When we first moved to the country, I didn’t give much thought to goat vs cow. I thought we needed a goat to make “goat cheese” and a cow for all of our other dairy products, such as milk, cream, cheddar cheese, yogurt, and so on. Before I learned the error in my thinking, we had already purchased two cows, in addition to three goats we bought.
If you grew up drinking cow milk, you may have thought you needed a cow when you started thinking about producing your own dairy products, but goats can give you almost everything you could want in terms of dairy. And there are plenty of reasons why goats are a better option for most people in modern society.
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Goat vs cow: Which is easier to handle?
Goats are easier to handle simply because they are smaller than cows. If you did not grow up on a farm, where you got used to handling cattle, goats will be less intimidating. We bought Irish dexter cows because they are the smallest breed, but I quickly learned that it didn’t really matter whether a cow weighed 700 pounds or 1500 pounds, if you had a disagreement, the cow was going to win.
It can be almost impossible to find a trained milk cow to purchase, but training a goat is not as difficult or as potentially dangerous for the novice as training a cow that has never been milked. We made a huge mistake the first time we bought cows because they had never been handled. Getting a halter on them or even touching them was impossible, so there was no way we were going to be able to milk them. After a few years, we gave up and sold them.
My first three goats were also not experienced milkers. I bought one as a kid, but the other two had recently kidded, so I started milking them as soon as I brought them home. One settled into the milking routine within a week, but I gave up on the other one because she wouldn’t stop kicking, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. But I was happy with the milk I was getting from one goat, and I started making chevre, queso blanco, yogurt, and few other simple cheeses.
Even though I had learned that we didn’t need cows to make our dairy products, I did enjoy the grassfed beef we got from our first cows, so a few years later, we tried again.
This time when corresponding with Irish dexter breeders, I specified that I needed heifers that were tame. One woman sent me photos of her petting the heifers, so we headed down to Missouri to buy our next two cows.
Although they were easier to handle, that didn’t mean they were going to be happy to be milked. We only tried a few times. My daughter lost enthusiasm quickly after being kicked in the leg and scoring a huge bruise.
The real reason we finally sold those cows and calves was because they escaped from our farm one too many times. I’ve heard people say they got rid of goats for the same reason, but we figured out how to keep our goats fenced in. The cows, however, remained a challenge. And if the goats got out, they never went very far. Three times we had to bring home the cows from almost a mile away!
Luckily there was always more than one person home whenever they’d escape, so we could get them back, but it was obvious that if they ever got out when only one person was home, it would be a big problem. You would think my cattle days would have been over, but you’d be wrong. Sometimes I just don’t know when to quit.
In 2014, I was at a party at a friend’s farm, and I watched in total amazement as his 12-year-old son milked their Jersey. Then the farmer said, “Hey kids, who wants to milk a cow?” As soon as I saw small children walking up and yanking on this cow’s teats, I felt like I finally found my milk cow! A chorus of “Hallelujah!” went through my head. We picked her up with her calf a week later.
Although Beauty the Jersey usually was agreeable about being milked, she did have her bad days. There were times she simply did not want to come into the barn for milking. Sometimes we’d milk her in the pasture, and sometimes a second person would go out there and push her back end while the other person pulled on the lead rope.
Which one costs more to own?
It is less expensive to get started with goats because they do not require the heavy-duty handling equipment needed for safe handling of cattle. Our lives would have been easier if we had a proper cow stanchion for milking, which is heavy duty metal, or if we had a squeeze chute for veterinary work, which is also heavy duty metal. A chute costs thousands of dollars so it’s impractical to buy if you only have a couple of cows. We built our goat milk stand out of scrap lumber, so it cost us nothing.
Obviously a cow eats a lot more than a goat, so if you don’t have at least a few acres where a cow can graze, you will spend a small fortune on hay. However, if you are milking a cow, they need alfalfa for best production, so you will still need to buy some alfalfa to supplement their pasture diet.
A cow also requires a lot more bedding than a goat. Beauty was the only cow that ever spent a lot of time in the barn because she was the only milker we ever had. We put her calf in another stall overnight, so we could milk her in the morning. I really was not prepared for how much a cow poops overnight. We would fill up the wheelbarrow almost daily with her poop and whatever straw was stuck to it. Her manure pile was as big as the manure pile for my 20 Nigerian dwarf milk goats.
Goat vs cow milk: what’s the difference?
The first thing we have to talk about is taste. A lot of people have heard that goat milk tastes nasty. This can be true, but it is usually avoidable. The bad taste comes from completely harmless skin bacteria that winds up in the milk. Bacteria multiply, and they don’t taste good. Mineral deficiencies can also lead to milk that’s less than delicious.
Pasteurization does not help the taste because you’ve simply killed the bacteria rather than eliminated it. Dead bacteria does not taste any better than live bacteria. And cow bacteria doesn’t taste good either. When my daughter was working on her PhD in biological chemistry she worked with a cow dairy in Kenya that was trying to get the bacteria out of their milk because it was so unpalatable. The dairy bought milk from small farmers whose milking hygiene was not ideal. ( See 2 Goat Milking Challenges for more on this topic.)
So, you need to be sure you clean the udder and put the first few squirts into a strip cup before milking into a bucket for human consumption. Research has shown that there is a higher concentration of bacteria in the first few squirts of milk. When my youngest was a teenager (long before she earned her PhD), there were a few times I spit my coffee into the sink because she hadn’t bothered to do first squirts into a strip cup. It’s a terrible taste that I’ll never get accustomed to, and if someone thinks that’s normal for goat milk, I can see why they wouldn’t like it.
Another thing that can cause bad-tasting milk is if a buck is with the does, especially if she’s in heat. I’ve seen more than one buck peeing on a doe between breedings and rubbing his head on her udder and the rest of her body. We always make sure to milk those does last, and their milk is not mixed into the rest of the milk.
I know a lot of sources say goat milk is homogenized, but it’s not totally. It will start to separate within a few days. Compared to cows milk, which separates within hours, I can see why some people would say goat milk is homogenized. If you use a lot of milk in your house, it may not be there long enough for the cream to rise to the top. So, if you want to drink skim milk, your best bet is to have a cow. For a few hundred dollars you can purchase a cream separator to use with the goat milk, but skimming the cream off cow milk is free.
If you want to make butter, you need to be able to separate the cream. That means you can make butter with both types of milk. However, goat milk is lower in beta carotene than cow milk, and that’s what gives butter the yellow color. If you make butter with goat milk, it will be white. I felt like I was spreading lard on my toast when I used goat butter. It also doesn’t have that flavor that we all identify as buttery. It’s good, but it doesn’t taste like butter.
That soft creamy cheese that so many people call “goat cheese” is more correctly called chèvre (pronounced like “shev”), and it is possible to make many types of cheese and other dairy products from goat milk.
Eventually we started making aged cheeses, and for the past ten years or more, we have made 100 percent of the cheese that our family uses, including cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan, gouda, Havarti, and more. We make all of it from goat milk. When we were milking the Jersey, we made yogurt once, but preferred the goat milk yogurt, so didn’t bother making it again. We also made some cheddar with her milk.
Most breeds of cows produce a lot more milk than goats. A potential buyer called me a few years ago because after a couple of years with a cow, her family realized that they didn’t need the amount of milk a cow produced. They were not interested in making cheese, so it made no sense for them to have an animal that was producing five gallons of milk a day.
Some breeds of heritage cattle, such as Dexters or Milking Devons produce a gallon or two a day, which is comparable to the best milk goat breeds like Saanens and Alpines. There can be a wide variation in production between animals of any breed though. If you want to milk your cow or goat, it’s a good idea to buy from someone who is milking and can tell you how much milk the animal or its dam produces.
If you are wondering about the health difference in goat and cow milk, I’ll point you to this article written by Dr. William Sears where he compares goat milk to cow milk.
Bulls vs bucks
This comparison would not be complete without talking about bulls and bucks. If you want milk, the cow or the doe has to get pregnant and give birth, which means you either need a male of the species or you need to do artificial insemination. We’ve never done AI, but we have owned plenty of bucks and a few bulls. If you want to do AI, you need to hire someone to do it, or you need to go through training, buy the equipment, including a nitrogen tank, and then buy semen.
Bucks can be stinky, but bulls can kill you. I knew a woman who was killed by a bull, and I’ve known vets who told me they’ve had colleagues killed by bulls. Someone once said to me that testosterone is a dangerous drug, and I have to agree. All male animals have plenty of testosterone flowing through their veins, and the bigger they are, the more testosterone there is, and the more dangerous they are. We’ve never kept a bull more than a couple of years because they get too hormonal and scary by then.
If you do buy or borrow a bull, don’t get one that was bottle-fed, because according to Temple Grandin, they are the most likely to kill someone since they think of humans as part of their family and try to communicate with you as if you were one of them.
The worst thing a buck has ever done to me was rub his stinky head on my leg. I’ve had a couple that were bottle-fed as babies, and they would jump on me like an unruly dog and blubber in my face, which is why I do not like bottle-fed bucks.
What about meat?
We had been vegetarians for 14 years when we realized we needed to butcher some of our roosters to bring peace back to the barnyard. Then we had too many sheep, so we started eating lamb, and we had no problem butchering the steer from one of our cows. But for years I insisted that I could never eat a goat because they were too much like pets to me. I said it would be like eating one of my dogs, and I just couldn’t do it.
Then there was Hercules, a badly behaved LaMancha buck who taught his bad habits to a couple of my Nigerian dwarf wethers, and butchering the three of them seemed to be the best option. I now look back on that as a practice run for what seemed a very necessary decision the following year — butchering wethers when we found ourselves in a terrible drought with brown pastures in July, unable to buy hay locally and paying a small fortune to have it shipped in.
Goat is now one of my favorite meats — as long as it’s a young goat. The first three goats we butchered were ultimately fed to the dogs because the meat was tough and unpalatable.
Goat meat is popular in Mexican, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern cooking. My favorite dishes are those with curry, as well as this Goat Goulash recipe.
If you live in the US or Canada, I don’t need to tell you about beef. You’ve probably been eating it your entire life unless you’re a vegetarian. However, in addition to the taste of the meat, there are a few other things to take into consideration.
You will need a much larger freezer if you want to butcher a steer. Even our Irish dexter steers had a hanging weight of 300 pounds when they were a year old, which is when we butchered them. Larger breeds can have a hanging weight of 600 pounds or more. If you don’t have that much freezer space, you may need to sell half of the steer to someone else. We tend to butcher all of our four-legged animals in the fall so that we don’t have to feed them hay through the winter, so most steers are a year to 18 months when they go to the locker. Goats are six to 18 months, depending upon how fast they grow.
Our Nigerian dwarf wethers have a hanging weight of about 30 pounds, which will fit into a picnic cooler for the drive home. Larger breeds of goats will obviously be a little bigger, but you won’t usually see anything more than 100 pounds. This makes freezer planning easier. If I don’t have a lot of freezer space at the moment, I can take in two goats and continue letting the rest of them grow for a couple more months before taking in a couple more.
I don’t like to take a single animal to the locker as it is very stressful for a herd animal to be alone, which is why I always take in at least two goats, sheep, or pigs. When taking a steer to the locker, we actually took his mother with him for the ride, then brought her back home alive. Having her along for the trip kept him calmer, which equates to better quality meat, as well as simply being more humane.
What do you do when one dies?
When most people are getting started with livestock, this is one question they never consider. They may decide they will never eat any of their animals, or they may decide all of them will go to the locker at some pre-determined age. However, sooner or later, you will walk out to the pasture and find one dead.
On the rare occasion when a goat dies suddenly, I take it to the vet for a necropsy because I want to know why. Testing the liver of a dead goat was how I learned that our goats had a copper deficiency problem.
Cremation is routine following a necropsy. But in the case where we know why a goat died, such as when we were dealing with dewormer resistance a decade ago, we could easily bury a full-size goat. When the ground is frozen in winter, we can put them in a compost pile, although if we have freezer space, that’s where we put them while we are waiting for the ground to thaw in spring. (If you’re curious about how to compost a dead goat, check out this podcast.)
When we walked out to the pasture one day to discover our Jersey had died, we couldn’t take her to the vet for a necropsy, and farm visits are an expensive luxury just to quell my curiosity. Since the only other bovine on the farm was her son, I wasn’t concerned about herd health. Luckily it was summer, and my husband is physically fit and can bury a cow with only a shovel. Most people use a backhoe for burying large livestock.
To compost a cow, you’d need a front loader to move her, which we also do not have. We’ve been proud of the fact that we’ve been homesteading since 2002 without any heavy equipment, such as a tractor, front loader, or backhoe. If you’re curious about how to compost a cow, here’s a video from North Dakota State University Extension.
Which one is right for you?
We prefer to raise goats for milk because they are smaller than cows, eat less, poop less, cost less to buy and feed, are easier to handle (whether alive or dead), and produce a more manageable amount of milk. But if you have a large family and need a few gallons of milk per day, and you want to make cheese, yogurt, and ice cream, then a cow may be a better choice.
Because dairy animals are all herd animals, you always need to have at least two animals, and with goats it is easy to add to your herd, especially when that special kid is born that you just can’t bring yourself to sell. “Just one more goat” doesn’t eat nearly as much as “just one more cow.”