The average dairy goat has a 10-month lactation period and produces six to eight pounds of milk per day during that lactation, according to information from the American Dairy Goat Association (www.ADGA.org). Those averages vary from breed to breed and then from goat to goat. But Mary Segal, Clinton, Oklahoma, and Tricia Smith, Carlisle, Massachusetts, have does in their herds with lactations that extend far beyond the norm, and they encourage extended lactations to better meet their personal goat milk needs.
Segal, a member of the Red River Dairy Goat Club, has been working with dairy goats for more than three decades. And she has always seen advantages to milking her goats through their estrus cycle and beyond.
"It is my experience that goats milked through estrus and into the winter decrease their production during the colder months," she said. "But it increases again as the days get longer and warmer in spring. If you don’t need the kids, there is no need to dry those does up after 10 months in production. Plus they seem to live longer and stay healthier without the stress of kidding every year."
Segal’s current does exemplify this unusual philosophy. Her registered Alpine doe, Gravel-Ends RB Tenessa, now 11 years old, was purchased as a bred doeling in 1995. She had twin doelings in 1996 and has been in milk ever since. She has never been bred again.
"Last winter she was just giving a couple of cups of milk and I thought why bother," Segal said. "But our milk room is right off our mud room and she’d come up to be milked. We both enjoyed the companionship so I kept milking."
Segal keeps daily records of Tenessa’s production. The elderly doe’s 2006 production peaked at 3.5 pounds in July; nothing to get excited about in terms of volume, but that’s just fine with Segal.
"I enjoy Tenessa’s company and the little bit of milk she gives is just right for me," she said. "Besides I also get some from Tenessa’s daughter, Ginger."
Even more remarkable than Tenessa’s 10-year milk run without being re-bred, is the fact that her daughter, Ginger, has never been bred, or had kids, yet she too is a milk producer.
"We never bred either of Tenessa’s daughters," Segal said. "After we quit breeding goats we just wanted enough goats so we could enjoy them. Ginger and her sister however, just decided right off they wanted to be dairy goats."
Ginger, a precocious milker, developed an udder and began producing milk, despite no exposure to a buck or breeding, and has been milking steadily for seven years. Her summer time peak, at 2.5 pounds, is lower than her dam’s. Yet her milk, combined with Tenessa’s provide all that Segal could want and use. It is a win-win situation for the Oklahoma woman. Ginger’s twin sister, also a precocious milker, died in 2005, at the age of nine.
Segal has milked her does through many estrus cycles for somewhat less complicated reasons than Smith. But, both agree extended lactations meet their needs. Smith, a Massachusetts artisan goat cheese maker, creates award winning Carlisle Farmstead Cheese as part of her commercial dairy enterprise. Her goat milk cheeses demand good prices in Boston area markets and her milking management decisions have a positive effect on the bottom line of her business.
The average lactation period for Smith’s Oberhasli does is 20 to 22 months. This extended milk production enables her to have year-round milk available for cheesemaking because the long lactations allow her to only breed half her herd every year. Half of her herd is dry when does are freshening. Kidding half the herd at a time makes it possible for Smith to be available for all the births during a short and concentrated kidding period.
Smith sees other benefits to extended lactation management in her herd as well.
"I find huge benefits to dam-raised March kids (which works for us since our herd is disease-free and essentially closed with the exception of hand-breeding)," she said. "The kids are extraordinarily healthy and growthy. They are well socialized to the herd. And they are ready for October breeding. Our does enjoy mothering, are milked twice a day while nursing kids, and milk strongly after their kids are weaned. They do a much better job nurturing than I could do. Healthy, engaged kids are a priority and a priority use of milk."
Smith said she first heard about the long lactation period when she read Pat Coleby’s Natural Goat Care book.
"When I first read about this, I thought she was nuts. It just wasn’t done that way," she said. "After trying it though, I am a true convert."
Smith’s herd plan includes not breeding the fresh yearling does again until the next fall. They’ll be milked through all their estrus cycles, milked next spring and summer, and finally re-bred the fall of 2007.
"Our first fresheners typically give six to eight pounds of milk per day, after weaning and into the fall," Smith said. "Production falls off automatically during estrus and hovers around four pounds through the depth of winter. When March arrives, production rises and is typically back over six pounds by early May. A couple of our does have extraordinarily flat lactations with dips really only occurring at estrus and in deep cold. In general, I see the second summer milk coming in at 80% of the previous summer’s peak after kids are weaned off."
Smith’s second freshening three-year-olds, range from 11 to 13 pounds of daily milk production, a solid indication that her system is working for her.
"Our does on extended lactations are in great condition when they are bred," she said. "The does that I milk through are still pretty lean in October. With extended lactations, all our second freshenings, except one, have been triplets, which sets the does up for very strong second and subsequent lactations."
In addition to having a year-round supply of milk, and healthier goats to boot, Smith also has another strictly practical reason for encouraging long lactations.
"I think a good rule of thumb when you design a barn is to take the space that you allocate for your maximum adult goat population and double it," she said. "We didn’t do this. By kidding half the herd, we reduce our loafing area space need. We’ve added a number of benches and loafing tables that effectively increase the loafing area and provide quiet refuges for the kids."
While milking does far beyond the 10-month norm may not work for every goat breeder or owner, Segal and Smith have shown there is plenty of room outside normal milk production expectations to experiment with extended lactations. Their management practices have paved the way to enjoyable relationships with their dairy goats, in ways that meet the needs of their unique situations.
More information about Tricia Smith’s Carlisle Farmstead Cheese and Oberhasli dairy goats can be found at www.carlislefarmsteadcheese.com