When it comes to dairy animals, it seems that most people are either cow people or goat people. I wanted to be both. When we moved to the country in 2002, I wanted to have goats for “goat cheese,” which is more correctly called chévre, and I wanted cows for milk and butter. We started with three Nigerian dwarf does and a buck, as well as two Irish dexter heifers. After a few months, we borrowed a bull.
We had similar challenges with both species. We tried to keep the buck separated from the does so that he wouldn’t breed them when they were too small, but he was a determined little buck. Whenever we saw him with the does, however, one of my children could go into the pasture, catch him and put him back in his pen. (Since we were new, we didn’t understand the importance of him having a male friend in his pen with him.)
The heifers were with the bull, but the three of them would escape the pasture and go running around on the neighbor’s property the minute they knew there was a short in the electrical fence. It was a family effort to get them back into their pasture, and sometimes we also needed the help of friends or neighbors. Even though Dexters are the smallest breed of cattle, they seriously outweighed us, so we needed a group of people to basically “drive” them to wherever we wanted them to go. Leading was out of the question.
The cattle were not halter trained, but the woman who had sold them to me said, “Just tie ‘em up to a post for a couple of days, and they’ll follow you around like a dog.” Our attempt to do just that landed all of us into the midst of an hour-long real live rodeo. The side of a water trough collapsed under the weight of a bucking heifer, and a pipe gate was pulled down and dragged across the pasture, and more than once I worried about the well-being of the humans and the cows. By sundown, one of the cows was tied to a fence post. However, by morning she was happily untethered and grazing freely in the pasture again. I never milked those cows. And when one of the calves nearly killed my son after dragging him in the pasture, I decided to sell the whole lot.
In the meantime, the does had freshened, and we had learned to milk them. I started making cheese, yogurt, buttermilk, ice cream, and discovered that goat milk can be used for just about anything that you can use cow milk for. Unfortunately, the butter did not have the creamy flavor that I loved about cow butter, so a few years later, I decided to buy better cows.
When contacting Dexter breeders, I asked to see pictures of them handling their heifers. Since we could not even touch our first heifers, I figured that was a minimal requirement. We found two that were a few hundred miles away and went to pick them up. I could pet the cows and even put halters on them, and I was so excited that I was finally going to get my butter! We bought a bull that was halter trained and a sweetheart.
Once they freshened, we tried to separate them from their calves overnight. The next morning, we discovered that one had managed to jump, climb, or crawl over the fence and was with her calf. When my daughter tried to milk the other one, she wound up with a huge scratch and bruise on her thigh. By then we’d become quite proficient at milking goats and were making more than a dozen different dairy products with the milk – basically everything we needed except butter. Dealing with cows seemed like a lot of work for a little butter, so we ultimately sold the second batch of Dexters.
Then one day we attended a party at a friend’s farm, and he was letting children milk his Jersey cow that was for sale. I got so excited! If children could milk her, then so could we. That was the cow I’d always wanted. My husband thought I’d lost my mind! I milked her and was impressed by her teats and udder, which were softer and easier to milk than the Dexters had been. She was also halter trained. A few days later, we brought her home.
Although we milked her for about a year, and the butter was delicious, I realized that I was really a goat person. Although she was halter trained, she could also be stubborn. She didn’t always want to go where we wanted her to go, and it’s not easy to win an argument with a cow that weighs eight or nine times as much you do. She also deposited big, wet cow pies in the barn rather than dry little goat berries, which meant her poop attracted a lot of flies. More than a few times poop got on her udder, which took multiple washcloths to clean. A couple of times poop was on her tail, which would sometimes swing around and hit you in the head while you were milking.
Although there were times when we initially did not like the taste of the goat milk, we eventually learned how to avoid that goaty flavor. After we started wiping down the udder with a wet washcloth and putting the first few squirts in a separate container for the barn cat, the milk tasted wonderful.
I’m sure the cow vs goat debate will rage on forever, just as the dog vs cat debate will never end. However, some people just seem more suited to one species than the other. And after trying three times, I’ve finally accepted that as much as I love the creamy flavor of cow butter, I’m a goat person at heart.
Deborah Niemann blogs at ThriftyHomesteader.com and is the author of Homegrown and Handmade: A Practical Guide to More Self-Reliant Living, as well as Raising Goats Naturally and Ecothrifty.
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