Raising dairy goats off the grid has its own unique challenges, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Goats are one of the most resilient domestic animal breeds, and they’re the perfect choice for rural and backwoods homesteads.
The following is a guest post by Kate Downham, the author of Backyard Dairy Goats: A Natural Approach to Keeping Goats in Any Yard. Kate and her family live Off the Grid on a Permaculture Homestead in Australia. She writes about her goat wrangling, homesteading and homeschooling adventures at The Nourishing Hearthfire.
Why keep goats off the grid?
My family relies on dairy as one of our homegrown staple foods. Keeping goats gives us fresh raw milk every day, which means we don’t need a fridge to store milk, even in summer. By cutting back on the electrical usage of fridges, we can use a much smaller setup of solar and batteries and live comfortably off the grid without a generator at all. Goats are loveable creatures that bring a lot of joy into off-grid living, and their milk is tasty and nutritious.
Turning unproductive land into abundance
Goats can often thrive on land that will not suit other animals. The small size and browsing habits of goats makes them perfect for living on steep, scrubby land. Using mob grazing, they can even eat down the scrub to convert the flatter pieces of land into silvopasture, and to be a part of a longer-term strategy for converting overgrown pastures back into good homesteading land.
Goat manure is great for the soil – it can either be collected and used in the garden, or left on the land to enhance pasture and forest.
Preserving Milk without Electricity
Although you can easily make homemade chévre in a mason jar, there is more to goats milk than one type of delicious soft cheese. Any cheese you can think of could be made with goats milk – it won’t be exactly the same as the cows’ milk version, it actually often tastes better, with more complex flavors developing from the raw milk.
I can easily provide all my family’s pizza cheese with a simple and fast mozzarella recipe that I make while the dough is rising. Ricotta and paneer are very easy to make, and a good source of homegrown protein. All kinds of hard cheeses can be made and stored in root cellar conditions for months. Camembert, blue cheese, feta, and traditional cheddar styles can all be made at home and stored off the grid, and specific recipes can be found in my book Keeping Backyard Dairy Goats.
In the colder parts of the year, I don’t worry about storing milk – an unheated room in our house naturally stays at a cool temperature. In the summer, we culture and preserve most of our milk as kefir, yogurt, and cheeses, leaving only what we’re going to drink fresh in the next twelve hours. Any milk we’ve forgotten about just gets thicker and sourer over time, until it turns into the curds and whey of quark cheese on its own.
Summer offers an abundance of sunshine to harvest with solar panels, so for anyone that wants cold, fresh milk at any time of the day, a small fridge could be kept and used in the summer months while using a modest off-grid photovoltaic system.
What do goats need?
Goats have been raised in rural and off-grid locations for centuries, and their needs are pretty minimal compared to other farm animals. That said, they still do require tending and care.
Goats drink far less water compared to cows. If you are providing for your own household water, it is not much trouble to allow a bit of extra water in your supply for the goats, whether it be rainwater, well water, spring water, or from a stream. I have always just carried water to my goats in buckets, but a water trough could also be set up with an automatic float valve.
Goats will drink more water in the heat of summer, and in times when they’re relying more on hay and other dry feed. Water supplies need to be checked regularly, to make sure it is clean and plentiful, especially in hot weather, and in the coldest weather, when water supplies are likely to freeze.
In our last house, when we relied on hay, we would make sure our goats had at least four gallons of water each available every day in summer, and in colder weather, around two gallons each was easily enough. Now our goats are free-ranging on forest regrowth, they need less water.
Fences or No Fences
I keep my goats without any fences at all (except for keeping them out of the garden). We are surrounded by logging land with no near neighbors. The goats have a routine of coming to the house at the times of the day when I’m milking or handing out treats. For situations similar to this, dairy goats can be a great low maintenance animal that will convert brushwood into milk.
At kidding time, there is more of a risk in this approach, and a compromise can be made by having a barn with a small yard attached for full-time use at kidding time and part-time use as a rain shelter for the rest of the year.
Goats need a shelter to keep the rain, wind, and snow off them. If you can keep these out, then goats can be very resilient in cold temperatures. A simple three-sided shelter works in many climates, but in places where it gets very cold, you might need a closed barn.
To decide which shelter is right for your climate, it’s best to look around locally and see what other homesteaders and farmers use for their animals. Each goat technically needs nine square feet of indoor space to sleep in, but if you have lots of rain and snow, the more indoor space you can allow for your goats, the happier they will be.
Goats can either harvest their own food, or you can bring it to them. Goats have a sensitive digestive system that relies on rumen bacteria to digest their food. If you are bringing in their feed, you will need to give them a consistent supply of their favorite ‘staple’ foods such as good quality hay or tree branches, and not overwhelm them with too much of any new food at once.
Free-range goats will happily select their favorite foods from the trees, pasture, and weeds available, often eating the plants that cows and sheep ignore.
Milking and other responsibilities
The daily responsibilities of goat keeping will vary depending on whether you’re bringing feed to them or not. Milking and milk-related chores take roughly 10 minutes a day for each goat. Hoof trimming is a simple task that needs to be done every few weeks, but if you have a lot of rocks on your property, your goats may not need hoof trimming at all.
Clearing out a goat barn is fairly simple, and if you keep them on deep litter, it will only need to be done every 6 months. This mix of manure and straw is the perfect mulch for the garden or can be composted to add humus to the soil.
The time of animal births is always the most challenging part of the year with any livestock, and goats are no exception. Mixing apple cider vinegar into the goat’s water in the weeks leading up to birth will help her to get the potassium she needs for an easy birth. Feeding some seaweed, and any minerals that are deficient in your soil, will also help for an easy kidding time.
Observing your goats, and when they are with their buck, will help you to determine when kidding time will be, so that you can keep a closer eye on them as the birth draws near. Most goat births happen naturally, without any human help at all, but it can be good to know when it’s time to step into help, and when it’s best to be hands-off.
I cover this subject in greater detail in my book, where I encourage homesteaders at a goat birth to be as hands-off as possible, to allow the goats to follow their natural instincts.
The joy of goats
Goats are something that can make an off-grid homestead feel like a home. Fresh milk arriving in the kitchen every day gives a focus to food preserving and self-reliance efforts, and gives a satisfying feeling of providing a nutrient-dense source of calories for ourselves.
If you’d like to find out more about the needs of goats, how to take care of them naturally, and how to make cheese in small batches using only organic ingredients, you can read more in my book ‘Backyard Dairy Goats.’
This post was contributed by Kate Downham, the author of Backyard Dairy Goats: A Natural Approach to Keeping Goats in Any Yard. If you’d like to learn more about raising goats, whether it be on a backwoods homestead or right in your suburban yard, pick up a copy of her book.