Thursday, March 3, 2011

How to Milk a Goat

Suppose you decide that your children would benefit from drinking fresh, whole milk - but at least near my Indiana home, whole milk in the grocery store is close to $5.00 a gallon! So you decide to start milking your own goats. Here is how we started:

  1. Choose a healthy goat that has given birth with a well-attached udder.
  2. Assemble your supplies: a seamless stainless steel milking pail with a half-moon lid (, a milk strainer with filters, a strip cup, a milking stand, a way to clean the doe's udder and your hands before and after, a set of hobbles to keep your goat from kicking your milk pail over, and a way to feed your goat while she's being milked to help keep her happy.
  3. When the kids are 2 weeks old, separate the kids from the doe at night. The kids will very quickly learn to fill up on milk right before you take the doe away at night, and do just fine without the doe for the night.
  4. In the morning, get your goat on the milking stand and give her some feed to keep her happy, and to help her learn to look forward to milking time. If your goat isn't very tame, isn't used to being handled much, and hasn't been trained to lead, this will not be an easy task.
  5. Hobble her back legs so she won't kick you or your milking pail. It really IS hard not to cry over spilt milk when you've worked so hard to milk your own!
  6. Once your goat is situated, sanitize your hands, then get out your udder cleaning solution and use a wetted paper towel to carefully clean any bits of bedding or manure from her udder.
  7. Milk out the first 3-4 streams of milk from each teat into a strip cup. This allows you to check for any strange textures or colors which could indicate your doe is experiencing infection, and also is supposed to remove any bacteria that may have been present in the first milk in the teat.
  8. Put your milking pail under your goat. I always cover the half-moon opening of mine with saran wrap to help keep things like dust out of the milk in between goats and while I'm putting the doe on the milking stand, so you'll need to move aside the wrap before you start milking.
  9. Milk your goat. At first you'll have some pretty good streams of milk coming into the pail, which take a while to get the hang of aiming right into the pail. Then after a while you'll notice the volume in the streams of milk slacking off - this is when you will want to start to gently "bump" the doe's udder to help her let down the milk. Then, when the streams of milk start to slack off again, massage the doe's udder, this will also help the milk come down. You'll know you've finished milking when the doe's udder feels soft and wrinkly, and not full and tight like it did before being milked. This takes (at least at first, until you're used to it) a very long time and your arms begin to feel as though they might fall off because you're not used to holding them up and outward for that length of time. Really it only takes 15-20 minutes per goat, but it sure can seem longer than that when you're arms are trembling!
  10. When you've finished milking, replace the saran wrap over the pail, set it out of the way, treat her teats to help prevent infection, un-hobble your doe, and let her off of the milking stand.
  11. Stand back and watch the mama doe and baby kids reunite, and admire how cute it is. The kids did fine overnight, and they're learning better how to eat hay than the other goat kids.
  12. Feed the first milk you put in the strip cup to your trusty livestock guardian dog, who loves fresh milk and now won't expect anything less than fresh milk every time he sees you.
  13. Bring the milk back to the house as quickly as you can, and pour it through the strainer into very clean wide-mouth quart jars. Refrigerate.
We like to allow the milk to chill overnight before we drink it, because we prefer ice cold milk. The cream in goat milk doesn't really rise to the top like cows' milk does, we just pour it out of the quart jar after a gentle swirl. I've been getting about 1.5-2 quarts of milk total from my two does each morning, but I'm still working on my aim - not all of the milk squirted at the pail actually makes it in! And my arms are still not quite capable of milking the does completely out, but I've been getting pretty close. I've been stopping at about 20 minutes per doe. We've had all the milk we needed for drinking, and I've made a batch of yogurt and some cultured buttermilk.

It takes an extra 15 minutes or so in the evenings to catch the does at night to separate them, feed them plenty of hay overnight, and make sure they have plenty of water. Then in the morning it takes about 5 minutes to assemble the clean milking pail, put the saran wrap on, and mix up the udder cleaning solution. Then another 5 to walk to the barn and get the first doe ready for milking. Then I spend 20 minutes with each doe, with roughly another 5 minutes in between does. After that I walk to the house, wash up, strain and refrigerate the milk, which is probably another 5 minutes. So 15 intense minutes of hard work at night to move the goats, plus an hour in the early morning (I frequently start the process at 4:45am to make it work with my family's schedule) makes for quite a bit of time spent on this whole process.

And that's not all! Mammals (goats included) don't give milk without first giving birth, and you'll have to secure the services of a buck (male goat) to get that process started. It takes about 5 months after breeding for a doe to kid. So you'll have to care for the doe while you wait for her to kid, which for us means twice daily feedings, making sure they have a clean, well-bedded area to live, making sure their feet are in good condition, that they stay in good health and weight, and in general practicing good animal husbandry so she'll have an optimal chance of having a problem-free birth, and having healthy kids. I've outlined how we chose to take care of the kids so we only have to milk the does once/day, but some choose to bottle raise the kids, which is even more time consuming, as they need to be bottle fed at least twice/day.

Now, even though it is a lot of hard work to milk my own goats, I'm glad I'm doing it. Some mornings, though, the $5.00/gallon price tag of grocery store whole milk looks pretty reasonable!