Getting started with dairy goats: practical tips from a farmer

Three years ago, WA Hugo started farming dairy goats on 8ha just outside Lambert’s Bay. Today, he has a herd of 150 goats and produces various cheese products. Jeandré van der Walt visited him on his farm, Bettiesville, to learn more about the dos and don’ts of dairy goat farming.

goats cheese
The Hugos created the brand Bettie Bok for their chèvre, feta and haloumi cheeses.
Photo: Jeandré van der Walt

“I’ve always been fond of goats. When I was young, we always had goats around and used to drink a lot of goats’ milk,” recalls WA Hugo, owner of the farm Bettiesville near Lambert’s Bay.

When the opportunity presented itself in 2016, Hugo therefore lost no time in pursuing his dream of dairy goat farming and commercial cheesemaking. He markets the cheeses under the ‘Bettie Bok’ brand.

Hugo points out, however, that starting out in dairy goat farming is not that simple: it takes careful thought and planning.

dairy goat farmers
Husband and wife team WA and Lillibet Hugo.

“You need to ask yourself two questions: why am I choosing goats? And what do I want to achieve with my goat farming operation?” says Hugo.

Finding the best goat
The Bettiesville herd consists of 150 goats, with 75 ewes in milk. Hugo farms mainly Saanen goats due to their high milk yields and docile temperament. But he adds that there are a number of breeds to choose from, such as the Toggenburg and British Alpine.

“Choose the breed you want to farm based on what you want to achieve with your business,” he advises.

When buying dairy goats, Hugo says it is important to look particularly at temperament and the udder.

“Examine the udder of the ewe thoroughly to ensure there are no lumps. If you can, milk the ewe with your hand. A goat that’s difficult to milk by hand will also be difficult to milk in the dairy parlour.”

In addition, look for goats with a shiny coat. “Goats with coarse, dry, curly hair may very well have some underlying health problem.”

Housing and enclosures
Before buying goats, ensure that you have adequate housing and fencing, says Hugo.

“Goats, whether raised for meat or milk, need basic protection from the elements: wind, rain and heat. You don’t need an elaborate barn; a simple, three-sided shed facing away from the prevailing wind will suffice.”

Hugo adds that goats are notorious escape artists, and their enclosures should therefore be constructed from, or surrounded by, strong fencing that they cannot climb. However, he advises against using barbed wire as it can injure the goats, especially their udders.

“For me, the ideal combination is a tension wire with an electric wire,” he says.

Picky eaters
According to Hugo, the general belief that goats will eat anything is not true.

“In fact, they’re picky eaters,” he says. They are browsers, not grazers like sheep, and what works for sheep will not necessarily apply to goats.

Good feeding practices will determine 90% of the quality of the milk, he says.

Hugo’s advice to prospective dairy goat farmers who want to put goats on pasture is to first take note of what’s available in the area as well as the average rainfall.

“Here, where we stay, it looks almost like a desert, so we feed our goats daily.”

The Bettiesville goats feed almost exclusively on hay, but depending on their stage of development they also receive concentrate.

“It’s important to give ewes extra feed during the last few weeks of pregnancy to improve their condition and milk production,” adds Hugo.

Always provide goats with sufficient fresh water, as they tend to ‘rinse’ their mouths after eating, he advises.

“The water in the troughs can very quickly become dirty and the goats won’t want to drink it. It also affects their appetite.”

Water troughs should be cleaned at least once a day, but preferably twice, especially during the summer months.

Hugo also recommends raising feeding troughs from the ground, as goats tend to climb on the troughs and trample on their food. They then refuse to eat it.

Medication
Goats should receive their vaccinations and other medication during the dry ewe stage. This is also an ideal time to groom their hooves; hoof trimming is important for the mobility and comfort of the ewe.

Hugo advises farmers to consult a vet about setting up a parasite control plan, especially during the dry ewe period, to prevent excessive levels of parasite exposure for newborns and the ewe. “It’s also important to check regularly for, and treat, any external parasites.”

Breeding
Dairy goats are seasonal breeders, conceiving exclusively in autumn. Hugo recommends a ratio of one mature ram to 35 ewes. Young ewes start breeding when they are about 14 months old and weigh a minimum of 36kg.

“When you’re planning your breeding, keep in mind the gestation period is about 150 days,” he says, adding that when the ewes come on heat, the possible kidding date should be noted.

“It’s important to have a kidding plan in order to prepare for the arrival of a large number of kids.”

Hugo’s flock usually achieves a kidding rate of 200%.

Kids are marked for identification immediately after birth. “You can’t do worthwhile recording unless all animals can be properly identified,” he stresses.

He records the sire, dam and kidding date of each kid immediately after birth by writing these details on masking tape with a permanent marker and tying it around the animal’s neck. This identification number will be tattooed inside its ear after two months.

When a ewe has kidded, Hugo places the kids in a portable pen measuring 1,4m by 1,4m, made from old pallets.

“Ewes with a strong maternal instinct are prone to steal kids from other ewes, so to ensure that each of the newborns receives enough colostrum, the kids must be kept separated with their mothers from the rest of the herd for the first five days after birth. After five days, the kids are taken from the ewes and fed by bottle.”

Bettie Bok
Hugo converted an old farmstead into an automatic, eight-point milking parlour and in September 2016 he and and his wife Lillibet made their first cheese.

He says that for good-quality production, dairy goats should be milked twice a day, 12 hours apart, seven days a week. A healthy Saanen ewe should produce between 2,5ℓ and 3ℓ of milk a day.

They produce chèvre (soft goats’ cheese), feta and haloumi.

“Our main clients are health shops. Goats’ milk is enriched with many necessary nutrients and is easily digestible,” he says.

Hugo adds that some consumers believe goats’ milk and goats’ milk products have an unpleasant odour and taste. To control this, he keeps the rams away from the ewes, especially after the females have kidded and are ready for milking.

Secure a market
It is a challenge to find a market for the products.

“These are niche products. Secure a market before investing in facilities or animals. Otherwise, you’ll lose money instead of earning a profit,” advises Hugo.

Email WA and Lillibet Hugo at [email protected].