Raising Goats to Make Your Own Cheese – Part 1
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Raising goats to make your own cheese is a great goal. Today I’ll go over the basics of how to get started. Making the cheese is another topic for later. Let’s just start with what it takes to raise and care for the animals that make it happen.
First let me take a minute and say welcome to all the new listeners and welcome back to the veteran homestead-loving regulars who stop by the FarmCast for every episode. As always, I appreciate you all so much. Thank you. There is no show without you.
Our Virginia Homestead Life Updates
Before I get started on today’s topic, just a very brief update on our animals. All of the animals are doing really, really well. No issues so far, even though we had that really deep cold snap. Fortunately, we did not have any lambs born during that time. That was my only concern. Right now, it looks like it will be February before we have lambs. It always takes longer than I think.
Lambs gestate for about five months. And the pregnant ewes end up looking like they are going to burst for days and days before the lambs actually arrive. You would think I would get used to it. I looked at one of our ewes a few days ago and thought to myself, “she’s going to have her lambs in the next couple of weeks.” Then I looked at her again yesterday and now I’m thinking it is going to be much later. This is the way of things when we leave the animals on their own for breeding.
Scott keeps really close eye on the cows because they come up to the milking shed every day. The sheep and goats stay out in the pasture, so knowing when they come into heat is just not feasible. Because we know the date that the breeding ram or buck goes in with the ewes and does, we know the earliest date that babies can be born. But after that, we just wing it and figure that all will be born within two months. That usually works. These animals are healthy and can be bred easily.
We expect our first calf of 2023 the first week of March. The entire herd is all in one lump except for the two heifer calves that were born last year. They are too young to be bred and must be kept separate until we are ready for their breeding to commence. If I remember correctly, that will be some time in the summer. June, July or August. They will go in with the bull and have their first calf about the time they reach two years old.
The chickens are doing well. At least three of the four roosters did get a little bit of comb damage during that cold snap. We kept them locked in their coop so their combined warmth would help keep everyone warm. Unfortunately, our roosters have very large combs. Those are those big red things sticking up from the top of their heads. They are quite subject to frostbite. There is only a small bit of damage that I saw. Maybe a ¼ inch or less on the tip of one or two of the points.
So other than that, all is well with them.
My young goat girls are doing fantastic. They are still quite small, but will enter the breeding cycle in less than a month. They also require five months of gestation for their kids. We will be looking for our first kids from them in the height of summer. July and August should brings us those cutest of cuteness, goat kids. Well, it’s kind of a toss up between the kids and the lambs. They are both just as cute as they can be when young.
Speaking of goats, how about some info on how you might get set up for raising your own goats?
I’m going to recount, to the best of my ability, the steps we took to prepare for raising goats. Then I will talk about some of the challenges. The rewards of owning and caring for goats far outweighs the challenges. Keep that in mind if you decide to go on the goat journey.
Getting Set Up
As you are making your plans for bringing goats into your life, the second highest priority is deciding how you will contain them. I’m going to say with near complete certainty that no matter how well you plan this and prepare for it, your goats will escape. Why do I say that? Because they are goats. It’s what they do.
What Do Goats Eat?
The first priority is deciding how you will feed them? Grazing is always the first choice here, but there are times when feeding a little grain is useful. And then there are nutritional supplements to be considered. Today it is popular to think that we are going completely back to nature and they can just live on grass. That is a fallacy in today’s world. Domesticated animals have been bred for generations to be cared for and so we must continue this practice. Our soils are depleted and the grasses that grow no longer have all of the required nutrition for healthy animals.
You will need to give them mineral supplements. You will need to manage their pastures. And sometimes, as much as you may try to prevent it, you will need to use modern medicine to save the life of your animals. These are skills you will build over time and I’ll try to cover the basics a little later.
Grass vs Browse
There are many types of grasses such as orchardgrass, crabgrass, fescue and so on, and your goats will eat them. However, they prefer what is called browse for well over half of their daily diet. What is browse you say? It’s brush, small deciduous trees like those small pines intruding at the edge of your pasture, and small saplings. They love things with thorns like briars, brambles and small black locust trees. They like wild roses and wild blackberry plants, also thorny. Then there are what we normally call weeds that they love. Things like pigweed, various kinds of docks, plantain and lambs quarters. The pigweed and yellowdock have deep roots and are hard to get rid of like dandelion. Plantain and lambs quarters grow wild all over the pasture and are great goat food, while we spend hours trying to get them out of our gardens before they take over.
So, keep that in mind when deciding what your goats might eat.
What about grain? We personally don’t use a lot of grain with our goats, or the sheep for that matter. But there are uses for it. In the commercial world, young lambs and goat kids are fed what is called “creep feed”. It is used to get their weight up so they can be weaned off of mother’s milk at an earlier age and remain healthy. As far as I can tell, its purpose is to get animals to market quicker and at less cost. Neither of these goals are our goals, so we don’t use creep feed.
We do use grain for other reasons. The number one reason is the health of a doe about to give birth as well as her kids. Where we live, the soil is depleted of selenium. You will need to check your area to see if this is the case where you will be raising your goats. Selenium is vital for the health of your animals.
White Muscle Disease
In the beginning, we used to have kids just disappear after a week or so. Our first goats were really wild and we couldn’t even catch them. They had their kids out on the pasture and we let the does take care of the kids without any intervention. We assumed that predators were getting these little guys. Then one day I caught one of the week-old kids not able to get up and stay standing up. I quickly drug out the book on goat health that I had on my shelf and discovered the problem.
It’s called white muscle disease and it is a result of too little selenium. In our case, the kids would not have enough selenium and quickly became too weak to stand. The kids are very clever at hiding and that is why they just seemed to disappear without a trace. I found one once hiding under a small pile of wood and once in the trunk of a tree. They are small and very easy to miss. Anyway,
White muscle disease is quite easy to remedy if you catch it quickly. A bolus of selenium and vitamin E and the kid is back on its feet within hours. But the better treatment is the preventative treatment. We feed our does just a bit of grain containing selenium supplement every day beginning about two weeks before we estimate they will give birth and then for about a week after. That ensures that mom has the selenium she needs and is passing it on to her kid via her milk. This completely eliminated losing kids to white muscle disease.
The second reason we use a little bit of grain is to tame the goats. Right now my two baby girls will follow me anywhere. I can even pet Lian and she doesn’t run away. Admittedly, I do have to wait for her to come up to me. If I try to walk up to her in the pasture, she might walk away if she doesn’t see me with a bowl in hand. It is a very small amount, less than a cup between the two of them, and not every day. I’m loving the friendliness that I have not had in the past.
Just a quick note. Our first goats were purchased while we were still traveling back and forth from Virginia to South Carolina and back every single week. I didn’t have the time to spend with my goats that I have now. And they were wild. We could not get within 50 feet of them. It was a real learning curve to get them into the corral. The tasks was accomplished but not without frustration.
Scott has built the useful system of fences to move animals from one large area to another. We call them travel lanes. These were so useful in herding the goats. If we could get them into a travel lane, we could move them to a smaller and smaller area until we could catch them up to check on their health. One, we called her Julie Jumper, could escape even this arrangement. It was nearly a year before we were able to give her a health check. Every time we would corral them, she would jump over the five or six-foot fence. It took Scott building that fence up to 10 feet high to keep her contained. It was a small area, so it wasn’t like we had to redo all of our fences. Just those in the corral.
So, grain feeding for taming it a great thing. You want to be able to catch them up to check for general gut health and hoof health.
Ok, enough about grain. Let’s get to creating the most nutritious pasture for your goats.
We set up a rotational grazing system. This system is the best way to maintain their health with minimal intervention with things like worming chemicals. I’ll talk more about worms in a minute. Rotational grazing is also the best way to maintain your pasture. Maintaining pasture is essential for having good foraging and grazing for your goats. You want them to have lots of good grass and browse to maintain their weight and for nutritional support.
How much pasture you require will depend on where you live. In Texas and Oklahoma, you will need more acreage per animal than we require here in Virginia. If you have questions in that regard, email me and I’ll try to give you resources to find out what is best for your part of the world.
Basic rotational grazing for us was setting up a perimeter fence around all of the pastures and then creating smaller paddocks within those larger areas. You will want to set it up so that each paddock will have no goats for a couple of months. This has to do with letting the pastures regrow as well as keeping the parasite load under control. That means those pesky worms I mentioned earlier.
There are a couple of different approaches you can take with fencing. One, a permanent fence system. Two, an electric fence system. In my humble opinion, option two still needs a permanent fence perimeter. What do I mean by that?
As I mentioned, the goats will get out. Even with a “permanent” fence, they will find a way out eventually. You will want to be able to catch them up quickly so be ready for that. But here again, prevention is best. We can’t have them getting injured by getting out in the road. And we can’t have them damaging the neighbor’s property. A good strong perimeter fence is your best insurance for managing this risk.
Permanent fence needs to be designed specifically for goats. The wires nearer the bottom are closer together so the smaller kids are contained. I’ve seen our full-grown goat girls get through a fence wire that was barely 6” square. I can’t remember her name, but any time of the day we might find her grazing outside of the perimeter fence. Thankfully, they are herd animals and she never went far from the rest of the herd. Later she would be back inside just going on about her business.
Taller is better. Most goats like to jump and some can jump really high – Julie Jumper was as pro. Keep it close to the ground. If the land is not level and uneven, be aware of gaps at the bottom as you move across terrain. We use two strands of barbed wire at the top for extra height and deterrence from jumping.
As far as the dividers between paddocks, this is where electric fence is an option. We chose permanent fence here as well, but it is not absolutely necessary.
The advantage of electric fence that is commonly used for all sorts of pastured animals is the ease of moving it. In the spring there will be lots of grass and browse, therefore, you may keep them in a smaller area to make sure they eat everything before moving on to the next paddock. Later in the summer, they may require a larger area for the same amount of time grazing as the grass is not as tall and definitely not growing as fast. Being able to vary the size of the paddock is easily accomplished with electric netting. It facilitates a more regular schedule for you.
Again, we chose permanent fencing so our trade-off is that sometimes they might be in an area for a week and other times as much as two or three weeks if the grass is strong. It’s a little different way of thinking about it than just automatically moving them every few days or every week or however much time you decide is optimal between rotations. We move on their schedule. Electric wire lets you move on your schedule.
Source of Electricity
Things to consider with electric fencing is whether you have electricity available close to your pasture, or are you going to use a solar charger to keep the electric fence hot. While a hard wire is more reliable, it’s not that practical unless you have only a few goats that basically in your back yard. If you have more extensive pasture, then solar becomes almost a requirement. The solar unit moves with the fence.
You can also use a marine battery that will move with the fence. All things to consider in planning your system. Plus, these are great conversations with your spouse. I love our dream building conversations probably more than anything else we do together. That’s just me. I’m not sure Scott would rate the conversations that high, but he does like spending time with me. So, there is that.
Sheep will stay outside in the worst of weather. Goats do like a bit of cover from the worst of it. Though it is not absolutely essential, it is recommended. Of course, how elaborate will depend on your individual situation. They really don’t require a lot of space and will bunch together and snuggle each other.
We have a calf hutch and a couple of dog igloos. Some people build wooden structures including a space where hay can be stored close by for use in the winter. A simple lean-to or covered area with open sides are also options. Just a little something they can get under when the rain comes down hard.
Supplements and Disease Management
A couple of last things to consider in your planning is how will you supplement their minerals. This is a requirement. They must have access to free-choice minerals. Options here include a simple system of buying a pre-mixed, all-purpose mineral or going the more elaborate route. There are systems were you can buy each mineral individually and keep them stocked in their own box. The animals choose how much of each mineral that they want to consume. The prepackaged minerals leave less choice, but are balanced for the average needs of a goat. It must be goat minerals. They need copper more than other animals. Minerals made specifically for goats will address that need.
As far as disease management, there are a few things that you should have on hand. First, a good worming medication. While you may not want or need to use these chemicals, there will be times when it might save the life of one of your animals.
Hoof trimmers are essential for most goat breeds. If you don’t keep them trimmed, you are going to see your goats limping around every time it rains. It is an easy and necessary skill to learn. We got Kiko goats to minimize the need, but I have no doubt that it will be a need from time to time.
There is so much more to know, but I am going to leave it here for today. How will you feed them? How will you contain them? How will you house them? How will you care for their physical health? These are the main areas to consider first. Building the physical structures will be led by the decisions you make after having these discussions and thought exercises. Let me know if you have questions.
As always, our Locals subscribers have direct access to us. And you can always drop me an email if you have specific questions. Again, I covered only the very basic thoughts to consider. There is so much more. And should you decide to embark on this journey, I believe it is one that you will have a blast learning about with your family. Jump in with both feet and enjoy the experience. There is nothing like raising and caring for your own animals.
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Thank you so much for stopping by our homestead and until next time, may God fill your life with grace and peace.
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