Dairy goats – The key to sustainable abundance in the suburbs
Imagine a typical suburban backyard, with permaculture applied. Chickens provide an abundance of eggs, the vegetable garden yields healthy homegrown produce, fruit trees and perennials provide lots of taste, calories, and nutrients. Yet even with all this food, there is a feeling that something is missing. The chickens are great for eating cooked scraps, but not so great with all the outer cabbage leaves, broccoli stems, and other bulky awkward bits. Orange and banana skins are annoying to compost, and the chickens won’t deal with those either, and our plants would probably be more productive with a bit of extra manure… Is there a solution?
There sure is… goats!
Adding goat dairy to the foods produced in a backyard drastically increases the diversity in the diet, and adds to the amount of easily-prepared foods available. After a busy day you might not have much time to prepare other foods, but goats milk is ready to drink as-is, or can be made into yoghurt, kefir and many different hard and soft cheeses. In the backyard it’s often hard to find good sources of protein and healthy fats other than eggs, and goats milk provides both of these, along with an abundance of vitamins and minerals. Add a yearly pig, fed from acorns and the whey left over from cheesemaking, and you have an even more varied and resilient diet.
Goats eat the scraps that are difficult to compost or feed to chickens. With both chickens and goats, there’s virtually no food scraps going into the compost, making it much easier to manage for anyone that has trouble dealing with hot composting, or have lots of rodents around.
In suburbia, you’re probably bringing in a bit of mulch anyway – keeping goats means that this mulch is first processed through them, as food and bedding, and then once their yard is cleared out, you’re left with a great pile of mulch with manure mixed through it, ready to be used straight away in the garden. Goat manure is a ‘cold’ manure that won’t burn plants, so it’s ready to use right away, without any composting or aging needed.
To add to this, goats have so much personality and are pleasant to be around, it’s almost like having pets.
Dairy goats might help you to reduce waste in the home, as dairy is often the biggest barrier for people moving towards zero waste. Keeping goats for dairy can even reduce electricity usage, as raw milk can just be stored on a shelf and used before the next milking, rather than needing fridge space.
How do I raise goats?
Raising goats can be a complicated subject – this is why I wrote an entire book about it, but to get started in your journey with goats we can have a look at their basic needs:
Fenced area and shelter
Generally in suburbia we would look at keeping the goats in a strawyard, with a shelter to keep out the rain. 6 by 6 metres is a good size for two or three full-size dairy goats in a fenced area. Each goat will need around 1 metre by 1 metre of this space to be undercover. The fence will need to be at least 120cm high.
Goats have a sensitive digestive system that relies on rumen bacteria to digest their food, because of this, goats will need a ‘staple’ source of food, so that their digestion won’t be overwhelmed by any sudden changes from one food to another – either branches from their favourite trees such as acacias, tagasaste, and fruit trees, or a good quality hay such as lucerne are both good choices for staple foods. This food can be supplemented with broccoli stems, outer lettuce leaves, comfrey leaves, and other scraps from the garden. Greengrocers and bakeries can often be a good supply of meat-free ‘waste’ food that can be fed to goats.
Keeping dairy goats involves a daily routine of milking, along with refilling food and water, and some observation. These are pleasant tasks that can bring balance to unpredictable times. With two goats, it takes roughly 20 minutes for all the milking, straining, and bottling. Milking offers time for observation and reflection, as well as a satisfying feeling of providing food for ourselves in a simple way. The amount of time needed for feeding depends on how close your food sources are, but generally takes less than 10 minutes if the food is already stored in the garage. Goats need their hooves trimmed every couple of months, and a deep litter strawyard will need to be cleaned out roughly every 6-12 months.
Overall, keeping dairy goats is not for everyone. If you can make a commitment to milk your goats every day, or to share responsibilities as a goat co-op, then you can make it work. It is not always easy, but if you love goats, or can grow to love them for the benefits they bring to the backyard, then you can look forward to joyful days with goats, cheese, and a closer connection to your sources of nourishment.
Can I keep a goat in my area?
Not all councils will allow goats in backyards, so it’s worth checking your local council’s livestock regulations before beginning your dream of keeping goats. Councils often aren’t aware of suburban goats unless a neighbour complains, so if you are on good terms with your neighbours then it’s unlikely to be an issue. Some people are unfamiliar with backyard goats, and it can help to have a talk with neighbours first to explain that goats are quieter and cleaner than dogs and cats, and that there is no smell when a deep litter system is used. Saanens, Toggenburgs and British Alpines are quieter and better suited to suburbia than other breeds, so are less likely to draw neighbourly complaints.
It wasn’t that long ago when backyard chickens were seen as eccentric, but this is now an accepted part of suburbia, and as more people become aware of the waste and ethical issues involved in conventional dairy, goats will find their way into more yards.
Rules change over time, and if you are in an area that doesn’t allow goats, you could try and challenge the rules – many councils have websites waffling on about environmental commitments – what better way for them to live up to these words than by changing the rules to enable people to reduce waste and produce local food with goats!