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Got Milk? I mean, "goat" milk?

Fri, Jun 4th, 2010
Posted in Agriculture

A Nubian wether (castrated male) who is intended to mature into a pack animal. Photo by Kirsten Zoellner

June is National Dairy Month. Undoubtedly, the word dairy itself conjures up some image of a bovine, likely a large, black and white Holstein. However, estimates indicate that 70-80 percent of the world population consumes not creamy cow's milk, but that of a goat. According to the Dairy Goat Co-operative, "goats have long produced the 'milk of choice' for humankind." Considered the oldest domesticated farm animal, it's not difficult to see why.

Dairy goats are a highly-efficient, ruminant animal. For their body size, roughly one-sixth the size of a cow, goats are slightly more efficient than cows as it takes less feed for a dairy goat to produce a gallon of milk than it does for a cow. This makes them particularly lucrative, especially in worldwide areas that are lacking in beneficial forages. In addition, goats are browsers, not grazers, meaning they ingest a diet of not just forbs (weeds and grasses), but browse, which includes woody plants, vines, and brush.

Goats have a long, productive life, averaging 8 to 10 years of milking capability, roughly twice that of a cow. A good dairy goat can provide between 6 to 12 pounds of milk per day during a 305 day lactation. This equates to approximately three to six quarts per day. There are six dairy goat breeds recognized by the American Dairy Association: Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian, Oberhasli, Saanen, Sable, and Toggenburg. Every one of these breeds is capable of producing more than 2,000 pounds of milk per year.

There are countless health benefits associated with the fluid milk from dairy goats. While it has similar levels of calcium, sodium, and magnesium as cow's milk, goat's milk boasts significantly higher levels of other necessary vitamins and minerals. Potassium, manganese, zinc, copper, iron, phosphorus, niacin, selenium, and vitamins B-2, B-6, A, and E are all found in higher concentrations in goat's milk. Notably, the level of calories and fat content of the same milk is less than that of cow's milk.

What's more, goat's milk has smaller fat particles, which do not cluster together, making it more easily and rapidly digestible. Many who are allergic to cow's milk find that they can enjoy goat's milk without incident. It is also naturally homogenized, avoiding health problems associated with mechanical homogenization. Goat's milk may also have advantages when it comes to allergies, as it contains trace amounts of an allergenic casein protein, alpha-S1, found in cow's milk. In addition, it contains slightly lower levels of lactose, which may be a small advantage in lactose-intolerant persons.

Several misconceptions abound surrounding the quality of goat's milk. Most frequently heard is that goat's milk has a pungent smell and taste. In actuality, it is only the bucks which have such a smell. Milk produced by female-only herds has no smell at all. Following this myth, some believe that goat's milk does not keep sweet as long as cow's milk. Scientific testing has shown this to be untrue. Instead, the keeping quality has much more to do with how the milk was produced and handled.

Milk composition varies with some goats, such as the Nubian, producing milk with a higher butterfat content. In comparison, milk from the Saanen and Toggenburg breeds is quite similar to that of a Holstein cow. Toggenburgs are considered the "Guernsey" of the goat world based on the quantity of milk that is produced.

The products created from goat's milk know very little limitation. It can be used or processed as cow's milk, in fluid milk, cream, yogurt, and ice cream. Other popular uses include soaps, beauty products, and baby formula (due to low allergic and lactose reactions). Most well-known, however, is likely goat cheese, known as chevre.

According to statistics, goat cheese has been regarded as one of the fastest-growing areas within specialty cheese during the last decade. Although the milk can be used to make any sort of cheese, the four cheeses commonly produced include: Feta, Gjetost (pronounced YEHT-ohst), Chabichou, and Pyramide. Regardless of the variety, goat cheese is gourmet. The demand for this has risen significantly and some are focusing on this market.

Goat milk products are being made all across the United States. For those processors who responded to a recent USDA-based survey, soft and semi-soft cheeses will account for 69 percent of the production, followed at 24 percent by fluid milk. The majority of producers in the U.S., 73 percent, are farmstead operations, defined as "only utilizing milk from their own goat herd." The most encouraging news to these producers is that the demand for goat's milk doesn't seem to be declining any time soon. While the cost per hundredweight for cow's milk has hovered between $12-14 over the last two years, goat's milk has averaged $35.56 over the last six months.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service reports, as of January 1st, 2010, there are an estimated 355,000 dairy goats in the U.S., a 5.97 percent increase from the previous year. According to NASS, dairy goats are raised nationally on more than 27,400 farms. They are found in every state with Wisconsin and California leading the pack in production. Minnesota's own herds have grown to 13,000 head, a 13 percent increase.

Based on this information, it appears that dairy goats are continuing a trend as a necessary and recognized U.S. industry, one that is both viable and beneficial.

Sources: Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources; U.S. National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health; USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service; Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; Dairy Goat Journal.

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