Little Goats in Cities

Goat Babies July Aug 2010 025.JPG
(Rubeus the cat meets Nigerian Dwarf Baby Meadowsweet last summer)

Tuesday's New York Times has an article on the expansion of miniature dairy goats in urban areas. It is an interesting article, and has some good points - among them it rightly points out that dairy goats are a bigger deal than chickens. That said, however, it is also pretty clear that the reporter is fairly ignorant about goats in general (this is probably not surpring, I'm guessing the Times Goat beat is pretty small ;-)), and I'd hate for people to get all their information about small scale dairy goats from this.

Essentially, if you live in an urban or suburban area and drink milk, there are two ways to get good, non-industrial milk. The first is to find a local farmer who can provide it, and who comes somewhere near you. You will pay an extremely high premium for this, but it is a great option. The other is to take personal responsibility for your milk supply - and one of the reasons our family raises small dairy goats is that we want people who are prepared to deal with the realities of goats to be able to get appropriate animals for suburban and urban goat keeping.

The New York Times is right on that miniature goats will never be as popular as backyard chickens - they need more space, better fencing, more time and attention, and I wouldn't want everyone to have one, despite my occasional jokes to the contrary. But many of the challenges that might intimidate new goat keepers are fairly easy to overcome - and some of them can be solved precisely by there being *more* goats in cities and suburbs - that is, they are the challenges faced by a new thing in a culture that hasn't adapted to them. Just as many urban dwellers now keep dogs larger, louder and producing more unpleasant outputs than my goats, there's a lot of potential for cities to adapt to urban goat keeping and for small scale goat production to adapt well to urban and suburban areas.

...she admits that raising them in her San Francisco backyard has its challenges. The goats mangled her white tiger nectarine tree, gnawed her redwood fence posts, gorged on her grapevines, swallowed her Victorian tea roses like candy and tore off the waterproofing mat under the siding on her house.

She lives a half-mile from Interstate 280 in the Excelsior district of San Francisco, up the street from Taqueria La Iguana Azul and Geneva Pizza, on a block of pastel Marina-style houses that stand shoulder to shoulder. Reluctant to attract stares from her neighbors, she regularly loads the animals into her car and drives them to John McLaren Park, nearly a mile away, to exercise them.

And in September, one of the goats spent several weeks covering Ms. Kooy with bruises and scratches whenever she approached its udder, an experience that she described on her blog as "pure milking hell."

Ms. Kooy, an ebullient 41-year-old general contractor, is undeterred. "I think we need to relax our cultural walls that relegate agriculture to the country, and that includes small livestock," she said on a recent Friday morning, clomping in rubber boots through her 1,000-square-foot yard, where she also tends an organic vegetable garden, six fruit trees and four egg-laying hens. "It's part of re-envisioning food production in the urban landscape. You just have to keep things clean."

The story goes on to describe the hostility of some communities to goats, concern about smell, noise and animal size. Other communities, it should be noted are friendlier - Charlottesville VA, for example, now permits miniature dairy goats in the city limits.

It is important to remember that these are really not objective concerns - in the sense that we actually object to all large animals that make noise and poop - in most cases. That is, most cities permit dogs that are louder than any goat, larger than any goat, and produce smellier, more toxic, more dangerous poop - every criticism you can make of a goat can be applied to a German Shepherd. We have simply adapted as a culture to presume that dogs can be part of the community, and that we can acclimate to them. Much of the process of dealing with something that intuitively seems very alien to us should be about pointing out the similarities.

Neighbor issues are best addressed with education and community organizing. For example,.the neighbors in the article who were worried that two or three goats could have 9 babies could have been reassured that those baby goats are the size of cats (see picture above - not even big cats!) - and would presumably sold before they get bigger than terrier. It is much more like your neighbor's dog having puppies than it is like the sudden influx of 9 large goats. A lot of people have mental images of "goat" that just don't fit the reality. Just as the best tool for backyard chickens is teaching, that's true of any urban livestock. The good news is that the actual goats do their own PR, but you have to do the advance support.

Goats on the other hand have several advantages over German Shepherds - they produce milk, rather than just poop. Their manure is eminently compostable and valuable on the garden. Their parasites (mentioned in the article as a concern for some without context) are almost never a danger to any human who doesn't themselves graze on grass - unlike cat and dog parasites.

They have some disadvantages, rightly mentioned in the article. They eat brush - this makes them valuable in many cities for reducing weeds, dealing with invasive plants and reducing fire risk, but it also can mean they do damage to ornamentals. You do not get goats without getting good fences - period. And since goats are intelligent and friendly, like dogs, they can't be left alone in a tiny area without getting bored quickly. You will want good fencing to protect the goats, also - neighborhood dogs are a huge danger to small urban livestock.

Now cities have made accomodations to dogs - they recognize that dogs need space to run, and establish dog parks and make space for dogs. The same could be usefully done in urban and suburban neighborhoods with goats, using the goats to clear out weedy areas, or letting them graze lightly in urban parks (they don't do instant damage, and in fact, prefer to browse, a little bite here, a little leaf there... rather than taking out a shrub as a whole).

I admit, I've never, ever heard of any adult being injured by ND dairy goat - I don't doubt Kooy's experience, but that's just weird. Our goats are incredibly gentle and easy going, and at about 60lbs, would be challenged to hurt an adult. They don't have horns, and even when they butt against you, it is like being butted by a toddler. That said, it could happen. You will obviously want to watch kids or the elderly around the goats until you know that they are gentle.

Doing your own basic vet care really isn't nearly as unusual as is implied by the article - yes, it is very much worthwhile to have a livestock vet around for the true emergency, but generally speaking, livestock owners who are trying to make their costs minimal will want to master basics like shots, worming, birthing and castration. This can be challenging to urbanites who have relied heavily on their vets to do this with cats and dogs, and you should know this upfront. Your milk will cost a lot more money if you need the vet for every action - and you should be sure a livestock vet is available. If you are prepared to learn the basics of veterinary care, the way rural livestock owners do, that makes it a lot more viable. None of it is hard, but it does take commitment.

Finding hay, grain, a vet and stud service can be significantly harder in an urban or suburban area - the answer to this, of course, is to encourage appropriate urban goat keeping by people who are prepared to do it right. Buck goats are not appropriate to cities - but if you can talk to your goat keeping neighbor around the block, you can help each other find an appropriate stud.

The biggest misconception, i think, is that the milking is really onerous. Take it from someone who milks - it isn't that big a deal, and it has more flexibility for the home goat keeper than it does in an urban environment. Yes, the animals make more milk and prefer to be fed and milked at the same time every day. That said, we haven't noticed any significant difficulty in sometimes shifting things back or forward a couple of hours - we go out. If you have kids, you can leave the kids on their mother part of the time, and milk only once a day - yes, you get less milk, but you have more flexibility. Or you can accustom a doe to being milked once a day, gradually. You can dry them off for longer or shorter periods. Again, this affects milk production, but there is flexibility.

Most of all, the manual milker (we own the Maggidans Milker, but there is also another variety, the EZ milker), essentially a manual breast pump for goats (about $40) means that no milking skill is necessary for the person milking. This opens up the possibility of hired goat care to any responsible teenager - the biggest barrier to leaving your goats is getting goat care, but if you only need someone who can squeeze and feed, you can go on vacation. Trust me, we do.

I'm torn here between the impulse to encourage people to get goats and the impulse to ask them to think hard about it. No one who cares about these beautiful, intelligent, funny animals wants them to be mistreated or bought by people who simply aren't prepared to treat them responsibly. At the same time, my hope is that people in cities with moderate lots and suburban dwellers will recognize that they can get good, safe milk, cheese and other dairy products at a reasonable price, and control what goes into it. That they can have the pleasure of these family animals that blur the line between pet and livestock so beautifully. It is a delicate dance - but in an era where refrigerated shipping may become too costly environmentally, it is a dance we have to think about. If milk is part of your family's diet, and you want to know where it comes from, sometimes the answer can be "right here."

Kids and Goats Aug. 2010 060.JPG
(Bast, one of our best milkers, having her picture taken on my lap)


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Nicely stated! It makes me want to go get a goat. But I am not allowed to own 'usual' farm animals in my town.

Maybe a 5-legged goat would be ok? :)

By ChrisBear (not verified) on 24 Feb 2011 #permalink

Right; it's not "run out and get a goat;" it's "run out and get good at goats (which could include getting a goat)." Same for chickens...

ChrisBear, I wonder if a mini goat would be "unusual" enough? You could always get a little dog costume...

Thanks for this intelligent reply to the New York Times. We have 10 goats in the country. They are all wethers and their job is brush control. They're very good at it! They're also cute, fun, and entertaining. We're still learning the various aspects of veterinary care. Even here in the country, there aren't many vets that handle goats. Most goat-keepers do their own veterinary care, short of surgery.

Someday we'll tackle milking and get a female. We can't get one now because two of the wethers are actually bucks. One was never castrated (he's a Nigerian Dwarf and it's not that big a problem), and the other is a Nubian mix that was castrated twice by his previous owner, but it didn't take. We were surprised such a thing is possible, too! So we can't get a female as she'd be harrassed endlessly. Goats are social animals so it wouldn't be fair to keep her separate.

By Jeanmarie (not verified) on 24 Feb 2011 #permalink

Your goats are beautiful!

Good point about the EZ milker / equivalent - I hadn't thought of that before as a way to make sure someone else could take over. I have a Dexter dairy cow (not milking just now) and milk by hand, but I share with the calf which means if you aren't there to milk, you let the calf take care of it. It's a great system, like you say.

Had no idea the miniatures were quite so small though - see? You educated even a country person. :) Thanks! I will now go forth and be a goat ambassador.

Hi Sharon-FYI your other blog page is not working!

By Karen from CT (not verified) on 25 Feb 2011 #permalink

Thanks for the clarifications adding your experience to the NYT story.

As someone who teaches newbie humans how to interact with large animals (horses) I have to add one more important point:
Training. Training humans how to train their goats. I can imagine many human errors that could cause a goat to become aggressive or resisting handling.

Often, I see how untrained humans confuse affection for their animals, and a desire to be gentle in handling animals, with an anything-goes permissiveness. I see how people forget self-respect and allow a miriad of intrusive behaviors from their pets or livestock. These behaviors are often small ways, like mugging a human for treats, that humans consider cute. But the animal shows his/her lack of respect for the human in behaving that way.

It goes without saying that I'm in favor of "positive" training methods. But people need to learn the species-appropriate ways to set rules, rewards, consequences and so on. A small and cute animal can still hurt a human. And there's no reason that daily chores need to involve chronic conflicts.

Couldn't someone in principle milk a dog? I have never heard of it being done. Since dogs tend to eat higher up the food chain that goats do, it might not be practical for people interested in a lower impact lifestyle.

@daedalus2u: People have made apparatuses to milk rats (not for human consumption, though), so I'm sure someone has done it for dogs.