Introduction to dairy goat farming for small landholders

Page last updated: Wednesday, 18 October 2017 - 11:35am

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The Australian dairy goat industry is relatively small, but there is an increasing consumer demand for healthy and exotic dairy products.

In Western Australia there is a niche market for goat milk and cheese, but first small landholders require knowledge in breeding, goat management, milking, animal health and markets.

Goat milk can provide an alternative for people who suffer with cow milk allergies and gastro-intestinal disorders.

But before you enter into such an enterprise you must ask yourself one vital question – will running dairy goats suit my lifestyle?

Although goats are very rewarding animals to work with, they will need to be milked twice a day for the majority of the year.

Breeds

In Australia there are six main dairy breeds (see Table 1).

Three are of Swiss origin – Saanen, Toggenburg and British Alpine, two have been recently bred in Australia – Australian Melaan and Australian Brown and one is from the Middle East – the Anglo Nubian.

Table 1 Breed characteristics of the six dairy goat breeds available in Australia.

Breed

Appearance

Climate

Milk production

Fat yield

Temperament

Saanen

Short fine white/cream coat

Sensitive to excessive sunlight so performs best in cooler conditions

High level milk producer (better than the other breeds)

2.5-3%

Very docile, responds quickly to affection

Toggenburg

Short fine coat that is deep chocolate to pale fawn with white points

Performs best in cooler conditions – least suited of the dairy breeds to tropical conditions

Medium –extended lactation periods

3-4%

Very alert and extremely active. Responds well to training

British Alpine

Short fine glossy black coat with white points

Temperate climates, perform poorly in areas of high humidity

Medium to high milk producers

3-4%

Very independent

Anglo Nubian

Can be any colour or combination

Best of the dairy breeds in Australia suited to hot conditions

Medium – considered dual purpose (dairy and meat)

Over 4%

(typically used for cheese)

Responds very quickly to affection

Australian Melaan

Short fine glossy black coat

Are suited to both the sub tropics and the cooler conditions in the south of Australia

High level milk producer

3-4%

Intelligent and placid

Australian Brown

All brown

Best suited to temperate climates and the cooler areas of Australia

High milk producer – long lactation period

3-4%

Docile and easy to milk

Management

Feed requirements

Good quality food and water is essential for good milk production. When determining feed rations, energy and protein are the most important elements to consider.

Lack of energy is the most common problem affecting production and protein is essential for growth, pregnancy and milk production. Feed analysis can be a valuable tool in determining what nutrients your feed may lack.

Fresh pasture is a great source of minerals, energy and protein and is a low cost source of feed. Rotational grazing can maximise the supply of pasture and minimise the need for supplementary feeding when pasture is in short supply.

Good grazing management is essential. Feed budgeting should be carried out throughout the year and take into account pasture supply and other sources of feed if needed. Surplus pasture can be harvested for future use by cutting for silage or hay.

Regular blood and tissue testing of goats is essential to ensure that copper (Cu), selenium (Se) and cobalt (Co) levels are adequate and that Cu and Se, which are toxic, are not over dosed.

A month before mating, the doe should be gaining weight so that they are in good condition when mated. It is vital that does are feed a diet that contains adequate energy and minerals, to help them meet the extra demands of the foetus and milk production.

A poor diet can lead to hypocalcaemia (milk fever – low levels of calcium in the blood) or pregnancy toxaemia (sleepy sickness – glucose deficiency).

AgriFutures Australia (formerly RIRDC) provides information on feed budgeting, describing the change in nutritional requirements at different times of the year and different stages of production (search 'dairy goats').

Kids should receive colostrum soon after birth. Colostrum contains the necessary nutrients and antibodies to protect them from disease.

If this cannot be obtained from the doe, there are other sources available (e.g. other does within the herd, cow colostrum, etc.). Hay and pellets should also be available from a few days old. It is important not to overfeed them.

Breeding

It is essential that you plan for kidding. Most does come into season during autumn and winter and have an 18-21 day oestrus cycle. First mating usually occurs when the doe is around 19 months old, however they can be fertile from three months old so it is important that they are separated from buck kids early.

Breeding is very seasonal so out of season breeding can be difficult and costly requiring the use of hormones and light manipulation. The gestation period for goats is approximately five months.

Most does are mated during autumn so that kidding will occur in spring, when there is plenty of green feed available. A doe usually averages two kids per mating. Newborns should be protected from predators (e.g. dogs, foxes) and have plenty of shelter.

Milking

Goats are generally docile animals, which makes milking them relatively easy. For people that live on properties too small for cows, keeping dairy goats can be a great alternative.

Lactation usually lasts for 300 days, with each doe producing on average 2-3L/day. Commercial enterprises typically milk their herd twice a day, but once a day would be adequate if only a small number of goats are kept. Twice daily milking may be required during peak lactation, when does can produce up to 4L/day.

Milk supply for goats is seasonal due to breeding cycle. This can make processing and distribution difficult as milk is not easily supplied year round. Flocks can be managed separately and milked in rotation to help even out milk supply throughout the year. However, seasonal production can make management easier and provide some time off.

If you plan on running a commercial dairy specialised equipment will be needed, but hand milking can be carried out on a small herd. Requirements of the milking premises may include:

  • shed, holding yards, feed bins, feeders
  • milk storage facilities (e.g. milk vat)
  • access tracks for large vehicle or tanker
  • effluent disposal system and ponds.

Health

Dairy goats are generally healthy with a life span of 15-20 years.

One of the major viral diseases of goats is Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis (CAE) virus. This virus causes chronic arthritis/synovitis in adult goats and hind leg weakness followed by ascending paralysis, fits and death in kids.

However, only 10% of goats infected may ever show signs of the disease. CAE is transmitted through infected colostrum, saliva, urine, faeces and blood and through the multiple use of injection equipment.

Another health issue for dairy goats is mastitis. Mastitis is caused by physical injury or bacteria and can lead to a loss of milk production.

Clinical mastitis involves physical changes to the udder (e.g. swollen, hard and painful to touch) and causes the milk to become watery and flaky.

Subclinical mastitis is harder to detect as there is no notable change to the udder or milk composition. However, milk yield will decline and scar tissue will develop in the udder.

To prevent mastitis make sure good hygiene is maintained. Keep the milking and kidding area free of mud, manure and urine and use teat spray after milking each goat.

Any treatment of mastitis should be discussed with your vet.

Goats are also prone to internal parasites and flystrike and will require treatment when infestations occur. Regular faecal egg counts are advisable to determine if parasites are present.

Some chemicals will require a withholding period, where milk will be unsaleable, to avoid residues being passed on to consumers. Instructions are printed on labels and should be followed carefully.

Goats are susceptible to clostridial diseases such as enterotoxaemia and tetanus, and should be properly vaccinated for these. For advice on all aspects of goat health consult your veterinarian.

Fencing

Fences should be well made and maintained.

Goats rarely jump over a fence, they are more likely to climb on the fence, or debris next to the fence, or squeeze through the gaps.

Make sure fences are clear of any rocks, fallen timber or stumps. Electric fences are also effective when built and well maintained and are generally cheap and easy to install.

Markets

As the dairy goat industry in Australia is relatively small, producers are often involved in the production, packaging, marketing and distribution of products. It is vital that a business plan be produced to give your business direction and to estimate the cost of production and profits.

A small dairy with on-farm value-adding (e.g. cheese making) may not provide enough income, therefore other revenue streams (e.g. off-farm income or other on-farm activities) may need to be considered.

Size of the enterprise will also need to be well thought out. A small producer may have difficulties managing the farm, processing, marketing and delivering the product by themselves.

Consider establishing a larger dairy or forming partnerships with other dairies to increase economies of scale. Many of the costs associated with production are the same for large and small quantities.

Forming partnerships can allow for greater volume of product to satisfy demand and more effective processing, marketing and delivery.

The main markets for goat’s milk include fresh milk, powdered milk and cheese.

Fresh milk is the most difficult product to distribute as most retailers require small amounts and are often located far apart.

Opportunities also exist in powdered milk exports to Asian countries.

Markets should be established before production begins so that you are not stuck with a product you cannot sell when the herd comes into production.

Outlets for products may include restaurants, delis, farmer’s markets, on-farm or internet sales, health food stores or supermarkets trying to extend their range of exotic products.

National Livestock Identification System (NLIS)

All livestock owners within WA must be registered and their stock identified in accordance with the Biosecurity and Agriculture Management (Identification and Movement of Stock and Apiaries) Regulations 2013 (BAM (IMSA) Regulations).

Registered owners are issued with a property identification code (PIC) which outlines the properties they have registered to run stock on and the identifiers they may need to identify their stock (e.g. their stock brand, earmark or pig tattoo).

The prescribed method of identification for sheep is to have your registered brand or PIC imprinted on an approved NLIS eartag in addition to applying the registered earmark. The NLIS eartag can be visual or electronic and is colour coded for the year of birth.

For goats, identification requires your registered brand or PIC imprinted on an NLIS eartag. Earmarks on goats are optional.

The colour of these tags depends on the year they were born and whether they are leaving their property of birth or another property.

Any movement of goats between properties with different PICs must be recorded on the NLIS database and a waybill sent with the animals.

For more information contact the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) Brands Office on +61 (0) 8 9780 6207, email on brands@dpird.wa.gov.au or search ‘sheep and goats’ on the DPIRD Agriculture and Food Division website.

Know what you’re getting into

With the increase in demand for an alternative to cow’s milk and healthy, exotic dairy products there are opportunities to be involved in the dairy goat industry.

This may not suit everyone’s lifestyle so it is important you do your homework before ‘leaping’ in.