I didn’t consider us proper off-grid homesteaders until we produced our own milk. And though a learning curve for sure, it wasn’t as steep as some folk make out.
From picking the breed to general care and upkeep, many of the basics are covered in the post embedded below ‘goats’.
This article will focus specifically on breeding, kidding and, as the title suggests, milking.
While any breed of goat can be milked, ensuring you have dairy goats will of course optimize production. We opted for ‘Nigerian Dwarfs’ and are soon acquiring a few ‘Murcianas’. These are both great milkers that also happened to be abundant in our area.
Other prolific dairy breeds include Alpine, Saanen, Nubian and Toggenburg.
Equally important (at least for us), Nigerian Dwarfs and Murcianas can be bred at anytime of the year, they are not seasonal breeders like many of the larger stocks.
Selecting A Buck
Assuming your dairy does have been sorted, you’re going to need to source a buck (a male goat)
The offspring were important to us, so we didn’t want just any old buck knocking up our does. He had to be healthy, of course, but also of the same breed so that we could continue the breeding line.
For us, in the sticks of rural Portugal and with our poor –though improving– grasp of the language, a visual appraisal of the potential suitors we visited was key.
Mr Goat should have wide nostrils, a strong, well-formed mouth with well-fitting jaws, and preferably up to six teeth. His horns should be strong and curve steeply backwards. Ears that are too short are undesirable. He should have a broad, long rump which doesn’t slope too much, well-fleshed buttocks which are not too flat, and fully fleshed thighs. And, finally, his balls should be the same size, not too small, with a scrotum circumference of at least 10 inches (25 cm)
Most goats will breed easily when simply put together and left to their own devices. Stopping them from breeding has been the issue for us (we’ve had to construct many an extra enclosure to stop the love-in, particularly with the birth of new baby bucks as they can breed from as early as just 10 weeks old).
One buck will happily breed with dozens of does, and can be kept separate in their own pen. But he will get lonely (and so noisy). And while the interweb advises you keep your buck with a wether –a castrated male– we had zero issues keeping multiple intact bucks together in the same pen. And for a truly independent homestead, keeping an extra intact buck or two makes sense, as backups.
In short, our method is very simple: we lead Mr Goat into the females pen, shut the gate and let him at it.
Then after a week or two, we round him up and return him to his pen (we could probably bring him out a lot earlier but it seems mean when he’s having so much fun).
We have had a 100% impregnation rate (so far) with this simple hands off technique.
Tip: Keeping milk does in close contact with an intact buck will make her milk taste ‘goaty’ — goes the official advice. However, we personally have had no issues, even with does that directly share a pen with a buck.
Visible signs a doe might be pregnant could show up as early as 2 or 3 weeks, including her stomach tightening and a little weight gain.
If the doe is being milked, a key sign of pregnancy will be the slowing of her production. And as for a doeling (a young unbred female goat), her udders will soon begin to swell and descend, perhaps within a month.
After about three months, the kicking and wriggling of the kids will be apparent.
After five months (145 – 150 days), the pregnant doe will give birth.
The most exciting part of the process — kidding.
If you hadn’t work out the theme of our homestead yet, it’s to be as hands off as possible, and that comes to kidding too. We’ll be alert to the incoming kids, of course, and nearby in case of complications, but it is the doe’s job to bring her babies into the world. There is no need, as I see across the interweb, to get overly involved.
The vast majority of our kiddings have occurred without us even being present.
And that’s not to say issues can’t arise, of course they can, but I would argue that 90% of problems that can be rectified will be done so by the mother.
The only time I can remember where I had to intervene was with a young kid, maybe a few weeks old. His breathing become very labored, and he was struggling to breathe. We ran through the list of potentially issues, such as bloat, but nothing really seemed to fit. In the end I passed some tubing down his gullet which seemed to do the trick. I think it was either trapped gas or a blockage, but anywhere, after a day of him struggling I felt the need to intervene, and it worked.
With a few licks from mom, young kids should cleaned up and walking around the pen within the hour.
They will start latching on and feeding, too.
Colostrum is the first milk produced by the doe. This contains the crucial antibodies providing the kid with its initial immunity boost against diseases. Since the antibodies in colostrum can only be effectively absorbed in the first 18-or-so hours after birth, successful early feeds are recommended.
Patience is sometimes key, though.
Our new mothers, on occasion, have been understandably tired after birthing and require a little rest first which often coincides with eating the placenta (another natural and highly beneficial, yet admittedly gross, process).
We try and give the kids a good 4-weeks of milk before we begin taking any for ourselves.
One-month-old kids are more than ready to share their mother’s milk.
What’s worked best for us is shutting our kids away from mom overnight –somewhere where they can still see each other, but just so the baby can’t drain the udders– and milk the doe in the morning, before reuniting them.
Don’t worry about stripping too much milk from the mother, she will hold enough back for her babies.
And after around 8 weeks, babies can be weaned anyway, and a proper twice-daily schedule (morning and evening) can be implemented. Once the routine is rolling and the milk is flowing, one of our Nigerian Dwarf’s provides a quart or more (1+ liter) in the morning and then the same again in the evening. This makes for more than 1/2 gallon a day (2 liters), and so easily 15 gallons a month (≈60 liters) — again, per goat.
We never bothered with a milking stand initially, opting instead to tying legs down (if the goat was a kicker) or, more often, getting my own children to hold the back legs in place — and this worked fine, to begin with.
As our herd has grown, however, this is no longer feasible time-wise, and the construction of our milk stand has been the biggest blessing, making me wonder why we didn’t build one sooner.
Training the goats to the stand can take a little effort, but with persistence and a helping of delicious homegrown pumpkins (or whatever your goat’s favorite snack happens to be), it shouldn’t take too long.
For the milk stand plans, we used these courtesy of fiascofarm.com.
I place my thumb and forefinger together and pinching the top of a (cleaned) teat, where it meets the bulge of the udder. These two fingers trap the milk in the teat, preventing it from moving back into the udder when the teat is squeezed. Then, with the rest of my fingers, I work the milk out of the teat.
This can be hard work, particularly to begin with. But with a bit of practice, and once I learned that I’m not going to hurt the animal, I was well-away, manually milking out a quart in just a few minutes.
‘Bumping’ the udder may help in getting the doe to ‘let down’, which mimics the actions of a hungry kid.
Note, the first few squirts from each teat should go to floor.
Also, when it comes to ‘kickers’, we’ve found that that milking into a bottle (or any container with a narrow opening) is preferable to a bucket as it’s harder to tip over and spill.
Storing The Milk
The quicker the milk is chilled the less ‘goaty’ the taste will be.
On hot days we flash-cool our freshly acquired milk in the freezer, before moving to the fridge.
Storing in glass jars, we get a good week out of each batch (though milking twice-daily there is never the need to store for that long). Frozen milk will last a year–but for the absorption of odors etc. from other foods in the freezer.
Producing your own milk is big step to achieving food independence. And, as we discovered, it isn’t nearly as hard as some like to make out.