Goats are sweet, social, mischievous and stubborn. They are a favorite of urban homesteaders who want fresh milk but can’t keep a cow.
Homesteaders favor milking goats as a food source because of their milk’s mild flavor and moderate output. Even people (like me) who don’t like “goat” flavor in milk and cheese are startled by how mild fresh goat milk tastes. Goats are also a great alternative if you can’t handle the volume of milk that a dairy cow gives.
Having a milking animal is a serious time commitment. Goats need to be milked approximately 12 hours apart, twice a day, every day during lactation. That means that if you want to go on vacation, you need a housesitter who knows how to milk!
That was how I learned to milk goats, as a housesitter for a homesteading family who wanted to go camping. In exchange for being taught to milk, and as much milk and eggs as I wanted, I would take care of their goats and chickens while they went hiking every summer.
If you are thinking about getting goats for milk, here are some things to think about (besides having neighbors who like milking goats)!
Goat Vocab: Female goats are called does, male goats bucks, and castrated males are wethers. Some people use the terms nanny and billy to refer to their goats, but most people consider those terms unprofessional and out-of-date. All baby goats are kids, and little ones are called doelings and bucklings if you want to distinguish them by sex.
So you want to buy goats! Goats are herd animals. Consider getting more than one, or be ready to spend a lot of social time with your goat. Goats can be extremely affectionate pets, if that is the role you want your goat to have, in addition to milking.
The first step is to find some goats for sale and decide what breed you want, then figure out how to transport them. If you don’t know a farmer or homesteader who is selling does, craigslist is the place to start. As always, the most important thing about buying livestock on craigslist is knowing what to look for and what questions to ask.
Ask when the kids were born, and who sired them, especially if the buck doesn’t live on the property. Goats are weaned between two and three months, and they should be energetic, clean, and healthy. Ask about a history of worms, parasites and footrot on the property—harmful organisms which live in soil and can be transferred to from one property to another.
Typically, goats are affectionate with humans. As you interact with the kids, if any are aggressive or excessively frightened, it may be a sign of mistreatment or neglect. As always, look for clean bedding in the kids’ environment.
Depending on where you live, and whether you are looking for a particular breed of milk goat, you may have to browse craigslist for weeks or months before finding something suitable. Do some research on goat varieties. Each variety has different strengths and drawbacks, and each farmer has their favorite breed. There is nothing wrong with having a couple of milking goats of different breeds.
Once you find goats to buy, you’ll have to figure out how to get them home. If you are buying kids or dwarf goats, you can put them in the bed of a truck with a canopy. If you are getting full grown does, you will probably need a livestock trailer. You will be able to find rental services that rent livestock trailers, but you may have to drive to a rural area.
Pasture For Goats
Goats are the hardiest ruminants. Unlike cows and sheep, they love roughage like brambles, blackberries, weeds and shrubs in their diets. A goat’s main nutrition however, should come from healthy, lush grass.
I have seen milk goats kept in urban backyards, but like all ruminants, they will be healthiest and happiest on pasture. Rotating goats on pasture is also important for their physical health as a form of pest control, to help control internal parasites that reproduce in the soil.
On good pasture, goats can get all their nutrition from grazing. In the winter, or when milking heavily, does may need supplemental hay or grain. Here are feed charts, with protein requirements.
Fencing For Goats
Fencing is the biggest challenge of the farmyard, for all animals all the time. Goats are smart, agile, curious and determined. A full grown doe weighs between 130 and 170 pounds, which is a lot of weight to lean against a barrier.
If you are not rotating your animals, you may want to invest in a sturdy, permanent fence. Especially if you are living in an urban or suburban area, you want to prevent your backyard goats from becoming your neighbor’s backyard goats. Farm animals are the reason they say good fences make good neighbors.
Goats are also greedy and goal oriented. They are much more likely to escape if there is something interesting visible (or smellable) on the other side of the fence, or if they are feeling neglected, or if they have over-grazed their pasture. Weigh the odds in your favor by making sure your goats have plenty of fresh forage, clean water, and attention. Consider enrichment toys and props, including climbing structures.
If you want to rotate your goats on pasture, you need movable fencing, or a series of fenced paddocks, which is a large infrastructural investment.
Electric Field Fencing
Electric field fencing is a common choice for movable fencing. It is lightweight and extremely easy to move. Electric fencing alone will not stop a determined or frightened goat from running straight through, even if it hurts them, so fencing with electric relies partially on the psychology of the animal. It will work best if animals are already trained to understand electric. Typically that means beginning to use electric with a secondary, solid fence as well, before transitioning to electric-only (as with many things, this works best when goats are young).
With pasture rotation, you have animal psychology on your side, since new forage and new territory to explore makes your goats less likely to want out of the pen. Be careful with small animals and electric netting. Young kids, lambs, piglets and poultry of all ages can become tangled in electrified netting and die. Take a look at some great fencing advice here.
Shade and Housing For Goats
Whether or not your goats are on pasture, they need shade in the summer and shelter in the winter. Summer shelters can be simple. A great design for ruminants on pasture is a lightweight shelter which can be moved as goats are rotated onto fresh pasture. Here is an example.
In the winter, a barn or solid shed are great for goats, something with significant protection from drafts, but good ventilation. Young and weak goats especially need sturdy shelter, and potentially access to a heat lamp if it is very cold during kidding season. Whatever your shelter is, your goats need thick, clean bedding to keep them off the cold ground.
If you live in a wet climate, goats will churn pasture into mud, and the grass needs rest to return healthy in the spring. Many owners of goats, sheep, horses, cattle and oher pastured animals have sacrafice areas, usually outside the barn or stable, so animals can have access to the outdoors during the muddy season, with the understanding that that ground will never be thriving pasture.
Muddy ground is a risk factor for hoof rot, a potentially debilitating bacterial infection. It is vital that your goats be able to get out of the mud, not just to sleep but to walk and play through the winter. As always, watch your animals, spend time with them, know their personalities so you know if they are acting oddly and might be sick.
Breeding and Kidding Goats
To give milk, a doe has to be bred. Many people who own milking goats do not own bucks. Having male hormones and pheromones near a milking doe actually changes the flavor of the milk, giving a stronger, “goatier” flavor.
Even with a buck on the property, I still find that very fresh goats’ milk is less goaty than anything you can buy in the store, but some people (like my mother) are very sensitive to the flavor. Regardless, owning a buck is an extra expense (and a potential liability, depending on his temperament) and many homesteaders choose to forego owning a buck.
Finding A Breeding Buck
That means that you need a breeding buck. Ask around in your community. Especially if you live in a rural area, but even if you live in a city, someone may have a buck they would loan at low cost or for free or trade.
If you don’t have goat-owning neighbors, there are breeding services available, where you can take your does to a property to be bred, or alternately have a buck loaned to you. The arrangement varies depending on the farm and your situation. Consider whether you want purebred kids, and if so, you will have to find a buck of the same breed.
Once the goat is bred, you have to deliver the kids. Goats gestate for 150 days, or approximately 5 months, and carry one or two kids. If you have the opportunity to attend a kidding or lambing with someone more experienced, or invite them to attend your first kidding, do it!
Normally, does do not need assistance kidding, but sometimes a human hand can save the life of a kid and doe. Many people teach themselves to lamb with books and online resources. Here is a great guide to kidding and preparation, and here are some additional tips.
Once the kids are born, they require care. Kids get the best start in life when left on their mother for several weeks to bond and nurse freely. Watch for bloating of the udder and discomfort behavior in the doe; if the kid is not drinking enough off the mother, you may need to milk supplementally to remove pressure from the udder.
Even after the kids are larger, many homesteaders find that leaving the kids on their mother to nurse part time, and milking once a day instead of twice, is a balance that works for them and their animals.
This typically looks like separating the animals at night, milking in the morning, and letting the doe and her kids bond and nurse all day. That means you get less milk, but have more flexibility in your daily schedule.
Milking is an art, not a science. The easiest way to learn is to get someone to show you, and it helps to have a patient animal to learn on!
Have a routine for your animals. Milking will go more smoothly if everyone knows what to expect. If you are using a stanchion, put your goat into it. It is fairly easy to build a free-standing goat stanchion. It is helpful to have food or something to keep the goat occupied while you milk.
Hygiene is important at every phase of the milking process, especially if you want to drink the milk raw. Someone told me once that to run a raw dairy, the milking parlor needs to be clean enough to go milk in your fuzzy slippers and pink bathrobe.
Always wipe down the goat’s udders with clean soapy water or a disinfectant teat-dip. This not only helps keep the milk you are drinking stay clean, it helps prevent bacteria crawling up into the udder and causing an infection. Before milking into your bucket, “strip” three or four squeezes of milk onto the ground to clear the teat.
Milk into a clean bucket, of course. A feisty goat will get her hooves in your milking pail before you can blink, then that milk needs to be thrown away or fed to animals. Use your forearms to block unruly hooves, and be ready to pull the bucket away if your goat is really upset. My experience has been that goats know exactly where the bucket is, and exactly how to kick it over if you are not on guard. Get to know your goat’s irritated tells.
Tips For Hand-Milking Goats
There is a steep learning curve to milking by hand. The essential and non-intuitive part of milking is “capturing” the milk at the top of the teat, between your thumb and the pad of your hand. Without a firm capture, no milk will come out. Then you milk with a rolling squeeze.
On goats with small teats, I sometimes milk with only my thumb, first and middle fingers. It takes practice and your hands (your entire arms, let’s be honest) will hurt while milking for about the first 2 to 4 weeks, but it will get faster and easier.
There are mechanical milking apparatuses to use on goats, but I personally have found that cleaning and fussing with them takes about as long and is as much trouble as milking one or two goats by hand, once you get good at milking.
You are done milking when the teat is only giving an inconsistent trickle of milk. The udder will feel distinctly different, soft and baggy as opposed to taut. Dip the teat in disinfectant again to prevent mastitis. Milk is sweet and bacteria love sugar, so it is especially important to leave your does’ teats cleaned.
What To Do With Goat Milk
When you are done milking the milk should be filtered through a thick cheese cloth and chilled or pasteurized then chilled immediately. All your equipment should be washed in hot water, or run through the dishwasher.
A strong milker gives up to a gallon a day during her peak, depending on the breed. That is a lot of milk to do something with! You won’t be able to make butter, because goats’ milk is naturally homogenized- it doesn’t separate easily the way cow’s milk does- but you will be able to make cheese!
People also make yogurt, kefir, even soap out of goat’s milk. My experience with milking regularly is that processing the milk takes as much if not more time than actually milking the animal. Plenty of room for creativity in the kitchen!
Keeping goats is a big step for your homestead or farm. Breeding, kidding, milking and processing will change the rhythm of your year and your everyday life. It ties you to your home in a way I had never experienced before having a milking animal. If the farm and homestead chores help you teach responsibility to your family, milking goats is the 201 level course.
Don’t let the step up intimidate you. Reach out for resources to your local extension office, to other goat owners in the area, anyone selling goat cheese at your local farmer’s market. There are plenty of resources online from plans for shelters to milking instruction. Even if none of your friends has experience with goats, invite a friend to be your buddy for moral support for challenging moments like first milking or kidding.
That summer that I farm-sat for my neighbors, I learned to both love and dread keeping goats. I was a novice milker, and my hands and wrists ached all the time. They had two feisty, uncooperative does who danced on the stanchion and did everything they could to put their feet in the bucket. There was a buck who would charge the gate when I went to get the does.
But there was also an incredibly sweet, patient older doe, and with her I learned the peace, connection and satisfaction that come from milking an animal. She was warm on chilly mornings, and smelled like milk. If I was in a bad mood, she would act out and misbehave.
Milking her required me to calm myself. I would lean my head against her hip and let my hands work, and have a moment when I couldn’t do anything except be present with her. She helped teach me what everyone who keeps animals learns eventually—we keep them not because they give us delicious milk, but because we love sharing our lives with them.