Congratulations, you’re sold on goats! But what breed is right for you? There are many options to choose from, so you should select carefully based on your space and needs.
The first domesticated goats are descendants of the wild Bezoar ibex (Capra aegagrus). From the Zagros Mountains of present-day Iran, they have spread widely over six continents. Over the past 10,000 years, a variety of different breeds from all over the world have emerged. There are more 30 breeds of goats in North America alone. There is a breed for you whatever your interests are, be they dairy, fiber, meat, packing, cart-pulling, weed-eating, or simply as an adorable family pet.
Dairy All goats produce milk for their babies and any goat can be trained to let you milk her. Dairy breeds make more milk for more days of the year, and their larger udders also make them easier to milk. The main dairy breeds are Alpine, Lamancha, Nubian, Oberhasli, Saanen, and Toggenburg. These breeds come both full-sized and miniature, except for the naturally small Nigerian Dwarf. Full-sized goats and miniatures both have their advantages.
Full-sized breeds make more milk, have larger teats, and are generally easier to milk by hand. Additionally, their standing height allows for milking without a stanchion. Full-sized goats also lend themselves to more uses. They can also be trained as pack goats and cart pullers, especially the males. Their size also provides more meat than miniature breeds.
Miniature breeds, however, need less space and less food. They are also easier to fence and don’t cause as much damage. Some people with small children feel more comfortable keeping smaller animals.
Most dairy breeds, except for Nigerian Dwarfs, are seasonal breeders. They usually go into heat sometime near the fall, but that can sometimes range from July to December. Nigerian Dwarfs can breed year-round.
Saanens, also known as the Holsteins of the goat world, are the most productive dairy breeds. An individual nanny can produce a whopping 1.5 to 3 gallons per day. Nubians and Nigerian Dwarfs have the highest butterfat content in their milk, anywhere from 5% to 10%.
Fiber The two most prominent fiber goats are Angora and cashmere. Angora goats produce long locks called mohair that can be spun into yarn. "cashmere" goats are not a specific breed. All goats (except Angoras) produce cashmere fur in their winter undercoat. A cashmere-producing breed typically produces over 2 ounces of processed down a year.
Like sheep, Angoras should be shorn once or twice a year for harvest. Shearing is not required for cashmere harvest, rather the down fiber can be brushed out in the spring. Fiber breeds do not produce as much milk or meat as more specified breeds, but they can do so in lower quantities.
Pygoras (Angora crossed with pygmy) and nigoras (Angora crossed with a Nigerian dwarf) are smaller breeds that make mohair, cashmere, or both.
Meat Every breed of goat can be used for meat. However, specific “meat breeds” put on weight faster and generally have more meat on them than dairy or fiber breeds.
Boer goats are the most common meat breed, originating in South Africa. Mature Boer bucks and wethers (castrated males) can weigh 250 to 300 pounds.
Kikos are another meat breed. They originated in New Zealand and are of very hearty stock. In the 1970s, ranchers bred thousands of feral goats and kept only the meatiest and most disease-resistant individuals. The result is a tough breed that can thrive without human assistance.
Myotonics are a meat breed that have become well known as "fainting goats.” They don’t actually faint. They have a genetic disorder that makes muscles unable to relax after contraction. Thus, when surprised or frightened, they become immobile. Myotonics are decent as meat goats or pets, but their odd attribute makes them unsuitable for cart-pulling or packing.
Other meat breeds include Kinder, pygmy, Savanna, and Spanish.
Packing and Cart-Pulling Alpine, Oberhasli, Saanen, and Toggenburg, all full-sized European milk breeds, make great pack goats. Lamanchas, the only dairy breed to originate in the United States, also haul with the best of them. Breed is not the only important factor when selecting working goats. Individual genetics play a vital role in providing the size, long legs, and frame shape most desirable for packing. Personality and temperament are also crucial.
For example, Nubians can pack. But in general, people steer away from them because they have a reputation for being too vocal and laying down on the trail. The right Nubian can make a great pack goat, but that goat can be hard to find. A good packer must have a strong work ethic and simply want to pack. My goats wag their tails when I pull out the panniers. They love the packing lifestyle.
The body structure of meat breeds makes them ideal for acquiring muscle. As such, they can make very sturdy and strong pack goats. Unfortunately, they may not be perfect depending on the terrain you plan to cover. They tend to have shorter legs, making them less ideal for mountainous terrain. You have to know what topography you will encounter to pick the right goat for the job.
Today, a working goat pulling a cart or wagon is a rare sight, but a century ago it was commonplace. In the early 20th century, Studebaker produced goat wagons sold in the Sears and JCPenney catalogs. A variety of goats are featured pulling carts in old black and white photos, but the photos of Angoras with their long locks are exceptionally stunning.
Males and females can be trained to pack and pull carts. Wethers (castrated males) are most commonly selected because they are bigger and stronger than females and less trouble than bucks (intact males).
Training is crucial with pack goats and cart pullers, regardless of breed. Bottle feeding can solidify the bond between human and goat and is worth considering for a working goat. It is best to work with goats from an early age, getting them used to commands, harnesses, and pack saddles. It is also valuable to take young goats along on trips even when they're not of packing age, just for the experience. It’s crucial to not put full weight on them until they are fully grown at 3 years of age. This measure will make sure they are never overstressed and can become the best pack goats they can be.
It’s worth mentioning that domestic goats can carry Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, the fatal sheep pneumonia that frequently ravages bighorn sheep herds throughout the West. As such, pack goats are not allowed on some landscapes where wild sheep are present. Be conscientious and consider getting your herd tested if you’re going to be packing in bighorn country.
Pets and Companions Any breed can make a great pet and companion as long as you put in the time. The friendliest goats are socialized from birth. This involves spending lots of time with them when they’re kids. You may even consider bottle-feeding to accomplish this task. It’s possible to bond with a goat that has not been socialized since birth, but you have to work hard to earn their trust.
Goats are herd animals, so you need to have at least two because keeping them alone is very hard on them. With training, goats can be taught many tricks. They can stand on their back legs and “dance,” jump through hoops, and more. Clicker training, the same kind used for dogs and horses, is also effective with goats. They are quick learners, and you would be surprised by all the things you can train them to do.
Weed-Eating If you want weed eaters, the breed doesn’t matter as long as they’re not spoiled and have time to adjust to a new diet. Spoiled goats don’t make good weed eaters. If goats are accustomed to all-you-can-eat hay and grain for dessert, they are not going to mow down a patch of knapweed.
I have friends who’ve complained that their goats won’t eat thistles or hounds’ tongue, but other herds will. My dairy and pack herd are great weed eaters. This is because they grew up eating weeds along with wild forage as a part of their daily diet. They love munching on thistle and picking the flowers off all the knapweed before they go to seed. Any breed can be a great weed eater, as long as they have time to adjust to a new diet or just grow up eating weeds.
Goats have adapted to distinct climates and diversified into specialized breeds around the world. With so many amazing traits, it’s hard to choose just one. Luckily, while each breed has its primary use, most all have secondary uses. In a way, all breeds are multi-purpose. Your fiber-producing Angora can also be milked, trained to pull a cart, and ultimately eaten. Your high-producing Alpine milker can be a loving companion and her sons can be loyal pack goats. Your stocky Boer can feed your family, mow down weeds, and also be milked.
I recommend choosing your breed based on your primary need and then enjoying the secondary uses. There is something to love about every breed.