valued for its higher calcium content and, according to some studies, higher protein levels (other studies found the two to be equivalent levels). However, milk production in the Alpine can wax and wane, depending on the lactation cycle.
Oberhasli and Nubian average around 2,000 pounds — give or take — with the Oberhasli averaging as the better producer of the two breeds. The LaMancha and Toggenburg fall in the middle at about 2,200 pounds, and the Sable just under 2,400 pounds. The Nigerian Dwarf lags well behind the rest of the pack at an average milk production of under 800 pounds per year.
However, quantity isn’t the only factor when deciding on a dairy goat breed. The most popular goat milk product in the U.S. isn’t milk; it’s cheese. This is why, even with lower production, Nigerian Dwarf goats remain popular. Their 6.2% average fat content makes them easily the most superior cheese-making goat. Saanens may be far more productive in milk quantity, but their 3.3% fat content average pales in comparison. Also, for those more familiar with whole or raw cow milk, the mouth feel of Nigerian Dwarf milk may be more comfortable. The thickness of the milkfat coats the mouth in a way that lower-fat goat milk does not. Alpine milk, for instance, is more like skim or low-fat cow milk.
Nigerian Dwarf goats, as well as many dual-purpose goats, not only have a higher fat content but higher protein content as well. The Nigerian Dwarf boasts an average of 4.4% protein, while the higher-producing breeds — Alpine, Oberhasli, Saanen, Sable, and Toggenburg — all average 2.9 to 3%. Only the Nubian comes close to the Nigerian’s impressive rate and still falls short at 3.8% protein.
These are not just traits between the commonly known breeds, either. Some studies suggest that milk from goat breeds not specialty bred for milk production contains higher levels of fat and protein. These studies show dual-purpose and indigenous breeds far outstripping traditional dairy breeds in both areas. For instance, the Jamnapari goat, a dual-purpose breed from India, outclassed the Alpine, Sanaan, and Toggenburg in studies. Interestingly, the indigenous breeds also tended toward higher levels of lactose than specialized dairy breeds in one study — an important detail for those sensitive to lactose.
Vitamins play a role in milk nutrition as well. Between breeds, however, the mineral composition of the goat’s output is significantly affected by diet, environment, and the health of the animals1 While cows may all be fed similar diets, goats tend to be grazers. This can result in individual animals gravitating towards their preferred vegetation, resulting in different intakes even within the same herd — much less between breeds in different herds. Therefore, while Nubians may be recommended by one study for their levels of calcium, potassium, and magnesium, another study may point to Alpines. In many studies, these trace minerals were not analyzed at all. In all cases, caution was recommended by the researchers about the role of external factors in the nutritional makeup of goat milk.
Lack of information on certain popular breeds also makes comparison difficult. Despite the Toggenburg, LaMancha, and Oberhasli goats being popular breeds, there is very little information on their nutritional makeup other than production ability and fat content. Since the other breeds discussed are either good producers or tend to have higher fat content, this oversight may be due to the tendency to study the outliers more closely than those who are more “middle of the pack.”
With about 500 goat breeds, there is certainly more room for research on this matter. Whether one is looking for a better cheese, a creamier milk, great quantity, or some other nutritional factor, there is certain to be a dairy goat breed that can meet the need.
- Aliah Zannierah Mohsin, Rashidah Sukor, Jinap Selamat, Anis Shobirin Meor Hussin & Intan Hakimah Ismail (2019) Chemical and mineral composition of raw goat milk as affected by breed varieties available in Malaysia, International Journal of Food Properties, 22:1, 815-824, DOI: 10.1080/10942912.2019.1610431
- Getaneh G, Mebrat A, Wubie A, Kendie H (2016) Review on Goat Milk Composition and Its Nutritive Value. J Nutr Health Sci 3(4): 401. doi: 10.15744/2393-9060.3.401 Volume 3 | Issue 4 Journal of Nutrition and Health Sciences.
- Noor Aidawati Salleh, Jinap Selamat, Goh Yong Meng, Faridah Abas, Nuzul Noorahya Jambari & Alfi Khatib (2019) Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and multivariate analysis of milk from different goat breeds, International Journal of Food Properties, 22:1, 1673-1683, DOI: 10.1080/10942912.2019.1668803
- PennState Extension. (2022). Agricultural Alternatives: Dairy Goat Production. https://extension.psu.edu/dairy-goat-production.
- Shuvarikov, A S; Pastukh, O N; Zhukova, E V; Zheltova, O A. (2021). The quality of milk of goats of Saanen, Alpine and Nubian breeds IOP Conference Series. Earth and Environmental Science; Bristol Vol. 640, (3) DOI:10.1088/1755-1315/640/3/032031