Categories: Livestock

Raising Dairy Goats: Personality and Ice Cream on the Homestead

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You’ve got your veggie gardens planted and your free-range chickens are happily scratching around eating their own weight in bugs and laying beautiful eggs for you every day.  This homesteading stuff isn’t so hard *self-satisfied smirk*.

In fact, it’s the most natural thing in the world to take it another step, fence in that yard, put up a shed, and go shopping for The Dairy Goat.

The first thing to consider is that goats are herd animals and if you get one, it WILL get out of the pen trying to find company.  I recommend a minimum of two goats.

Your fence will need to be goat-proof, and unfortunately, they haven’t invented one of those yet.  Wood fences are sturdy, but baby goats can slip out and coyotes can slip in.  Wire fences can/will be bent over by your goats standing up on them reaching for whatever tiny leaf may be on the other side that looks more appealing than the million leaves on the inside.  Barbed wire is just a nightmare waiting to happen.  Electric will be bumped into systematically (accompanied by goat curses) till it breaks.  The most effective fence I’ve found is the 16′ cattle panels with the graduated spacing, narrower on the bottom than the top.  These are non-bendable, quick to go up, and the only drawback is that if your goats have horns, they can get their heads stuck in the upper spaces if they are not careful/smart, so plan on your goats getting stuck now and again.

Goats must have shelter.  The worst fate in the world to a goat is to be wet.  If it’s raining and the food is outside, they won’t eat.  A three-sided shed with the open end facing south is perfect for them.

Now just add goats.

This can involve months of research into different breeds and bloodlines, contacting a breeder, waiting for a baby, taking delivery of said baby, raising that baby to adulthood, and doing MORE research to find the right Billy for your precious nanny, sometimes carrying her far afield for the perfect match.

Or, you can answer the ad in the Thrifty Nickel that reads “Free Goat, heavy bred”.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both strategies.  If you are interested in breeding show goats and getting top dollar for babies, go with the first scenario.  If you just want yard goats for personal use and pleasure, the second route is fine.  After years of being in the world of “pedigreed” animals, I’ve come to the conclusion that a good crossbred anything is just as serviceable as the purebreds, and though my goat herd is currently all purebred Nubians, they are not registered, and when I find a buck to cross back to my buck’s daughters, it most likely will not be a Nubian.

Of utmost importance, for the small-scale homesteader is the health history of your goats.  Have they been tested for Tuberculosis (TB) or do they come from a TB-free herd?

Caprine Arthritic Encephalitis (CAE)  is common in some areas and although the milk is fine for human consumption, you must pasteurize it before feeding to any goat babies or they may die.  Any carriers of CAE can develop life-threatening arthritis.

All that said, you have your pen, your shelter, your goats, and their brand new kids.

Now what?

You need to decide if you will bottle-raise those babies, or let Mom do it.  Again, it’s purely personal—there is no right or wrong answer.

Bottle raising will give you goats so tame they will follow you through fire (just don’t ask them to follow you through water).  It is time-intensive as those babies are just that, babies, who will need a bottle every six hours for the first few weeks.  Add to that milking twice daily to get those bottles and you have a very busy schedule for a while.  Of course there is NOTHING in the world cuter than a baby goat, so to most folks it’s a small price to pay.  This is also the way to go if you are planning on a larger-scale milk usage (commercial soap making for example) where you need your girls producing at full capacity for an extended period of time.  (nine to ten months).

Letting your mother goat raise her babies is much less time consuming, with a corresponding lower production.  For my first years as a goat-keeper, I would leave the babies with their mothers and milk twice a day.  Sometimes I’d get a lot of milk, sometimes not a drop, depending on when the babies last ate.  I’d wean the babies at three months, and continue milking twice daily.  My goats would produce milk for about six months.

In my old age and slothfulness, now I totally ignore mother and babies for three months, then wean the babies and start to milk in the mornings only.  A lot of this has to do with being in Texas as opposed to Wisconsin.  Down here it’s just too dang hot to be up under a goat in the heat of the day at 5 or 6 pm.  My girls produce milk for about three months.  Since they are bred randomly year-round, I usually have someone in milk, and since they are pregnant for five months, that gives them a few months rest before more babies hit the ground.

There are people who will tell you that if you let the mothers raise the babies you will have a whole herd of goats wild as deer.  This is partly true.  My goats who are not bottle-fed are curious, but not pushy.  They are harder to catch, but once caught generally give up and stand there instead of trying to run you down.  As a rule, I like them better to work around on a daily basis.  I have noticed very distinct differences in my bloodlines: Alice was bottle-fed and so is tame, but all her non-bottle-fed babies are wild.  Wilma was bottle-fed and so is tame, but her non-bottle-fed babies are almost as tame as she is.  I am concentrating on keeping more of Wilma’s babies and less of Alice’s (duh).

Feeding your goats properly is also of paramount importance if you will be drinking the milk.  Anything that goes into your goat will flavor the milk.  Period.  Therefore, the blander a diet your goat receives, the less of a “tang” the milk will have.  Bland does NOT mean low nutrition.  Your goat needs enough protein and fat to produce milk on an ongoing basis.  A good NON-medicated (unless you require daily worming) goat food (I feed an All-purpose Livestock pellet) along with some sweet feed (9%) along with really high-quality hay twice daily is a must.

Man, all that research and hard work to get your goats and their babies here has made you thirsty.

Got milk?

In the movies and the pictures in homesteading books, the Goat-herder strolls into the milk house early in the morning; birds singing, sun just peeking over the horizon.  She is carrying her milk stool and her milking bucket.  At the quaint Dutch door of the immaculate barn, she calls her goat, who comes daintily dancing into the barn to the sound of distant bells ringing.  A rosy glow infuses the milk house as the Goat-herder gently places her stool next to the goat, who stands still as carved granite with a little goat smile on her face.  The milk house is filled with the sound of warm fresh milk hissing rhythmically into the bucket.  After a few peaceful minutes, the Goat-herder lifts the bucket and pats the goat on the side.  The goat gives an affectionate little “mmmaaa“, and dances back out the door, which is quietly shut by clean little mice who wear tiny t-shirts (like on Cinderella).

This is an accurate portrayal, with the exception of the birds, sun, bells, glow, peace, and smiling well-behaved goat.  The little mice really exist, or at least you will be positive that you see them as you careen out of the barn, covered in sweat and mosquito bites, hay in your hair, hair in your milk, milk most everywhere but the bucket, and the sound of laughter (the goat’s) ringing in your ears.

Actually, these are both correct, depending on the day.

The first thing to learn is that goats are particular.  They only like ONE person milking them, always and forever.  I don’t care if your son/daughter/husband feeds the goats every day, if you are the one milking, anyone else will be in for a Goat Rodeo lasting much more than 8 seconds, and resulting in at least as much bruising on the part of the human.  This is something you need to be prepared for too, until you and your goat have an “understanding”.

This understanding must be reached every year when you start to milk.  Since we are humans, equipped with large brains and opposable thumbs, we have the power of superior thought processes and leverage tools on our side.  Thus the playing field is made somewhat more even.

To milk a goat, you need somewhere secure and clean to do the actual milking.  This can be as elaborate as a separate “milk house” with little stanchions that hold the goat’s head secure while you milk, to just tying the goat into a corner and kneeling next to her (what I do).

You need something to wash the udder with (all-natural “wet ones” are fine, or you can buy Udder Wipes from a milk supply place), and something to milk into (a large pot is fine.  I splurged 2 years ago and got a lovely stainless steel bucket)

You will need your equipment set up for straining the milk (a metal colander lined with a Bounty paper towel—it MUST be Bounty, everything else will not drain fast enough and you will have a big mess—or a milk strainer from the afore-mentioned goat supply place) a metal or glass bowl big enough to hold your strainer, container for milk, and pasteurizer, if you will be pasteurizing.

You will need a feed bucket and roughly 50 pounds of sweet feed, for currency.

Until you and your goat have an “understanding”, you will need the help of the biggest and most patient family member you have.

Have all your equipment clean and in place, including washing your hands well, gird your loins (not kidding) and proceed with your backup muscle and a bucket of sweet feed to the goat pen.

Since most goats are chowhounds, getting the goat to the tie-up is not a problem.  Fighting your way through ALL the goats eager for a snack of sweet feed and getting only one goat is your first chore.  Your clean hands are now dirty.

Once your goat is tied and eating happily, wash her udder.  This may or may not be problematic.  Most goats don’t care.  Some will be offended by the invasion of personal space and handily kick the wipe from your hands, never missing a beat in chewing the grain.  Repeat till the goat’s udder is at least as clean as your hands.

Here’s where your muscle comes in.

With one hand on the bucket (for quickly yanking out from under the goat), place the bucket under the goat and start milking.

Several things can happen here.

a) your goat will continue to eat, making no never-mind to you.  If this is the case, say a silent prayer of thanks, try to keep the tears of joy from getting into the milk, but milk one-handed for the first few times to make sure the goat is not lulling you into a false sense of security, only to neatly stomp her foot into your almost-full bucket (again, not missing any food).

b) your goat will kick slightly, but settle down after a stern word or two.  I still milk one-handed for a bit, just to make sure.

c) your goat responds by wildly jerking her head up with a look of horrified indignance, rolls her eyeballs, sends the bucket flying across the barn with a swift kick, and swing smartly around, knocking you to the ground.

MOST of the time, you will be looking at “b”, and the mere presence of an extra person is enough to convince a wise goat that she is indeed outnumbered and eating the sweet feed is payment enough for your stealing her milk.

If you are faced with a “c” situation, this just takes a little longer to resolve.  Shorten the lead rope, and have your helper hold the goat’s hindquarters against the wall while you milk.  In some cases, I have had goats so wildly opposed to being milked, that they fight both of us.  The important thing with goats (as with horses and children) is that you end all encounters on a good note.  I have even cringed and milked really wild goats onto the ground, avoiding the bucket till they settle down some, just so they know that they WILL be milked, and it will NOT kill them (or me).  Food is always there, and I always tell them how good they are and thank them when finished, but they ARE milked.  I’ve not had one go longer than a week before settling down to eating as soon as I tie them, and ignoring me while milking.

Milking technique is important.  The number one mistake I see people make is PULLING on the teats.  You do NOT pull on the teats.  You gently squeeze the teats just enough to get the milk, keeping your hand snug against the udder.  Watch your wrists.  They should not move.  Rough milking causes mastitis, flakes in the milk, blood in the milk, and makes for a very crabby goat (understandably, think about it).  Once the milk flow lessens, gently rub the whole udder, then milk again, until you are getting hardly any.  You will not get ALL the milk, but you can get most of it.  Milk is produced in a “supply and demand” fashion, so the more milk you take, the more she will make (assuming her diet is what it should be).

Once you and your goat have a routine, the entire milking process—from tying the goat to straining the milk—should take about fifteen minutes.  Actual milking time will be about five minutes per goat.

Your milk should be strained and refrigerated (or pasteurized and then refrigerated) immediately upon finishing milking and washing your hands.  All equipment should be washed and dried and put up for the next milking.  Leaving wash-up for later will cause milk “residue” to form on your equipment (yicky).

I once described the processes involved in milking to my banker at his request.  He looked at me quizzically for a moment, then said, “You know they SELL milk at the grocery store”.

You either Get It, or you don’t.

We who are doing “all this mess” are NOT crazy.  We are feeding our families (at least partly) with good healthy food that we ourselves have produced.

We have veggie gardens for veggies.

We have chickens for eggs, meat, garden fertilizer, and bug control.

We have dairy goats for milk, cheese, ice-cream, yogurt, soap, lotion, meat, and fertilizer.

It’s all a Circle of Life thing, and we are a part of it, not mere consumers or spectators.

On a steamy summer morning, with the flies already biting, the sweat pouring down your nose, your goat clearly not amused, and visions of row upon row of chilled milk gallons at the air-conditioned Wal-Mart, it can be hard.

But on a brisk pre-dawn winter morning, with your goat happily munching and your ear resting against her warm furry side, it’s so quiet you can hear her tummy gurgling.  You glance up at your home, one light on in the kitchen.  Your family is inside, still sleeping or just waking up.  You can smell the coffee over the good smell of clean, healthy livestock and hay.

And the little mice in t-shirts smile and wink.

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