While I am on the topic of milk…

This post is intended primarily for my non-goat-milking family and friends.  I fear you more experienced goat-handlers may yell at me for something if you read it….

As I’m sure everyone getting into this lifestyle has experienced, goat-milking seems to be quite the attention-drawing oddity, and tends to bring about lots and lots of questions.  So, I thought I would give you a run-down of my milking process.  Before anyone yells at me about any of the methods I use, please understand that we are still learning and researching ways of doing this.  I will probably make several changes over time.  However, so far, I have been researching for several years now, and have realized that every single goat owner has a different way of doing things.  So, while some of my ways may be somewhat un”traditional” in modern speak, some are very traditional in old-fashioned speak.  I have developed good reason and basis for each step I take.  I’m sure as I gain experience, many things will change.

First, I prepare.  I grab my pail, which I previously milked directly into.  In order to get the milk colder faster, and keep it cleaner, though, now I use another method I have heard of several times.  I fill my pail with ice, put a sterile, empty jar in the middle to start cooling, and lay my filter rag on top.  I will explain the rag in detail later, but I do wet it, wring it out really well, then lay it on the jar.  By moisturizing prior to filtering milk, I reduce the amount of milk it soaks up. 

The pail with ice, a jar in the middle, and a filter rag about to be laid across it.

 I grab another bowl for the actual milking, carry it all to the garage, and prepare the milk stand.  I make sure it is relatively tidy, the grain bowl is full, and the headgate is open. 

My milk stand. Obviously, it needs a little more work, and we hope to get it finished in the next couple weeks (before milking the more troubled Sara), but it is working for now.

After everything is prepped, it’s time to get the goat. Meet the milk donor, Lilac, an alpine/nigerian dwarf cross.  I talked a bit about her in a previous post.  She has proven to be a perfect beginner’s goat, and I am in love with her! After I prepare the milk area, she is always waiting at the fence, ready to be milked.

I'm ready!!

I lead her across my front yard, and into the garage, which is a bit of a hike.  I tried just letting her out of the pen to see if she would go to the garage on her own, but when she discovered she was free, she proceeded to taste every thing along the way.  After a good 5 minutes, we didn’t get any closer to the garage, thus I continue to leash her. 

Lilac leading the way to the garage.

Once we arrive, she easily hops up onto the milk stand, sticks her head through the head-gate, and starts munching her grain. 

Ready for milking.

I lock the head gate, then have a seat and get comfy. Just so you know, goats can be playful, and they can be fidgety.  The purpose of the head gate is to encourage them to stand still.  The gate closes behind their head so they can’t pull their head back out, and once they learn this, they are content to munch their grain and stand still.  Next, I use baby wipes (usually just 2) to wipe her teats and udder down.  If she is really dirty (not typically), then I might give her a quick brush (she hates being brushed, in case you were curious) to get the excess debris off her fur.

Cleaning her up.

Then I give her a udder a gentle massage to encourage let down, and give each teat (she has 2, in case you were wondering) a squirt onto the milk stand rather than into the milk bucket. 

Let me explain those last couple steps.  All my research and reading and talking to more experienced milkers has taught me, among other things, that there are about a million ways to prep the goat for milking.  Many folks use very harsh chemical cleaners, antibacterials, and/or soaps to wash the udder.  Others used a simple rag with soap and hot water.  Some used absolutely nothing to clean with and just went straight to milking.  I was not enticed by the harsh cleaners for several reasons.  First, I have a child that will drink any liquid thing he finds.  It wasn’t worth that risk.  Second, the harsher the cleaner, the more drying and irritating it is to the udder.  I nursed three children.  I know how painful dry and irritated can be!!  You have to take gentle care of those girls!  The final discovery I made was when I read about some studies that had been done regarding the bacterial content of raw milk.  What they found was the very first squirt of milk contains roughly 20,000 bacteria–good and bad–that tend to collect in the teat.  That number didn’t change much with any type of udder/teat cleaning or preps.  So, frankly, it really didn’t seem to matter how thoroughly you cleaned the outside, it was what was on the inside that could make you sick.  So, after taking my goat-milking class a while back, I was introduced to basic baby wipes to ensure some cleanliness, but with gentle, non-drying convenience.  I like that idea best of all.  So, that is why I use simple baby wipes and waste the first squirts (though they aren’t really wasted, as my dog loves to clean the milk stand when we are done!!)

 Then, I put the bucket onto the stand, and proceed to milk her out.  She has actually improved her production a bit, so I am now getting between 5-6 cups a day.  Not a huge amount, but enough that it is making it a little more fun as I get into the groove of this milking thing!  Lilac typically has about 3 let-downs.  Basically, I milk until the flow slows, then briefly, I gently massage her udder, “butt” it with my hand a bit (the way a nursing kid would do), and gently tug, which causes her to let down more milk.  I repeat this process until her udder feels empty.  It goes from feeling similiar to a full water balloon when I first start, to feeling like skin with soft tissue underneath when she is empty.  Hard to explain, so just take my word for it. 

I should probably clarify here, that milking does not involve just tugging on the teats in a downward fashion like it appears in the movies!  It involves more of a rhythmic massage with your fingers, that happens to be in a downward motion.  It requires a surprising amount of coordination and rhythm, neither of which come naturally for me.  So, it took me a good 2-3 weeks to get to the point where I could look away from the bucket and still squirt the milk into the bucket!  I still miss once in a while, but I think I’m doing pretty good these days.  I digress….

After I finish milking, I pour the milk from the bowl, through the filter rag, and into the chilled jar. 

Filtering the milk.

I set the milk aside in a safe place, release the head gate, Lilac backs out, we love on each other for a minute (I don’t think she got much plain ‘ole lovin’ before, but she sure sucks it up these days!!  The way I see it, it’s kinda rude to just take her milk twice a day and stick her back in a pen.  She deserves a little lovin’ when I can!!) I return her to her pen, then come back to the house to finish up.  Later, when I milk Sara, I will simply repeat the process, adding Sara’s milk to the jar in the ice pail.  When I’m totally done, I clean up the milk stand, take my jars, pail, and bowl back upstairs to the kitchen.

So, before you single-use filter fans have a complete hissy fit, let me explain my filter rag.  During my research, I learned about several studies that have shown healthy, raw milk from animals not overly exposed to antibiotics, contains so much good, beneficial bacteria, that the good bacteria will often destroy the bad, illness-causing bacterias.  At least one study supposedly injected E. coli into this raw milk, and a few hours later, it was not traceable, as the good bacteria had wiped it out.  So, before I get into filtering methods, my point is that the way you filter is apparently not nearly as important as the health of your animal.  Even the best, smallest pored, milk filters can’t remove bad bacteria, but, on the other hand, no filtering at all could be fine if there is enough good bacteria to kill off anything bad. 

That being said, most people use specialized, expensive dairy filters, with little single-use filter pads.  The problem is it is easy to run out and around here, it is hit-or-miss whether the stores have them in stock.  I know of others who use cheese-cloth as a filter, but it doesn’t filter the small stuff that well, and it doesn’t hold up long either–especially if you try to clean it between uses.  After much research, and since we love re-usable items so much, I decided to go with a plain ‘ole wash cloth as a filter.  I learned this technique also at my class, and I realized that she has hundreds of people every year (who aren’t necessarily immune to farm bacteria) sampling her milk, and no one has ever gotten sick or complained.  I’m not a complete idiot though, so for hygiene sake, I did go buy some brand new, crystal clean, pure white wash cloths that I emphatically instructed my family not to touch!  They were reserved specifically for filtering milk.  To make you feel better, I bought enough for almost a week, and each rag is used only once before being cleaned, then stored in a clean area for the next use.  For cleaning, I just run it through a very hot, soapy wash cycle in my washing maching, then soak them all in bleach water every week or two (or sooner if they turn any color other than white, but always after just a few uses).  So, back to the filtering…

I lay the rag over the top of my jar, form a “cup” in the rag with my fingers, then pour the milk through.  Although it is pretty disgusting to see what gets trapped in the fibers of the rag (goat hair, dirt, hay, straw, who knows what else?), the milk that comes through is pure, white, and delicious. 

I put a lid on the jar, the milk goes into the fridge (behind any older milk, so we rotate it properly), my rag gets rinsed and set aside for cleaning, and my bowl goes into the dishwasher for its hot-water sterilization.  It’s a very simple method that seems to be working well so far, though I am considering a few changes.  Time will tell.