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Raising Goats for Milk on the Small Homestead
If you’ve been wanting to produce your own homegrown dairy, but haven’t yet, this post- all about raising goats for milk- will be a great place to start. (See my list of 10 great reasons to keep goats- including milk- here)
Benefits of Having a Home Dairy animal
Adding a dairy animal to the homestead is a big step. Dairy animals require consistency and a familiar routine in order to be as happy and as productive as possible. Raising goats for milk may seem easy (compared to keeping a cow), but there is a lot more work that goes into home dairying than just feeding & watering goats. Whether you milk cows or goats, you’ll need to be home to milk at least once a day. And taking a vacation is going to include some extra hurdles.
Despite the increased workload many homesteaders find that backyard dairying generally, and raising goats for milk specifically, is a worthwhile endeavor. Homegrown milk beats the taste and quality of store bought- hands down. And homegrown milk begets homegrown cheese, yogurt, kefir, soap… Now we’re looking at leaving the grocery store behind altogether. Plus, extra milk and whey can become a source of nutrition for the other animals on the homestead- chickens and pigs do especially well with milk added to their diet.
Benefits of Raw Milk
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of raw milk. Raw milk is just milk- straight from the animal to the jug, without stopping to be pasteurized first. This lack of pasteurization means that all of the good bacteria are still present in the milk. Delicate protein strands and fat globules are also still intact.
The lack of adulteration and the presence of life within raw milk is believed to bring noticeable health benefits. People have healed their guts, teeth, unexplained infertility, etc. through dietary change- including adding raw milk. Less obvious, but equally impressive, many people who are intolerant of “regular” (store bought, pasteurized, homogenized) milk are unbothered by raw milk and can drink it without negative consequence.
Decades ago, Dr. Weston A Price observed that cultures around the world that consumed raw milk as a regular part of their diet were noticeably healthier, with better teeth and jaw development. You can read all about his observations on the benefits of healthful diets in his tome, “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.” More information about his work, the benefits of raw milk, the importance of food in health, and much more can be found through the Weston A Price Foundation. (Here)
Benefits of Goats Milk
With all of the benefits of raw cows milk, you may be surprised to hear that raw goat milk can be even more beneficial. Smaller at globules in the milk means that the cream (fat) in goats milk is dispersed within the milk, making it easier to digest, and less prone to separating.
Additionally, in the homestead space there’s been a lot of interest in A2 milk. A2 milk is milk that primarily has the A2 beta-casein protein, instead of A1. Most commercial milk from cows is primarily the A1 milk, and some people are sensitive to those milk proteins. For homesteaders keeping cows as their dairy animals, whether or not your cow produces A2 milk depends on their genetics (and can be determined with a DNA test).
How is this relevant to raising goats for milk? Goats of all breeds naturally produce A2 milk; no genetic test needed. (Which may very well be another reason that many people find goats milk easier to digest.)
Breeds of Dairy Goat
If you’re going to keep goats for milk on your homestead- you’ll probably be raising dairy goats. The American Dairy Goat Association (the main dairy goat registry in the US) recognizes 8 breeds of dairy goats: Alpines, Nigerian Dwarves, Toggenburgs, Oberhaslis, Saanens, Sables, Nubians, and La Manchas. The ADGA maintains a herd book for each breed, hosts sanctioned shows, and performs milk production testing. They, and the breeders that work with them, are the source for dairy goat information. (You can find their page describing the various breeds here)
Starting with Mature Does VS Kids
One important decision to make before you start raising goats for milk is whether you’ll start your herd with mature does or with kids.
There are pros and cons to both options.
Starting with a doe (or two) already in milk means that you won’t need to wait for her to freshen before you’ll have goats milk from home. Some of the cons of starting with mature goats are that you can be buying someone else’s problem child, and the cost of a mature doe will be (rightly) much higher than for a young kid.
Starting with young kids (even a bottle baby) will often mean that you’re spending less money to get started with goats, plus you’ll have plenty of time to bond with them and train them before you’ll be milking. The downsides of starting with babies include having to wait for them to mature, finding a buck, wait through gestation, and training them to the milk stand yourself.
I’ve bought everything from mature does to day old kids. I’ve had good and bad experiences in both cases. Buyer beware applies to everything, and goats especially.
What Do You Need to Keep Goats
I’ve mentioned in a previous post just how easy it is to keep goats, and I stand by that. They are hardy, adaptable creatures, and as long as you meet their needs they’ll repay you in kind. They won’t be the stereotypical, hell-raising escape artists if you don’t let them.
The most important aspect of goat keeping is the fence. Having a strong, tight, well-maintained fence will keep your goats safe from predators (and keep them home where they belong). Give them a dry barn and a place to get into the shade, and they’ll be happy in any climate. Adequate food and water, and a few friends, are all that you’ll really need.
What Do You Need to Milk Goats
In addition to the basic necessities, raising goats for milk will require a few extra tools.
First and foremost, a milk stand (AKA stanchion)- or another way to safely restrain your goat. Some people are fine tying their does to a fence, but honestly it’s worth the trouble to build a milk stand. It’s not complicated, and need not be expensive. (I’ll be posting the directions on how I built mine- out of scrap plywood!- soon)
You’ll also need: a milk pail, a filter, and some containers to store the milk in.
I use a metal quart pail from TSC, a reusable coffee filter, and quart jars. Low budget but totally effective.
How Do You Get Your Does in Milk
As with all other mammals, a goat will only produce after she’s given birth. (Also known as freshening or kidding) That means that for you to have homegrown milk, you need your does to get bred and give birth. A goat is pregnant for 5 months. Then her kids will need to nurse for about 2 months (unless you’ll be feeding them as bottle babies).
Most goat keepers will be aiming for a 10 month lactation. This is so that your doe can have a 2 month break (a dry period) before kidding and milking again. 2 months off, 10 months on. The ADGA milk production tests are based on a 10 month (305 day) lactation as well. Some people don’t keep their does in milk that long, and others will “milk through” by not getting the doe bred again and instead milking through to the next year. (Not all does will stay in production that long, and you will usually be getting progressively less milk over time)
Of course, getting your doe bred annually is going to require a buck. You’ll need to decide for yourself if it makes more sense to keep a buck year-round, lease a buck, take your does to a buck, or use AI (artificial insemination).
Personally, I like having bucks around year-round. And even when we were keeping goats on less than an acre, I made space for bucks. They have great personalities, and having one on-site means that you can choose when you want the does bred, without being beholden to someone else’s schedule.
After the does are bred and have gone through pregnancy, you’ll need to have a plan for the kids. You can either pull them and raise them as bottle babies, or let them stay with mom for 8-10 weeks. Once weaned, will you keep them and expand the flock? Or will you sell them? Eat them?
You probably won’t have the space or inclination to keep every kid from every kidding, so have a plan. I usually sell my goat kids at weaning, since I like them to get off to a good start with mom’s milk. After they’ve sold, I’ll start milking the does. We’ve also butchered some of our goat kids, after they’d grown up for almost a year.
Basic Overview of Milking Process
Now that we’ve been raising goats for milk for awhile; we actually have a doe goat, in milk, in the backyard- it’s time to actually collect that milk.
My routine for milking is pretty straightforward. I start by getting a scoop of grain and the milk pail. Pour the grain into the milk stand’s trough, and then go get the first doe.
Both of my current does will make a beeline for the milkstand and jump up on their own. It’s extremely convenient, but it’s going to take a little while for your goats to get to that point. A consistent, predictable pattern of “straight to the milk stand, then straight to the pasture” will help teach your does that milking time is not wander around and browse time. Having a bit of grain ready to go in the trough helps too.
With your goat up on the milk stand, latch the head gate closed, and then you’re ready to begin milking.
Start by brushing off any stray hairs or bits of hay from her udder. Then arrange the pail such that it’s under the goat and will catch all of the milk.
Take a teat in each hand, encircling the top (where it joins to the udder) with your thumb and pointer finger. Gradually close each of your fingers in sequence. Imagining yourself gently guiding the milk down is going to help a lot.
It’s easier to describe what not to do than what to do. Don’t pinch, don’t pull or yank, don’t close all of your fingers at once. You don’t need to use force to get the milk out, you need a smooth rhythm. Remember that kids nurse by applying suction and wave action with their tongue- they don’t bite or force the milk out, and neither should you.
If you’ve never milked before, and your doe’s never been milked before, these early days will be kind of tough. Stay patient with it, give her plenty of grain or another treat so she’s patient. It’ll get easier and easier the more you do it.
Once you’ve finished milking the goat, walk her straight back to the pasture. She needs to see that the routine is no dillydallying around. If you let your goats out to wander (and I do) wait and let them out after everyone’s back from milking. This also gives you the chance to filter and chill the milk.
I do not pasteurize my goat milk. Pasteurization will kill off a lot of the good bacteria and fragile components of raw milk. I trust my cleanliness and process, and leave the milk raw. If you want to pasteurize, that would take place after straining your milk, but before cooling.
In order to catch any stray hairs, I strain the milk before putting it in the fridge. Here, that’s as simple as pouring the milk through a reusable coffee filter into a pyrex measuring cup or jar. I store milk in quart or half-gallon canning jars, with the date written in sharpie on the jar (it washes right off).
Milking is really pretty easy and a nice routine to have once you’re in the swing of it. It brackets the beginning and end of the day, and ensures that we get morning sunlight consistently. Plus, of course, the milk itself is a delicious pantry staple- the key ingredient of homemade cheese and yogurt.
I think you’ll find that raising goats for milk provides many, many benefits in a small and approachable package, and I hope that you’ll consider adding dairy goats to your homestead too.
Thanks for reading, and happy homesteading!
PS For a tutorial on hoof trimming- a vital part of goat ownership- check out this post.