Jenny White on the significance of breed and pedigree for dairy goats

Goats vary enormously in their ability to produce milk. A lot will depend on time of year, the availability and quality of food as well as the complexities of breed and inherited characteristics. Your choice of milking goat should reflect your long-term goat keeping ambitions. Do you want, eventually, to breed and show top quality stock or are you only interested in a supply of milk? I’ve often heard goat keepers say they’re not interested in looks as long as there’s plenty of milk. This may be true to a point but a goat with bad conformation and a badly attached, misshapen udder can turn out to be an expensive and short-term investment. Genetic faults are very difficult to breed out and a poor goat will still require similar throughput of time and energy as a well-bred goat. A goat that can’t withstand the stresses and strains of more than two or three pregnancies could end up generating more vet bills than milk. Many families don’t require the vast amount of milk that a top quality dairy goat will produce. The fact that goats are herd animals, much happier with the company of another goat, can only compound this issue. High yielding goats need high levels of nutrition and will prove costly to keep if you have no use for all that milk. Reducing their level of nutrition isn’t the answer: goats genetically programmed to produce milk will continue to ‘milk off their backs’. Withdrawing concentrate will only make them more emaciated and debilitated. Whether you want high yielding dairy goats or a couple of small goats to generate sufficient milk for general household use, it’s important to understand the relevance, not only of the breed, but also of pedigree or lack of it.It could be said that to be recognised as a ‘dairy’ goat, a goat should be capable of producing significant amounts of milk over an extended period of time. Taking six weeks after kidding as the peak of lactation, I expected every one of my commercial herd to achieve yields of 5.0–6kg (8.5 to 10.25 pints) per day. Depending on when they kidded and when they were next due to kid, I expected them to continue milking, with a gradual dropping off, to a minimum of 2.5–3kg (4.25 to 5.0 pints) on the shortest day of the year, December 21. The yields of those goats that were running through without kidding in the spring would then be expected to rise steadily with the lengthening daylight and availability of spring grass, until early summer when they’d be up to the 5kg mark again. Many goats can easily surpass these yields, and most of them will be registered with the British Goat Society or descendants of registered goats. But many milking goats would be hard pressed to peak at 3kg, and by late autumn, would be almost dry – these goats may or may not be registered with the BGS.Registered stockBuying young stock from a milk-recorded herd or purchasing the progeny of goats that have awards in milking trials is probably more reliable than purchasing unregistered stock with no details of previous family history. A white goat may be advertised as a Saanen but not every white goat is a Saanen (or British Saanen). To be certain your goat is a specific breed, it should have been registered in the British Goat Society Herd Book. The owner will have a registration card showing date of birth, an earmark number, the sire and dam and other relevant information. This is then returned to the BGS with the appropriate form to transfer ownership to the new owner. There are many unregistered goats that look good and milk well. These will almost certainly be less expensive to buy, and if you’re lucky, you might get really good value for money. I know of a smallholder who is contemplating parting with a brown and white kid. It looks exactly like a British Toggenburg. Its great grandparents were registered BT but its more recent ancestors, on both sides, all BT, were never registered. This kid has the genetics to grow into a nice little milker. She’d be a useful smallholder’s goat but couldn’t enter the show ring as a British Toggenburg. You can also be very unlucky with unregistered goats and buy progeny from a goat that looks and milks well but isn’t well bred and doesn’t have the sound and reliable genetic history to pass onto the next generation. When I was expanding my commercial herd, I made the mistake of buying in several unregistered goats. I can honestly say that in the long term, very few compared favourably with their registered counterparts. One time, I was delighted to be offered a female kid from a goat that I knew was an exceptional milker. The milker had been a gift to its current owner. She was a large, reasonable looking animal, effortlessly producing significant amounts of milk but nothing was known of her ancestry. Her udder wasn’t particularly good but as she gave so much milk, and was thought to be quite old, I took a chance. A good quality pedigree male sired her kid but despite his genetic input, it soon became obvious that the mating was a disaster. At six months old, the kid didn’t have the conformation I expected in a dairy goat, and by the time she kidded at two years old, she was a tall narrow creature with an appalling udder. She never did produce much milk and was later put down as a result of being prone to mastitis. It would be great to think that if you buy a breed section goat, wherever you live, there will be a suitable male standing at stud. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. It’s not so much that fewer goats are being registered but far fewer people are breeding pedigree goats. The breeders index in the British Goat Society Herd Book listed 884 breeders in 1995 but only 400 in 2005. Different breeds have their own appeal but before deciding, it might be useful to find out what breeds of male or AI facilities there are within a reasonable distance of your holding.The BGS has herd books for the eight distinct dairy breeds recognised in the UK, as well as a Foundation register for goats that are grading up, and a British Herd book. Female goats registered in the British Herd book are the progeny of Herd book parents or Herd book sire and Foundation book dam. (The British Herd book goats shouldn’t be confused with English Goats which have their own breed society and registration system.) British goats, often crossbred within the eight dairy breeds, vary widely in appearance. Reliable genesThere’s no guarantee that a kid or a goatling from any source will produce the levels of milk anticipated. I’ve had disappointing results from extremely well bred goats but the reliability of their genes ensured their yields were no lower than average, and more importantly, they were able to pass potentially useful genes onto their daughters. I’d never say that one breed is noisier, naughtier, or more affectionate than another because there are always exceptions. Some books refer to Anglo Nubians as vociferous but this isn’t my experience – even during oestrus, my ANs didn’t shout for a male but just stood looking longingly in his direction. And call it naughty or opportunist, my British Alpines, especially the kids, often demonstrated more athleticism than the other breeds, and didn’t reach their full milking potential until their third kidding. The British Saanens, however, until they reached old age, often achieved similar levels during every lactation.Apart from the cost, it can be heartbreaking to find you’ve bought a goat with a major health problem, so if you’re contemplating your first goat, find out all you can with regard to CAE and Johne’s disease. BGS members and owners of registered goats are more likely to be aware of these health issues. The Pure Toggenburg is a purebred goat similar in looks to the BT but smaller, often hairier, and it has a lower milk yield. It’s a hardy goat, with the reputation of producing milk with relatively high solids, useful for making cheese and yogurt, and able to maintain long lactations without needing to produce kids every year. It’s a closed herd and only kids from two Toggenburg parents are eligible for this section. Like the Saanen, they’re becoming quite rare in the UK – only 51 kids were registered in the Toggenburg Herd book in 2005 compared with 272 BT kids.

The British Saanen is a large white goat with a big appetite and correspondingly high yield. They feature heavily in the top 10 milk-recorded goats, often achieving yields above 2,000kg in a 365 day lactation and rarely averaging below 1,000kg. Critics will say their milk is low in fat and protein but that isn’t always the case – a carefully bred BS is capable of an average 3.5 to 4.0% butterfat and 2.75% protein. The breed was developed from selectively crossing the pure Saanen to produce a larger, rangier and more productive goat.The Pure Saanen is a purebred, white goat, slightly smaller and more compact than the BS and more likely to give lower volumes of milk but with higher solids. They’re becoming quite rare in the UK. Only 56 were registered in the Herd book in 2005 compared with 271 BS kids. It’s a closed herd and only kids from two Saanen parents are eligible for this section

The British Alpine is a black and white goat with characteristic white Swiss markings. In size, shape and productivity, it’s similar to the BS and BT from which it was developed. It seems to be less popular than the BS and BT, only 102 were registered in the British Alpine Herd Book in 2005. It’s my personal favourite but presents a challenge to breeders, as there’s a limited gene bank, and careful attention to blood lines is required to nurture the qualities desired in a top class BA.

The Golden Guernsey is a small dainty goat with a golden colour coat that can be long and silken, or shorter. They produce milk of similar quality and quantity to the pure Toggenburg and pure Saanen. Like the other pure breeds, the GG belongs to a closed herd and only kids from two registered parents are eligible for this section. The breed is relatively new to the UK. The first registrations appeared in the BGS Herd book in 1971. The Golden Guernsey has grown tremendously in popularity during the past decade and the number of kids (284) registered in 2005 exceeded all the other breeds. It has rare breed status and a lot of hard work has gone into researching bloodlines to maintain and promote as extensive a gene pool as possible. Like the British Alpine, it presents a challenge to breed and careful attention must be paid to choice of bloodlines.

The British Guernsey is similar in appearance to the GG but crossbreeding has increased its size and productivity. Currently, very few are being registered with the BGS.

 The British Goat Society has affiliated clubs throughout the UK with members willing to help and advise novices. British Goat Society: or contact the secretary, tel: 01626 833168

This article is from the September 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine. << To order back issues click the link to the left.

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