This eight-part series deals with the care of goats of the dairy breeds such as Saanen, Nubian and Toggenburg.  It will consider only goat farming on lifestyle blocks where a few goats are kept for hand milking or as pets.  It doesn't attempt to describe the complexities of commercial dairy goat farming - that is a specialised business.

Goats of dairy breeds are generally good animals to have on the lifestyle farm because:

  • they are placid and intelligent
  • they don't require shearing or Tb testing
  • with good handling and good facilities, lactating does can be hand-milked fairly readily
  • hand-reared kids make good pets for children, and castrate male kids can usually be acquired from dairy goat farms, where they have little value

On the downside:

  • dairy goats have a particular need for effective windproof and rainproof shelter at all times
  • individual goats can be problem jumpers making it difficult to keep them in
  • breeding does have to be mated to a smelly buck in autumn if they are to produce kids and milk the following spring
  • the kids will need to be disbudded  and male kids castrated
  • the hand milking of goats requires a good understanding of milking procedures
  • hand-milking requires regular milking sessions, usually one session a day if the milk is shared with the doe's kids, and two milkings a day otherwise

The history of dairy goats in New Zealand

Goats have been used for milk production for at least 9,000 years, but in New Zealand dairy goats are a relatively recent introduction.  Sometimes milking does were kept on the ships that brought immigrants to New Zealand to provide dairy products en route.  Some were farmed for their milk by the early settlers, but the commercial dairy goat industry didn't begin to develop in earnest until the 1980s. Since then it has become a small but well-established industry centred in Waikato.  In 2005 there were about 26,000 milking goats in that region and about 40,000 throughout the whole of New Zealand.

There is a small but steady market for dairy goat milk and dairy products in New Zealand.  Goat milk is popular because it has the reputation of being more readily digested and less likely to cause allergic reactions than cow's milk, it's suitable for a range of dairy products and is particularly good for making cheese.

Milk from many of the North Island commercial dairy goat operations is taken to the Dairy Goat Cooperative (DGC) factory in Hamilton where it's made into milk powder and exported, mainly to China.  The DGC is farmer-owned, with 69 farmer shareholders, most in the Waikato region and some in Northland and Taranaki.  All the suppliers' farm milk goats only and these are mainly Saanen, with some Toggenburgs and some Nubians.

Unfortunately for lifestyle farmers, the costs of maintaining the very high standards of hygiene required for the sale of milk are generally prohibitive.  So most of us use our goat milk and milk products only for our own families.

Breeds of dairy goat in New Zealand

Most dairy goats in New Zealand (probably about 80%) are Saanen, a breed that originated in Switzerland.  They are medium to large, with a coat colour white or cream and they have erect ears.  The Sable is a coloured variant of the Saanen developed in New Zealand.

The Toggenburg is of medium size, brown in colour varying from light fawn to dark chocolate, with distinct white facial stripes from above the eye to the muzzle and with white along the edges and tips of the ears, on the lower legs and inside the legs to the trunk and around the tail.

The Nubian is a cross between the African Nubian goats and English goats.  It is of medium size and has a distinctive aristocratic Roman nose and long pendulous ears set low on the head, wide and open.  The coat is usually mainly fawn or brown and there can be patches of white, cream, brown and black.

Overview of dairy goat farming

In the rest of this first part in the series of eight, we give an outline of what is to follow.

Part 2 will deal with food, water and body condition

Dairy goats, like meat and fibre goats, and possibly more than other species of livestock, need good feed, particularly if they are pregnant or lactating or both.  Lactating does of the dairy breeds, like lactating dairy cows, tend to be lean, but they shouldn't be allowed to get too thin.  It is rare to see fat dairy goats but dairy goats that are too thin are all too common.

The myth that goats will eat anything is totally wrong.  They like a wide variety of plants and are good at eating down young thistles and dock weeds in a pasture (and also expensive plants and trees!), but they won't eat food that isn't clean and fresh.  Dairy goats need good quality pasture and browse and plenty of it all year round.

In winter, goats need supplementary feed particularly if they are producing milk, and this means hay, silage or concentrates.  Any supplementary feed must be introduced gradually over a period of 7 to 10 days, taking care that individuals don't gorge on carbohydrate-rich food such as grain or sheep nuts.  It's important to ensure too that goats have water available at all times, particularly if they are producing milk.

We provide a guide to feed and water requirements.

Part 3
discusses hand-milking does.  A good quality dairy doe will give 3 litres a day.  If she is being 'share-milked', her kids can be held in an adjacent but separate pen overnight so that she can be hand-milked the following morning.  Her kids will be taking at least a litre of milk a day each, but an adult doe in good condition with plenty of feed can usually raise one or two kids and still provide some milk for a morning milking.

If the doe is being fully hand-milked, she should be milked twice a day in hygienic custom-made facilities, preferably with a little feed as a reward while she is being milked.

We discuss what's required in the way of facilities and management for relatively stress-free hand-milking.

'Drying-off' is the period towards the end of the 10-month lactation when the doe's milk production falls off and she can be "rested" before her next kid is born.  It's a phase that must be managed properly to prevent distress.

Part 4
deals with reproduction.  For does to produce milk they generally have to produce kids first.  Most does give birth with little help and it's best to keep a watchful eye on proceedings from a distance to allow the birth process to proceed uninterrupted.  However many dairy goat kids seem rather weak at birth and they often benefit from assistance to get their crucial first feed from their mother.  The basic procedures are outlined.

All kids need colostrum preferably in the first 6 hours of life even if they are being hand-reared.  Clumsy attempts to help the kid to feed are worse than none at all.  We describe how to help without disrupting the doe-kid bond so that the kid or kids get a good start in life.

Part 5 considers all the various forms of 'containment' of goats from fencing to field shelters, yards and races and manual restraint.  Fencing has to be good if all goats are to be securely contained, but it's important to realise that if goats are in a settled group with enough food, water and shelter, the incentive to get out is very much reduced.

There can be problems with bullying when goats are mustered and yarded and when groups of goats are mixed or new goats are introduced, and when goats are transported.  Special precautions have to be taken to prevent injuries.

Goats must always have access to good shelter, especially in winter.

In part 6, some common health problems are discussed.  These include worms, lameness, trace element deficiencies, pneumonia and tooth problems.  The signs of specific diseases are described as means of prevention, treatment and control.

When goats are milked for human consumption, worm control can be a problem.  Most anthelmintics have a 'withholding period' of several weeks before milk can be sold after treatment and it's best not to drink the milk or products made from it within this time as they will contain traces of the medication.  We describe some alternative forms of worm control through management and grazing strategies.

Part 7 deals with some of the painful procedures we subject goats to - disbudding, castration and ear-tagging.

Kids should be disbudded as soon as the developing horns can be felt on the head as hard buttons between the ears.  In skilled hands, the hot iron method causes a few seconds of severe pain but then it's over and the kid is back with its mother and recovers quickly.  If it's not done properly it is very painful, and clumsy attempts can damage the skull or brain and infections can follow. It is best practice to use pain relief in disbudding, to minimise the pain and distress caused to goats in this procedure.

Castration too is a necessary evil for male kids from about a week old.  It has to be carried out otherwise they soon become smelly (especially in autumn) and sometimes aggressive too.  Using rubber rings is best, but if the goat is more than a few weeks old a vet should do the job using painkillers.

Ear tagging is common as a means of permanent identification of goats.  Some people forget that goats' ears are extremely sensitive, and inserting tags should be done as quickly, cleanly and accurately as possible.

When goats get to the end of their useful lives or when they get so old or unwell that their quality of life is low, it's best to cull them.  Although it's a very unpleasant job for us when we've become very fond of our goats, it's far better to euthanase them humanely at home than have them suffer the trauma of a truck journey then the meat works experience.  A gunshot to the brain or euthanasia by a vet is probably the best option, and we discuss these and more.

Part 8 discusses keeping one or more goats of a dairy goat breed as pets or weed eaters.  These are often sourced from dairy goat farms where male kids have little value.  They are usually hand-reared and they make good pets.  They can be used to help with weed control on the farm but frequently they end up being tethered by the roadside.

If you are selling kids as pets it's important to make sure the new owners know how to feed them properly until they are weaned at about 10 to 12 weeks of age.  We provide some useful guidelines.

For hand-rearing, the kid should be at least 7 days old and it should have been fed colostrum to ensure a good start to life.  They should be disbudded and castrated preferably before they are adopted and the wounds should have healed.

The kids can be fed milk substitutes, and commercial goat milk powder is available for this purpose.   It tends to be expensive, but if the directions are followed it will ensure a healthy well-grown kid that should make a good pet goat.

Many pet goats end up being tethered by the roadside for much of their life.  This is not good for the goat and is not recommended.  Tethered goats are lonely, vulnerable and often inadequately fed and watered.  The risks and requirements of this practice are outlined.

A word of warning if you get a castrate male (a wether) dairy goat as a pet.  When they have been castrated young, the growth plates in the long bones of their legs don't close as they usually do at puberty, so the goat keeps on growing.  They can live for 12 years or more, but they often end up being euthanased earlier because they get so lanky their legs literally can't support their weight and they have difficulty getting about.

The bottom line

You will see from the above that if you keep dairy goats you need good facilities, and if you want to milk does, you may well need to bone up on what's required.  We hope that this series of articles will help.