Urban Goats

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Raising Goats in Chicago.  Every day, Carolyn Ioder feeds her hens, and looks for newly laid eggs in their nesting area.  She checks on the baby chicks she’s nurturing with the help of her brooding hen.  She feeds and milks her goats, and takes them out to pasture.   Some days, she tends her beehives or her vegetable garden. No, Carolyn does not live on a farm in rural Wisconsin – she lives in a residential section of urban Chicago, the 3rd most populated city in the United States.

** This article also appears in the March 2013 issue of AcresUSA**


Yes, it’s legal. Although raising hens for eggs is nothing new in Chicago, raising goats is a new trend – not too many people are doing it, but there’s plenty of interest.  It’s already allowed as part of our existing municipal code.  In fact, many U.S. cities have already passed ordinances, codes and zoning laws allowing the practice, if it wasn’t already permitted in their city codes.  Until 2007, the City of Seattle considered goats farm animals. Today, they are reclassified as small animals, joining the ranks of dogs and cats.  Bucks (unneutered males) are not allowed and goats must be disbudded (no horns).  Some of the other big cities that allow goats are San Francisco, Pasadena, St. Louis (Missouri is one of 15 states where it is legal to sell raw milk at the source), Oakland, Portland, Cleveland, Fort Worth, Berkeley, St. Paul (not Minneapolis though), San Diego (also of interest to urban homesteaders, the San Diego City Council also allowed two new types of businesses: produce stands and small neighborhood farms where owners can grow and sell produce on site).

How to choose your goat.   Many people who raise goats in cities opt for particular breeds that have traits to make them ‘urban friendly’, i.e. not too loud, large or smelly, (actually, only unneutered males have a strong odor).  Many urban farmers opt for dwarf goat breeds, like the Nigerian Dwarf goat.  For a goat that provides milk, select a dairy goat breed, such as the Oberhasli or Nubian, goats bred to produce extra milk.  According to GoatJusticeLeague.org, mini-dairy goats–the offspring of a Nigerian Dwarf goat and one of the six standard breeds of dairy goats–provide the best option for raising goats for milk in the city since they require less living space and produce more milk than traditional dairy goat breeds.  Any of the more than 210 breeds of goats worldwide can be crossbred to a dwarf breed to produce a miniature goat while Pygmy goats are a true breed unto themselves.  Depending on the breed, miniature goats can grow to about 18” tall at the shoulders and weigh up to 60 pounds.  Goats need a companion goat or animal (preferably hooved) – they are herders and don’t do well on their own.  Horns begin to grow in their infancy, but if done when the goat is young, can be surgically halted.   It’s recommended that they be kept in an enclosure that’s at least 25×25 feet, and pastured in a fenced area to ensure they don’t escape, and to keep them safe from harm.  And they certainly need a shelter from extreme weather – too hot and sunny and too cold, snowy or rainy.

Salvation and her doelings Mary and Martha

Goat Milk.  Carolyn’s pet goats provide milk.  The first thing to know about raising goats for milk is that only adult female goats (called ‘does’) that have just given birth produce milk.  Milk production continues after birthing for about 8 to 10 months.  So…to connect the dots, in order to get milk, your goat needs to be impregnated and give birth.  Goat gestation lasts for approximately five months and goats often give birth to twins, or even triplets or quintuplets (although first time births are often singles).   Suffice to say, keeping goats for milk is no small under taking, requires dedication, patience and hard work, and you will need to do your research.   You will also need to ensure there is a veterinarian in your area, who knows how to treat goats, and provide their vaccinations.  And you will need to learn basic goat care like trimming their hooves on a regular basis, and other necessities.


Salvation Visiting Garfield Park Conservatory

Carolyn’s goats spend time on a farm in Wisconsin during their breeding season, (which is generally between August and January), where they become impregnated by a buck.  She then transports them back to their city home, where they remain through their gestation eating and roaming in designated fenced pastures: her yard, her neighborhood community vacant lot, and a few days a week at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago.  Carolyn has worked with the Conservatory to establish a fenced area within their park, which is where I first met Carolyn and her goats.  Noting the novelty in Chicago, CBS News/Chicago covered a story about the ‘Goats at the Park’).

Why raise goats?   Carolyn’s interest in urban homesteading is a combination of many different factors coming together to fulfill a greater purpose.  Although both she and her husband are first generation ‘off the farm’, her family has a deep farming background.  Her relatives still farm, her parents grew up on Depression era farms in Kansas and Missouri.  Her Father’s family farm is the oldest in Missouri.  So, perhaps the desire to work with the land is in her veins.  At the same time, living now in the Austin area has motivated her to bring her innate skills as an innovator to her community.  The area has been classified as a ‘food desert’, but her community has come together to try to change that; to show people they have other choices including learning how to grow their own food at the neighborhood community garden.  She endeavors to fulfill three purposes: education (of herself and others), inspiration (of herself and others), and creating a stronger, more ‘neighborly’ community.  Initially she thought she’d try raising goats for two years and see where it led.  Now, her next objective is to form “an experimental, experiential group of 6 parties to form a goat share”.    Six people will buy into the pregnant goats, paying an initial deposit, and small monthly fee to cover upkeep.  In return they will receive goat milk on a regular basis.  This kind of ‘share’ investment is already successfully being done with cows.  Eventually, she hopes to form a neighborhood group to buy a separate location to house the goats.

It all works together.  Another motivating factor has been her bread baking business, and her desire to grow as many of the ingredients as possible.  So, she grows the potatoes in her garden, and grinds the flour herself, her hens provide eggs, her bees provide honey, and milk comes from the goats.  This is the 4th year she’s had chickens, 3rd year with beehives, and 2nd year with goats.  As she explains, “We learn a lot, make mistakes, but the first objective is:  don’t harm the animals, and be careful.”

A factor that’s helped Carolyn is the support she’s received from her neighbors (including her alderman who recognizes that the Austin gardening community is a unique asset which boosts the areas diverse profile) and amused passerby who see her walking her goats.  To the delight of my pre-teen kids who came along the day of my visit, we helped her ‘walk’ her goats on dog leashes to the nearby pasture, down the alley past barking dogs and backyard flora.  The goats stopped now and then to munch on weeds, and we did have to stop them from munching on a few bushes.  Carolyn had fenced off an area in her community garden’s vacant lot, and transformed it into their ‘pasture’.  The area that was once full of trash, debri  and rubble,  is now growing a blend of healthy grasses for them to munch on (she painstakingly removed the obvious surface debri and layered  hay, grass seed and compost creating a revived healthy topsoil).  Carolyn’s goats feed on the weeds and grass in her yard and in the pasture (they will eat just about anything growing, so she does have to monitor their munching so they don’t eat ‘cultivated’ flowers and vegetables).  But weeds and grasses are not enough, so to supplement their diet she also feeds them hay and grain.  As I was photographing the goats in their pasture, a young couple stopped to stare in amusement and ask questions; surprised at the novelty of seeing goats in their inner city neighborhood.   Not only does their presence serve to encourage inquiry from those unexposed to farm life, but endeavors to educate jaded inner-city people who are unfamiliar with where their food actually comes from.  And the goats are just fun to watch.  They are playful, inquisitive, amusingly mischievous, and if they feel like it, will come to the fence to say hello.

Gardener’s gold.  But the goats contribute even more. They help promote the growth of both Carolyn’s and the community gardens: they provide rich fertilizer for composting, which is eventually added to the garden soil.   And, the best part is it’s free – unlike the pricey stuff that’s offered at the local garden center.  The kitchen waste the goats consume, the weeds and grasses they munch is transformed into gardener’s gold:  rich fertilizer that can be recycled through the growing chain, utilized again to grown new plantings – an example of permaculture and sustainable farming that utilizes the full grow/compost/grow cycle.  To quote Jennie Grant, founder of ‘The Goat Justice League of Seattle’, “Why not let people with yards keep dairy goat does or wethers [castrated males]. They are not smelly. Their poop is a valuable fertilizer. They eat invasive plants and make delicious milk”, (thanks to the groups’ efforts, in 2007, the Seattle City Council passed a measure allowing small goats to be kept within city limits).

To quote Kirsten Dirksen (Television producer-turned-online vlogger and co-founder of faircompanies.com, a news/blog/video site) “…goats have been gaining acceptance as low-carbon lawn mowers and as a pesticide-free tool to eliminate weeds and clear brush.”   In fact, 2008 – 2010, instead of using pollution-spewing lawnmowers, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency rented 100 goats from a firm in San Diego, to eat the weeds and other delicious plant life on Angel’s Knoll (a public park) – they also saved half the cost of using lawnmowers.  The Getty Museum has used goats for ‘lawn mowing’, as well as Laguna Beach.  And the Scripps Ranch community of San Diego has brought the animals in to clear overgrown areas and help with wildfire prevention.  Google rented 200 goats to clear brush and weeds to reduce fire hazards around their headquarters.  Not only did the animals clear the land in one week, but fertilized it, and provided picturesque amusement to Google staff.

Bringing it back home.  Advocates of urban homesteading (farming and gardening), have pressed for cities to update ordinances and city codes, to allow residents the ability to produce their own food, beyond community gardens  – eggs from chickens, honey from bees, milk and cheese from goats.  With the dubious ingredients and reduction of fresh nutrients in packaged food products, increased carcinogens in genetically modified food and its reliance on pesticides, the loss of income and jobs in our economy, and the desire to reduce carbon emissions by eating locally grown food products, it makes sense for people to want to grow their own food.  As a consolation to those who oppose urban farming, or worry it will grow out of control, and for those folks who don’t take proper care of their animals, many cities incorporate restrictive regulations when passing new ordinances, such as: two beehives max per property, setback rules, requiring permits, roosters sometimes banned, often only dehorned miniature goats are allowed, and no more than two goats per household (and ‘no fewer than two’ as it can be disruptive to their temperament).

Carolyn utilizes the goat milk for her business and household cooking, as each goat can produce between 2 cups and a gallon of milk each day, (she does not sell the milk as that is illegal in Chicago).  Many people use their goat’s milk to make homemade butter, cheese and yogurt.  And as Carolyn likes to point out, every member of her household, including the pets, help the household function in some way; the cats chase mice, the dog protects from intruders, and the goats, with their abundant supply of milk (and their innate gardening contributions) have become essential contributors to the homestead as well.



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 ** This article also appears in the March 2013 issue of AcresUSA**

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