America: Back to the (Goat) Farm
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In a nation of increasing urbanization, more Americans are finding something is missing from their lives: dirt. Specifically, they’re missing a connection to nature and to their food sources.
This may account, in part, why goat ownership is on the rise. Unlike other livestock that require far larger accommodations (such as cows or horses), goats can get by on relatively little space.
Pop culture is also profiling goats like never before. They’re being used for everything from therapy animals to yoga aids. They even contribute toward good health because of intangible benefits such as lowering blood pressure and just laughing out loud at their antics. As people discover how useful, enjoyable, and restorative these little hoofed companions can be, they often become the animal of choice when someone obtains a little land.
Consider Charles, a single dad with partial custody of one son and a stressful job doing contract work for a large government agency. After years of living in the city, Charles was able to purchase a fixer-upper on two acres on the outskirts of town. His first thought? Goats.
“I needed something that wasn’t über high-maintenance,” he explained. “Right now, I have two wethers to eat down the brush. I’m using them as transition animals. Eventually, I want does I can milk, but these wethers will teach me how to take care of goats first.”
Charles finds himself among a growing type of backyard goat owners. He has no interest in professional breeding, showing animals in fairs, dairying on a commercial scale, or even getting more critters than he can easily house. Instead, his goats are for stress relief, a touch of nature, and the chance to learn the rudimentary basics of animal husbandry with animals that aren’t physically intimidating. Plus, they control weeds.
While commercial goat enterprises are on the rise — providing everything from milk and other dairy products (cheese, yogurt, etc.), meat and leather, and organic weed control on an industrial scale — it is the trend toward individual husbandry that is garnering attention. Those discovering the joys of goat ownership are recapturing many of the benefits of why goats were domesticated in the first place: they’re an all-in-one convenience store on the hoof, providing milk, cheese, yogurt, and (yes) even meat in one neat package.
On the surface, it appears goat milk may be driving the latest trend in caprine ownership. Worldwide, the most popular milk source is goats. In the United States where cows are queen, goats run a distant second … except among people interested in obtaining their own milk animals. In these situations, goats are the number-one choice.
Arguably goat milk is healthier. It has more calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin C than cow’s milk. Because it’s naturally homogenized, it’s easier to digest (about 20 minutes vs. two to four hours for cow’s milk).
Then there is the cost. A gallon of goat’s milk is often $9 at the (health food) store. If you want goat’s milk, often it’s cheaper to raise the animal yourself.
Hand-in-glove with benefits of milk are the benefits to the environment. Goats don’t pack as damaging an environmental punch. Their diet is more forgiving, their manure is not as big an issue, they produce less methane, they can be supported on smaller acreage, and altogether their carbon “hoofprint” is far better than that of cows.
Many backyard goat owners are attempting to retake control of their food supply. In recent years, dairies (both cow and goat) are often pressured to “get big or get out.” For goat dairies to make a profit, they must think big. It takes up to 10 goats to equal the milk of one cow, so to compete with commercial cow dairies, goat dairies need to milk at least 1000 goats to have a viable business — and this means bottle feeing at least 2000 kids. The only way for goat dairies to make it on a commercial scale is to get more and more goats.
This widespread consolidation is often the final push to those who have been thinking about getting their own dairy animal, where they can control how animals are kept and how the milk is processed. A barnyard with one or two milking goats and some chickens is a happy compromise — which is where Charles sees himself in a year or two.
Just as backyard chickens have seen an astronomical rise, backyard goats are increasingly found in urban areas. With some limitations, goats are now legal in Seattle, San Diego, San Francisco, Pasadena, St. Louis, Oakland, Portland, Cleveland, Fort Worth, Berkeley, and St. Paul. Most cities require bucks to be neutered, and usually miniatures are the only breeds permitted. Fencing is key — not just to keep the goats in, but to keep dogs and other predators out. Some areas, such as Spokane, Washington, require goat owners within city boundaries to be certified.
The key, apparently, to raising urban livestock is getting the neighbors involved in a positive way. Livestock ownership, even on a small urban scale, can be eye-opening to some urbanites as they cope with such realities as castrating buck calves, dehorning, separating babies from mothers, and an unrelenting milking schedule. Goats need routine veterinary care for booster shots, deworming, and hoof maintenance. And of course, they must be fed. Some people decide the work is too much and let their animals go. Others, however, fall in love with the process and dive into backyard homesteading with enthusiasm.
Last but not least is the stress relief. This is one of the reasons Charles bought his wethers. “I get home from work,” he says, “and the first thing I do is go check the goats. I can feel my blood pressure drop. The stress just melts out of me.” He admits to just sitting and watching his animals romp and play for an hour or more at a time.
Science has learned petting an animal promotes the release of serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin — all hormones that can play a part in elevating moods. Relaxing with backyard goats can help lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, slow breathing, even diminish overall physical pain. That’s a lot of benefits from just watching caprines play on their jungle gym.
And the milk is amazing.
Originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.