This is taken from a thread where Len asked about the various options for producing milk as part of a permaculture set-up. We thought it might be useful for pc'ers who just want to produce their own milk and basic dairy products at home, so is not intended as a definitive guide to setting up a commercial dairy farm, but all the posters were writing from experience.
Pete in South Australia wrote:
I'm sure you know my preference by now :-)... I love goats milk (and the animal) so would always "vote the goat" ..... but......
Sheep are far gentler on the surrounding flora than goats but still need some control on where they can graze... even 2 sheep per hectare could slowly compact the soil and eat the good stuff leaving the nasty weeds to take over...... a few smaller paddocks used on a rotational basis is a better way to go than one big paddock.
If I could produce the food and could afford the animal... I would definitely have a Dexter cow.... these mini cows would provide enough milk for a family without eating you out of house and home (as my Jersey did to me)... again cows are animals which will compact soil if left on the same ground for too long.
I prefer Saanen goat milk to Anglo Nubian but that is just me... if you want to make cheese Anglo's would be a better bet, I've tasted sheep milk (shop bought only) and it didn't have any flavour at all.... but I bet the home grown stuff would be similar to goats milk... if you're thinking sheep, go for a breed that doesn't grow too much wool (unless that's what you need) Merino's are basically a wool breed and dress up for meat pretty poorly compared to Shropshires or other meatier breeds, though I do prefer Merino hogget (older sheep) between the two and four tooth stage. IMHO it has a better flavour... speshly if it has been fed on our local saltbush... (saltbush lamb is even being marketed now)... there's a use for your Old Man saltbush :-)
Fran (also in Australia) prefers cows over goats:
If you decide that you must have your own milk, I'd recommend a cow over a goat. Goats are just far too smart to be comfortable around. They wend their way into your heart and even if you call it something like 'Sunday Roast' you'll never be able to get rid of the excess ones and you'll find them sharing your bed. They are also expert escapologists and most I've known tend to love company and are curious so suddenly you find them beside you when you thought they were safely shut in their paddock. They also prefer browsing to plain old grass so they tend to eat bark and damage trees and shrubs in their foraging.
Daily milk - since you're going to be half an hour from shops and from the sounds of it will be doing an awful lot in a relatively short space of time, my advice would be forget the cow for several years at least and rely on UHT milk or 3 trips a week to the shops and some spare UHT in the cupboard for the times in between when you run out or find a neighbour who has a cow and will sell you (illegally of course) some milk and let them bear the inconvenience. Having a cow is a right pain in some ways. While it's lactating you always have to be there and do the regular milking. It needs a break from lactation for at least 2 months before calving and then you have no milk. You can't use the milk for the first week after calving so you still have no milk. You have to build a bale and you have to lock the calf up each night or each morning or you have to poddy or sell the calf. You'll also need to worry about ticks up your way.
If after 2 years you have got the house built, have good fences, have time to build some bales and have some decent pasture so you don't have to feed it, then find a friendly neighbour who has cows and see if you actually like cows and are good at handling/being round them. Cows and some people just don't mix - for eg, my cousin who was born and raised on a dairy farm just cannot get on with cows, there is something about him that they sense and if he even walks over a hill they bolt in the opposite direction. He has to get his son to move the cows and the kid has been doing this since he was 8 'cos his father can't. He had to give up dairying as soon as his old man died 'cos he is just hopeless with them but he continues to fatten the odd steer.
If you decide that you would still like a cow then I'd suggest you check out Dexters. They are currently much loved by hobby farmers, but don't let that put you off them. They are small and were originally cottagers' cattle as they could be successfully kept on small areas of land. And then be very careful in selecting one. Don't get a heifer, try if you can to get an older cow which is used to hand milking from someone else (but not too old as they sometimes know too many tricks). Make sure you are totally comfortable with it. I wouldn't recommend a Jersey as they tend to be more temperamental than a lot of other breeds. The best cows in tick country are Bos Indicus breeds eg Santa Gertrudis, but then they don't make good domestic milking cows so you'll be looking for Bos Taurus breeds eg British European breeds. But do find out about ticks as good domestic milkers are damned expensive.
Holly (in Ireland) makes it 2-1 to the cows:
I have had both cows and goats and if I had room I would go for a cow (or two, see below). Never had milking sheep so I can't comment. In my experience it is not so much the breed of goat but the diet that makes a difference to the taste of the milk. Strong flavours of plants/scrub eaten seem to make the milk stronger. Maybe you could buy some goats milk to see if you like it (the supermarket stuff tends to be less strongly flavoured than you will manage to get it at home). Both cows and goats can be easy or difficult to handle, this depends on the individual animals. Whatever you buy try to make sure you see someone else handle and milk it first! Cows are easier to fence in but need a larger area. But cows need better grass and goats will manage and thrive on scrub, bushes and weeds. Which of those are you likely to have? You also need to consider how you would get the animals in kid/calf unless you also want to keep a bull/billy goat. Are there neighbours nearby with animals (of suitable breeding) that you could use? Is there an AI service in your area with the right breed of bulls? If you are thinking of mini-cows (Dexters??) there may not be. Whichever you choose you need to think about whether you have room/time to keep the offspring, whether you are going to eat them and if not, whether there is a market to sell them.
In either case I would consider whether you could keep two animals rather than just one. I know that many people keep just one cow or goat but really they are herd animals and I personally feel that they are happier with company of their own kind.
Mark (also in Ireland) added :
Other people have covered goats and cows, but I thought I'd add what I know about milking sheep. Some friends nearby keep a milking breed - they're Friesland sheep, and are said to have the best yield. They certainly give lovely creamy milk and make good cheese. Sheep's milk is very healthy (cancer-preventing properties, allegedly), and it's better than goats' milk in that the milk isn't naturally homogenised, so it's easier to skim off the cream. All sheep breeds will produce useful milk. Our friends' sheep got into the habit of being milked and are quite good fun. The lambs seem to put on weight well, and are another useful product.
They need better grazing than goats, better fencing than cows, but might fit into your plans.
Janet (in Scotland) gave some useful advice for people new to livestock:
Don't rush into the full zoo straight away, build it up slowly. I've seen countless people rush out to populate their land, usually with giveaways. The next season the prisoners are unthriving, grazers half starving on battered land filthy with poultry muck, scabby pale hens have eaten the veg beds, and the owners bemoan the lack of eggs/difficulty of handling/ size of the vet bill. Each kind of animal repays careful gradual learning and observation to keep it well. By that, I don't just mean healthy. Well-kept, contented animals are likeliest to fulfil their destiny perfectly. On the other hand, small human error leads to an unco-operative stressed creature, always suffering some ill, escaping, fighting and producing badly. It's nothing to do with elaborate outlay, just time care and patience. Much like gardens. You can learn some from books or other people, but only you can adapt your own qualities to individual creatures and the special conditions at your place. Doing that happens gradually. That way, you notice your land/energy/patience are at full capacity before the balance is lost.
Fran had further words of advice on mini-cattle:
These animals are cute but my advice would be not to touch them with a barge pole. At a starting price of $1,000 for an animal they are incredibly expensive. An extremely good beef cow with a calf at foot would cost you about $600, a good milking cow would probably cost you $800 to $1,000. You could milk a beef cow but that's another story.
These mini cattle are a waste of good money. With a starting price of $1,000 they are probably talking about heifer or bull calves. A heifer has to be put in calf so you can get milk. That will either mean service fees (hefty no doubt) from another mini beast or AI which means fiddling with treatments for cycling and a number of visits from people who cost money. If you've never handled cattle then you don't want to be fussed about calving heifers - take my word for it!
You also have trouble selling any progeny from these animals. Real farmers won't touch them with a forty foot pole nor will butchers so that means you will have major trouble selling them through the sale yards. So that means you either have to have the offspring killed and eat it yourself or find someone to buy it and that means someone who is probably a hobby farmer and doesn't know much about what they are buying.
There is also a social reason why I'd suggest avoiding these animals. Country people do tend to be a bit conservative, they are often as mad as cut snakes but within the bounds of country madness. They know a lot and can be very supportive and helpful and give freely of their time, equipment and knowledge, but they have no sympathy for the type of people that they believe threaten their livelihood or lifestyle. These mini cattle are perceived to do both. The cattle are considered by real farmers to be mutants who threaten to carry dwarf genes into a very successful cattle industry. By owning and keeping them you taint yourself with this sort of stigma - ie you're considered a total dill who hasn't got any respect for what the neighbours are trying to do and you should know better. It doesn't matter that no-one's told you or that it fits in with your aims.