Archive for October 18th, 2009

Goat Girl, or, The Milking Life

Sharon October 18th, 2009

I’ve had many people email and tell me that my stories of cute little goats make them want to get them - but they aren’t sure they’d want to have to milk all the time, or don’t feel like they have a sense of what the requirements are like, so I thought I’d write about what it is like.

My life as a goat girl (in reality, Eric does slightly more milking than I do, so not all days involve me milking twice a day) begins around the time I get up, when I begin sterilizing the milking equipment.  I soak each implement - the quart sized glass mason jars we milk into, the milk strainer, the strip cup and the pint jar that holds the teat cleaning mixture, and the bowl I carry everything in in a solution if either iodine and water or bleach and water (just a very small amount of each), or you can purchase a special mixture to sterilize with.  A much more dilute version of the same solution is used as a teat wash and dip.  We keep the sterilizing mixture in a closed container and reuse it several times, so there’s not much to it - just rotating the various pieces through.

  Eli’s bus comes at 8:20 or so, and so I like to be out milking by 8am - the kids come out with us and play or help out, according to age and ability.  The goats have their routine completely down at this point - the first week or so, while they got settled, we had to allow more time, since they were jumpier and we were less competent, but now things go smoothly for the most part.

Brad Kessler’s superb new book _Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese_ includes a much longer version of this story, and one of the things he observes is that herding people can’t seem to shut up about their animals - their cattle or their sheep or their goats hold a lot of their attention. This is true of us as well - Carla Emery observes that when you milk an animal, you get into their emotional life - you are taking the place, in part or whole, of their baby. I’m not sure it is fully possible to milk by hand, every day, and not get bound up emotionally, as well as practically, with your animals.

Selene is the first one on the stanchion - she’s herd queen, and she knows it - no one would even consider pushing past her.  Selene and I have had a complex relationship.  She’s a troublemaker - if a fence can be jumped, she jumps it (these are little goats, fortunately, so 4′ fences will mostly keep them in, but Selene is challenging), if there’s a way to kick over the milk jar, she will.  She’s better behaved for Eric than for me, and I used to come back in the barn saying that when it came time to sell goats, Selene would be first in line.  Now she has plenty of wonderful qualities - she’s affectionate and sweet, but Selent used to drive me nuts.

But that was before she gave birth.  Selene gave birth huddled against me, and she clearly wanted me there - she was afraid, and wanted to be near her human.  As she delivered, she began to lick me all over, as though I were her kid - frantically, she licked my arms my hands, as though I were her baby, and she was through this process.  Ever since then, she’s treated me as though I were one of her own, rubbing against me and nickering her mother call to me when I come out.  All the tension has gone out of our relationship, and now I’m hers, and she’s mine, and I can’t imagine the farm without Selene.

We keep the goats in the barn at night because of the coyotes, so we let Selene out, and she leaps on the stanchion. Tekiah, her kid is hungry and gets a small amount of grain, and we milk Selene out.  First, I wash her teat with the sterile solution, to remove anything that might contaminate the milk.  The first two squirts are shot into a glass cup, so I can look at them to make sure there no signs of mastitis  or contamination.  All is well, so I continue, two handed, squirting into the jar.  The milk foams and the milk makes that milk noise as each spray hits the milk before it.

We have a tool called the Maggidans milker, which is rather like a breast-pump for goats - it makes milking a bit easier and faster - you still have to finish the process by hand, but we got it for me because I have carpal tunnel syndrome, and while two goats didn’t bother me, four were pushing it.  It is also useful because with it, with five minutes practice, almost anyone can milk well enough to be able to cover the goats for a few days while we’re out of town - it means that milking doesn’t require any special skill.  Milking manually is not hard, but it does take a little practice, and if you have arthritis, carpal or bursitis, a milker can be helpful.  

Selene, however, I never use the milker with - she’s a fast, easy milker, and in less than five minutes, I’ve emptied her out.  As a first freshener (after kidding the first time) she was an unimpressive milker, but she’s improved a lot this year, so I’m pleased.  Now it wasn’t always this way - when we first began milking, it took much longer, because we were slow and they were unpracticed too.  But once you get good at it, it is very simple.

Selene goes into the pen in the pasture, and out bounces Bast. Bast is a half-grown teenager, just about six months old.  She’s about 2/3 the size of the adult goats, and like any teenager, hasn’t decided yet whether she’s a grownup or a baby - she still plays with the kids, but she’ll be ready to be bred in a month and a half.  She’s still small enough, however to be able to climb out through the hay manger, slipping between its bars, so she can snabble grain from the other goats.  Isaiah is deputized to chase her off, after she’s had her rightful share of feed.

Maia is next - Maia is a beautiful goat, she looks just like a deer in miniature, dark brown, with a streak of darker brown along her spine, and a long, narrow body shape.  Selene is much less pretty - and much less perfect in her conformation, sort of your utility goat.  Maia, on the other hand, comes from great milking lines, and walks in beauty like the night.

She’s also an easy goat - she jumps up, eats her grain, gets milked and out again.  Her kidding was like that - we got up, there was a baby goat in the barn, she’d even cleaned up most of the mess.  She’s a remarkable producer, particularly on her far teat (goats have two teats like us) - we used to joke that half of each day’s milk came from Selene and Maia’s near teat, while the other half came from the far.  The only criticism I have of Maia is that she’s not that devoted a mother - don’t get me wrong, she’s fine, but she definitely feels that her baby will be fine while she goes off and browses for a while.  If Arava is calling, it is Selene, devoted Mom, who will come running to Maia’s baby and guide her back to the rest of the herd.

Both Tekiah and Arava were fathered by Wiggy, who is a goat of splendid conformation and good milking lines.  Part of the process of having goats is improving them - for Selene, better udder attachments and more capacity are part of the goal, along with a slightly more streamlined conformation.  With Maia, you’ve got a really great milking goat meeting really great milking lines, and you can already see that Arava is a promising kid.  Tekiah is more solid, like her Mom, although just as beautiful. The two babies leap and play together, climbing the woodpile or playing chase or investigating one of the cats.  They are about the same size as a full grown cat now, and they spend their days playing together and following the herd.

When we were just milking Maia and Selene, I could feed and water both goats and milk them both out in about 15 minutes - and that because Maia is a slow eater.   With four milkers and three young goats to tend, morning chores are up to about half an hour.  After Maia goes into the pasture, out comes Mina.

Just as I was once amibivalent about Selene, Eric struggles with Mina - she doesn’t like him much.  For me, Mina will hop on the stanchion no problem, and patiently wait while I milk her out.  For Eric, Mina, the color of cream with patches of yellow, might get on the stanchion, or she might not.  Mina, you see, is a wily old goat.

Her previous owners, my friends at Weathertop farm, used to call her “Mina the Milk Truck” - she’s a huge producer, and her genes have done a lot to improve their farm.  They sold her to use because they already had many of her daughters and granddaughters, but told us that if we wouldn’t take her, they’d keep her.  We wanted her and her lines - Bast is Mina’s granddaughter, so we got two of the Mina-line.  But perhaps because she’s older, and because she’s a thinker, Mina is a self-controlled goat, driven by her own desires.

That means that unlike all the other goats, a scoop of grain won’t necessarily lure her where you want her to go. In my hands, it generally will.  But she delights in making Eric crazy, refusing to get on the stanchion, or go into the barn at night.  And she’s fast - once we’re chasing her, it is all over.   And he’s the one coming in stomping his feet and saying “if it weren’t for the milk…”  But I don’t see us selling Mina the Milk Truck anytime soon - not until she’s done her magic on our herd. Plus, my kids adore her - she rubs against them and lets them stroke her ears.  She’s the uber-mama, with a taste for anything young - she adopted Bast when Bast left her Mom.  And we respect her smarts - the other goats can’t resist a treat, but Mina, Mina does what she wants.  You have to admire her self-restraint and intelligence, even when it is annoying.

The final goat out of the barn is alway Jesse - brown with white spots, and thick around the middle, she’s cute, but not all that elegant looking.  But she’s an astonishing producer for a first freshener, and just about the sweetest creature ever.  There’s never any problem with Jesse - she’s not pesky, she’s always last in line, but always ready to be scratched or come over and cuddle.  She’s the youngest of the adult goats, and from lines we also wanted to add to our farm.  She produced twins last year - including a male good enough to be as a buck (very, very few male kids are sold as bucks, most are wethered (neutered)), and the nicest doe kid our friends, who have had more than 50 babies born on their farm, had ever had. 

By the time all four goats are done, we have about a quart and a half from the morning milking (remember, Tekiah and Arava are still nursing, so Maia and Selene are producing substantially more than this).  The evening milking, which Selene and Maia don’t take part in (daytime milk is for their babies) will be about 2/3 quart, for a little over 2 quarts a day.  When we were milking Selene and Maia, both first fresheners (their first kidding, they produce less milk than they will in later kiddings), we were getting a bit over a quart a day.

For a family of six, a quart a day was just about enough to meet our needs for milk for drinking and cooking, but not enough to cover yogurt, cheese and other dairy needs.  A family where the adults drank milk (neither Eric nor I do, as a general rule, except for the occasional cup of cocoa) would need more, while one where little dairy is consumed (or with fewer people) would obviously need less.  A full sized dairy goat might give you a gallon a day.  A cow would give you five gallons a day.  While this offers many possibilities, for most families, this probably means some milk going to waste.  The good thing about small goats is that for their size, they give a lot of milk - but manageable amounts.

I bring the milk inside and filter it.  The milk is in two glass quart jars (we don’t have a milk pail), and gets filtered into a half-gallon glass jar.  Both the jar and the lid have been sterilized, and we use a very small, disposable milk filter that catches any loose hairs or other matter that might have fallen into the milk.  Once filtered, we don’t pasteurize it - we are very careful, however, to watch our goats for any sign of illness.  We believe that on a very small scale like this, raw milk is both safe and beneficial - we’ve found that Eli seems to have a happier digestion with raw milk, rather than pasteurized.  That said, however, had I been pregnant we would have pasteurized.

What does it taste like?  To me, it tastes exactly like rich milk - Nigerian dwarves have an extremely high butterfat content - much higher than any other goat.  So the milk is sweet and tastes rich, but there’s no goaty flavor to it at all.  When it begins to sour, it may have that goat-tang that one associates with goat cheeses, but fresh and chilled, it tastes like milk - very good milk.

Beyond the ordinary routine of milking, there’s not much to goat care.  Goats were the second animal (after the dog) to be domesticated, and their long history of being with people means that they really like being around us.  So a lot of what we do is simply spend time with them - we leave our goats loose to roam around the property (what we don’t want them to get at, we fence them out of), as long as we’re home.  You don’t have to do this, of course - they can be kept in penned areas quite easily, but the goats are happy to roam with the kids or with us.  So when Simon is out playing, they accompany him to the creek, and browse the trees there, and while I’m fixing the barn door, they are up eating goldenrod.  Without a person to accompany them, they stay mostly in the yard, or wander about eating down the willow forest in the back.  Browsers, who like deer prefer leaves and bark to pasture, they are useful at clearing out trees you don’t want - or, if you aren’t careful, things you do ;-) .

They won’t go deep into the woods by themselves, but they will follow you - I thought I was the only person taking goat walks until I read Kessler’s book, but I really enjoy taking the goats for walks.  They follow you happily, enjoying both the sense of safety they get from human beings, but also, I thnk, the companionship - they are social creatures, and they have a long history of socializing with us.  We try and make sure they get plenty of browse, and thus all the nutrients they need.

You don’t have to have woods - goats are very flexible creatures.  You can bring them all their feed and keep them in a small space, perhaps cutting roadside weeds and bringing them tree prunings.  Two does would fit very nicely in most surburban or even decent-sized urban backyards.  They will eat pasture if that’s what there is available.  But their preferred foods are a mix of things, and they prefer to reach up, rather than down, to get their feed.

We worm them once a week with an herbal wormer that we get from fiasco farms, and we also feed pumpkin seeds now and again to keep the worm load low.  We trim hoofs every month or so - it takes about 5 minutes a goat.  They have access to hay most of the time, but they prefer browse and eat it only to compensate.  They obviously need clean fresh water at all times, and goat minerals.  We also give them a little supplemental copper sulfate (goats have a high need for copper).   Other than kidding and breeding, that’s pretty much it. 

There are four parts of goat handling that you might find unpleasant.  First, of course, there’s manure.  To us, this stuff is gold, so we don’t mind it at all.  Goats are fairly tidy creatures, they poop little dry berries that is wonderful on the garden.  We clean the barn out every few weeks during the summer, and then in late fall and not again until spring, just adding plenty of dry bedding, so that the lower layers are composting and warming the barn. The smell is not unpleasant at all - merely earthy.  Buck goats do smell, but most small folk won’t keep a buck, they will have only does or does and wethers.  We take our goats to be bred, or borrow a buck - eventually we might get a buck, but we’re not there yet.

The next unpleasant bit is vaccinating - it is vastly cheaper to do this yourself and it really isn’t hard - most vaccinations are given subcutaneously (under the skin) and can be done while the goat is in the milking stanchion.  My goats don’t make much of a fuss, and I’ve never had trouble with it. Not everyone vaccinates, this is a ymmv thing, but we do.

Those are the tiny unpleasantnesses.  The next part is associated with kidding.  They are banding and disbudding. Banding or burdizzoing are methods of castration - unless your buck kid is amazingly perfect, you won’t want him to breed.  For nigerian dwarves, which people like as pets and lawn mowers, the males are salable - if they are neutered.  So you have to do it.  I haven’t done this yet, but I’ve seen banding done, and it is fairly quick, if not very pleasant for the kid.  Disbudding, which cauterizes the horns so that they don’t grow (yes, I know this is unnatural, but goats with horns are dangerous, and it isn’t to the animal’s benefit to end up at the sale barn or eaten because they accidentally hurt someone’s kid, or dead, because their horns got caught on the fence), is pretty unpleasant.  It lasts only about 30 seconds, but it isn’t much fun.

Finally, there’s the question of what to do with extra males.  You don’t have to breed every year to make milk - most goats will lactate for a couple of years without breeding, but you may want doe kids for sale or replacement, and you will find that the goats make more milk if they are bred annually.  Plus, babies are very appealing.  Doe kids can be sold or kept and are obviously useful.  But what about the boys?

The options are these - the thing about Nigerian dwarves, as mentioned above, is that people like them as pets.  Because goats are herd animals, a small family or single person who wants only one doe will need to get another goat to keep them company, and might want a wether, or someone who just wants goats to play with.  So far, my friends who have been doing this longer than I have never  found it difficult to sell a wethered male kid.  I’ve heard otherwise with larger breeds.  You can also use them as pack animals - the fact that they love to go walking with you can be used to your advantage.  In this case, larger goats might be better, but a couple of wethered nigerian boys are the perfect companion for a couple of kids off for an afternoon’s picnic.  Or you could eat them. 

This last is a hard option - we have both sheep and goats on our property, and the difference between them is striking.  When a strange person walks towards a sheep, the sheep mostly walk away.  When a strange person walks towards a goat, the goats come on over to check you out and see if you’d be fun to play with.  We butcher our own turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese and will butcher our lambs once we have them - and all of us accept that the sheep on our pasture will end up in our freezer.  The goats are a harder thing - they are just so personable it is hard to imagine eating one, even though I like goat meat.

At this point, as long as there is a market for male wethers, we probably won’t eat our goats.  Eventually, as times get harder, we probably will.  I’m not fully reconciled to this, however - but I suspect I’ll get more accustomed as time goes on. I do warn prospective goat keepers, though, that goats present a particularly difficult problem in this regard.

They eat some grain each day - about 2 cups per goat per milking.  We’ve experimented with cutting this back, and find that we can cut it back a little in the summer, but that for optimal milk production, they do need it.  A bale of hay with two goats lasted us about 10 days to two weeks, depending on the season. With 7, it lasts 3.  My estimate of annual upkeep costs, absent the cost of the goats themselves, is about $150.00 for two milking does - more like $300 for my four plus kids.  A gallon of locally produced organic cow’s milk was $6.00.  With two first freshener does producing a bit over 2 gallons a week, we made back our investment in 12 weeks, and the rest of the year’s milk was effectively free.  The numbers will be different for you, of course, depending on the cost of hay and grain, etc…

We paid $325 for each of our five goats.  It is certainly possible to find them for lower or higher prices.  Registered Nigerian Dwarf doe kids or milkers will sell for around that, depending the quality of the genetics and their milking ability.  Wethers (neutered males) sell for about $100.  Most goats will twin most of the time, so you can expect an average of about 2 kids per goat per kidding, half of whom will be female.  The sale of kids can provide an offset to the cost of initial investments in goats, housing, etc…

One of the reasons I’m so interested in this breed is their extreme thrift - they produce a lot of high butterfat milk (that is, not only is it sweet tasting, but it makes a lot of cheese per gallon) on comparatively little feed.  I’m beginning to experiment with how they do on alternate supplements - mangels, pumpkins, high protein leaves like malinga…etc…  What interests me most is the possibility that they could provide a meaningful way for people to convert yard scraps, garden wastes and marginal weeds to high protein milk, with few purchased inputs.  I’m just starting to explore how different forms of management might work for them, while obviously taking good care of my girls.

The big thing that I think stops people from milking is the idea of having to do this dull chore twice a day, every single day, but we really haven’t found this to be a huge issue.  Right now we’re milking twice a day, but since we plan to eventually allow our herd to peak around 10 does in milk, our longer term plan is simply to milk once a day, in the mornings, leaving them with their kids during the daytime.  10 goats, milked during the higher-yield morning milking should give us plenty for all our dairy needs, and should reduce the time in evening chores dramatically to just feeding and watering. 

When the kids are 3 - 10 weeks,  we could conceivably go away for a weekend and simply leave the does with their kids, just arranging for feed and water.  We’d see a small fall-off in milk production afterwards, but it is doable.   Each doe is also dry for two months before her delivery, and during this period, there’ s no milking (although you can breed Nigerian’s year ’round if you want to and have milk all the time) and it is also easy to go away.   

But with the milker, which reduces the skill level, we honestly haven’t had any trouble getting someone to tend the goats - our standard goat care person is Killian, a 14 year old whose grandmother is the next house over.  Killian earns money for online gaming, and he and his Mom (who keeps her horses at her mother’s and thus is over every day) come and milk the goats morning and evening.  This has been a great arrangement for us, and permits us to go away regularly to visit family.

We’re also not that good about making sure we milk at exactly the same time each day - mornings are pretty consistent, since morning routines are pretty consistent, but evenings we’re flexible - if we’re going out to dinner with friends, we might milk early.  If we’re going to be coming back late, we might milk late.  We try not to be so late that the goats are suffering (full udders get uncomfortable) and consistency does result in the maximum production, but quality of life enters the occasion too.  The goats seem pretty adaptable to this reality.

Most importantly, however, we love milking - the goats are warm, and again, we’re tied into their lives.  We look forward to seeing them, to petting them and seeing how they produce tonight.  We hold the babies and feed them grain from our palms and brush the goats until they shine.  Dairying is an emotional relationship - a family thing - they are caring for you and you for them.  It is hard to explain to someone who hasn’t done it - it seems like it would be work - and it is, but work in the sense that helping your kids with their homework or doing something for a beloved family member is - it is reciprocal, imbued with emotion and ultimately, deeply pleasurable.