There are over 1 billion farmed goats in the world, with over 200 million of these raised for their milk. Dairy goat production is highest in India, Bangladesh and Sudan, but this type of farming is also growing in popularity in the United States, especially among family and smaller operations.
While goat’s milk and cheese may often be viewed as luxury items when compared to cow’s milk, this doesn’t necessarily make them ethical or sustainable alternatives.
Are Goat Products Considered Dairy?
Dairy products are any substances made from the milk of mammals. Dairy can originate from all mammals, including humans, although humans tend to consume cow’s milk, water buffalo milk, goat’s milk or sheep’s milk most regularly. The USDA also defines the substances derived from this milk, like cheeses, yogurts, ice creams and whey powders as dairy.
What Are the Dairy Goat Breeds Used in Milk Production?
In the U.S., the most common dairy goat breeds are:
- Nigerian Dwarf
What Are the Environmental Regulations for Dairy Goats?
While many aspects of dairy goat production are regulated, such as pasteurization, nutritional levels and somatic cell content, there are very few regulations concerning its environmental impact.
According to the USDA specifications for dairy farms, including goat dairy farms, farmers must comply with a few environmental regulations for practices like disposing waste and water correctly, and cleaning equipment so as not to contaminate the products or the land. The EPA also regulates pesticides and fertilizers for dairy farmers.
However, there are no regulations governing other potentially damaging activities, like clearing land, releasing methane or harming local biodiversity.
What Are the Impacts of Dairy Goat Production?
Dairy goats are often raised in confinement — sometimes given very little space to roam or graze naturally. Goats are known to enjoy playing, especially with toys or simply having fun with their friends, but these activities are usually quite difficult on U.S. goat dairy farms.
The animals also suffer from physical problems. The horns of female goats on dairy farms are removed via disbudding, in a process that can cause immense pain to the animals. A 2021 scientific examination of midwestern goat dairy farms found knee calluses and claw overgrowth in a majority of the animals. Knee calluses are likely caused by poor bedding or dirty conditions. Other common problems include skin lesions and poor hygiene.
Some aspects of animal welfare are not related to the farm’s conditions but to the inherent process of farming itself. Female goats, called does, are forced to give birth up to three times a year. As the number of births per year increases, the chance of low birth weight and early death for the kids increases as well. The baby goats are then unnaturally separated from their parents, which is an unpleasant and traumatic experience for the animals. While most U.S. goat dairy farm operations will give female kids a small amount of their mother’s milk, an improvement on dairy cow operations, it tends to be through a bottle, not natural weaning. The male kids are killed outright or sold to meat farms, being useless to a dairy goat operation.
Dairy production causes a number of environmental harms, including methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions. But dairy goats actually contribute more emissions per unit of milk produced than cows. Smaller ruminant animals like sheep and goats emit 6.5 kilograms of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases for every kilogram of milk, compared to only 2.8 kilograms for cows, who are larger animals that produce more milk.
Globally, the cattle industry is responsible for more greenhouse gases simply because there are more of them. But it would be incorrect to say that scaling up goat milk production could be a climate solution, as some of its advocates claim, due to goats’ higher individual emissions rates.
There are some advantages that dairy goat production has over dairy cow production. If allowed to graze as in more traditional farming systems, goats can live on more marginal land than cows and survive on low inputs of feed, which has made them invaluable to communities around the world for centuries. Such comparisons are, however, less significant given that current demand for dairy products requires large-scale intensive production and often relies on confined animals.
U.S. goat farms have historically lacked awareness of these diseases. In a USDA study in 2011, only about half of all goat operations demonstrated even a basic familiarity with specific zoonotic diseases. Only a third of these producers knew that diseases other than chlamydia were infectious to humans. This lack of awareness is concerning considering pandemic risk is on the rise.
How Much Milk Does a Dairy Goat Produce?
On goat dairy farms, female goats, called does, are impregnated up to three times a year and typically spend around 150 days gestating with each baby goat. After the kid is born, the does produce milk. Each doe on a dairy farm in the U.S. produces an average of 1,400 to 1,500 pounds of milk per year. Per day, this number can be as high as 6 to 8 pounds, although it does depend on the goat breed and the age of the goat.
How Long Do Dairy Goats Produce Milk?
The lactation period lasts around 300 days after the doe gives birth. Unlike other mammals, does do not go through menopause or a similar process, meaning they can bear children for essentially their entire adult lives. Naturally, goats live for 15 to 18 years, while on dairy farms, female goats live for only about 11 to 12 years, although this also varies greatly based on the breed and the farm. The process of farming female goats, especially the repeated pregnancies, is known to harm the lifespan of the goats.
What You Can Do
Like dairy cow farms, dairy goat farming is harmful both to animals and the surrounding environment. While dairy goat farms tend to have smaller herds and thus better health outcomes, young male goats are still slaughtered and female goats endure forced pregnancy.
Björn Jóhann Ólafsson is an Icelandic-American writer who examines the psychology of eating animals, the environmental footprint of the meat industry, and the plant-based meat industry. He lives in Spain with his two lovebirds.