When you are considering a dairy animal, the big question in most of the United States is whether you should get a cow or a goat. Although across the globe, many other mammals are kept for their milk, (camel milk, anyone?) unless you are really an adventurous type, you will be deciding whether you should get a dairy cow or a dairy goat.
So how do you choose whether you should get a cow or a goat?
First, look at the animals and decide which one is more appealing to you. Do you like the idea of a cow or a goat better? If you can go visit a farm that has one or the other, it's even better.
Goats are a little more interesting, with very curious, intelligent personalities. As a result, they tend to be difficult to keep fenced. They see the fence as a personal challenge from which they want to escape. They are notorious for getting their heads stuck in odd places. Also, goats are quite a bit more vocal than cows.
Cows are somewhat calmer and quieter with more serene personalities. Although they are far from boring animals, cows are a bit less intelligent than goats. If you put up a good fence, your cow should stay where she belongs unless something strange happens, like a dog or coyote getting in the fence.
Goats are much smaller than cows and can get by on less feed. Goats will also eat twiggy, weedy plants like briars and small trees, but cows will bypass these types of feed. A cow eats a lot more than a goat, and you have to feed her for a full year longer than a goat before she can have a calf. Cows like green grass and plants that are easy to eat. Goats will tear small trees and shrubs to bits, so if you have expensive flowers, roses, and trees and the goats get out, you may as well kiss the landscaping goodbye.
Cows give much more milk than a goat. A cow has four quarters and teats on her udder, while a goat only has two. A high-producing goat may only give a gallon or a gallon and a half of milk each day. Many milk cows can give four, five or even six gallons of milk every day. This means that you can sell the excess or raise hogs or bottle calves with the extra milk.
Another difference between goat's and cow's milk is that goat's milk is naturally homogenized, meaning that the cream will not rise to the top of the milk. If you don't want to make butter from the cream, this is not a problem. However, I can easily skim the cream off of the top of my cow's milk to make all the butter and dairy products that I want.
Do you like the taste of goat meat? What do you plan on doing with the babies from your goat or cow? Of course, female dairy goats and calves can be raised as milkers, but the males need to go somewhere. If you have an ethnic market in your area, you may have little trouble selling your wethers for meat. Otherwise, unloading male goats could be difficult. However, almost everyone eats steak and hamburger. If you get a male calf out of your cow, you can just castrate him and use him for beef.
Goats poop in small, dry, hard "pebbles," and you are more likely to sweep goat poops up than to shovel them. Cows poop in large, sloppy cakes. If you have chickens around to scratch through the mess, they will dry pretty quickly. But, if you don't have chickens around, you will be in for some shoveling in the barn. Both types of manure can be piled and composted to make great fertilizer for your garden.
Cows are big. If large animals intimidate you, you may want to think carefully about whether you want to get a cow. If you need to do some vet work with a cow, it can be challenging to restrain her. To work with a cow, you have to understand how she thinks and work within those limitations. Goats can be manhandled pretty easily with one or two people for hoof trimming and other vetting.
If your fields are a tangle of brush and briars, you may opt for a goat to clean up your property. However, I chose a milk cow for several reasons.
First, we were already set up for cows with cattle handling facilities and fencing that was designed for cows. I hate fencing and didn't want to retrofit our fields to accommodate goats.
Second, I am very busy and animals that escape from their pens are the bane of my existence. Additionally, we have a large orchard upon which we've spent hundreds of dollars. If we came home and found that our goats had wrecked our orchard, that would be the end of the goats.
Third, I just like cows. Their personalities mesh very well with mine, and I enjoy the slow, measured pace of a dairy cow. You don't have to trim hooves, and most of the time, calving is a pretty uneventful occurrence. With goats usually having twins and triplets, you can run into kidding difficulties at times.
Fourth, I like beef. Bull calves grow up and can be butchered, and we've never had trouble finding a buyer for excess beef.
You will have to decide whether a goat or a cow will fit your farm, your needs and your personality best. If you interview a goat owner, he will probably tell you that goats are better, but dairy cow owners will likely prefer cows. It's all a matter of opinion.