Non-Traditional Dairy cows and goats: How You Can Make Dairy Work For you

If you have been on the Lucas Farm page long or attend one of my dairy talks, you know that I generally discourage traditional dairy for most homesteaders and farmers.


It isn't that I hope most folks will fail or find dairy animals not especially usefulness, it is that the majority of folks do fail when they start down the dairy path.

Once loved animals find themselves neglected, prices low on craigslist or at auction and people are disillusioned. Folks fail. The Livestock suffer. I hate to see those things happen.

I think this is often because too many people approach dairy with a very non traditional mindset but decide on traditional animals.

This means failure, usually.

Dairy animals are such amazing additions to a farm when they receive the right care and the farmer knows what to expect. The returns are valuable. 

So, this blog is about non-traditional animals for your dairy purposes.

In short, look for the low producers, the non commercial breeds. The hardy animals that make just enough over what their young need.

This usually means crosses and cows instead of goats.

(My friend's Lowline / Jersey / Dexter cross: Molly)

Goats are higher maintenance, as a rule, though easier to house on less land and easier to handle. 

If you decide to go with cows, opt for a cow that has been intensively handled and milked through a few lactations successfully. Buy a halter broke cow and pay the good price that will be asked for a nice, healthy cow a family has loved well and cannot keep. 

Make sure she is a dual purpose cow. Bred back before you buy her. Milk her before you buy her. She will probably be an Angus / Dairy cross, a Dexter or Dexter / Lowline dairy cross or a Shorthorn / Dexter type cross. This will require searching but be worth it. These cows will be hardy with the typical hybrid vigor you see when you cross purebred animals. They will produce as grass and forage better than their purebred dairy counterparts. They should need little grain, if any, so long as the forage is good. They will have less milk fever, less mastitis and if you want to leave the calf on and milk once a day or just when the cow is at peak lactation, it can work (though I see no reason to have a dairy animal if you plan to only milk 3 days a week for 2 months, seriously). These animals will dry up at 7-8 month easier than a commercial breed that will struggle or prove impossible to dry up early to unable to regulate their production below 6 plus gallons a day. Make sure you confirm the animal is disease free, regardless.

When you have the cow home and she calves, leave the calf on and milk at the same time each morning or evening. Once a day can work with a low producer. A low production cow giving 4 gallons or less a day will not give so much you cannot do this. You can milk once a day and by the time the calf is 5 months old, the calf will drink so much, you could stop milking until the calf is sold, if you want. If you enjoy it and see the milk is valuable to you, you can separate the calf overnight and milk before letting the calf back out to take care of evening milking for you. They will carry on and there is learning curve with this, but it can be done. You may get 1-2 gallons a day this way. Minerals, excellent hay and timothy/alfalfa pellets while milking and worming when needed are all you may need, if all goes well.

If you feel a dairy goat is the only choice for you and you know you need a non-traditional dairy situation, plan to purchase from a herd that you have visited and found to be thrifty and hardy. No goat is especially hardy when compared to cows, but there are certainly lines that are more hardy than others. All goats in milk will need grain. All goats will have parasite problems that will require more work than cows, All goats have a higher mineral need than cows. That said, Alpines and Saanens or a cross of these two breeds from several generations of working homesteader type lines with a focus on strong conformation and hardiness will prove easier to care for. Again, not easy to find, but you can find them. Buy registered (remember crosses from registered parents can be registered, as well), bottle raised, friendly adult does that are healthy and already trained to hop on the milk stand. Milk before you buy. Try the milk. Make sure who you buy from will be a mentor to you and that their management matches what you're looking for.  Make sure you have CAE testing in hand before you buy.

Buy two does or a doe and an unrelated doe kid. Plan to take the does back to the breeder to be bred (this takes close watching to know when they cycle in the fall). If you buy a cross, you get higher milk production and hardier animals initially. Your buck kids will be able to be wethers for meat you raise on your farm, bu they will not be able to be sold as herdsires. Plan to keep numbers low to make management easier. Your doe kids, with creative marketing and good handling and cocci prevention, will be able to be registered as experimentals and sold to other homesteaders looking for what you were looking for. 2 does means 1-3 kids each year. Plan for that and raising them until at least 12 weeks before sale if not on the bottle or 8 plus months of age for meat production. 

Remember, a doe with 2 kids on her will produce an average of 6-10 lbs a day. A kid needs 1/2 a gallon, so 3/4 or almost 1/2 of that will go to each kid for at least 4 months. The alternative is to bottle raise kids from birth (what I suggest), making them more marketable and friendly, feeding them whole cow's milk from the store, and you use the goat's milk. Kids grow well on whole cow's milk. You can offer the doe kids for sale on the bottle to experienced buyers right off the bat, and the buck kids will be humanely raised for meat wethers on site. You can leave the kids on, instead, but they are generally far less handle-able and less marketable when does. You will not milk while the kids are on unless the doe has a single kid (them milk the side the single doesn't nurse 2x a day). If you leave kids on, most does should produce milk for 10 months. That is what they are bred to do with many generations, so once you pull the kids off at 4 months and start milking, you can expect to milk for at least 6 months before drying off.

You dry the cows or goats off 2 months before they kid or calve, regardless of whatever non-traditional deal you set up.

I have seen all sorts of variations. I have seen many schemes fail. I do a fairly traditional set up here. 

The worst thing we can do is buy traditional animals with 150 years of dairy genetics behind them and try to bend them to a non-traditional schedule, so try to chose the RIGHT animal if you know 2 times a day milking and hands on training and care through the year and milking through 10 months out of 12 will not work for you.