Milkers on the Homestead: Cow Milk vs. Goat Milk

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If you have thought about producing your own milk, you might have thought you would have to get a cow. That’s the milk most of us grew up drinking. However, goats and sheep are more commonly milked in various parts of the world, and both are growing in popularity as milkers in the United States.

So, which one is right for you? There are several things to take into consideration, such as: size of the animal, ease of handling, number of acres required, length of lactation, and the amount of milk that you need.

Most American’s cattle experience consists of seeing docile cows being milked in movies and television shows. If you have never come face-to-face with a thousand-pound cow, it can be rather intimidating. Hopefully you won’t make the same mistake I did -- purchasing cows that have zero training. I thought that since I was buying Irish Dexters, the smallest breed of cattle, they would be easier to handle, but I quickly learned that it really didn’t matter whether a cow weighed 800 or 1500 pounds, they out-weighed me!

bridget_and_heifer.jpgCommercial milk cows are usually bred every year, so they have a 305 day lactation with a two month vacation, just prior to calving. However, a well-bred family milk cow might be able to produce milk continuously for two or three years without re-breeding.

A Jersey in her prime can easily produce five gallons of milk a day, which is great for large families or people who want to make cheese every day. You can also use extra milk or failed batches of cheese to raise hogs. However, if you have an average size family and only want to make cheese once or twice a week, a cow might provide far more milk that you can use. Before assuming you can sell the extra milk, be sure to check your state’s laws, as it is illegal or complicated in many states to sell milk unless you are a certified dairy.

Many people find that a goat’s size and production fits their family’s needs better than a family cow. Depending upon breed, goats may be 60 to 150 pounds and produce between a quart and a gallon of milk a day. If you purchase one of the smaller breeds of goats, be sure to purchase it from a farm that milks. Due to the smaller size, there are lines of pet goats that only produce enough milk to feed their kids and would be disappointing as a family milker.milking_2.jpg

Like cows, goats in commercial dairies are usually bred annually and milked for 305 days with a two month vacation before kidding again. Some goats may be milked longer, but if you are interested in milking for an extended lactation, it is a good idea to buy from a line that has done that in the past. We have a few goats that we have milked for two years, and one of our Nigerian Dwarf does has been producing milk for three years without rebreeding, but the ability to do that is quite rare.

Various sheep breeds are around the same size as goats, but very few have been bred as dairy animals. They have much shorter lactations. Most will not produce milk for more than four months, and the best ewes will usually not produce much longer than six months. For this reason, most people don’t have sheep if fluid milk is their goal. Sheep milk is most commonly used to make aged cheeses.

Milk from different species tastes different, so it’s a good idea to taste milk from the farm you are thinking of buying animals from. Jersey cows and Nigerian Dwarf goats have higher butterfat than most people are accustomed to, so if you’re a fan of lower fat milk, you may not like it. Also, some goat milk has an unpleasant flavor, but that is usually related to hygiene practices during milking. I have never lost a goat sale because someone didn’t like the milk.

Even if you think you’ve nailed down the best species of milker for your family, there are considerable differences between various breeds of cows and goats, so you need to do a little more research. Then, the ultimate test is finding a farm that sells that breed and going to actually meet them to be sure you’ve found the right choice for your family.



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Deborah Niemann - Author & Professional Homesteader

Deborah Niemann has a herd of around 15 Nigerian Dwarf milk goats, as well as a Jersey cow. She used to have a small herd of Irish Dexters, and may be one of the only people to ever actually milk Shetland sheep. She is the author of Homegrown and Handmade: A Practical Guide to More Self-Reliant Living and Raising Goats Naturally: The Complete Guide to Milk, Meat, and More. You can find her online at


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