How do I start a goat farm?
December 11, 2013 6:19 AM   Subscribe

If you were in your late twenties with no experience of farming or dairy, what would you start doing now to have a small goat farm and dairy of your own in 5 - 10 years?

If we take it as granted that this is a serious desire and something I'm willing to work towards, what would be some clever things to do now? My current plan is to do some cheesemaking at home, and read whatever I can. When it's possible I'll try to volunteer or WWOOF at a goat farm somewhere. Apart from that...what would you do to get there sooner, and in better shape? I tend to do things on the fly and figure out how it works by getting everything wrong first, so a little preparation here would be fantastic.
posted by twirlypen to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
You absolutely need to WWOOF or intern at a goat farm. Having two goats is one thing, but you could very quickly get into a lot of trouble with debt, infectious disease, and potentially losing it all very quickly if you go into it on a wing and a prayer.

Owning a farm is more than just feeding and weeding, there's a lot of business management involved. Interning will give you a little more insight into what parts of it you might not be thinking of. That said, good luck and I look forward to seeing your cheeses on the market!
posted by Sophie1 at 6:28 AM on December 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

Do you have any experience running or working in a small business? That seems like it would be really relevant too. And I think volunteering or working on a small farm should be your number one priority if you haven't done it before, way ahead of cheesemaking. What if you hate farm life?
posted by mskyle at 6:28 AM on December 11, 2013

I used to live in an Atlanta neighborhood that had a land co-op thing, where people could keep goats or what have you. Look for something like that and volunteer?
posted by thelonius at 6:37 AM on December 11, 2013

As I see it, you need three things (1) money (to buy the farm or at least make a down-payment), (2) experience working on a goat farm and taking care of goats, and (3) knowledge of how to run a small business.

So, I would suggest you find a job (or an internship or volunteer opportunity if you can't get a job) working on a goat farm. Learn to take care of the goats and see if the farmer will also let you learn about how the business works. Live cheap and save your money. Also, take business classes at night or on the weekends (I know night classes may not work well if you have to get up early to take care of the goats). Learn about bookkeeping, marketing, and other aspects of running a small business. Also, take classes in animal husbandry and cheesemaking from a University or College with an agronomy program.

I have a cousin who is working as a farmhand and saving his money to buy his own dairy farm. I'm basing this advice on the sorts of things he is doing. Five years ago, he didn't know anything about animals or farms. He now knows what he is doing. At this point, the big barrier for him is having enough money to actually buying a farm.

I worry that periodic stints as a volunteer may not give you enough experience to truly be prepared for owning a farm.
posted by Area Man at 6:42 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Talk to the local small business advisory now so that you can learn how to make a business plan, and how much of a budget you will need. Start making friends with the goat cheese producers who come to the local farmers markets, and chat them up once or twice a month. Start making friends with vets who work with livestock. Go to a couple of Chamber of Commerce meetings and chat to people about your ideas, they may share stories of what they learned when first starting a business. Go to a couple of Toastmasters meetings so you can get used to talking in front of people. As with any business, the very most important part will not be the goats, it will be your ability to sell your product that coints. If you don't have good - no, better than good outside sales skills, you will either need to learn that, or be prepared to partner with someone who can slam dunk it.
posted by vignettist at 6:46 AM on December 11, 2013

Read everything mefite MonkeyToes has written here about running a farm. Take classes in running a small business (your local chamber of commerce may offer some, likewise your local community college, assuming you are in the US). Working on a goat farm seems mandatory. If you can't afford to do these things (in terms of time and money), then you can't afford to run a successful business - which won't make money for several years in the beginning.
posted by rtha at 6:47 AM on December 11, 2013

Really, really important question: is this a hobby farm or not? I.e., do you plan to raise goats to bring them and their products to market, or do you just like having/milking goats?

The answer will have an enormous impact on how we answer your question. If you're thinking of doing this as a hobby, hell, check in with your local 4H or state university extension offices. They'll be able to point you in the right direction to learn the basics of animal husbandry. Also should probably check with your local municipality to see if you're actually allowed to keep goats on your property. If you're in an urban or even suburban area, you might well not be. Either way, if all you're planning to do is keep a few goats and make some cheese, this is something you're going to treat as an expense, not a source of revenue, so losing money on the proposition should be something you build into the analysis.

If you actually plan to try to make money on this, that's an entirely different question, and the basics of animal husbandry are truly the least of your problems. They offer degrees in agribusiness, because like any small business, you'll spend a surprising amount of time doing things like accounting, inventory, marketing, sales, and regulatory compliance. Oh sure, you'll have to set aside some time to actually deal with the goats, but you'll find that you spend more time doing back-end stuff than actually, you know, farming. Doesn't matter whether you're opening a coffee shop, bakery, law firm, or hair salon, you'll find yourself spending at least as much time on business affairs than the subject of the business.

So if you're thinking about doing this as a money-making business, not a money-costing hobby, I'll answer your question with another question: do you understand what it takes to run a small business, and are you prepared to do that? Because if the answer is no, give it up now or switch to the hobby idea. If the answer is yes, then you can start checking in with your local agricultural resources to see what's what.
posted by valkyryn at 6:49 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Read this book(let).
posted by 445supermag at 7:23 AM on December 11, 2013

Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats is something you can pick up and read now.

Based on your profile, I'd suggest checking out the Going into goats guide and the group that sponsors it. Get on their mailing list. Making contacts in your area is a smart move, and I encourage you to join any local goat discussion lists/hobbyist/professional groups so you can make connections, gain location-specific knowledge, and get advice on going into this project from people who have done it.

I tend to do things on the fly and figure out how it works by getting everything wrong first

I'm totally sympathetic to this sentiment, and have made my share of mistakes. But when livestock is at stake -- lives not your own -- preparation, planning, and practice are important.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:39 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

There are plenty of farm internship programs you should look into doing. The best for this that I know of off the top of my head, is at World Hunger Relief in Waco, Texas. It's a small farm that trains young people to do agricultural development work, primarily add missionaries though many end up starting small farms in the US or working in education. I (fwiw: not a Christian) volunteered there lots a few years ago while my old partner (also not) had a year long internship studying orchardry and managing a pecan orchard. They have a small goat dairy and sell milk locally, plus livestock interns get a significant amount of insight into the management end of things. They're quite lefty for Waco, a combo of Mennonites and Baptists, though the politics and values vary with the interns, so shift left or right a bit each year.
posted by tapir-whorf at 7:44 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

If we take it as granted that this is a serious desire

This would be a big mistake at this point. By your own admission, you have "no experience of farming or dairy." That being the case, I can guarantee that you have an unrealistic idea of the lifestyle. So the first thing you need to do--and you've already been given a lot of advice on how to do it--is to find out if farming and dairying are for you. Small-scale dairying is one part business management, one part amateur veterinary science, and one part brutal manual labor. At this point, I would say don't even worry about the mechanics of acquiring a farm--just get all the experience you can. Total immersion experience, if at all possible.

Not trying to discourage you at all, but an awful lot of wannabe farmers find that the pastoral bliss that was evident from a distance kind of disappears when you get up close.
posted by bricoleur at 7:46 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Intern, apprentice, or volunteer at a farm that looks like the one you imagine having. Do it over as long a term as possible, so you see the farm through all the seasons.

Get to know as many farmers as you can. Some small farmers nearing retirement may not have anyone lined up who can take over. There may be an opportunity to work your way in to an established farm.
posted by expialidocious at 8:02 AM on December 11, 2013

You can find more info on goat keeping at Fias Co Farm. The web design is very geocities and some of the images are broken but there's lots of good info.
posted by workerant at 8:55 AM on December 11, 2013

Read this comment.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:56 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you considered going to school to be a veterinary assistant, technician, or whatever similar program Technical and Further Education (TAFE) schools near you offer?
posted by mareli at 10:18 AM on December 11, 2013

I actually worked on a goat farm this past summer WWOOFing. It was a good experience, though I think it convinced me that working with livestock is not for me (the goats themselves are actually fairly lovely, and cheesemaking was fun but I need a cleaner environment with less flies to thrive, personally).

I don't have a ton of advice to give, but I think the woman who owned the farm that I worked on said that she had started off with just a few goats . . . so maybe, get some experience and then start small and see how it goes?

Good luck!
posted by thesnowyslaps at 12:00 PM on December 11, 2013

There's an organization for 'young' farmers in Australia....definitely join.

As someone who's done several full season internships on small farms and worked with livestock... you definitely want to live/work on a goat dairy for a year, if not two or more (or on several dairies, to see the differences). If you can get to the US before you're 30 you can get a working holiday visa and look for a paid internship... ATTRA Internships is a good listing, ATTRA had lots of info in general. There are a lot more opportunities in the US and its more of a 'thing' especially if you want a smaller boutique organic deal as opposed to agribusiness. Bear in mind that the economics work out differently here in Oz though, and most small farms here are hobby farms, even many big farms struggle.

I'm from the US and have done a fair bit of farming there, and now live in Australia... and have done a lot of research into farming here too. MeMail me.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:45 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, what bricoleur says it's very true. You don't know it's your calling until you've been up all Sat. night assisting a birth, and at dawn you don't go to bed, but pull out goat breakfast and the milking equipment before you even eat your own breakfast.. and then sigh with happiness because you can't imagine doing anything else. On a 'weekend'. It happens! But you need to try itout first ;-)
posted by jrobin276 at 12:53 PM on December 11, 2013

Goat Song is a great book.
posted by InkaLomax at 4:24 PM on December 11, 2013

Lots of good advice above, I'll just add some info specific to keeping goats:

Goats need much better fencing than sheep or cattle - if you buy a property, expect to upgrade the fencing unless it's already deer-fenced.

Goats need shelter, they can't hack it in the open nearly as well as sheep or cattle.

Goats need minerals - you'll need mineral supplements to keep them healthy, they need much higher levels of copper than sheep or cattle for example.

The #1 n00b mistake is overstocking. Don't look at a property in the full flush of spring growth & base your stocking expectations on that - think about how many animals you can feed in a drought, or the depths of winter.

You need REALLY staunch fencing if you're trying to keep bucks away from in-heat does. They have been known to do the deed through a wire mesh fence, so you need well-separated living spaces if you don't want unplanned pregnancies.

Successful dairy production requires well-fed goats - you must keep the feed up to keep the milk volumes up.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:41 PM on December 11, 2013

You might like Whole Larder Love - it's a blog and a cookbook by a small farmer in Tasmania; I don't think he keeps goats, but he may know someone who does (he seems very approachable and frequently responds to blog comments). Also, it's a really good + realistic insight to being a small farmer in Australia.
posted by jrobin276 at 6:04 PM on December 11, 2013

I can guarantee that you have an unrealistic idea of the lifestyle.

Seconded. If we take it as granted that this is a serious desire and something you're willing to work towards, the very first thing to do is to get as realistic an idea of the lifestyle as you can! This will make more clear to you than anything else possibly can what you need to do.

If you have any applicable skills (not necessarily with goats, construction and welding are very useful), you may be able to find a paying job on a goat farm. I spoke with someone recently who had worked on a goat farm that made it's own cheese starting with his construction skills and learning a lot about goats in the end.
posted by yohko at 9:30 PM on December 11, 2013

Get to know a 4H leader (goats) in your area and volunteer to help with their goats in exchange for the learning experience.

Nothing beats hands-on experience and if it's goats you're looking at, you'll enjoy every minute of it.

4H leaders teach children how to care for their animals and they know everything imaginable about goats - I never knew one who didn't love to show their critters off, either. I envy you - have fun.
posted by aryma at 10:10 PM on December 11, 2013

I was 32 when my 10-year-old daughter, my ex-mother-in-law and I moved to Colorado and I went to a livestock auction and bought my first goat - a beat-up looking but good-natured nubian doe with a baby buck. I took them to the place I'd rented out in the country where I'd fixed up an old chicken coop for our goat - and then left for work with the Mother Earth News providing instructions for milking the doe with my poor MIL and daughter. I'll never live it down.

They managed to get a little milk and the next day the doe was ready to pop so it was much easier - it flowed like a river when I touched her udder. Well, we learned together and had a great time doing it. Over the years there were more goats and goat stories, but nearly every minute was a joy and even the sad ones were important and beautiful.

We were in 4H in Southern Arizona for years; nubians give the richest, most delicious milk ever, but all varieties give the richest of life experiences.
posted by aryma at 10:22 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the excellent help!

Valkyryn, the idea is for this to be our primary job and business, earning enough money (at some point, definitely not from day 1) to support ourselves.

I think in the short term I'll definitely be working on getting actual experience on a farm, as well as developing useful skills (welding, woodwork, etc) wherever I can. And money too, I guess.

Thanks again for all the help!
posted by twirlypen at 2:21 AM on December 12, 2013

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