The Economics of a Small Dairy Goat Operation
Editorial Note: This article was written by our father, Shane Argyle, during the time when we were all still living at home and the goat project was just a mere hobby. We, his children, are eternally grateful for the impact the goat project has had on our lives and proudly carry on the legacy.
What does it really cost to maintain a dairy goat project aimed at sustaining the dairy needs of a family? How much time does it take? What equipment do I need? How much space does it require? I don't mind some setup costs, but how can a small dairy goat herd really cash flow? What values can a dairy goat project impart to my children or grandchildren? I'll endeavor to answer these questions by relating our own family's dairy goat experience over the past decade.
We originally sought a project that would require the help of all family members (parent/child time). Our children ranged in age from four to eleven. We wanted more commitment than a bunny. We felt that the opportunities to strengthen character and work together as a family would far outweigh the financial costs—and those feelings have become reality many times over.
To shorten a wonderfully long story full of work, fun, and surprises, I’ll simply answer the questions posed:
What does it really cost to maintain a dairy goat project aimed at sustaining the dairy needs of a family?
For our family of six, we have found that two quality milking does produce enough milk to satisfy our dairy needs. We drink the milk as well as making ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, yogurt, and ice cream. Milk production depends on many factors—the breed of dairy goat, the individual doe, the nutrition you provide, as well as overall health and weather conditions. We raise purebred Nubians on a small piece of property, so we’ll focus on our own cost and “income” data for purposes of the numbers.
We have had two sets of feed in the past 10 years. We began with alfalfa hay and a grain mix and have since moved to sprouted barley (called fodder) and a mixed hay pellet. For two does and a mature buck, we spend about $1/day/goat on feed and milking supplies. The three goats therefore cost about $1,095/year to maintain.
Two mature does will produce about one gallon each per day for about 300 days. They get a two-month dry period before kidding each spring. 600 gallons at the average store price of $2.33/gallon = $1,398. Based on that calculation alone, we justify the project from an economic standpoint—a $300 savings. Since cheese, yogurt and ice cream carry values over $2.33/gallon, the savings increase if you make these products. Our children have grown to love the goat milk so much that when the does dry up, so does their desire for milk consumption! I could therefore use a much higher value/gallon in the calculations.
How much time does it take?
It takes two of us about 15-20 minutes night and morning to feed, water, milk two does, and process the milk. When five of us worked together we finished all the chores with 4-5 milkers in roughly the same time.
What equipment do I need?
We bought materials from the local store (like Cal Ranch, IFA, Lowe’s, Home Depot) to build a small shelter, feeder, pens and milking stand. In addition, we found the milking supplies (milk bucket, strainer, filters, udder care products) on a goat products website. With relatively little setup costs, we purchased our first two milking does from a local dairy.
How much space does it require?
You need to live in a place zoned for animals. While a nice pasture will make the goats the happiest, you can raise them in relatively small spaces. We began with two mature does in a 12-20 pen.
I don't mind some setup costs, but how can a small dairy goat herd really cash flow?
When we consider the benefits I’ll describe next, the entirety of the costs become an investment that we expect will pay dividends far into the future. However, we have found a few ways to help the project pay for itself along the way.
We chose one breed and purchased the very best genes we could afford at the time. Feeding a goat that produces a half gallon/day costs about the same as feeding one that gives one or two gallons. Two to four times the milk covers a lot of feed costs.
Maintaining purebreds has also allowed us, thanks to support from those who have come to appreciate quality dairy goats, to sell kids and milking does for decent prices. Participating in competitions has led to show wins with competent judges to substantiate the quality of the animals to the marketplace.
Learning to make several products that we used to buy at the store has provided some economic gain (yogurt, cheese, ice cream, soap).
What values can a dairy goat project impart to my children or grandchildren?
For answers to this question from some of our children, please see the other articles on the site. From my perspective, I have observed a handful of values that I would trace to the project. Love for animals. We have tender feelings when the dams give birth; when one tragically and unexpectedly dies; when the temperatures plummet to zero or rise to 90+. Work ethic. We feed and water. We muck and milk. We trim hooves and give shots. We stay up all night with expectant dams. We bottle feed hungry newborn kids at crazy hours. We don’t take vacation (except in the dry season) unless we can get there and back by 6:00 pm. Dependability. For nearly 10 years we have fed, watered and milked twice daily—on a 12-hour schedule. The goats eat and drink before we do (with minor exceptions). With a dairy project you just have to show up. We have a rigorous morning schedule. We have to finish all chores on time to get to school and work on time. Accountability. We keep records. We weigh the milk and log the data twice daily. Those of 4-H age update portfolios each year detailing costs and revenues amongst other information. Teamwork. We often divide the chores up such that watering, feeding, milking, and milk processing happen simultaneously. This allows for a streamlined schedule to accommodate all the other demands on our time. When we prepare the goats for competition, everyone works together on a variety of tasks. I suspect that some of the values will manifest themselves far into the future.
Additional, unanticipated benefits to this small, family project: It has caught the attention of journalists. Recruiters in high places have paused to discuss this element on the resume. Year-round, but especially in spring time with newborn kids, seeing and playing with the goats has become a staple in the dating life of all four children.
I suspect that we will recognize other ways this project has impacted our lives for good when we no longer have it. I can hardly imagine the day when we have no more fresh goat’s milk in the refrigerator—perhaps our children and grandchildren will simply deliver it to us?