Small Scale Dairy Goat Production in the Upper Midwest Back »

Although belonging to the family Bovidae (bison, cattle, sheep, etc.), and sharing some characteristics with their ruminant cousins, goats are unique. They are represented worldwide by two genus: Oreamnos and Capra. The mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) resides in the American Northwest. The wild goat (Capra aegagrus) has a widespread distribution ranging from Europe and Asia Minor to Central Asia and the Middle East and is considered the ancestor of the domestic goat. Domestication of goats has been going on for thousands of years and it apparently started in the Persian Empire (today’s Iran), and Asia. Through centuries of selection the domestic goat (Capra aegagrus hircus) resulted to date in 165 breeds (dairy and meat) recognized worldwide. One of their characteristics is that, similar to their ancestors, they have retained the ability to thrive in harsh environments; granted, modern breeds selected for high production will need more feed than under maintenance conditions. Goats are termed browsers because of their selective feeding habits, that is they like to choose. They are also extremely fond of leaves (shrubs and trees) and thus some also label them as folivores (“leaf eaters”). However, nothing is definite with goats; if they find a nice pasture they will graze particularly relishing prickly weeds that grow in it! If these characteristics were not enough to admire, goats are also very hardy when it comes to weather extremes. They originate from environments that are very hot during the day but can be freezing at night. If there is one thing goats particularly dislike however is to get wet! There is one other aspect besides their natural biological advantages, and that is their temperament. When walking in the field they will follow their owner to a different feeding station, and enjoy this interaction in the meantime. 

Why Goats in the Upper Midwest?

The short introduction above helps better understand why we can successfully raise goats in this region. Their adaptability to different environmental conditions makes them an excellent choice for small acreages and or land where crops do not prosper without significant investments in equipment or soil amendments. To optimize productivity and profitability without taxing the environment there is an adage worth considering: “It makes more sense to adapt the genetics to the environment than to modify this one to accommodate certain genetics”. This goes for both plant and animal genetics. For centuries man has modified the land so species less adapted to it can prosper. This practice is becoming increasingly expensive and oftentimes detrimental to the environment. The map shows that west of the Missouri river the moisture storage capacity is low compared to the east. Even during years of normal rainfall there can be short-term dry spells that affect crops.

Soil moisture storage capacity helps determine drought vulnerability.
U.S. Soil Moisture Map
Note: Soil moisture capacity is lower in areas with shallower soils and soils that contain high clay content. A lower soil moisture capacity limits the ability of the soil to store winter and early spring precipitations for use by crops during the summer growing months. The counties in this map are clipped to show cropland only. Source: USDA, Economic Research Service using characteristics data from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil Survey Geographic Database, 2010.

Most of the Great Plains have always been considered a semi-arid area of the U.S. This Region is characterized by hot, relatively short summers, and usually cold, dry winters. Annual precipitation increases by almost 70 percent between the Western (East of the Rockies) and Eastern ends of the Region. Potential moisture losses by evapotranspiration also increase by almost 400 percent between the Northern (Canadian border) and the Southern extremes. In addition to these moisture gradients, agricultural production is challenged by high climate variability interspersed with periods of severe precipitation shortages. Susceptibility to drought is not only determined by the yearly precipitation but also by the moisture storage capacity of the different types of soil.

Goats however can easily adapt to the variable environmental and foraging conditions of this region with only minor management strategies in order to meet their requirements. Their foraging behavior will more than likely allow them to prosper in parts of the state while they take care of most of the weeds. Granted, there will be a need for mineral supplementation as well as some grain for higher producing animals. Similarly, if forage is extremely scarce or during the winter months, hay and grain supplementation will also be needed. Fresh clean water should always be available; goats have a very keen sense of smell and will reluctantly drink dirty or off-flavored water. Finally, and as far as “accommodations” go, just remember they need protection from the rain, wind, and potential predators (dogs, coyotes, etc.).

Choosing the Right Goats

The most common dairy goat breeds registered with the American Dairy Goat Association are: Nubian, LaMancha, Alpine, Oberhasli, Toggenburg, Saanen, Sable, and Nigerian Dwarf. Choosing the right breed is more of a personal preference between milk volume, milk solids, better resistance to environmental conditions or just looks. Regardless of the decision, there are local farms that successfully keep any of these breeds in the Upper Midwest. This article is not meant to delve the advantage of each breed. It is worth noting however that Saanens are considered the “Holsteins” of the goat world because of their high milk production; Nubians and Nigerian Dwarfs on the other hand produce less milk, however much more concentrated in solids, particularly fat and protein. The remaining breeds productivity is somewhere between both extremes and varies on individual goats depending on their genetics and management. Granted, one could choose not to work with pure breeds but incorporating the desirable characteristics of two or more breeds through crossbreeding. The offspring of crosses between a breed characterized by high milk production (for example Saanen) with another with more milk solids, will usually result in animals that may produce less milk volume, but with more solids than the original Saanen. This first generation of animals will show what has been described as “hybrid vigor” with excellent production, breeding, and adaptability to their environment. Over time though, when they are crossed back to any of the two parental breeds it is difficult to maintain the positive traits of this first cross, and the productive advantages of the first crossbreds are slowly lost. 

Once the decision of the breed has been made then it comes the search for the individual animals. An acceptable milk production is obviously the individual trait producers usually look for first. Since it is an inheritable trait transmitted by both parents to the doelings, it is important to verify milk records whenever possible. This does not mean that in absence of records one cannot choose animals based on their conformation and current milk production. When choosing virgin doe yearlings, it is highly recommendable to take a look at their dam and its overall conformation, particularly the udder. Udders should be adequately attached, look full when in lactation, both teats centered and of adequate size. Some does may develop disproportionally large (wide) teats, one or even both. This ends up becoming a problem when milking by hand and even with a milking machine. It is sometimes the result of kids being allowed to suckle, if they show preference for one teat over the other. A possible explanation of this preference is that a thinner teat canal in one teat that does not allow for an easy milk flow discourages the kid(s) to suckle that teat with milking accumulating in the teat cistern and progressively stretching it. Make sure kids suckle alternatively from both teats and if not, milk out the one that’s being refused. The other very important aspect is udder attachment. In lactating does udders should be adequately attached to the abdomen by strong ligaments. This is apparent in heavy producers and particularly from their second lactation on. Well-attached udders should be high, with both teat ends not surpassing a horizontal line drawn through the hocks. Extremely low udders can lead to udder or teat injuries which if deep enough can progress into fatal mastitis cases. The topline of the body should be straight (withers to rump) with some goats showing a slight slope from the withers to the rump. One other important aspect is to verify that the hoofs are trimmed regularly; badly trimmed or untrimmed hoofs can lead to painful lameness that will reduce feed intake and milk production.

If checking an adequate conformation is important, making sure the goats are free from a couple of critical diseases is crucial. If kept properly, goats are quite sturdy when it comes to ailments that may affect them. When purchasing the initial stock however, one needs to be fairly strict with a couple of diseases that they may bring with them: Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis (or CAE) and Caseous lymphadenitis (CL). The first one is viral in nature, it is specific to goats, and it is transmitted to each other via infected colostrum, milk, or blood. Symptoms are not apparent in goats except for five clinical presentations including arthritis (the most common, and usually observed after 6 months of age), encephalitis, interstitial pneumonia, mastitis, and progressive weight loss. Goats may show joint stiffness, shifting leg lameness, decreased ambulation, weight loss, reluctance to rise, and abnormal posture. Acute swelling of the joint is also possible which may lead to arthritis. The encephalitic (brain) form of CAE affects kids 2 to 6 months of age, which show signs of incoordination and inappropriate placement of limbs while walking which can progressively develop into paralysis. The interstitial pneumonia is characterized by chronic cough, labored breathing, and weight loss. In adult does mastitis can be observed usually around kidding time; it is characterized by a firm udder with difficult or no milk ejection. It is a sound practice to ask for negative CAE blood analysis tests before purchasing goats. The second disease or Caseous Lymphadenitis (CL), also called pseudotuberculosis, or just “abscesses”, is a chronic contagious disease affecting sheep and goats. It is bacterial in nature (Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis) characterized by swelling, rupture, and pus draining from affected peripheral subcutaneous lymph nodes. It can be detected by palpating enlarged lymph nodes under the skin in the angle of the mandible, right at the base of the neck and before the scapula (shoulder blade), right before the femur & tibia joint (stifle joint), and supra-mammary (above the udder) right behind the rear legs. This bacterium can survive in the environment for a minimum of one year, and it is usually spread through cuts during shearing, fences, and feeders. This disease has the potential to be transferred to humans (zoonosis) so affected animals and their lesions should be handled with surgical gloves. Treatment involves draining the pus from the abscesses and using a 7% iodine solution to flush them. Of course there are other ailments that can affect goats and that can be treated by their owner if minor or that may need veterinary attention. The two described above however, are in my opinion, the two most important to start a goat herd with the right foot.

Managing the Herd

Once the right location, breed, and animals are identified, it is time to think about how to manage the herd. Since this is about small-scale let’s assume 10 lactating does.

Let’s suppose we have decided to buy 10 alpines with an adult body weight of roughly 140 pounds each. Depending on the standing forage available, this number of animals can easily be kept in 1-2 acres of foraging area. Granted, one could have more animals (or less surface area) if they are supplemented with forage and grain. The author has kept up to 20 goats in a little less than one acre with the caveat that it was a spot with very lush forage growth with plenty of brome, reed canary grass, and other palatable forbs. There were also plenty of weeds; at least initially, since the goats gradually took care of most of them! Goats are grazed in this unfenced pasture under supervision, since the neighbor rotated corn and beans and goats were fond of both!

Some of the author’s Alpine goats grazing unimproved pasture.
Some of the author’s Alpine goats grazing unimproved pasture. This same spot has been grazed for more than five years. Note the absence of weeds.

To be able to optimize foraging behavior and thus milk production it is important to understand the goat’s feeding behavior while grazing/browsing. Similar to other ruminants, goats have natural crepuscular feeding habits with more intense episodes at sunrise and sunset. This however can be modified to accommodate the owner’s daily activities. From personal experience the best time to graze them was no later than 10 am during warm summer days.

During this time of year goats will go back to their shed or shade around noon or even a little earlier depending on the heat index and the weight/size of the animal. With adequate amount of forage available (picture) goats will be full in approximately two hours so when starting to graze no later than 10, they will likely be full before mid-day. It is important then to establish this routine so it will not be difficult to bring them back to their enclosure. If they have to be brought back in before they are full, then we have to supply hay and/or grain. From a management perspective it’s easier to bring them in if the know more feed and water are waiting in their enclosure. They also learn quite fast to respond to the rattling sound of a can half full of grain!

Alpine goats enjoying a wooded area.
Alpine goats enjoying a wooded area. Labeling goats as strictly “browsers” downplays their adaptability to different environments. Goats will browse when they have two and graze when the pasture is of their liking.

Dry does and bucks will thrive well on 1.5 pounds of goat feed per day plus all they can forage in 4 hours, 2 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. Lactating does should receive roughly one pound of goat feed for every three pounds of milk produced. If they cannot graze because of weather or there is limited forage availability, then they will have to be supplemented with hay. Hay fed to goats has to be of good quality. They do like alfalfa hay but depending on its maturity they could refuse a significant volume of stems; grass hay if harvested not to mature will also be readily eaten. Ten goats will need the grain suggested above plus 1 to 1.5 rectangular bales of hay daily, depending on the quality/density. As stated before, goats love leaves, so any fallen branches or trimmings available will turn into highly desirable treats. Cottonwoods, willows (and lilacs!!!) are relished by goats.


Bucks and does can be together year round and nothing will happen until early in the fall. Goats are thus termed short-day breeders, starting their breeding season in the northern hemisphere as the days start to shorten in late September. For all practical purposes, goat-breeding season starts first with the buck showing interest in the females, which in turn start with their breeding cycles a few days later. The presence of the buck combined with environmental stimulus induces the start of the estrus cycle, and ovulation in the females.

A young buck starts to show “interest” in a doe early in the fall.
A young buck starts to show “interest” in a doe early in the fall.

This all happens in a natural estrus-synchronization period with the kids being born approximately 150 days later within a short time span of just a few days. If the buck is with the females year-round, the does will kid sometime in February-March. Newborn goats are very sensitive to cold and thus early kids need to have a source of heat to help them cope with the temperatures. However, since the breeding season continues approximately through late February, this provides an opportunity to naturally-synchronize breeding and have does kid later in the spring, and even in early summer. This has been a personal preferred method for two reasons: first, there is no need to deal with heat lamps (hazard plus reliability). Second both does and kids benefit from the warmer temperatures and the spring pasture; this allows for better milk production reducing the need to rely on expensive grain and/or hay. This ample breeding season (October to February) gives us another possibility, which is to prolong milk production of the farm as a whole. This can be accomplished by breeding half of the does in October, and half in February. The only thing needed is not to expose the second group to the male! Furthermore, if one has the facilities to keep two unrelated males, it is possible to handle two groups of five does, each with a different male. If the does in group one are unrelated to those in group two, and the males are also unrelated between them and with the other does, then the offspring from each group can be bred to the male of the opposite group. This reduces the need to incorporate unrelated males to avoid consanguinity for many breeding seasons. Males can be kept with the does through the year until the breeding season is about to start. One male remains with the five-assigned does, whereas the other is alone in a separate pen until early February when it will join the second group of does. Once the breeding season is over the grazing season starts, and all pregnant does and both males can graze together once again.

Milk Production

Needless to say the goal for every dairy goat operation is milk production. If the does have been selected properly and are fed and housed adequately they will produce enough milk to sustain their kids and to be used for drinking and or manufacturing dairy products. At the start of their lactation does of good genetics can easily milk a gallon a day; those in their first kidding or when production is tapering off in multiparous goats, production will be around half a gallon to a quart per day. Goat milk can have a particular odor and taste to it particularly when lactating does are kept in close proximity with a mature buck. Similarly, the diet will also affect milk flavor.

The decision of whether to milk by machine or by hand depends on the particular farm and the number of animals. If one is going to milk just five goats, milking by hand seems a reasonable choice since cleaning the milking equipment properly will also take time. Milking 5 does may only take roughly 30 minutes depending on their production and the ease with which they can be brought to the milking stand. There is nothing more pleasant for the goat producer to sit by their goats, interacting with her, while the milk hits the bottom of the pail on a quiet afternoon. Regardless, the goal is always the same, to produce clean and wholesome milk and avoid infections of the udder (mastitis). At the beginning of the lactation it is recommended that high producing does be milked twice daily. However, research has shown that when production starts to drop (4 pounds and less), once a day milking is enough without resulting in significantly losses in milk production or discomfort to the udder. Experience will tell you when it is reasonable to switch from 2 to 1 times/day milking. It is generally recommended to use a strip cup (to check the first squirts of milk), a milking pail (an old stainless steel individual cow Surge bucket is perfect!) and a milk strainer to avoid dust particles and insects falling into the milk. Milk can be strained after done milking in the kitchen, and just before pasteurizing it. Just remember that clean milk starts with clean and healthy goats, and clean hands and clothes of the milker. If the udder is two dirty just clean and sanitize the teats, do not attempt to clean the entire udder which will make matters worse. Dry both the teat and your hands before starting to milk. Some goat herders prefer to milk the udder completely, if the herd is CAE one can leave some milk in the udder for the kids to “clean” it up when the doe returns to the pen. This is a ore more natural method of stripping clean the goat’s udder and controlling how much milk the kids will get.

To pasteurize milk, 1 minute at 165 F is enough, there are old commercial small pasteurizers that can accomplish this easily. For all practical purposes the pasteurization temperature is reached when the milk starts to swirl in circles right before it starts to foam in the edge of the pot. A fool-proof test can be performed bending one of your clean fingers and with its back touching the milk surface, if you cannot stand it, it’s ready! Milk should be refrigerated as soon as possible, no need for it to wait to cool down since that’s when bacteria that may have haphazardly dropped into the pot after pasteurization will start to multiply. I can then be placed in old milk gallon jugs then taken immediately to a refrigerator cooling off (39 F).

Small scale dairy goat production is greatly satisfying endeavor and does not require expensive facilities and complicated setups. It can be used to produce both milk for the family and/or for commercial purposes. The Upper Midwest and South Dakota in particular are well suited for this type of operation provided we develop a stable market for goat’s milk and other dairy products.

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