Goat’s cheese and milk is becoming increasingly popular amongst consumers; with many mistakenly presuming that the welfare problems inherent in the milking of dairy cows do not apply to goats. But the truth, uncovered by Viva! Campaigns, paints a disturbingly similar picture of death, mutilation and disease.
In the UK the goat keeping trend has seen the size of milking herds grow from a handful kept as pets to the large zero-grazed commercial farms, milking an average 700 individuals within a herd. It is estimated that the commercial dairy goat population now stands at around 45,000, with demand predicted to rise by 500%, as more and more people buy into the ‘healthy alternative’ myth perpetuated by the industry. With a greater demand for products comes a greater intensification of goat farming and herds in excess of 2,000 are becoming increasingly common.
Like dairy cows (and any other mammal for that matter), goats first need to be made pregnant in order to produce milk. Usually that happens around the age of 18 months, either through artificial insemination or the use of a ‘stud’ billy from high milking stocks. They have a five month pregnancy and often produce twins or even triplets, unlike goats in their ‘natural state’ who typically produce one kid per pregnancy.
Following birth, lactation in a non-pregnant goat can continue for up to two years but as this longer lactation results in lower milk yields most commercial farms breed the nanny goats every year. On one farm (where Viva! Campaigns filmed during a 2011 investigation) the goats kid for a second time and after 200 days have their milk yield assessed. If found to be exceptionally high she’s generally bred again to increase the yield. It’s what is referred to as ‘selective breeding’ in dairy goat farming.
Many people switch from cow's milk to goat's milk because they think it's more humane. The irony is that all the problems that exist to produce cow's milk exist in goat farming, too. Mothers and kids are separated a few days after birth so the mother’s milk can be taken for human consumption. Female kids are used to replenish the milking herd, but as with male calves male kids can't produce milk so are either killed at birth or reared for the meat trade. Almost all kids, whether male or female, suffer at least one painful mutilation – and often without anaesthetic.
Disbudding refers to the procedure in which baby goats have their horn buds burnt out to prevent their horns from growing. Fearful of injuries to themselves, their handlers or other goats many farmers opt to disbud their animals between four and 10 days old. Without a doubt it’s a painful and stressful experience for the goat but despite The Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 requiring that it be undertaken by a veterinary surgeon, most are still done on farm by unqualified farm workers.
In the wild goats would generally live between 15 and 18 years but for those exploited for commercial interests culling is normally carried out around six years of age. Generally this is when their milk yield drops and they’re no longer considered a profitable commodity. They’re sent to market and sold for meat.
Although goat meat makes up 60 per cent of red meat eaten worldwide, it’s not commonly eaten in the UK – something providers are keen to change through marketing ‘exotic’ recipes and the labelling of a ‘Goat Meat Revolution’. The decadent nature of such campaigns disregards the distressing reality of life for farmed goats, in which their independent, inquisitive and spirited nature is crushed between the slates of a bleak over-sized shed with little to no access to the great outdoors.
Goats are well-known for their mothering abilities, often fostering orphaned or rejected lambs, calves and even foals. Of course, on most dairy farms the maternal needs of both nannies and kids are almost immediately curtailed after birth.
The female kids are typically removed from their mothers after one feed and subsequently fed milk replacer, replacement goat’s milk or even cow’s milk, so that the mother’s milk can be harvested for human consumption. Sometimes the kid and mother will not even have that interaction, as many young are fed immediately by bottle to manage colostrum intake. On intensive units, kids are machine fed in large batches of around 200 or more, despite Defra acknowledging that artificial rearing “can give rise to problems”.
As for the male kids, they’re either killed shortly after birth or kept for meat following painful castration involving a rubber ring tied around the billy goats’ testicles to cut the blood supply. The testes then slowly shrivel and die. But with many farmers unwilling to provide space and staff to raise males for meat the killing of male baby goats is arguably more pronounced than the deaths of male dairy calves.
In UK commercial dairy farms Saanen goats are the breed of choice due to their high milk yield and relatively placid nature.
The average milk yield a year per goat is 880-900 litres, but with farmers pushing for ever greater yields more and more goats are forcefully pumping out upwards of 1,100 litres and in some cases a high of 1,800.
Despite generally being hardy animals when goats are ill they rapidly “lose the will to live”, according to Defra.
For intensively farmed goats the parasitic disease Coccidiosis is common due to the concentration of faeces in confined spaces. It especially effects kids during the stressful separation from their mothers and can lead to diarrhoea, with streaks of blood, followed by severe dehydration and even death.
In general, goats are susceptible to many of the same diseases as sheep, such as clostridial diseases, foot-rot, worms, live fluke and external parasites. Milk fever, listeria and pink eye are all more common in housed goats.