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How to operate a financially solvent goat dairy

Sherry Panuska for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 September 2017

Dairy goat product demand is growing and driving a need for more goat milk. Before entering the dairy goat industry, there are a number of factors to consider to make the operation a profitable one.

The most important question for anyone considering starting a goat dairy is, “Can I sell the milk?” You need a creamery willing to buy the milk you want to produce. Most goat milk is made into cheese. The cheese plants cannot afford to buy milk unless they know they can sell the cheese it is made into.

They also are limited in the time and distance milk trucks travel to pick up milk. They want to allow existing patrons to increase production as their animals mature and improve.

Once you have secured a market, a successful goat dairy starts with healthy animals. Goats that are not challenged by diseases such as caprine arthritis encephalitis or caseous lymphadenitis will have longer, more productive lives. Starting your herd with animals tested negative for these diseases is the easiest way to prevent them.

If you are already milking does that have been exposed, learn how to prevent the spread to the next generation of replacement does. All the kids in my herd are raised on a strict disease-prevention program consisting of heat-treated colostrum, pasteurized milk and in a barn separate from the adult herd.

Vaccinating the goats for clostridium and tetanus is recommended. Some herds also use mastitis vaccines produced for cattle.

Genetics makes a huge difference in the profitability of the herd. Goats bred for top production will produce more milk and have longer lactations and shorter dry periods than goats with average genetics. Goats selected for good conformation along with that high production will have better udder attachments and stronger feet and legs than average, which in turn adds to their longevity.

The best way to improve the herd is through the selection of herd sires from high-producing does with correct conformation. And the more generations of animals meeting those standards in the immediate pedigree, the more likely you will get consistent improvement.

Although goats can be bred artificially, for most herds it will be more economical to use natural service on the majority of the does.

Quality feed is very important for dairy goats. They do not digest cellulose as well as cattle, so they produce best on fine-stemmed, leafy hay cut in an early growth stage. They have little tolerance for mold. Molds can cause listeria or reproductive problems.

Goat housing should be well ventilated but free of drafts. They should have clean, dry bedding. There needs to be enough bunk space so all the does can reach the feed. Properly designed and maintained hay feeders will help reduce hay waste and, as a result, your feed costs.

Bright light in the barn, whether natural light or electric, will keep the animals up and eating more. It will make it easier for you to observe them. Are they lying down chewing their cuds after eating or standing along the walls, indicating the pen needs bedding?

Is there a lot of butting, ear biting or other aggressive interactions between goats? Maybe there is not enough pen space? Do not overcrowd them. If there is not enough pen space, the animals’ health and production will suffer along with your financial well-being. For large-breed dairy goats, 30 square feet is recommended.

Goats have a lot of personality, making it easy to make pets out of them. Be sure animals are being kept because they are profitable members of the herd, not because they are pretty or pets. You need to have a way of tracking production. That starts with being able to identify individual goats.

We tattoo our goats the day after they are born. We use a registry-assigned letter along with the number correlating to the birth order. So the first two kids born this year were J1 and J2. Last year, it was H1 and H2, etc. To meet DHI visible ID standards, the milking does have neck tags and chain collars. We use DHI to track milk weights, components and somatic cell count.

We evaluate the length of lactation and dry periods. We freshen does over a longer period of time than some herds. As we compare production of does, it helps to look at the number of days in milk. Without the ability to track days in milk, it is hard to make fair comparisons of production. You cannot expect a late-lactation doe to be milking at the same level as a doe 90 days into her lactation.

We use the DHI records to help select the kids we keep as replacements. Our goats have a lot of multiple births. (In goats, mixed twins are fertile.) This means we always have more doe kids than we need as replacements. Selecting the kids from our top does helps to keep the quality of the herd improving with each generation. Selling the extra kids helps with cash flow.

What to do with male kids is something herds need to evaluate before the does start to kid. Some herds can raise them for the meat market for a small profit. Others may find they need to get rid of them soon after birth and concentrate on the does. It depends on the amount of time and space available.

Estimate the cost of raising them to a marketable weight. Learn your market’s preferred weight and when the demand for meat goats is the highest. It is frequently related to holidays when the demand for goat meat is strongest, and that can bring higher prices.

Like all businesses, you need to control costs. You must keep debt to a level the herd can service. Be sure the money you spend is going to be returning more than your investment or reducing the amount of time it takes to run your operation. How many goats you should milk needs to be evaluated carefully.

Does the creamery have a minimum amount of animals they want you to be milking to make it worth sending out the milk truck? Are you remodeling an existing structure to house the animals or putting up a new building? Are you planning to have employees, or will family members provide the labor force? Whether you are raising your own feed or purchasing everything should also be considered.

The demand for goat products is higher than it has ever been. If you’ve ever considered starting a goat dairy, now is the time to check it out.  end mark

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