I get a lot of inquiries about goats that go pretty much like this: “I’d love to have fresh goat’s milk all the time, and cheese, but my schedule just isn’t compatible with milking twice a day at 5am and 5pm, 365 days a year, so I guess I can’t have dairy goats, but I love to hear about yours.”
Well, let me start by saying that my schedule is also not compatible with milking twice a day on that schedule. Once upon a time I was routinely up at 5am, and I still start my day between 5:30 and 6, but now that my children sleep later, I’m into sleeping too. Moreover, I can’t face a warm goat until I’ve had one cup of hot tea. I don’t milk twice a day. I don’t milk 365 days a year, and I do go away on vacation. In large measure, we have shifted our milking schedule so that it fits with our lives.
How is this possible? Well, it is not if you plan to run a goat or cow dairy for profit – in that case, you will be tied to the same schedule, because 12 hour, twice per day milkings are necessary to maximize production. Most of us who want a couple of goats, however, do not have to maximize production – in fact, we may not want to. It becomes pretty feasible to make milking work for you.
First of all, no goat milks 365 days a year, unless you choose not to breed her annually. Generally speaking, the last two months of a doe’s pregnancy, they are dry – ie, not milking so that they can put their energies into kid development. If all your goats are dry at the same time, this is an excellent time of year to go on vacation, since they only need to be fed and watered. If you don’t want kids, you can breed every other year, and in this case, you will have to milk all year ’round, with only two months off every other year.
Generally, however, it is pretty feasible to work around goat biology. We milk once per day, in the morning, at about 8am. Because goats, like all mammals must have a kid in order to produce milk, we separate out their kids, starting at two weeks old, at night. From 8pm to 8am (actually we start out with 10pm and gradually move backwards to adjust the kids), the kids are in their own pen or section of the pasture (depending on age of kids and season). At 8am, we milk the does, and then let them out with their kids. During the day, the kids have all the milk.
I could also milk once a day during the evenings, and keep the kids separate during the daytimes, but this works better for us – and I think is preferable for the kids as well, since goats are diurnal and do eat more during the daytime – a day separation would be feasible, however. You can schedule your milking for whatever time is convenient to you. I do try not to push milking much past 9am, since a full udder is uncomfortable for them, but I have no difficulty milking earlier than usual, if we need to be somewhere early, or occasionally even leaving the kids on their mothers overnight so that we don’t have to milk at all on a particularly rushed morning (say, if we have to leave at 5am – this is rare thing, however).
Left to themselves, the kids will nurse for 5-7 months after birth (actually, they’d do it a lot longer, but the Moms get annoyed after a while when a kid nearly as big as they are practically lifts them in the air). So for the first six months (average) after birth, if you keep the kids that long, you can go away. All you have to do is put the kids in the pasture with their Moms and they will be fine – no milking needed.
Some people worry about scours (diarrhea) if the goats were getting all their milk – we’ve never had a case of scours except in goats bought from other farms. Our goats tend to do very well on free choice nursing – and this is, of course, what they’d do in nature. No, the don’t get fat, either – they eat as much as is appropriate to them. Indeed, we recently had a goat from another farm come to ours who had been bottle fed, and we got to see the dramatic difference in size and vitality between bottle and mother fed.
You cannot do this if you have CAE in your herd or are engaged in CAE prevention. Our herd comes only from tested CAE negative herds, and we don’t show or otherwise bring our goats out into the world, so we feel very comfortable with dam-raised kids. Some people will tell you that dam-raised kids are unfriendly and can’t be handled – ours are not. They like to play with us, eat treats and be petted. Indeed, again, our experience with bottle babies is that they don’t fully know how to work in the larger herd – they aren’t sure if they are goats or humans. We like goats who are goats. I would recommend that you purchase goats only from CAE negative herds if you want to be a lazy goatkeeper.
If you kid in springtime, a six month nursing cycle will coincide with the cycle of the grass in most northern areas that get summer moisture. One thought is to milk only on this seasonal cycle – following the grass and drying the goats off during the winter, as they would naturally have dried off. You can then eat your residual milk in the form of cheese that you made over the summer, and milk can be frozen if you have space for it. You will, of course, get less milk in total, but the economics of this are pretty good, because goats need less grain during summers when pastures are lush and may well be able to do acceptably on grass alone. This allows you to be flexible all year round – you can leave the kids on the does in spring, summer and fall and in winter, they will be dry. The only time of year you won’t want to leave the farm is kidding season.
The main disadvantage of this situation is that it sets you to selling the goat’s offspring in late fall. Now if you plan to butcher males and keep females, this works very well – your goats are mature at precisely the point at which you’d want to butcher them anyway. If you plan to sell offspring, most people want their livestock earlier in the year, and more people don’t want to winter goats over, so prices fall – and most people prefer young goats when they are small and cute.
One option is to breed the doelings (if you have a breed that can be bred at 7months – some breeds wait longer) and sell them as bred does – which bring higher prices. Another is to overwinter them yourself and sell them in the spring as milkers, after they have kidded, which also bring higher prices. In many breeds, twins are the norm, and you can sell one of the goat’s babies at 8 weeks, so you can partially obviate this problem, if not wholly. Do remember to wether your boys if you are doing this – by six months, they could easily impregnate Mom – in some breeds significantly earlier.
What if you want year ’round milk? This is the case for us – and the reason we have two kiddings a year, one in July and one in April. In that case, actually going away becomes more complicated, and there are periods of the year in which it is necessary that someone be around to milk if you are going to leave.
Working on that schedule, we can go away and leave the kids with their Moms from May (after the first cycle of kidding) through June, come back in July (for the second cycle) and then are flexible again from August to November. Depending on how long the April babies nurse, we might even be able to get away with December (if you routinely travel for Christmas or other December holidays, it might make sense to have May babies – we do our travelling at Thanksgiving in general). From December to May, if we want to leave the farm, we have to get help milking.
Which is where this thing comes in handy – the Maggidans Milker. Essentially a manual breast pump for goats (the first one was, I believe a modified human breast pump), this takes the skill out of milking, and means that a competent 12 year old (I know this because we used one for several years – at least he started out 12 ;-)) can handle the day-to-day ins and outs of goat care. You will see some decline in production if you go away for an extended period and have someone milk with only this – the milker gets the majority of milk, but for maximum production, you want to strip the goats teats afterwards, to get the last of it (the hindmilk is also the richest). But for a couple of days, we’ve seen no significant drops in production in a doe that is established, and you may find it worth it. There’s another brand as well, the EZ Milker that is more expensive, but we have had a great experience with this one. Given that I have carpal tunnel syndrome from too much time in front of the computer, the Maggidans is helpful – we’re milking 12 does right now, and while two or three are easy, after a point without the milker, it got painful.
If you are prepared to pump and dump for a few days, (ie, give the milk to other animals), you don’t even have to take the time to sterilize. We had no trouble teaching a 12 year old to handle our goats for a few days – and it allowed us to go away and feel comfortable about it. Many more people could have goats if they could rely on a local teen, just as they do to walk their dogs.
The economics of this model work well for us – including the cost of hay, grain, fencing, amortized goat cost (over 10 year breeding life), medical care, etc… my summer milk cost for organic raw milk is $3.11 per gallon. My winter milk cost (where more hay and a bit more grain are involved) is about $4.00 – well below the price of a gallon of organic milk. Besides this our milk has much higher butterfat (ie, more cheese = not all goats have the same butterfat ratios), tastes like sweet cow’s milk (no goaty taste) and we get manure, companionship and kids for sale, replacement or meat. Because I have dwarf goats, two does can easily fit in many backyards, eating weeds and brush and garden wastes for part of their diet. Larger breeds are more appropriate for larger lots.
Although you will not maximize milk production this way, generally speaking lower input (less grain, more flexibility) milking has good economics – yes, you could get more milk out of your doe, but with more concentrates that many of us do not grow. Summer-only production probably has the lowest cost to production, but if you want year-round milk, the numbers still add up.
For many people, concerned with sources of good milk, and with the high (legitimately so – the cost of dairy certification adds a lot) cost of good milk, a couple of dairy goats and lazy goatkeeping could make it feasible.