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From the Goat to the Glass

Techniques & Equipment
for Milking Dairy Goats

By Janet Hurst

Goat milk is consumed all over the world. For those who want to milk their own goats, there are two basic ways to go about getting milk from the goat to the glass: milking by hand or machine. Either method has its own benefits or consequences, and there are some basic rules to know and some equipment needed. 

Hand milking is often the best choice for the small farmer who has one or two goats to milk twice daily for personal consumption. Certain religious groups who shun the use of electricity often milk by hand and still comply with state law for commercial status or off-the-farm sales. Unless there are a lot of willing people to help with the milking process or someone with dedication and time availability, this method can become an overwhelming chore. Milking by hand is quite labor intensive if more than a few animals are involved. But, for some goat keepers, this is the only way to milk, as they prefer the intimate bond that develops between goat and human during hand milking. 

For beginning milkers, it is important to find a teacher to demonstrate or assist with proper hand milking techniques. It can be a difficult technique for some to pick up, and it takes perseverance on the part of the human, and understanding and patience on the part of the goat to be milked. I learned by asking a lady who milked cows. At first I was very slow and wore out the animal and myself in the process! I was nervous and unsure, so the animal immediately picked up on that and behaved in a similar manner. Practice and coming to an understanding of what was happening during the process helped me to develop a good milking technique. For those who have milked an animal all their life, it is probably laughable that someone would not know how to milk and have to be taught. But there are others who benefit greatly from a helping hand when beginning to learn to milk. 

My cow-milking friend explained the milking process to me like this: "Think of the mammary gland as a cistern. When you draw down on the teat the cistern releases the liquid. In between the drawing of the milk, the cistern fills back up and the milk is there when drawn down again." This helped me to have a visual image of a bag filling up with fluid, then releasing as I drew the milk from the teat. When one watches how a kid goes about getting milk from the doe, it is apparent that first the kid nudges the teat aggressively, to let the doe know it’s time to get down to business. Then he begins to suck. The doe lets the milk down and dinner is served. 

Sandy Van Echo enjoys milking her goat by hand.
Sandy Van Echo enjoys milking her goat by hand.

Of course, when humans introduce an artificial environment to this all-natural process, such as the addition of a milking stanchion, a cold touch, or a new place in the barn, such things can put a new goat on edge. There are times, especially with a first freshener, when the animal might simply refuse to let her milk down. There are a few things that can help this situation. First, talk to the doe and try to put her at ease, gently bumping the udder and mimicking the motion of a kid. Some people put feed in front of the milk stanchion to distract the doe and get her to like the idea of standing still for milking. Others find that going with no feed is a better way, as the doe takes a more natural course and simply stands and chews her cud when on the stand, also mimicking the natural process of when a doe stands still, not eating while her kids nurse. Nature often takes its course and as the udder fills, the new doe will come to an understanding that relief comes with milking. Some goats break easily to the stanchion and others are a challenge. Don’t think I’m totally crazy, but sometimes I find singing to the does helps them let their milk down. Of course, there is the possibility that they associate the noise with mistreatment and simply want to hasten the process!

Some basic sanitation rules apply to both hand and machine goat-milking environments:

1. Trim the hair around the udder as this is a perfect place for debris to gather and then fall into the milk pail.

2. The old adage of dip, strip and wipe is a wise one. Dip the teat in a solution (iodine or other), strip out the first stream of milk—where the bacteria hides, then wipe the udder with a clean, soft towel. This exercise will also prepare the goat mentally, for milking. She will soon respond to the routine.

3. Make sure to wash hands thoroughly and then milk into a stainless steel bucket. Some milkers like to send the first couple of streams through a strainer, just to keep an eye out for any signs of mastitis (thickened, clumpy, or discolored milk).

4. Always, always chill the milk as quickly as possible after it is removed from the goat. An ice bath works well to make sure the lovely, sweet, natural flavor does not become tainted because of slow cooling or exposure to other bacterial substances.

Off-flavored milk can occur for several reasons: 

1. If a mature buck is allowed in with the does, his smell may rub off onto the does.

2. A sick goat or one who has consumed wild garlic or onions might also impart milk that has a less-desirable taste.

3. Milk which has not been properly cooled can develop a "corny" flavor or "goaty" nuance that is simply unacceptable. While milk is cooling it needs to have aeration so that gases in the milk can be released. It must also be cooled quickly so as not to absorb other flavors from the air during this time. Goat milk should have a slightly sweet taste and an appealing smell. If it smells bucky or goaty, it will taste the same way.

Beyond hand milking, there are vacuum powered bucket milkers or can milkers available. Since goats are becoming more popular in the United States, more manufacturers have taken note and better milking systems are available. In the past, it seemed that most dairy goat milking systems were basically modified cow milking gear. Now systems designed specifically for goats are available with proportionately sized cups and overall scale appropriate to the size of the animal. A bucket milking system consists of the cups, pulsators, food grade tubing, and the stainless steel or poly milk can. These systems require the use of a compressor to run the pulsators. 

For those with a large herd, a pipeline system can be a huge time saver. The animals enter a milking parlor, often centered around a central pit. People stand in the pit and attach the milking equipment to the animals from below. The cups stay in place during the milking session and fall from the animal once the milk flow has ceased. The milk travels through food grade lines, on to a central stainless steel pipeline and then into a central collection tank. As with all methods there are pros and cons. Some cheese makers feel this type of milk handling can be too hard on the milk and break down the fat cells, making cheese making more difficult. Foaming can also be a problem. However, with proper adjustments to the system most of these problems can be worked out. Sanitation of this type of system is crucial, as milk particles can be left behind if proper sanitation procedures are not followed to the letter. The milk (bulk) tank can also be a place of potential risk and careful inspection of this vessel is imperative. Ineffective sanitation or cleaning practices will lead to a world of trouble with bacteria counts too high to pass any inspections.

Speaking of inspections: If a dairy goat owner plans to sell milk or make a consumable product from milk (such as cheese, ice cream, kefir, and yogurt) the State Milk Board or the State Department of Agriculture is the place to find out the specific regulations governing each state. There is a great deal of misinformation on what is allowable and what is not, circulating within the dairy world. It is easy to get into trouble without asking questions and usually ignorance of the laws is not a great defense. The milk inspectors are well versed in the specific laws and regulations and can acquaint those interested in a dairy start-up as to exact equipment required. This can often save the new dairy owner money by avoiding unnecessary purchases. The inspectors are there to ensure public safety and, in my personal experience, have been a great resource and a wealth of information.

No matter what method of obtaining milk from the goat is used, remember these animals are almost always willing to work hard to produce to meet the need. It is very important for the dairy owner, large or small, to make sure an adequate supply of nutrition is provided, as well as clean water and a dry place to get in out of the weather. Proper health care leads to great tasting milk and a de-worming program and annual vaccinations are essential to good milk production. It also helps to keep reading Dairy Goat Journal to access years of combined knowledge as well as the latest in dairy goat innovations!

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