For most of us, backyard homesteaders and front lawn ranchers, a goat is just the right fit for a farm animal. A cow is just too big (what are you going to do with 8 gallons of milk a cow produces daily?), a hampster is not likely to produce much milk, and cats tend to scratch you when you try to feed them hey.
A goat will put on your table between 1/2 a gallon and one gallon of highly nutritious milk a day, will take less than 1/10 of feed a cow requires, serve the world's most fuel-efficient lawnmower, two-horn backyard protection system, and the star clowns on the hoof circus.
What Are Goats?
A goat is a domesticated species of goat antelope, likely originating in Asia and eastern Europe, a member of the family Bovidae (a close cousin to sheep). The first mentions of domesticated goats living with humans date back over 10,000 years ago. They were a reliable staple food source of both nomadic as well as farming cultures throughout the world.
Why Raise Goats?
Goat's milk is far more nutritious than cow's milk. It has a higher percentage of both fat and proteins, with most breeds averaging above 4 percent. This higher nutrient percentage is great for your health and much better for making cheeses, yogurts, and other milk products.
More than two out of three adults have issues digesting cow's milk thanks to the high levels of lactose. Goat's milk is much lower in lactose, and its fat globules are smaller and easier to digest.
The common complaint that goat's milk tastes goaty and stronger than cow's milk is mostly due to improper storage. Goat's milk spoils easily if kept above 38 degrees, and milk we buy at the store has been stored at that higher temperature in transport.
Goat meat has a stronger flavor than beef, similar to venison, but not as gamey as sheep. It's much lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in iron and potassium. The flavor of goat's meat varies significantly between different breeds and, like most other animals, gets worse with age.
While not as popular as beef or pork, goat's meat is gaining a huge fan base in the US, getting to the point where goat's meat is priced almost double compared to beef.
Goats' wool has long been held in high regard around the world. While most wool comes from sheep, cashmere and mohair wool comes from cashmere and angora goats and are the best you can get when it comes to keeping yourself warm and comfy in miserable weather.
Goats as a guard dog. No, goats are not likely to bring your slippers (never met a dog that would do that either) or bark at an intruder on your property, but there is a reason why goats were traditionally kept with a flock of sheep.
While most breeds are sweeter than sugar to their owners, they will protect themselves and hold firmly that the best defense is a good offense. Few creatures will volunteer to face goat's horns and their mean disposition when threatened.
Goats as entertainment and companions. Goats have personalities. Huge, funny personalities. They are friendly, often too affectionate, and love to velcro themselves to their owner's feet.
Goats are pack animals and need to be around buddies, and that temperament easily transfers to their owners. On the downside -you can't keep just one goat. It will be noisy, destructive, and depressed, which in time will turn into health issues.
Picking the right goat is a simple matter of knowing exactly what you're looking for and what you want to avoid. As with any farm animal(or a pet, for that matter), this is a commitment that lasts years and is worth careful consideration. Let's take a quick look at the most popular goat breeds in North America and the benefits they offer:
Saanen goats. Despite their exotic-sounding name, Saanen goats, like the majority of European goat breeds, hail from Switzerland. It's one of the most common milk-producing breeds worldwide, favorited for its reliable milk production (up to 1.5 gallons a day), hardiness, calm temperament, and adaptability to climate extremes.
LaMancha goats are a very popular milk breed, partly because they produce milk for almost two years without being refreshed(re-impregnated). LaMancha goats were brought to the United States from Spain by early immigrants.
Since then, this breed has acquired a huge following thanks to milk with high butterfat content, friendly personalities, and overall hardiness. LaMancha goats can grow up to 30 inches tall at the withers and weigh up to 165 lbs. You can easily identify them by their barely present ears.
Nigerian Dwarf Goats
Nigerian dwarf goats are a miniature breed that produces very impressive amounts of delicious (not goaty tasting in the slightest!) high-fat and high-protein milk. They are less than half the size compared to most other goat breeds, averaging between 50 and 75 lbs when fully grown and standing 22 to 24 inches tall.
Despite their small stature, Nigerian dwarf goats can produce almost half a gallon of milk daily. It's a lot less than most other full-sized breeds, but it's a blessing in disguise. Unless you're running a professional milk-selling operation, half a gallon a day, seven days a week is almost more than most families can use.
Add to that the fact that half the size equals half the feed and space needed, one of the calmest and friendliest personalities in the goat world, and the ability to successfully adjust to just about any climate out there, and it's clear why Nigerian dwarf goats are one of the most popular breeds in the world and especially the United States.
Nubian goats are known for high butterfat levels in their milk, making them a perfect breed if you're planning on making yogurts, cheeses, etc. They don't produce as much milk as their European cousins, but a gallon of milk daily is very common.
This breed has been developed in Britain and is a mixture of Asian, African, and European breeds, easily identified by their big, floppy ears and huge, wind-back horns.
Nubians are a taller breed, growing up to 32 inches in the withers (highest point of the back) but somewhat lighter built, with males averaging around 140 lbs. Nubian goats were a go-to breed as "do it all goats," raised for top-quality milk and meat by farmers worldwide.
Obergasli goats are a medium-sized goat breed, growing up to 32 inches tall and 150 lbs in weight. Obergasli goats are famous for their friendly temperament and ability to produce over 1600 gallons of milk each season.
They are one of the most reliable milk producers and, thanks to their stout and muscular size, are used as pack goats (yes, that's a thing). For a backyard ranch, they offer dependable, high-volume milk production, meat if needed, and an easy-going, quiet personality.
Boer goats are a South African breed, developed by the dutch settlers and whose name literally means" dutch farmer's goat" They are one the most prevalent meat goat breeds in the world thanks to their impressive size, fertility, and fast growth rate.
Male Boer goats can reach up to 290 lbs making them a handful for a backyard goat operation but putting a very impressive amount of meat in your freezer.
Myotonic goats are commonly known as "fainting goats." This breed suffers from a rare affliction, myotonia, where a goat's limbs and neck involuntarily stiffen and straighten if frightened, making them topple over. Fainting goats stay in immobile condition for no more than 20 seconds, and it seems to be a pretty effective defense mechanism.
Myotonic goats grow between 17 and 25 inches tall and up to 145 lbs.
Spanish goats were introduced to America through Mexico and became a very popular breed in the southern states. Originally they've been used for brush and grass control(much more effective than a lawnmower), but they are a very efficient meat breed since they grow fast and breed out of season (they can have litters more than once a year).
Spanish goats are also exceptionally hardy, able to survive and thrive in climate extremes from bone-dry east Texas to freezing Alaska.
Kiko goats originate in New Zealand, and the name of the breed literally means "meat" in Maori. This meat breed is famous for the extreme hardiness achieved by decades of crossbreeding native wild goats with a variety of European and Indian stock.
Kiko goats were introduced into the United States in the early 90s and took off like a wild-storm. Combining their innate hardiness and perfect mothering ability that's lost in so many domestic goat breeds, Kiko goats are a great choice for a household considering getting into raising goats for meat.
Pygmy goats are a close cousin of Nigerian dwarf goats, originating from the same African breeds. In the mid-twentieth century, a variety of goats were shipped from west African states, with big cats heading to the zoos to serve as a quick lunch that did not require refrigeration.
Thankfully, lions left a few unharmed, and those leftovers went on to become the start of the involuntary breeding program resulting in this popular breed.
Pygmy goats are about the same size as Nigerian dwarfs but much stockier, 20-22 inches tall, and 60-70 lbs. Today they've mostly raised as pets thanks to their friendly temperament, but for a backyard rancher with limited space, they are a very viable meet goat option.
Raising goats for fiber is a bit more involved and not very common for a small-scale goat rancher, but just in case you want to give it a try, these three breeds are some of the best to start with:
Angora goats are the quintessential fiber breed. Mohair, the fiber they produce, is highly prized, and they produce a ton of it. Angora goats can be milked, but the little milk you will gain is not really worth the effort, and while their meat is prized in the far east cuisine, they grow slowly and are not very efficient at converting feed to meat.
On the plus side, this breed is very friendly and calm, making handling them a snap for a novice goat rancher.
Cashmere goats originate in the Kashmere valley of India and are considered one of the oldest domesticated goat breeds, with reports of them being raised for thousands of years. The name "cashmere" is a variation of the pronunciation of the name of the valley they were discovered in.
Cashmere is a goat's fur undercoat, and all goats sport some, but most breeds don't grow enough to be useable. Cashmere goats, on the other hand, grow enough undercoat to make it commercially useful thanks to evolving in harsh mountainous regions.
Cashmere fiber makes the best wool available-thinner, lighter, and stronger than sheep's wool. Cashmere goats are on the smaller side(they appear much larger thanks to the abundance of fur covering them) and rarely grow bigger than two feet tall and 60 lbs.
Altai Mountain Goats
Altai mountain goat was developed in the mountainous Caucasus regions of what used to be the soviet union during the middle of the last century by crossing domestic European breeds with the local wild mountain goats. The cross offered better hardiness, bigger size, faster growth rate, and much-improved fiber production.
An adult Altai mountain goat can deliver almost 2 lbs of wool a shearing, averaging over 65 % wool in their fur. Altai mountain goats are medium-sized, with males growing up to 145-150 lbs and females 100-120 lbs.
Mixed Breed Goats
While choosing a goat breed that's best for your home, don't disregard the mixed breeds. Yes, they're not all fancy, and you won't be able to brag about the rare breed you've got in your backyard, but they are hardy, cheap, and easily available. On the downside, buying a mixed-breed kid (a goat younger than 1-year-old) is a bit of a guess on what his or her adult characteristics will be.
Once you have a clear idea of what you're looking to gain from your future goaty companions (and looked through a million or so pictures of goaty cuteness online), it's time to consider what resources you have to offer for your new mini-farm project. Keep in mind the following while making your decision:
- While goats don't require as much space and food as cows do, you will have to keep more than one since they are very much herd animals and will voice their displeasure by a level of noise rarely matched by anything else close to their size.
- A full-grown goat will go through 4 to 9 lbs of hay each day (milking goats being on the higher end of the spectrum)-if that's an issue, you might want to consider a dwarf breed which will require only between 2 and 3 lbs.
- A milk goat must be milked daily, preferably twice a day, or it will become sick quickly. It's a serious commitment.
- Full-size goat needs a sturdy enclosure (very sturdy—they will test it) that's at least 4 feet tall. If that's a problem- a dwarf breed might be the way to go.
- While the idea of weaving your own mohair is tempting, keep in mind that you will have to learn how to sheer goats. With the myriad of strengths these animals possess, standing still is not among them.
- While most goat breeds are exceptionally hardy, raising a long fur breed, such as Angola or Cashmere, in subtropical climates is not the best idea. Surprisingly, most short-fur breeds do just fine in the cold as long as they don't get wet.
The key to choosing the right breed is being clear on what you're looking to get (milk, meat, fur, etc.) and how much time and effort you're looking to invest. Once that's figured out, matching the right breed to your requirements is not a complicated task.
A bit more useful reading about goats: Goats as Lawn Mowers and Best Animals for Urban Homesteading.