The debate is on: cow or goat, which one is best? I’m sure you’ve read the articles glorifying one or the other, everyone has a favorite!
Will a milk cow or a milk goat be better for you and your family?
A milk goat is ideal for smaller acreages and families that need a smaller volume of milk per day. A milk cow is ideal for folks with plentiful forages for grass based milk production and families that need a higher volume of milk per day.
The big question: Should you get a milk goat or a milk cow? Honestly, that depends on what you want and what you are willing and not willing to do.
I’m a firm believer in working with your inborn tendencies. If goats call to you, then get the goat!
Don’t try to be a cow person because the last article you read or person you talked to said “Goats? Are you insane?” The opposite is true, as well.
If getting a milk cow calls to you and a goat just seems so-so, then look into getting a cow!
Here are 5 Great Milk Cow Breeds, for you to consider.
Remember: you are the one doing the work and you are the one spending time with the animals.
You (and your new milking gal) will be happier if you get the animal that appeals to you the most.
Feeding for milk production
In this section, I’m using the word feed to mean total ration, as in everything the cow or goat eats for the day.
Some authors use the word feed to mean grain. I use the word feed to mean food intake. This means that feed includes hay, grass, weeds, or whatever she eats.
To avoid confusion, when I am referring to grain I will use the word concentrates. Concentrates are both grains and/or pellets.
A Milk Cow can produce on forage alone
Cows take more total feed to cover her maintenance needs and for milk production. This only makes sense, a bigger animal needs more calories to run her body for the day.
This is the part where most other authors stop, leaving you to think that a cow is a big, bottomless pit of hay eating. Not so.
A cow is much more efficient at turning the calories that she eats into milk than a goat.*
Per pound of forage eaten, you will get more milk from a cow than a goat. The catch is that, like all animals, a cow is a package deal.
A bigger body, more feed eaten per day, more milk produced per day are forever together, it’s all or nothing.
Most cows will over produce milk compared to what your family will use in a day.
For a family milk cow, you will be keeping her at the low end of her productive abilities and still getting plenty of milk. No worries, you’ll have plenty of milk!
*Regarding “efficient” milk production: As far as a family dairy animal goes, the cow is using very little of her genetic milk production potential but the goat is using nearly all of her abilities.
However, in a commercial dairy situation, they seem to be about the same as far as food needed for high milk volume, when based on body weight.
Milk Goats need high quality feed
Milking goats need to be well fed to keep up milk production. A goat milks a higher percentage of her body weight than a cow and you are likely to want her in top form for the whole lactation.
Since a goat will naturally produce a more manageable total volume of milk, you will need to be keeping her at the higher end of her milking abilities.
So, what does this have to do with feed? Everything!
Your goat can only work with the feed that you provide for her. Keeping your goat on a higher nutrition ration will keep her producing milk.
Cheap out on the feed, or think that goats can live on anything and you’re headed for disappointment.
Volume and composition of milk produced is controlled by the goat’s genetics but greatly influenced by the diet consumed.Penn State Extension, Dairy Goat Production
As mentioned above, goats are not efficient converting forage into milk. They will need more energy than they can easily get from nibbling around the barnyard.
Once again, this is a package deal for the goat, as well. While goats are less efficient with forage eaten, they require less total feed per day and will produce a milk volume more in line with normal household needs.
Barn space needed for milkers
All dairy animals need some sort of shelter. It does not have to be anything specially built or fancy.
A place to get out of the weather, not to mention a place to milk :), is going to be needed. Don’t forget about a comfortable and secure place for the babies as well!
A Milk cow needs a shelter
As long as the weather is decent, our cow, Aleene, stays outside most of the day. She can come and go as she pleases, so this is her deciding, not me.
If we are having rough weather, windy, heavy rain, really cold or hot, she likes to be in a barn and I like milking her there!
The barn set up for a cow can be very simple, just an open shed with hay and water available, maybe a grain pan as well.
Consider having the ability to lock her in, super handy for the vet or the A.I. tech. This is as easy as a gate the you can securely close.
Even if she is halter trained and doesn’t mind being tied, have the ability to lock the pen.
You’ll also want to be able to tie her for milking.
Even a cow that will normally stand well for milking, will occasionally have a feisty (more negatively referred to as difficult) morning.
A Milk goat needs kept dry and secure
The small size of a goat really shines when you start thinking about facilities!
It’s amazing to think about it really, just decide to part your car outside instead of in the garage and use your garage, or any other shed or outbuilding, as goat headquarters!
You’ll just need some cattle panels from the farm store to make the pen and a little bit of carpentry skill to make the milking stand. Plans for the milking stand are easy to find online.
Of course, you will probably want to be able to section off the pen, if you needed to keep one goat separate from the others. Consider setting up so you are able to securely close the area with a gate.
Ease of handling
This is a tough section to figure out. Neither goats nor cattle are hard to handle, but they do act very differently from each other.
Milk cows must be cooperative
As far as handling the individual cow, she will need to move to where you want her to go. Dragging her around by her collar won’t work, she’s too big for you to move.
This requires a little more finesse on your part, since she needs to cooperate for anything walking or scooting over to happen.
Handling during milking
If you are concerned about your safety while milking, most cows are steady and easy going. While it’s true that a cow is larger than a goat, she is certainly not more inclined to be mean than a goat.
Truthfully, if I was expecting a milking animal to kick during milking, I would expect it to be more likely from a goat. Goats are so agile! The catch is that a cow is bigger so it makes you worry more, not fair but true.
Great attitude is the top priority when you get a cow in the first place, you need her to have a gentle and calm manner. This is an unnecessary worry if you select your cow well.
Handling for transportation
The other aspect of handling a cow is that if you need to haul the cow herself, that requires a trailer. There is no other option.
It’s easy enough to call a hauler, just something else to keep in mind.
Milk goats need trained, as well
While the goat herself can be quite a character, handling her will be doable. If you have to, you can “make” her move since she is a smaller animal.
For your sake, it’s better to rethink your plan and convince her to move than rely on you being stronger.
Goat Milk vs Cow Milk is a nice article comparing the health benefits of goat milk from Summer Hill Goat Dairy. Bonus: scroll to the bottom of the article for links to some great looking recipes.
Handling during milking
As far as milking goes, goats seem to be less intimidating to beginners than cows. Size does not dictate attitude however!
A well mannered milk goat is every bit as important as a well mannered cow.
It seems to boil down to that while goats are the captains of agility, they don’t have the oomph behind a kick to seriously hurt you.
Sure, they can give you a pretty good whap, but you will be able to deal with it.
Handling during transportation
Another place where for the new farmer or backyard enthusiast, a milk goat shines far above a cow is transportation.
A goat can be hauled around in most any vehicle in a large sized dog carrier.
An alternative method of hauling is to put a tarped secure pen on a lightweight trailer and haul your goat with your car, van or SUV.
We see this type of trailer frequently for sheep and goat hauling at the local auctions.
Length of lactation
For dairy animals, lactation begins with the birth of her baby and goes for 6-10 months depending upon genetics, quality of her ration and care.
Remember that the volume of milk per lactation is never average. She will be above average from freshening (birth) to 6 weeks then start heading down in volume.
If you made a chart of the lactation “curve”, it would actually look like a mountain. Top production (peak of the mountain) will be sustained longer with high quality nutrition and care.
Cows will milk for 10 months
A cow will normally milk for the entire 10 months. She will produce more milk that you will be able to use, so have plans for friends and neighbors to get some milk a few times a week.
Never, and I mean never reduce her feed to lower milk production! Watch her body condition and feed her accordingly.
Even a low producing cow will still make 1.5-2 gallons per day as an average. If that too much milk for you to handle, get a goat instead.
Milk goats will milk for 6-10 months
Goats will milk between 6-10 months, depending upon genetics.
If you are counting on a 10 month lactation, make sure you buy your doe from a farm that is reliably getting 10 month lactations from most of their herd.
Here is an excellent article from Penn State Dairy Goat Production, check it out.
If you get dairy goat with the shorter lactation period, plan on needing a second milk goat for the other half of the year, if you want fresh milk year round.
Nothing wrong with the two goat plan, your gals will like having a friend, anyway.
Your breeder will be tons of help here!
Please, work with your breeder on this one. The information on goat lactation amounts and lengths varies, a lot!
Your breeder will know what his goats are capable of and what you will need to do with them at your farm.
Goat vs cow: radically differing management
The main difference between keeping a milk goat vs a milk cow is from a management perspective! This means the people part of your goat’s or cow’s success as a working member of your farm family.
With a milk cow you are not maximizing her production, not even close! Even a cow with low milk production genetically is still going to give you gallons of milk on a normal ration.
For the goat you are wanting her to be at her genetic best (high production), which requires you to be on your game regarding management and nutrition.
If you keep your milking goat on a normal goat ration, she will not be able to milk like you need her to milk.
A goat needs lots of additional calories from a lactation diet, specifically 1 pound of grain for every 3 pounds of milk produced.
This is grain in addition to her everyday eating. A cow normally just needs pasture, some leanly made cows may need a touch of grain, but not much.
In my opinion, with a milk goat you have less wiggle room, get her ration right or expect less milk than you need.
How do you get her ration right? Simple: just don’t cheap out!
This is only reasonable, a professional athlete can’t perform well on junky or inadequate nutrition and neither can your hard working dairy goat!
Flavor of the milk
Let me just say that I love the flavor of fresh goat milk! It just seems more delicate and sweet than cow’s milk.
However, we are able to get more consistent flavor from the cow, so that’s what we have now.
Cows have wonderfully flavored milk
We have great luck with the flavor of Aleene’s milk. Occasionally, she’ll eat something that flavors the milk a bit, but for the most part, no worries!
Aleene is a Jersey and she nearly always has great tasting milk with plenty of cream.
The few times she has had oddly flavored milk, it was just a slightly odd flavor, only noticeable if drinking the milk plain. In coffee or tea, you couldn’t tell at all.
The milk was still drinkable plain, it just caught me off guard the first few times I had a glass.
My husband noticed the taste, but it didn’t bother him at all. It only lasted for a few days, then she was back to normal.
Goats have wonderfully flavored milk
As I said above, I love the flavor of goat milk! But, and this was a biggie for me, I hate the flavor of “goaty” goat’s milk.
No matter what we did, we could not figure out how to fix the goaty flavor. However, it was hot at the time and from what we read that didn’t help us any!
I know dairy goat raisers all have a system down to ensure great flavor every day, we just couldn’t make it happen.
I also know, some breeds are more prone to goaty flavor than others, so that could be it, as well.
So what do you do with this information? Get a doe from someone who has this all figured out!
Use the system the breeder uses at her farm to ensure wonderfully flavored goat’s milk.
Profit potential from milkers
This really only applies to a cow, since she would be the one producing extra milk. For extra goat milk to sell you will need to get additional goats.
Be careful with this idea. Before you get too excited about selling raw milk, you need to do some research. Some states are raw milk sales friendly, others are not.
Milking by hand or machine
Machine milking really doesn’t matter between a cow or a goat. Obviously, a goat has two quarters, so you only need two inflations.
You would also want a bigger pail on the system if you are milking a cow. Other than that, machine milking will work for both, equally well.
Fencing needs for milkers
There will be some huge differences in the fencing you will need for your milkers. If you are leaning towards a goat, read carefully!
Cows are easy to fence
A cow is easy to fence. She’ll stay behind a single strand of wire or portable electric fence. You can use electrified netting if you have it, but don’t buy it just for her.
There is one catch here: if your cow is tall enough to get her head over the top of a non electric fence, like woven wire, she will lean on it and mash down the fence. Run a strand of electric along the top and problem fixed!
Milk goats are more challenging to fence
Your goat is going to be a challenge to keep in a fence. It’s that simple. Any fencing for goats needs to be top notch and if electric, it needs to be smoking hot (lots of zap).
Goats are less sensitive to shock than most other farm animals, so they are harder to keep in an electric fence.
Not to mention, a goat’s amazing agility and fearless testing and climbing up, on, over of anything they can get close to.
To me, containment is the most challenging part of goat ownership. I love the “watch this” goat attitude, they are great at being entertaining and fun!
However, this it one of the times when “watch this” can turn into unsafe situations, like goats on the road, or just cranked up neighbors, goats eating the neighbor lady’s favorite flowers!
Getting help from neighbors
Getting help from other small farmers, like borrowing a male for breeding, is much more likely with goats than a cow.
Getting goat help is pretty likely, since goats are going up in popularity.
Unless you know a dairy farmer, don’t count on your other small farm friends and neighbors to know how to help you with your dairy cow.
Getting help from the vet
As far as vet care goes, this will depend upon your area. If there are other dairy people in your area, ask them who they call.
If I had to guess, you are more likely to get a vet that knows about dairy cattle than one that is knowledgeable regarding dairy goats.
Hopefully, this will change, especially with the rising popularity of goats, but that’s the current situation.
Don’t get me wrong, your vet will do her best, of course. I’m saying that the more calls she has the better she will get at seeing patterns.
Ask local goat raisers who they use for vet services, that will be the vet gaining the most goat knowledge in your area.