Thursday, April 8, 2010

Goats Vs Cows Vs Full-Time Job

A reader asked some very good questions and I thought I would respond with a full post so everyone can see my reasoning, instead of hiding a very long response down in the comments.

The first question was why did I choose goats instead of cows or one of the miniature breeds of cows. That is a very, VERY good question and I hope the small amount that I have learned in the last year can help someone else in a similar situation. Initially, I was very interested in mini-cows, Dexters specifically. I did a lot of research and their land requirements are not excessive, they produce 1-2 gallons a day which is completely sufficient for my small needs, and they do very well in New England climates. Every now and then, I see a sale ad on Craigslist and I wax poetic about my cow that never was.

I ultimately decided on goats for a couple of reasons, but the biggest was that goats are more suited to my land. I have 5.5 acres of land total, and will probably have 3.5 acres of open pasture available after everything is stumped, graded, seeded, etc. My land is rocky, on a slope, and was an old growth forest. I will be applying 2 ton per acre of lime, but it will still be a battle for years to grow good pasture on this acidic soil. I also happen to have two big grazers already competing on my land: the horses. Whatever grass I might grow will be primarily for the horses and then any left over will be for the sheep, pigs, etc.

Notice I did not say goats. Goats are primarily browsers (like deer) and they can and will eat grass, but they do best on browse. The kind of browse you find in a New England meadow which has not been managed for pasture. Goats have a very high mineral requirement and the brush has deeper roots to bring those minerals to the surface. Raspberries, shrubs, pine, etc. Anything they can get to really. And my land, for the foreseeable future, will be growing plenty of browse. Sheep, cows, and horses are grazers and will compete for grass. Goats can eat "the rest of it", the stuff along the tree line or in the darker, less hospitable reaches of the land.

Additionally, goats are smaller and "more manageable" which is a completely subjective assessment, but it works for me. I own a draft horse. I know big animals. But I didn't even want to deal with full-sized goats (which can pull 400 lbs, strong little critters). So I chose mini-goats (which still pull 200 lbs, I am somewhere south of that number. Yes, my 2' goat pulls me around). Mini goats can be housed in smaller pens and are low impact. They don't turn any patch of ground into instant mud (like my horses). They need only a 4' fence, versus a 5' fence for standard goats (cows are easier to fence, by far). Pound for pound, they produce more milk with less feed.

Ah, but how much milk? I think it's reasonable to expect 2 qts a day from a good mini-goat producer, which is not anywhere close to the production of even the smallest cow. Standard goats can give a gallon or more a day. But here's the kicker. With three or four goats in milk, I can stagger the breedings and never be in a dry period. With a single cow, once she's dry, you wait... wait... wait... for milk. If you need smaller amounts but want it daily (which also ties you down to the farm, etc), then more little goats might be a better way to go.

Goats have a much smaller "setup" charge. Ever price a good milk cow? They are completely worth their price tag, but for a first time ruminent owner, I wanted something with less cash invested. Of course, that is slightly cruel to think about, but a very real practicality of farm life. My goats are housed in a little shed, 8' x 10'. I did not have to build a larger barn for them. Also, I milk my goats in my basement. They walk down the stairs of the bulkhead just fine and I can keep my basement cleaner than I can keep my barn. A cow would need a bigger setup and I would obviously not expect them to go down stairs into my basement. The way my land is situated, there is not a really good location for another barn and milk parlor, so even facilities weighed into my decision.
Properly handled goat milk is not musky or "goaty". It is sweeter than cow's milk and has a slightly different texture (the milk is naturally homogenized), but it is definitely as palatable as a drinking milk. So you really don't give up anything there. Goat meat is not really as good as beef, in my opinion, so if you want to butcher the male offspring for your freezer, cows make more sense, and more meat.

And finally, I just love my goats. I am biased since I have never spent a considerable amount of time with a good dairy cow, so feel free to disregard this last item. A dairy animal is an animal with which you will bond heavily. You will spend a great deal of time, twice a day, pressed at her side, smelling her skin, feeling the heat come off of her body, grooming her, caring for her. You have to not only like your dairy animal, you need to love her. My little Jolene, as the matriarch of my goat herd, and the sole milk producer at this time, is by far the most important animal on this farm. I am intensely bonded with her. So if cows are your thing and not goats, please get a cow.

The second question was if I thought I would produce as much food if I didn't work from home. This is another good question and one I consider almost daily. I think the answer is "Yes", if you don't also have another full time hobby, like riding horses. During the growing season, our weekends are usually full of farm work and if we didn't have to also ride 5 times a week or go to horse shows, we could fit it in more easily. But make no mistake, this farm is our life, it's pretty much all we do. We don't have TV, we don't really go to movies. We eat out maybe once a week and that's usually lunch on the way to the hardware store for some project. We very rarely get to go hang out with friends partly because we are rural and far away, and partly because we can't take 6 hours out of our day to sit around and drink beer, as much as we would like to. But we've made the farm our priority, at least for this Five Year Plan, and so we are committing everything we have. It is possible to get an evening away (milk early and then again when we get home) and once we find a good farm sitter, even more time away. I have friends who take very long vacations from their farms with the right farm sitter. It's very doable. We just haven't done it yet. But this year is the year. I haven't had a real vacation in eight years, and I WILL GO ON VACATION THIS YEAR. Just as soon as the kids are weaned, and the pasture is seeded, and the goat paddock completed, and the drainage lines dug, and the outdoor garden planted, and... and... and...

I think I just made my point.


Heather (hpalmete) said...

I just wanted to mention that I thought this was an especially excellent post. Thank you for continually sharing your experiences and learnings.

AareneX said...

Great post. We are starting Year 2 on our farm, and the social adjustments have been the most substantial...and the most rewarding. I do miss having dinners "out" every week, but I wouldn't trade that for sitting on our own back porch and watching the stars in the evening.

Marie said...

Great post. It's so much work to do what you're doing. I think most of us raised on and around farms have a fantasy farm in our head, but it's just that a fantasy. Of all the kids I knew both in my family and as well as friends, I don't know a single one who farms now. It's just so hard. Good for you.

JeniQ said...

Great Post Daun!!!

Tina said...

Aloha! I just found your blog and am very excited. We have about 5 acres, as well, but on the opposite side of the country - Maui. I'll enjoy reading about the education you've received so I can hopefully accelerate mine! (we are at

Gina said...

Thank you for answering my questions, Life has attacked me this month and I never got a chance to comment.

I am glad to see the thought process that went to what you selected and why.

I too have horses, I too will have a full time job, mine will not be at home, however I will have 3 mo off a year. My dream set up is a little bigger than yours but then where I am land is cheaper and more fertile.

I have always believed that step one is bring the horses home and then just chilling with that for a few months years ect. until I feel like I have that down. Grow a regular veggie garden and maybe maybe have some layer chickens. Do you ever regret just jumping in feet first to pretty much a 'full' farm in less than a year?

I know this is not the blog about your horse but, since this applies to all your animals- how happy are you with housing them in modified 'found' structures - Do you wish for a wash stall, is it easy to get your daily eggs, ect?

If you had one wish/ do over/ unforeseen pitfall what would it be?

How much are you having to supplement your animals diet with bought food stuffs - for the horses how much hay to you have to buy a year?

I know I am very nosy, but I don't have access to anyone with a hobby farm to ask questions to.

Thank you so much!

Daun said...

Hi Gina,
i will answer your questions here, if you don't mind.
Having three months off a year is a big win. You can front load a lot of the "projects" and then the maintenance is not such a big deal. The projects are what take the most time (and money).

It's funny you made a comment about me jumping in with both feet. Another reader just complemented me with "taking my time to ramp up". Ha! I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. I had no previous experience so I knew the first and second years were going to be massive learning curves. So I tried to do as many things as I could just to get some exposure. Already, this year, I feel like things are so much more manageable. And we still have so much more to do. You can control many things on the farm, but you can't control time. If you miss your window for planting, if you miss your window for seeding, you get to wait... sometimes a full year. It's best to give it a try, even on a small scale, and learn from it, even if you are not ready instead of 4 months from now regretting you had not at least tried. In my opinion. :)

I am very happy with the modified buildings. I am darn lucky to have them. A lot of property up here had old, very old barns, and I actually think my new shed is much safer and cleaner. I don't really miss a washrack, because I was always more of a pasture board person. I think the coop works much better for the chickens than I could have imagined if I started from scratch. Sometimes, things just work out.

One wish/do over? So far we haven't had any major disasters. But I would say that I would study the soil maps very carefully and buy cleared land further out (so I could afford it), than buy wooded land closer to town. We got lucky with the soil, but it could have been much worse. So really look where you want to be. And absolutely, if you have any intent on farming, buy a FARM, not a horse property. Any horse will thrive on a farm, but you can't farm all horse property. Soil, soil, soil.

I buy 8-10 ton of hay a year but they have no grass. I expect that to half when they are on rotational grazing half the year. All my animal feed is purchased off farm. I am going to attempt to overwinter some root crops and greens for the goats and chickens. Horses are just too hard. They require way too much feed for me to possibly grow it.

However, I am reading a book on small scale grains, and 1 acre of corn can feed one dairy cow, her steer, one pig and 30 chickens for a year. Just keep that in mind since you have access to more open land.

Great to have you as a reader, keep those questions coming!

Gina said...

Thanks for all the great information. What is the book you are currently reading if you don't mind me asking?

As I am still in the information gathering part of potential farm life, I have no experience from which to base my opinions but...

Many of my current resources are very anti-corn fed dairy, meat and poultry... however, as a horse person I can easily see the benefit on including appropriate grain/ soy based feeds if carefully monitored and researched. Where do you stand on the great corn debate?

I really appreciated the advice on buying farm land as opposed to horse land, because I never would have though about that. I would never think about growing my horses hard feed, but grazing is a big concern of mine, my very sensitive TB has sugar issues, not IR but will probably age into it, so I will be very interested in how you plan and implement your 'pasture plan.'

One of my biggest worries is planning and building for the best use of, and the most available land. Did you go to an engineer or site planner to help you develop your properties layout?

I might soon be getting a postage stamp size of back yard and want to experiment with the plant aspect of farming... mainly vegetables and leafy greens due to size (and yum factor)
What are some idiot proof good first time heirloom veggies, roots, and leafy things for me to experiment with, knowing that my exp up to now has mainly been herbs and kitchen tomato plants? I know we have very different growing seasons but just a place to jump off of would be great!

Again thank you so much for being so forthcoming and easy to talk/ type with!

Christian Murrell said...

Thanks for the awesome information! Can't wait to be living my own sustainable dream (as you have started yourself, and I throughly commend!)! I'm totally 'fresh' with farming and husbandry and reading your blog posts is quite inspiring!