Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How to Milk a Goat (Or Not.)

I've spent the past week milking desperately attempting to milk a goat. I think I've finally figured it out not cried in the milking parlor for two days in a row and feel ready to write a post about it.

Here's what I've learned.

Just because you own what is possibly The World's Friendliest Goat means nothing when it comes to milking time. She may follow you around, lay her head on your shoulder, nuzzle your pockets for the treats she knows are in there. None of this means she thinks you have any business at all groping her udder.

Just because The World's Friendliest Goat has been milked before doesn't mean she'll remember it at all. You could put her up on that stanchion and, despite the fact that she's stood on it many times in her past, she might think you are locking her head in that gate so that you can torture her. And she will fight back.

There are at least twenty two muscles in your hands and arms that you didn't know existed. You will know, however, when you start milking. Because every single one of those muscles will hurt like hell for days on end. You will not be able to lift your coffee pot. You will not be able to undress yourself because your arms simply won't bend that way anymore.  The mere thought of going back out to the barn again will cause muscle spasms in your arms and hands.

Prior to your doe kidding, you should find a great chiropractor and develop a solid relationship with him/her. He or she will be your best friend in the coming weeks, when you throw your back out in six different places while you try to figure out how to properly squirt milk from a goat's teats while simultaneously holding a bucket in your hands to try to stop her from putting her foot in the bucket. Which will not be effective, by the way. Her foot will always end up in the bucket.

There is one benefit to having your doe kid in January, when the average temperature at seven o'clock in the morning is below 20 degrees (or even below 10.) You don't have to worry about getting your milk cooled fast enough. By the time you get to the house, it'll be slush. You'll have to thaw it before you can strain it and put it in the fridge.

Watch YouTube videos. YouTube is an amazing resource. There are so many "How to milk a goat" videos. This was tremendously helpful in making me realize that most of my problem is that I own the goat with the smallest teats in the world. The people in their videos were putting their whole hands on the teats - I'm lucky to fit my bottom two fingers on there! Just seeing this made me realize it's not entirely my fault that this has been such a difficult process. You can also see what a well-behaved milk goat looks like, so you can dream about how nice that would be. 

All kidding aside though (kidding, ha!) here a few little bits I've picked up in the past week.

Don't expect things to go wrong. Watch carefully, and always check for problems, but but don't go looking for problems that don't exist. I was told "if her udder gets hard, she may be getting mastitis." Well, when her milk came in, her udder was hard as a rock. Then I was told to milk her out a few times a day until it was softer. But the milk wouldn't come. The panic set in along with the symptoms of a congested udder, and the advice I found suggested milking every hour around the clock. I did it... for a day and a night. I was exhausted, I was in tears, and I was pretty sure goat meat was starting to sound pretty tasty.

But here's the thing: goats have managed to survive for a really long time without human intervention. I wish I had just slept, that I had just watched her for a few days. She didn't have mastitis symptoms, the babies were growing and full of energy, her udder was just really, really full. A few days later, when I decided I couldn't handle the constant milking, and had given it up, her body situated itself to the demand of the kids, and her udder is just fine. Yes, things can go wrong. Yes, you should know the signs. But trust nature (and your gut instinct) a little bit, too. Even a first timer has a gut instinct - I just didn't want to trust mine because I figured I knew nothing.

A wiggly goat on the stanchion is going to ruin every bit of milk you manage to get out of her. She will knock over the bucket. She will put her foot (or feet) in the bucket. She will get nervous and poop in the bucket. There are a lot of ways to fix this (including goat hobbles, which I seriously started looking into.) But we've found a solution. My goat eats her portion of grain by the time I've got her brushed off and ready to milk. By dropping a couple of alfalfa cubes in the bottom of the grain bucket, she has to work around them to get to the grain. It takes her three times longer to eat her grain. Then she slowly and methodically gnaws down the alfalfa pellets, buying me even more time. And then, if I'm still finishing (hey, I'm still slow at this!) The Oldest stands at her head and feeds her one raisin at a time. By the time she's had a few, I'm done.

I also learned to milk into a smaller stainless steel bowl, and dump it frequently into the bucket sitting on the ground next to me. That way if she kicks it, or steps in it, or poops in it, only a few squirts of milk are ruined, as opposed to the whole bucket. (By the way, Goodwill almost always has a great assortment of stainless steel bowls and pails and such. Just in case you're looking.)

Learn what your goat likes, and don't push her to accept more than what she's comfortable with. My goat absolutely hates for me to milk her with both hands. She holds relatively still now (with extra treats and a girl petting her and talking to her) if I'm going at it with only one hand. As soon as I try to grab both teats at the same time, she turns from mostly docile to a one goat rodeo. Some day, when she's perfectly comfortable with this milking process, I may try to work up to that again. But for now, I'm gonna do it like she wants me to. That means a bit more time on my part, but if that means I'm not getting kicked in the face, I'll do it. (Gosh, that whole paragraph just sounded a little bit like a bad "relationship advice" column.)

Patience is key. As soon as you lose patience with her, she will feel it, and she will get nervous. (Which means she will poop on the stand. Again.) You do actually have to relax to do this, though it's hard and I still struggle with that. There's a rhythm in milking - find it. (I've found it twice now. It's satisfying, but not easy. And that rhythm shouldn't include a foot in the bucket after every third squirt.)

When all else fails, when the milk you've worked so hard to get is in a puddle on the floor of the milking room, when your shoulders and your back hurt so bad you can't stand up or sit down, when you look at your doe and all you can see is a goatburger and fries... go into the stall with the babies and just sit there. Let them climb on you, let them nibble on your ear (or your coat, or your glove) and let them nudge you as they beg for some scratching on their heads. Just stay there until your heart rate is back to normal, until you are breathing properly, and preferably until you giggle at least once. Doing this will ensure that the next time you are walking out to the barn at seven a.m. with your milk pail, that you will have renewed hope that today will be the day she will hold still, that the milk will come easily, that this effort is all actually worth it. And then, when it doesn't work out, just go sit back in the stall with the kids again. 

Okay, so reality: milking a goat is a lot harder than I was expecting. Part of this (maybe most of it) is because my goat isn't the easiest milker in the world, for several reasons. Part of it is because I thought it was going to be easy, and it's not. But I have hope - I can see how this could be a peaceful, pleasant way to start my day... some day, in the distant future. I'll just keep hoping for that, and in the meantime, I'll try to keep from crying in the grain room.


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