Delicious goat cheese begins with clean milk, which can only be achieved with healthy does, a clean barn, and above all, good sanitation practices in the milk room. Mastering the intricacies of sanitation is often an overlooked aspect in the quest for successful cheesemaking, but it is the most important component there is. Paying attention to cleanliness in all areas of goat milk and cheese production is the only way to produce the high quality cheeses sought after by discerning customers.
The health of the dairy herd should be of prime importance to any producer, especially where raw milk is used to make fresh cheeses like chevre. Any doe kept for home dairy purposes should be on a regular preventative program to control both internal and external parasites. She should be healthy and free of bacterial infections like mastitis, Johne’s disease, and caseous lymphadenitis (CL), and viruses like caprine arthritis and encephalitis (CAE).
Next on the all important "clean equals quality" list should be a clean environment as even a healthy doe will be unable to produce milk of good quality if she is forced to live in unhygienic surroundings. High levels of ammonia caused by heavy buildups of manure often coupled with poor ventilation in barns and sheds can cause off flavored milk, which will spoil even the most carefully made cheeses. At a minimum all goats should have a clean, dry, well-bedded, three-sided shelter in which to rest and sleep; fresh, uncontaminated water; and clean feeders for hay, grain and minerals. Pasture, if available, is best rotated when possible to help prevent a build up of parasites.
Once the health of the goat herd and their environment is scrutinized, the next important factor affecting milk quality is the choice and maintenance of dairy equipment.
Although some home dairy herds are milked by machine, many goat owners choose to milk by hand. In this case the necessary equipment is simple with the essentials being a milk pail, milk strainer, disposable strainer pads or filters, storage jars, a container for udder wash, strip cup, and paper towels. All equipment, whether it be milk pail, milk storage jars, or the utensils used during cheese making, should be made of materials that are easy to clean and sterilize. Seamless stainless steel pails, milk totes, and strainers, and glass storage jars are preferred over their plastic or aluminum counterparts.
After selecting proper equipment, ensuring high milk quality depends on good maintenance practices. This includes selecting and learning to use appropriate cleansers and sanitizers.
Even in the smallest home dairy, regular dishwashing liquids like Palmolive and Sunlight are not suitable for cleaning milking equipment. Even in cases where the chosen household detergent is strong enough for the job, these products contain perfumes and other additives that leave residues on equipment, which will affect milk flavor and quality. This leads most owners of home dairies to look to commercial dairy farms for suggestions.
Commercial dairies clean their milking equipment in three basic steps. Immediately after milking, the equipment is rinsed thoroughly with cool water to aid in the removal of milk stone, which is a hard buildup of calcium that, if allowed to collect on equipment surfaces, will encourage bacterial growth and contaminate otherwise clean milk. The equipment is then put through a warm water wash to which an alkaline detergent has been added. This detergent acts as the main cleansing agent and removes most milk constituents, including milk fat and also any debris that has collected on surfaces during milking. Once a week it is common to substitute an acid detergent, to aid in the removal of any milk stone that has built up despite the cool water rinses. Lastly, the equipment is given a hot water rinse containing a sanitizing agent such as chlorine, which removes any residue left by the detergent and further sanitizes the equipment. Many dairies also practice a pre-milking sanitization, which is simply another hot water/chlorine rinse. All equipment on commercial dairy farms is left to air dry.
These same basic procedures and dairy cleansers can be used in the home dairy provided that all safety regulations are observed. This means that all chemicals and detergents must be mixed according to directions. A solution that is too weak will be ineffective and a solution that is too strong will, at the least, be unnecessarily expensive, and at the worst, dangerous to the operator’s health. It is imperative to remember that working with harsh and corrosive materials that can be detrimental to human skin. I can’t stress enough the importance of wearing gloves while handling these materials. I worked at a commercial dairy farm for five years and did not wear gloves while milking. The chemicals I handled were all diluted according to industry standards but by the time I moved onto a new job my hands were a mess. My fingernails had softened and were separating from my fingers and my hands were plagued with a severe and painful eczema, which still bothers me four years later.
Naturally, when I started milking my own animals I was interested in finding alternatives to the chemicals that I had been exposed to in my previous job. The dairy that had employed me is owned and run by a master breeder, who is known and admired for the exceptional quality of milk that his animals produce. The training I received on the farm was top notch so I understood well the importance of effective sanitation and wanted my milk, even if it was being produced on a much smaller scale, to be of equal quality. My research led me to the organic movement.
Certified organic dairy farmers face a number of challenges that most dairy farmers do not. Many of the certifying agencies forbid or discourage the use of conventional dairy chemicals. This has encouraged farmers and the companies supplying them to experiment with and adopt the use of both familiar and new products in dairy sanitation.
The most effective organic cleansers that are currently registered for use in commercial grade A dairies contain a blend of hydrogen peroxide, silver, and stabilizing agents. These cleansers have been proven effective against all pathogenic bacteria, including gram positive and gram negative bacteria; fungi; and a wide range of viruses. Surprisingly, acetic acid, or vinegar, is often used in place of regular dairy acid detergent.
Organic dairy cleansers are more difficult to find, as they are not usually available at local feed or farm supply stores. They are, however, readily available over the Internet.
In my home dairy I practice the following procedure. Immediately after milking all equipment is rinsed in cool water to remove milk stone. This rinse must be cool but not cold, as cold water will make the milk fat more difficult to remove during the next stage. I follow with a warm water wash using a blend of Nature Clean All Purpose Cleaning Lotion, as a cleansing agent, and grapefruit seed extract, as a germicide. Nature Clean is an environmentally safe detergent that contains no colors, fragrances, or other unnecessary ingredients and will not leave contaminating residues on your equipment. Finally, the equipment is rinsed with a 3% solution of food grade hydrogen peroxide. If using hydrogen peroxide at home it is important to remember that while 3 to 10% solutions are considered safe and effective, the 35% solutions sold for industrial uses are corrosive and dangerous to human health. In addition to this cleaning regime, my equipment is rinsed several times each week with a solution of hot water and pickling vinegar and is scalded with boiling water before each milking.
Lastly, some thought should be given to milk storage. When the milk first leaves the doe it is body temperature and should, for best flavor and quality, be cooled to 38 degrees within an hour of milking. Some people cool their milk in a cold or ice water bath but I prefer to set my milk in my freezer. The freezer cools the milk quickly and does not waste water, which is an issue on my farm.
Home dairy goat owners have an opportunity to produce superior quality milk and dairy products so long as all remember that milk is highly perishable and that care must always be exercised during its handling and storage. Once the rules of sanitation are mastered, the quality cheese most producers dream of can become a reality.