Advice for the Urban Farmer
BY Lacey Thacker Photography by Katie Childs
Long before goat cheese was all the rage, the Scrogins family of Olvey kept about 10 milk goats, enough to satisfy the family’s needs. The youngest daughter, Ginger, who was deathly allergic to cow’s milk, remembers her older sister Frances Scrogins Harris some 70 years later. “It was the only kind of milk she could drink. It’s easier for babies to digest,” she explains. So goat’s milk was used in family favorites like white gravy and potato soup, Scrogins remembers, adding, “We didn’t know the difference.”
The family operated a small dairy for more than half a century, and, in many ways, the lifelong farmer — Scrogins continues to farm not far from where she was born — finds goats less demanding and less expensive to purchase than milk cows. “Goats are a good choice for the small urban farmer,” she says. However, Monica Butler, Arkansas Goat Producers Association president, cautions against buying goats before doing your homework.
Stop and think—twice
That’s the advice Butler gives every future goater, and she adds, “Sure, we all think bottle babies are cute, but they’re hard work.” She speaks from experience.
“I started with one cute goat,” Butler says. Thirty years later, she has about 12 milkers (mother goats producing milk) on a little more than three acres at Butlerville. She also has a few babies, yearlings and bucks. And of course, she has hard-earned and invaluable advice to pass along.
First, make sure the baby goat is weaned, otherwise “you’ll lose it,” and be prepared to bottle feed it every few hours. That means a weekend getaway is out of the question, she says. As importantly, she adds, “You need to have a suitable facility and fencing in place before bringing a baby goat or two home.” It doesn’t have to be a barn, but the goat needs some protection from the elements.
While Scrogins uses 5-foot-plus web wire fencing, Butler relies on cattle panels. Butler explains, “It won’t break under the weight of an adult male goat.” Chain-link fencing also works, but without a secure system, Butler says, “Your garden and flowers are in danger.” Coyotes enjoy goat for dinner, and, Scrogins says, “When they’re hungry, they’re highly motivated, and most fences can’t keep them out.” Wild dogs and wolves can also be a problem. For that reason, Butler and Scrogins strongly recommend a companion animal for protection, such as a dog. Because coyotes are wary of donkeys, Scrogins says she always keeps one with her goats.
A word of professional warning
Conley Byrd Jr., a country vet who practices in Redfield, has three decades of experience with livestock. He’s a former state veterinarian, and last year he was appointed to the Veterinary Medical Examining Board. He’s seen plenty of goats and says when starting out, there are many health considerations: parasites can be a problem, especially in pastures where cattle or deer have grazed; it’s important to vaccinate for Clostridium, or blackleg; and don’t overdo it with the grain. “Baby goats also need to be treated for worms,” he adds.
Cows vs. goats
Milk producing cows need about two-and-a-half acres for each mother and calf, while a goat can get by on fewer. For example, self-described urban farmer Jaimi Zeringue, owner of DeerBunny Soaps, keeps six Lamanchas healthy and productive on a single acre near Searcy.
Scrogins says, “Goats eat about one-fourth of what a cow does, and a good goat can produce about a gallon of milk a day. A good cow can produce, on average, from four to six gallons per day.” However, she counters, cow’s milk only brings about $4 a gallon, whereas goat’s milk brings about $4 a quart. In other words, goats are about four times more profitable.
Butler also cautions against buying goats at auction, because of potential diseases or problems, and says “unless you plan to show your goats,” papers aren’t a must. Instead she suggests looking at a baby’s parentage and how well it’s been cared for.
Like dogs, she says, “Each breed has its advantages and disadvantages, and what you want will depend on your preferences.” Butler suggests doing your homework before buying just any old goat and says there’s information online and through the University of Arkansas.
Old school is hip
“Raising goats is becoming more popular, especially with backyard farmers. It’s quite rewarding. Plus, they’re pets with great benefits,” Butler says.
Today goaters are using the milk in diverse and creative ways, including soft and hard cheeses, yogurt, butter, and in soap or hand lotions; and like the Scrogins family so many years ago, Butler says, “We make gravy and biscuits, ice cream and lots more with our milk.”