Choosing a dairy animal

Many people on small farms think about having a dairy animal for milk, cheese, butter, and ice cream. The two most popular choices are cows and goats, with sheep sometimes a consideration too. Choosing the right one for you depends on many factors.

Jim Paulson is an extension educator at the University of Minnesota. He says first of all, do you have enough space for the animal?

"A cow is going to need several acres. You want them to have a high amount of forage, and a cow can eat 50 pounds of forage and pasture, and some grain a day," says Paulson. "You need a really good pasture and that’s been part of the reason that people have kind of looked at goats. Instead of acres, you can get by with a half-an-acre."

Can you keep the animals comfortable? Cows require shade for extreme heat and a loafing shed to protect them from wind and harsh winter cold. Goats don’t like being wet and will need shelter that protects them from cold drafts. Because they’re smaller, they’re often less intimidating for beginners than a full-sized cow.

Another factor to consider is what do you plan to do with the milk, and how much do you need? One cow can produce six gallons, or about 50 pounds of milk per day. Goats produce a lot less.

"If you want some milk to drink a goat can supply that. So if you have a goat that milks 5-6 pounds a day, that might very well be sufficient for you. And, you still may be able to save enough extra for making some cheese," he says. "If you want to actually make a fair amount of cheese, and make some butter, things like that, then you probably want to think a little bit more about a cow."

Also keep in mind that for the animal to give milk, she has to have a baby and you’ll be sharing the milk until the baby is weaned.

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