Goat or Cow? The Right Homestead Dairy Animal For Your Family

So you are ready for a homestead dairy animal but don’t know which animal to choose. Should it be a dairy goat or a dairy cow? Here’s some practical advice to help you make the right decision.

There’s A Difference

My husband and I have a mixed dairy marriage. He’s a “goat person” and I’m a cow person. He loves goats. If it were up to him this farm would be positively overrun with them. Actually there’s been several times in the past when this farm was literally overrun with goats.

I on the other hand love cows. I don’t really like to live with goats. Not fiber, dairy or meat goats. One of my problems with with dairy goats is that I can’t stand to drink the milk because of the taste. It’s a crying shame really. My aversion to goat’s milk colors my perspective on an entire species.  It’s a classic case of sour grapes; or goaty milk in this instance.

The photo below of me, and Katie the dairy goat, is a joke photo for my husband’s benefit. Katie loves me but she hasn’t figured out that I don’t love her back.

Alpine Nanny Goat

Me and Katie The Alpine Nanny

To my way of thinking goats are more trouble than they’re worth. You need fences that will hold water to maintain goats. And when they escape (and they will!) you can be assured that they’ll head straight for the most valuable plants in the garden or clear out the window boxes. Not to mention that keeping a Billy goat can be a real challenge because of the way they smell. And they do smell! But what else would you expect from an animal who routinely and purposely pees on his beard to make himself attractive to the opposite sex?

Dairy Goats

I love writing about dairy goats because I’m guaranteed to get a knee jerk reaction from evangelical goat people who feel either misunderstood or called to preach the Gospel of Goats. From my point of view, goat people just don’t seem to appreciate that not everyone likes goats or cares for the taste of goat milk. The unsolicited advice that I’ve received over the years regarding goat milk has been endlessly entertaining.

Goat lovers will insist that goat milk is very fragile and must be handled with particular care to ensure that there’s no “off taste” to the milk. Well that’s actually true. Goat milk will readily pick up barn odors faster than cow’s milk.
In fact when it comes to handling fresh goat milk, I’ve found that the best way to cool down a small amount of milk fast is with a Cuisinart ice cream maker. The freezer bowl cools the milk quicker than a standard stainless steel bulk tank and results in perfect Grade “A” milk. A  Cuisinart ice cream maker is really a good investment if you milk just one goat. Not to mention that you can make ice cream with one.

I think there’s some type of genetic component in the ability to taste “goatieness” in fluid milk. It’s kind of like the ability to roll your tongue. Not everybody can roll their tongue. Maybe the goat milk taste thing is all in the genes. I’m not alone in objecting to the taste of goat milk. Many people can taste the difference between Grade “A” goat milk and cow’s milk.

Dairy Cows

I think in general, that if you are like me and hate goat milk, you may be better off with a very low producing family cow.

Kerry Cow

Kerry Cows Are Low Producers

But a cow unlike a goat represents a very large financial investment and personal commitment. You’d be hard pressed in my part of Pennsylvania to pick up a dairy cow or young heifer for less than $900.
And once you have that cow she must be housed, fed, cleaned up after and she needs periodic veterinary care. A cow needs at least 2 to 4 acres of fenced pasture to be happy.
Not to mention she needs to be bred so that she can give milk. Most single cow families will elect to borrow a bull; or ship the cow to a neighbor who has a bull; or have the cow artificially inseminated.
Believe me all 3 of those options have benefits and drawbacks.

My advice to most people thinking about a home dairy animal is this:

Try fresh goat milk to see if you like it. If you do great! Get the nicest goat you can afford and enjoy her and her milk. Dairy goats range in price from upwards of $150, with about $180-$250 being the going rate at present. Be sure to taste the milk before buying a fresh goat. Sweet feed and good clean hay go a long way in making decent milk.

A dairy goat is the almost always the best choice for a small homestead or backyard garden farm. A good dairy goat will often produce well over a gallon of milk a day. That’s plenty of milk for cheese, cooking and for table use.

All babies (human or animal) thrive on goat milk. Even chicks bloom and grow faster with a small amount of goat’s milk. And nothing I know of will fatten a pig faster than corn and goat milk. For years I kept dairy goats just to feed the milk to other livestock. Goat kidding was timed to occur about 2 weeks before lambing season. That way I never had to buy expensive milk replacer for orphan lambs and always had plenty of milk on hand if the opportunity arose to buy day old dairy calves or weaned piglets.

Bottle Lamb Drinking Goat Milk

A Bottle Lamb Thrives On Goat Milk

You may have some trouble making butter with goat milk because the cream doesn’t readily separate. But no matter. With a good homestead dairy goat, you’ll have the means to make the best feta cheese that you’ve ever eaten, and the resource  to create creamy skin soothing goat milk soaps.

But if you’re like me and can’t stand the taste of goat milk you really only have a couple of options for a homestead dairy animal. If you have  a large family and  good pasture; and have the time and inclination to make cheese and butter a cow is the way to go.
A popular way to keep a family cow is to buy a low producing cow, and let her keep her calf for half the day. That way you don’t have to milk twice a day and you still get lots of milk. You’ll have the benefit of a calf that will grow for meat. Or if it’s a heifer calf you can sell her once she’s weaned.

If money is no object and you already know something about cattle, Dexter and Kerry cows are popular with many homesteaders. Both breeds are extremely low milk producers and might be a good home dairy option if you can find them.
But be aware that often a Dexter cow will not give enough milk for kitchen and table use and still have enough milk for her calf. You might have to keep a dairy goat to feed the calf. It’s pretty much a case of either milk for your family – or milk for her calf. You probably won’t have milk enough both. Kerries are only a little better in terms of milk production but are frightfully scarce and not budget friendly.

I think a better option for a family cow is a commercial dairy cow that is being culled from a large herd. A cull dairy cow can often be found for a reasonable price. That’s what I most often recommend to people on a budget who want a family cow. Truth is many perfectly good dairy cows are culled because they are considered to be low commercial milk producers. But they work well as family milk cows. Just so you know, sometimes dairy cows are culled from commercial herds because they have one or two bad quarters or are susceptible to chronic mastitis. Both of those conditions can sometimes be made manageable on a small homestead with very careful attention.

Whatever animal you choose for your homestead or family, you can be assured she will give back more than she ever takes with good care and proper management. Not to mention all the cheese, ice cream and yogurt you can stand to eat!


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