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Grazing dairy goats working well for young farmers

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2018
Dairy goats

Ethan and Jade Proksch’s farm is proof grazing dairy goats is possible and feasible. The Proksches have been commercially selling milk from their goat herd for more than six years.

They rotationally graze their goat herd on 22 acres in southwestern Wisconsin.

Goats are often known more for “browsing” than grazing, meaning they will eat leaves, shoots and twigs. Goats are actually better described as mixed feeders and, although they will browse if given the choice, they can successfully be kept on pasture.

Jade says it is not true goats will eat anything and everything. The Proksches graze their goats on orchardgrass, brome grass, reed canary and alfalfa. Goats tend to avoid the finer grasses cows prefer. The Proksches also plant turnips and kale for late-season grazing.

Ethan says the goats do not like white clover. After the goats are done grazing on pastures that have it in the mix, he often follows up with their small herd of beef cows, which consists of seven cow-calf pairs.

The Proksches have learned a lot about their goats simply by observing them. Goats were originally desert creatures, and they do not like being out in the rain or eating grass that has morning dew on it. Since the ancestors of modern-day goats were prey for predators, they will eat the best food first.

Goats will keep their eyes above the grass line to watch for predators and will typically eat about an inch off at a time. Because of this, smaller paddocks tend to work better for goats.

Goats differ from other common grazers with their narrower muzzle and a split upper lip to more selectively graze around thorns and plant parts they don’t care for, along with legs and hooves adapted for climbing. They also have a higher tolerance to more plant chemicals than cows or sheep.

Ethan Proksch says doing intensive grazing on small paddocks encourages goats to eat a wider variety of plants instead of just the ones they prefer. Ethan watches the pastures and how much the goats eat to decide where to move the fence to create the next paddock. He said typically 1 to 1.5 acres will pasture 125 goats for three to four days.

Brantley Proksch inspects the forages in the goat pasture

Some goat breeds are better grazers than others. Most of their does are crossbreds, but the ones with Alpine, Lamancha and Oberhasli tend to do best on pasture. In addition to breeding the animals to be grazers, they also breed for feet/legs, milk production, longevity and strong udder attachments.

They say to train does to the electric fence before putting them out on pasture. If they don’t have a respect for the fence, they will break through it to get to preferred forage or when it starts to rain.

Ethan and Jade have also learned it really helps younger goats to get going with grazing by putting them out on pasture with older goats. “Putting the youngstock out with experienced grazers really helps,” he says.

Ethan says to reduce bloating, they feed their herd hay at night in a drylot near the buildings, but they save the best hay for winter. Goats don’t like to be out in the dark, he says, and they usually won’t eat. Keeping the goats off pasture at night also reduces the amount of parasites. They bring goats back at dark, and they are fed TMR and baleage.

Ethan and Jade Proksch started dairy goat farming in 2011. With their son

Ethan follows his family’s tradition of starting animals on pasture around Mother’s Day, starting them out just a few hours a day and working up to eight to 10 hours a day on pasture.

Over the past six years, they have worked to improve pasture quality. They spread manure on lower-quality pastures and soil test every four years. They do some frost seeding of red clover to increase nitrogen and broadcast seeding of tillage radish and turnips for breaking up compacted soil.

Their goats and flock of about 20 sheep eat the root vegetables as well, and what doesn’t get eaten breaks down for organic matter. The beef cows winter on the pastures, and Ethan carefully decides what areas need to be reseeded in the spring.

Ethan’s grandfather milked about 30 dairy cows on the farm until he retired in 1994. Ethan moved onto the farm in 2010 and obtained an ag business degree. He had a few pet goats, and the dairy market wasn’t strong, so he started to learn more about milking goats.

Jade Proksch talks about their goat housing

A neighbor who milked goats was willing to share his knowledge, and Ethan interned on a dairy goat farm, which helped him learn the ins and outs of how he wanted to do things.

In April 2011, he began milking about 135 goats commercially. That first year he milked seasonally but has been year-round every year since.

Jade started helping Ethan with chores shortly after he started milking goats, and they soon started dating. They married in 2013 and had their first child in 2015. Jade and Ethan are now the fifth generation of his family to raise a family on the farmstead.

They have faced challenges in their six years of goat farming, from drought to flooding. They deal with the issues as they come up.

Ethan and Jade Proksch installed a double-12 goat parlor in 2016

Ethan started out milking in a single-12 low-line parlor and, in 2016, replaced that with a swing-14. Their herd numbers are lower in the winter, but they will be milking about 160 by May of this year. Most of their herd freshens September to June.

They have also improved their kid barn and added a dry barn. The nursery area is insulated, heated and has running water.

In the winter, the milking herd is housed in a bedded pack barn with a feed alley in the middle.

They have herd dogs to keep the goats safe

Another very useful tool when grazing goats is having good livestock guarding dogs. “We have a lot of coyotes, and the goats usually won’t go out in the paddocks until the dogs check things out,” Jade says. The Proksches have Pyrenees/Maremma-mix dogs.

The Proksches’ goals include continuing to improve genetics and production, aiming for 9.5 to 10 pounds of milk per head. They would also like to build up their beef herd to about 25 cow-calf pairs and fence pasture specifically for the beef herd and meat goats.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Dairy goats typically avoid white clover, but they will selectively eat red clover.

PHOTO 2: Two-and-a-half-year-old Brantley Proksch inspects the forages in the goat pasture.

PHOTO 3: Ethan started dairy goat farming in 2011. He and Jade were married in 2013, and their son was born in 2015. They are expecting their second child in 2018. Their children will be the sixth generation on the farm.

PHOTO 4: Jade Proksch talks about their goat housing during a pasture walk event on their farm in fall of 2017.

PHOTO 5: Ethan and Jade Proksch installed a double-12 goat parlor in 2016.

PHOTO 6: The Proksches have many coyotes in their area and credit their herd dogs with keeping their goats safe. The goats will actually wait for the dogs to check out the pasture before they venture out. Photos by Kelli Boylen.

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer based in Waterville, Iowa.

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