Getting Started With Milk Goats
By Suzanne Cox
Things on the farm are always changing. Andrew and I agreed when we first started in the fall of 2010 that we wanted to try new things, experiment with techniques and livestock we had no previous experience with and see what exactly we ended up with. The theory was, if we tried everything surely we would find something we were truly passionate about. We already knew our entire family enjoyed chickens, but we were wanting to find a larger species to add to the mix. From 2010-2012 we gained experience with donkeys, cows, sheep, turkeys, guineas and pigs. Some I enjoyed more than others, all were OK but, eh … there just wasn’t one species that clicked with me to the point that I looked forward to seeing them first thing every morning! The children had their chickens, Andrew his cows. Time to find my niche!
In the fall of 2012, I attended the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania. My favorite seminars were surprisingly on milk goats. I had never considered goats for us, as the only experience I had with them were a friend’s herd of brush goats that, to be honest, were ill mannered, stinky, and left alone to range half wild across hilly woodlands. However these milk goats I had been learning about sounded intriguing. I came home and immediately told Andrew this was something I wanted to try!
As soon as he was able to work the ground in the spring, Andrew began fencing off a small section in the backyard just for one or two goats. May and Nutmeg came home shortly after. Both girls were in milk, and as often happens to me, I had not entirely thought this situation through in my excitement to bring them home! Day 1 with two girls in milk and what did we not have? Shelter or a milk stand! Andrew amazed me by pulling together a rather decent milk stand (which I still use today) in a matter of hours out of some pallets and wood scraps behind the barn.
As for shelter, a vacant 10-by-12-foot dog pen was moved into the goat fence and a new heavy duty tarp secured on top. This simple shelter was quit efficient for the summer and early fall months until we could get a permanent shelter in place.
May and Nutmeg were easy to handle, sweet girls who were already trained for milking. May, a Lamancha/Nubian cross took an instant liking to me. She is still a big baby, acting much more like a dog then a goat. Always the first to greet me and right by my side whenever I am at the barn. Nutmeg, a purebred (non-registered) Nubian, was actually easier to milk but somewhat less friendly in the field.
Pretty soon we were enjoying farm fresh raw milk daily! Andrew and I did a bit of research and agreed together that we wanted to provide our family with raw, unpasteurized milk. This decision was a personal preference based on our own research and dedication to clean milking practices (more on that in another blog!).
Fast forward two years … Nutmeg is no longer with us as she was sold in the fall. Never a heavy milker and often more difficult to handle in the field, she was replaced by a registered Nubian girl named Luna. May is due any day now with her second freshening with us. Last year she gave us a beautiful little girl named April and we are hoping for twins this year!
Incredibly, both girls delivered last year within days of a tornado striking our farm. Thank God no animals were seriously injured, and these mommas and babies came through just fine! However the hay barn, their store of hay, and the milking stall didn’t fare as well.
So what do you do when everything blows away and you still must milk every day? Bring out that trusty old dog pen again and set it up! Dog pens are as useful as duck tape, every farm should have one! Stock panels on top, supported by a center beam, add a bit of strength and support to the tarp as well as keeping out the poultry, to maintain a clean workspace inside. Not ideal, but it certainly will do in a pinch! This simple system had to do for us from April until November this past year. We are now working on the inside of the new goat barn! Can’t wait to have a real milking stall!
During these last two years I have found a sincere passion for my four-legged milk babies! Milk goats are what I truly enjoy working with and look forward to each day! In this short amount of time we have learned so much. We’ve begun making yogurt, cheeses and soaps. Last year I started a small soap side business thinking I would sell my “extra” bars hoping to just cover soap-making expenses. I was shocked at the response, and now my little hobby is turning into a part-time business! (More on that later too!)
Now, things haven’t been all good in the milk goat world this last two years. As with any new venture, there was definitely a learning curve! The tornado certainly made things interesting as well. We made a few mistakes, learned a few hard lessons, and continue to learn more each day. Several people interested in owning their own milk goat have asked me, “What would you change/do differently if you could do it over again?” So here is my list of best advice for getting started:
Choose your first goats wisely. If I had it to do over again, neither May nor Nutmeg would have been here. Though they were both sweet and pretty girls, neither are heavy milkers. The two girls together barely produce what is considered “average” for a single milk doe. Which means we are paying more money in expenses to get less milk. We chose girls that were easy to work with and at the bottom of the price range for available goats in our area. I believe if we could have had much higher production.
Be set up before you bring home your goats! OK, so maybe this is an obvious to most “normal” people, but it is something I seem to forget frequently. At the least, your fencing and shelter should be done. If getting girls that are in milk or currently pregnant, it would be wise to have your designated milking area and a milk stand ready to go as well.
Ask a lot of questions when you buy. This is especially important when purchasing older animals. I look at it this way, everyone sells babies to keep their numbers down. But why are older animals (gone through first freshening already) being sold? Did they not produce much milk? Were they not a good mother? Is their temperament quirky? Do they not play well with others? These are the things you should be asking. A new milk goat becomes a member of your family. You want the best fit, and the least headache, for your new addition!
Establish a relationship with a reputable, experienced breeder from the start. This is so important! You never know when you will need some expert advice. If you are like us, all emergencies will happen between 6 p.m. Friday to midnight on Sunday, never during a veterinarian’s normal business hours! These reputable breeders are also good references on other breeders, who has the best stock and customer service, which bloodlines and color patterns may be desirable in your area (which increases sales value of your offspring).
Don’t believe everything you read online. Yes there is a lot of good information out there for free, but if you have a medical emergency or true need for reliable care then look to that reputable breeder you are now friends with or a certified veterinarian. Plan ahead! Emergencies never happen on schedule. Find a veterinarian in your area who works with goats before the need arises. Call them, introduce yourself, get basic price lists (de-horning, farm visit charges, emergency care fees, castration, etc) and establish a relationship with them. They will be much more likely to accommodate you should an emergency arise if they know you already!
Establish a goal and game plan early on. Why do you want goats? Are you trying to supply enough milk just for your family of four to drink? Do you want extra to make cheese/yogurt and other products? Does crafting with milk and making soaps, lotions and such sound like fun? How much room do you have? Are you going to hand milk or use a milking machine? There isn’t a right and wrong way, just your way!
Most importantly, realize that milk goats (regardless of breed) are a true investment. This is not a part time, “when I feel like it” scenario. Taking off for weekend getaways, those annual summer week-long vacations, snowstorms in sub-freezing temperatures, 110-degree-80-percent-humidity summer days, and, yes, spring tornadoes all have to be taken into account. Regardless of how you feel or what the weather is like, your new family addition must be milked. A well-cared-for milk goat is a happy and healthy goat that rewards you with lots of healthy, yummy, natural milk!
So, I finally found my niche! My two girls have grown into nine girls and three boys, with more due any day now! Our new goat barn is almost finished, with plans for adding a soap workshop/milk parlor in the future! You could say I am addicted. As much as I enjoy the girls and their fresh milk products, I find soaping equally enjoyable. More on soaping coming up soon!
If you would like to learn more about our farm, please join us on Facebook. We post frequent updates and lots of photographs of all our Nubian goats, Scottish Highland cattle, heritage chicken breeds, and other assorted critters.
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