Here I write about:
… breeds, characters and the roles they might be good at, whether that is keeping down the undergrowth, providing milk or meat, keeping company for other animals or as pets;
… their age and sex, and how that might affect you;
… herd structure and how to set up a harmonious group.
First you need to think about why you want goats: milk, meat, land clearance or as a pet. Your most important criterion is that you should really want goats, as they require considerable commitment and care.
Goats bred for milking have developed a larger than normal yield of milk: more than is required to feed her own kids. This means you have a commitment to milk your doe daily so she doesn’t become uncomfortable. In addition, her nutritional needs will be higher. She has a high metabolism and can be more competitive for food. This may lead to butting and general rough enthusiasm at meal times. It is easier to feed milk-goats in separate pens or in racks that have plenty of space between them, sometimes as much as one metre apart, or with partitions between feeding stations.
For a smallholder, a commercial dairy breed is really not ideal, due to their highly strung nature. A couple of rustic or cross-breed milkers provide plenty of dairy produce for a small family. Breeding two rustics at the same time means the kids will have companions, which makes weaning and selling much easier.
If you wish to breed for meat, you will find dairy goats too slender and may favour a dual-purpose, rustic or meat breed. Male offspring of dairy breeds are often sold for kid meat, but check they have been already castrated, unless you are slaughtering at less than 5 months.
Cashmere or Angora goats are sometimes kept for their hair by home spinners. Their coats can be trimmed or brushed out and used for wool.
Browsers and pets
Goats are increasingly kept to keep down the weeds and undergrowth, but they won’t trim grass short, like a sheep. Rustic breeds are particularly well-suited to land management, due to their hardy constitution, well-adapted browsing habits and calmer natures.
Tame goats make affectionate and fun pets, but be careful of horned goats around young children. Pygmy/dwarf goats are often favoured due to their small size, but any goat can make an adorable pet. Pygmies are not easier to keep due to their size, as they still have large appetites and are great climbers. Whatever breed you choose make sure you have plenty of hay, pasture, shelter and strong fences.
When purchasing, make sure you always buy at least a pair of familiar animals that already get on well, preferably from the same family, either mother-daughter, sisters or crèche mates. This is because goats are highly social animals and feel afraid when alone or introduced to a herd of strangers. They also form strong personal bonds and can be distressed by separation. Integration into a new herd is a highly stressful for goats, unless they are accompanied by a familiar companion. Equally when selling, always sell two or more herd-mates together.
Make sure too that they are used to being handled by humans and that they are friendly with their owner. Managing nervous goats is hard work, whereas friendly goats are a pleasure to work with. Expect that they may take a while to get used to you, as they are often wary of strangers.
A goat should never be kept on her own or without another member of her own species: this is a very frightening situation for a goat. Even if she stops crying, or seems pleased to see you, this does not mean she is not suffering when alone.
Goats should not be tethered: restriction is frustrating and frightening for an animal that has evolved to flee from danger.
Age and sex
Young goats are more adaptable, make friends more easily and are very lively and playful. As they age, they can become more distrustful, unless they have regular, friendly contact with humans, and are less likely to make friends with new animals. Although they become fertile at about 5 months, it is best to wait until they are fully developed, at around 18 months, before breeding females. After their first pregnancy, they become calmer and less boisterous. A mature doe is also easier for a first-time owner to learn to milk. Goats generally live to about 15 years old.
Whereas all young animals are excitable, females calm down as they mature, while males become more headstrong. Entire males grow strong and sturdy and smell strongly and unpleasantly during the breeding season (autumn and winter): I would not recommend keeping one unless you have many goats to breed each year; they certainly do not make good pets. Wethers are castrated males that do not develop male characteristics. However, they retain very cheeky behaviour and can be a bit of a handful unless well trained.