Backyard Goats Provide More Than Milk for Urban Farming Enthusiasts

Urban farmers across the country are going caprine crazy, but backyard goats have more to offer than just dairy products.Considering going goat? Read on for all you need to know.

Despite my upbringing in a distinctly non-rural bedroom community north of Los Angeles, I grew up with goats. This was back in the days before urban farming was a “thing;” we had a five-acre ranch where we raised caprines (Latin for goat), as well as horses, mules, chickens, rabbits, and a variety of other critters. Even with pasture and a barn on the property, we had backyard goats to a certain degree, because I insisted upon bringing all of our “pets” down to the house to visit. Fortunately, my parents never minded seeing a donkey or Jersey heifer peering in the sliding glass door off of their bedroom.

While not an enthusiastic early riser, I nevertheless milked my Nubian doe before classes. Although we played around with making chevre and yogurt, we generally just drank the fluid milk, in addition to keeping our neighbors well-stocked (Nubians are prodigious milkers).

Credit: Image by Sheri Giblin.

Things have changed, of course. Today, my hometown is essentially a suburb of LA (if traffic is any indication), and most of the agricultural land in that region has been strip-malled and tract-homed. Urban sprawl not being unique to Southern California, this unfortunate trend has, in large part, spawned the national urban farm movement. Backyard chickens and beehives have become part of the cultural zeitgeist, but over the last couple of years, goats have been taking cities by storm.

I first heard about backyard goatkeeping four years ago, when I moved to Seattle for a brief time. There, I made the acquaintance of Jennie Grant, an avid cook, gardener, caprine enthusiast, and founder of the curiously-named Goat Justice League. Grant founded the League in 2006 as a way of promoting local food security; it’s thanks to her efforts that goats were legalized within Seattle city limits in 2007. Today, Grant has two goaty companions, Eloise and Snowflake, in her backyard. Last fall, her first book, “City Goats:The Goat Justice League’s Guide to Backyard Goat Keeping” (Skipstone; order off of the GJL site) came out; proof that America has gone gaga for goats.

Credit: Image by Sheri Giblin.

Goats are popular amongst urban farmers because they’re a manageable size and relatively inexpensive to feed, after the initial expense of constructing a proper enclosure and shelter (don’t forget there will be vet bills!). A seasonal supply of milk–a doe lactates for up to 10 months after giving birth–cheese, and other dairy products are the obvious benefits provided by goats. But they also offer companionship; they’re highly intelligent and dog-like in their ability to bond with humans.

Other reasons for going goat include fiber (from long-haired breeds like the Angora), brush control, and fertilizer (their manure is dry, fairly odorless, and nitrogen-rich). While goat meat is delicious and healthy, I would be remiss to recommend city folk slaughter their own, regardless of zip code. Just sayin’.

Oakland, Portland, Oregon, St. Paul, Charlottesville, Denver, and Lexington are just a few of the many cities that allow backyard dairy goats. They may require a permit, so be sure to do your homework and talk to your neighbors, first. City codes vary, but in general, you can keep between two or three animals.

Credit: Image by Sheri Giblin.

City goats must be within a specific weight and height range, which usually necessitates cross-breeding, usually with the Nigerian Dwarf breed. Despite their bad personals ad-sounding name, Nigerians are popular because they have a high milk yield and calm demeanor.

While goats are gregarious, they’re a lot of work. I highly recommend reading Grant’s book before you begin seriously considering purchasing caprines, as there are a number of factors you need to take into consideration. If, however, you find the idea of backyard goats intriguing, keep the following in mind:

  • Goats are herd animals, and as such, need companionship. Another goat is best, and one of the only realistic options for urban farmers. Goats will, however, bond with horses and other equines, or alpacas or llamas.
  • Male goats (bucks) are generally illegal in backyard situations (and trust me when I say that no one in their right mind would want to keep one, due to their aggressive behavior and overpowering smell). Wethers are castrated goats, and are often used for brush clearance, but be aware that they’re not reliably docile.
  • The milk yield from a goat varies with breed and environmental factors. Some breeds are also more temperamental or vocal than others. Be sure to do your research, and find a goat expert or large animal veterinarian in your area who can help answer any questions. 
  • Contrary to popular belief, goats won’t eat everything in sight. They’re curious and like to nibble, but they’re actually browsers (as opposed to grazers like sheep), preferring brush, brambles, and weedy vegetation to grass. 
  • As obvious as it may seem, you need to breed a goat in order for it to give milk. Besides the expense and numerous considerations and care required for successful breeding and kidding to take place, be sure you’re up for the commitment of milking at the same time twice a day, every day, until you’re ready to let your doe dry up or her naturally lactation tapers off. Mastitis, a common infection of the udder or milk ducts, can be fatal.
  • Goats are hardy, but they require adequate shelter from the elements, and can be susceptible to certain diseases or plant toxicity. Get a referral from a local goat owner for a good veterinarian or serious breeder, and set up a consultation.

Images: Harley Soltes, Lori Eanes