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A Closer Look at the Goat Behind Goat Cheese

Animal Agriculture

August is National Goat Cheese Month. Goat cheese is one of the most common cheeses made from goat’s milk and can be found in most grocery stores. Many of us enjoy this delectable soft cheese, but don’t know much about the goat behind it. Having a little background information into dairy goats will help give you some insight.

Some dairy goat farms work to produce the products you see on grocery store shelves. These herds can range in size and can even be as large as 8,000 goats (wisfarmer.com). Dairy goats are also a popular choice for homesteads or small farms looking to have their own source of dairy products for personal use. Homestead and small farm herd sizes can remain relatively small and can include one or two bucks. The dairy goat is a popular choice for dairy production because they are easy to handle and can be kept in smaller parcels of land. A small herd of 3-4 “in-milk” dairy goats can supply a small family with enough milk for drinking, cheese making, ice cream and for making goat milk soap.

Here is a look at dairy goat facts and breeds, their milk production and common cheeses made using goat’s milk.

Dairy Goat Facts

  • Goats are browsers, not grazers. This means they are selective eaters and prefer shrubs over grasses.
  • Goat gestation is between 146-155 days, depending on breed.
  • Baby goats are called “kids”. A young intact male is called a “buckling”. A young female is called a “doeling”. A female goat that has “kidded” is called a “doe”. An intact male is called a “buck”.
  • Goats may or may not be born with horns. A goat that will not have horns is called “polled”.
  • Goats do not like to get wet. They will run for shelter at the first sign of rain.
  • Goats are ruminants. This means food is digested in two steps. First by eating and regurgitating a semi-digested form known as “cud”, then eating the cud.
  • Wisconsin and California have the largest dairy herds.

Breeds of Dairy Goat

  • Alpine. Alpine does are at least 30 inches tall and weigh around 135 pounds. Have erect ears and come in many color combinations. Known as a hardy breed and can thrive in any climate.
  • Lamancha. Lamacha does are at least 28 inches tall and weigh around 130 pounds. They have very short ears and come in any color and any color combination. They are known for their calm nature and do well in a variety of climates.
  • Nigerian Dwarf. Nigerian Dwarf does are at least 17 inches tall and average around 75 pounds. They have erect ears and come in any color combination. Even though they are small, they are known to produce a proportionate quantity of milk with high butterfat content.
  • Nubian. Nubian does are at least 30 inches tall and weigh around 135 pounds. Their ears are large and hang down, flaring out at the bottom. They may be any color and can come solid or patterned. They are also known for high butterfat and protein content.
  • Oberhasli. Oberhasli does are at least 28 inches tall and weigh around 120 pounds. They come in the distinctive color called “Bay”, but range in light to deep red bay with black markings. They have erect ears and are known for having calm dispositions.
  • Saanen. Saanen does are at least 30 inches tall and weigh around 135 pounds. They are distinctly white and they have erect ears. They are a favorite for commercial dairies due to the high volume of milk they produce and their calm temperament.
  • Sable. Sable does are at least 30 inches tall and weigh around 135 pounds. They are any color combination and have erect ears. Sables have high milk production and calm temperament, similar to the Saanen.
  • Toggenburg. Toggenburg does measure at least 26 inches tall and weight around 120 pounds. They have erect ears and carry forward. Their colors range from light fawn to dark chocolate with white or cream markings. They are one of the first purebred dairy goats to be imported into the United States and registered.

Milk Production By Breed

The amount of milk produced by the different breeds can have a large range. Here is a chart showing the range the breed can produce in pounds and the percent of butterfat and protein per pounds of milk.

Doe Breed

Range (lbs./year)

Butterfat %/lbs

Protein %/lbs

Alpine

750-5750

3.3/89

2.9/78

Lamancha

830-4120

3.7/85

3.2/72

Nigerian Dwarf

220-2110

6.4/51

4.4/35

Nubian

510-3840

4.9/99

3.8/77

Oberhasli

1120-3050

3.7/73

3.0/60

Saanen

920-4870

3.3/89

2.9/79

Sable

1540-3120

3.3/79

2.9/68

Toggenburg

1090-3840

3.1/70

2.9/64

Based on 2019 ADGA DHIR Individual Doe Records. Adga.org

The range of milk production can be quite large for each breed. This is due to many factors like genetics, climate, feed, intake, etc. The percent butterfat is pretty even across breeds with the exception of Nigerian Dwarf and Nubian breeds. These two breeds are known for their high butterfat content which is sought after when making cheese, butter and ice cream. Goat milk is a source of high quality protein and is significantly lower in levels of alpha-S1-casein, which may be one of the reasons why it is better tolerated by some people with sensitivities.

For a PDF of Dairy Goat Breeds, click here.

Types of soft cheeses made from goat milk

  • Goat Cheese (Chevre). This classic cheese is soft, delicious and very versatile. It is also simple to make! The ingredients consist of pasteurized goat milk and chevre culture and salt. Some people have even make goat cheese from goat milk and lemon juice! The lemon juice separates the whey and soft curds are formed. The curds are then hung in cheese cloth to drain the rest of the whey. Salt is then added and cheese is refrigerated. Goat cheese can also be flavored with fresh herbs and spices.
  • Feta Cheese.Feta cheese is make from sheep milk or from a mixture of sheep and goat milk. Both sheep and goat milk have a higher percentage of “goat” fatty acids known as capric, caprylic and caproic acid than cow’s milk. These fatty acids are what contributes to the distinctive sharp taste and smell. Feta cheese is made from a combination of milk, buttermilk, liquid rennet and salt.
  • Mozzarella Cheese. Mozzarella cheese is known for its mild taste and use with Italian dishes. This favorite can be made with goat milk, liquid rennet and citric acid powder. When making mozzarella, the process consists of specific cooking temps and rest times. When steps of a recipe are followed correctly, the cheese is pulled like taffy and then shaped into a ball.
  • Ricotta Cheese. Ricotta cheese can be made in only 15 minutes and is super easy. Ingredients consist of goat milk, apple cider vinegar and salt. Like all goat cheeses, there is a specific process of cooking time, temperature and rest time. Ricotta, similar to Chevre, is one of the easiest to make.

Hard cheeses can also be made with goat milk but are not as common as soft cheeses. The flavor of a hard cheese becomes less tangy and may be described as sweet, nutty or even sharp. The process of making hard cheese involves more steps and equipment, time and correct pressure. Sterilization of equipment is extremely important as well as proper aging temperature. Beginners usually begin with soft cheeses and then move to experimenting with hard cheeses.

August is National Goat Cheese month and there is no better way to celebrate than to learn about the goat behind the cheese. There are many breeds of dairy goats with varying production ranges, butterfat and protein content. While there are larger farms producing milk for commercial use, the dairy goat continues to be a popular choice for homesteads and small farms. Either way, you can choose to enjoy the delectable cheeses that can be made from goat’s milk. If you cannot find goat cheese at your local store, you can look for small farms in the area that are permitted to sell their products either off the farm or at local farmers markets.

Resources: American Dairy Goat Association, cheesemaking.com, everything-goat-milk.com, Florida A&M University, wisfarmer.

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