Are you interested in producing your own dairy – cow or goat milk, yogurt, cheese and more? A dairy animal can be a great investment, but which one should you choose? Will a cow be better for volume; will a goat be better for your smaller, city lot? Join me and a few of your favorite dairy-keeping homesteaders as we chat about backyard dairy.This question is such a good one that it got its very own chapter in The Do It Yourself Homestead – the book Joel Salatin called “A great addition to any homesteader’s library…”. Sign up to learn about the book’s release next week – get in on some special deals and freebies, too!
The How’s and Whys of Goat Milk…or Any Milk
When we were first beginning our homesteading adventures, producing our own dairy wasn’t even part of the plan. Milk an animal?! That sounded like way too much work, to be honest. Eventually, though, after reading about the benefits of milk fresh from the animal and about the fantastic compostable manure a dairy animal can produce, we started to think maybe the idea wasn’t so crazy, after all. By then we’d transitioned to raw milk and were really weary of paying so much money for something we realized we could produce ourselves on the homestead.
There are several mammals that are realistic options for the dairy-loving homesteader: cows, goats, sheep, yaks, llamas and even water buffalo can all be milked with success. Although, I’m not sure many U.S. municipalities are zoned for water buffalo.
In fact, the first thing you’ll need to do before you even consider the pros and cons of each animal for your dairy program is to figure out which ones are allowed in your city or town. A visit to your city’s AND your county’s websites (there can be separate regulations for each, so check both) might provide you with the information you need. Oftentimes the language of these codes can be confusing and the zoning laws themselves can be hard to find for your specific neighborhood. If you have ANY questions, be sure to call and speak to an actual human to clarify everything.
Look for language addressing regulations on animal housing, how far away from the property lines your animals should be, the number of animals you can have per square foot of yard, whether or not you can breed and/or slaughter them on site, whether or not you can keep multiple offspring on site while they nurse their moms and whether there’s a separate noise ordinance regarding backyard livestock.
After you’ve done that, check with your HOA (Homeowner’s Association) and/or the CCRs (Codes, Covenants and Restrictions) for your neighborhood. If you have any energy left after all that, you can also ask your mom and spouse what they think. You may have discovered that producing your own goat milk is not in the cards for your family where you currently live. It’s ok if that turns out to be you – there are a lot of other projects you can tackle on the homestead. (Incidentally, The Do It Yourself Homestead is full of projects and plans. Just sayin’.)
The city we lived in when we first got dairy goats used a point system for backyard animals. Our home was on nearly an acre and the space was zoned for livestock. Each animals was worth a certain number of points and we were allowed twenty points per half acre. I went ahead and counted our .99 acre lot as an acre because I like to live dangerously, so we gave ourselves forty points. Each chicken was two points, each goat was…uh, I’ve forgotten now. Math isn’t my thing and I thought the whole thing was kind of dumb in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, we kept the rules and I encourage you to do so, too. It’s just that animals populations fluctuate a lot on the homestead and I rarely had time to pay too much attention to being exact. Sometimes we had more chickens that were allowed…until we ate some. On occasion, there were more goats than was allowed…until we sold some. I was blessed with fantastic neighbors and a nice code enforcer so we all got along just fine.
Goat Milk May Be Easiest For You
Be smart about your own property and, for the sake of the health of your animals especially, choose whichever animal that will fit best in the space you have. For many urban homesteaders, this will mean you begin with dairy goats. Goats are smaller than cows on many levels. They eat smaller, poop smaller, live smaller, birth smaller and milk smaller. A dairy goat requires less volume of food each day because she is considerably smaller than her bovine counterpart. She also produces politely sized, pelleted poop than can be immediately shoveled out of the barn an placed in the garden – you don’t even need to compost goat poop!
Though a goat is more likely to birth multiples (twins, then a single, then triplets in that order of likelihood), the babies will be much smaller than calves. Dairy goats also produce about half as much as most dairy cows as a matter of biology – goats have two teats, as opposed to cows who have four. For those of us beginning with producing our own dairy, this can actually be a blessing as we get used to milking every day and learning to make cultured dairy products like yogurt and cheese.
You do have to be prepared for goats and their antics, but a large majority of homestead dairies are comprised of, or at least start off with, goats. Does that mean a cow isn’t right for you?
In Praise of Cows
In preparing to write the dairy section that addresses the very topic of this post in The Do It Yourself Homestead (to be released next week!), I interviewed some of my favorite milk maids. Amy Maus, LeeAnn Perez and Jenna Dooley all of whom you may recognize from their homesteading blogs. Each of these ladies have experiencing milking both goats and cows and getting the skinny on the realities of milking both animals was priceless. The results of those interviews, while too long to paste in their entirety here, can be found in the book. Just click here to be notified of it’s release – and get a fun discount and some freebies!
I do want to share with you a little of what these ladies had to say in praise of the home dairy cow so that I can be sure you don’t discount them, thinking you HAVE to start with goats. It’s your homestead and you can do things your way. If your space and zoning permit it, there’s a lot to be said for the humble dairy cow.
Lots of Creamy Milk
Once you’ve gotten used to milking and especially if you’re feeding a large family and/or selling or trading your dairy products, you may learn to love the volume of milk a cow can produce each day. LeeAnn says,
“The best thing about milking a cow is the quantity of milk you can get! Our girls vary from giving 2 gallons a day to one that gives about 4 gallons. It sounds like a lot but when you start making dairy products for your family, and using the excess milk to feed farm animals, you can go through those amounts very quickly.”
Just making simple products like butter, yogurt and sour cream can quickly diminish your milk supply. Add cheese making to that, and you may discover that your dairy goat just can’t compete with the potential volume of a cow.
Equipment and Flavor
If you want to be able to make any cream-based products like butter from your goat milk, you’re probably going to want a cream separator. Goat cream will eventually rise to the top of the container like cow milk, but it does so very slowly. During the time it takes for the cream to rise, the goat milk may have cultured and changed flavor beyond where you find it palatable. Something to keep in mind is that Americans (at least) are more accustomed to the taste of cow milk and you may find after all that work to separate cream, you don’t end up liking the flavor of your goat butter as well as you do cow butter. As Amy points out,
“You can make butter with cow’s milk without special equipment but you cannot do that with goats since their milk requires a cream separator due to natural homogenization. Cows eat a lot more than goats, but are easier to fence. Finally, cow’s milk stays fresher longer than goat’s milk.”
“Fresher” is really just a way of saying that because of some enzymes unique to goat milk, it starts to taste cultured and…goaty the longer it sits. This is true for cow milk, too, it’s just not as strong and, as I said, Americans at any rate are used to the flavor of cow milk and are a lot more forgiving of its varieties.
Milking in Extreme Weather with Cows and Goats
Just one last note: for a lot of use that live in areas with extreme winter and summer weather, we can wonder how cows and goats compare when it comes to milking through the cold and heat. The truth is, both animals are pretty hearty in this regard. With adequate shelter, a healthy diet and proper handling, both goats and cows can do just fine when it comes to milking in all kinds of weather. Cows tend to be a little more tolerant of exposure and goats have a little more sense to come in out of the weather. Jenna shares,
“From what I have seen with proper care, food, and shelter both species do fine through the seasons. I have milked through warmth and bitter cold. The temperature changes seem harder on humans than the animals.”
Be sure to do quality research into which breeds of either dairy goats or cows will perform best in your area. Speak to as many backyard milking friends that you can and see if you can practice milking and interacting with their dairy animal.
Goat Milk or Cow Milk – Did You Decide?
Both animals have their benefits and drawbacks. For instance, cows are dopey and goats are wicked. But both have a lot to offer the backyard dairy enthusiast. You may start with goat milk and end up with cow milk as your homestead evolves – and it’s always ok to evolve on the homestead.
If you already enjoy backyard dairy, which animal did you begin with – cow or goat, or other? If you’re new to dairy, which one are you considering – or are you thinking of sheep, another popular choice? Care to share any advice with our readers?
If you’d like to read the rest of the interviews with our lovely milk maids, including LeeAnn’s super-awesome tip to calming down a nervous goat and more specifics on milking, be sure and pick up your copy of The Do It Yourself Homestead. Written to cover the needs of four different levels of homesteader on eight different topics, there’s over 400 pages of homesteading information – you’re sure to find something you can use! The book goes on sale some time next week and there will be lots of freebies and deals for its launch so be sure to sign up asap to get in on those.