How to milk a goat
For many dairy goat farmers, milking isn’t just a daily chore. It’s also a time to connect with each animal, learn their quirks and check their overall health.
“It’s a very pleasant experience to milk a goat,” said Lisa Shepard of New Mexico.
Shepard owns a small herd of Saanen goats, which are one of the largest and most productive dairy goats in the world. She also works as the performance programs manager for the American Dairy Goat Association.
Every goat farmer has their own methods of milking, she said, their own preferences and opinions. One way isn’t necessarily better than another. A lot of a milking routine depends on the size of a herd, the breed of dairy goat and the layout of a farm.
For those who are new to milking goats or for those looking to improve their milking routine, here are some tips from Shepard and other seasoned dairy goat farmers.
Consider using a milking stand
While some dairy goat farmers milk while crouching or sitting on the ground — usually in a designated milking room — the majority of dairy goat farmers choose to use a milking stand or platform, Shepard said. This simple piece of equipment, also known as a stanchion, elevates the goat a foot or more above the ground (depending on the size of the goat) and allows the milker to sit in a chair or stool while milking, which is typically more comfortable than crouching and cleaner than sitting on the ground.
Another benefit of using a milking stand is that it can be easily cleaned, which helps to keep the milking area and milk sanitary.
In most cases, the platform features a headpiece that closes behind the goat’s head, keeping the animal in place for the few minutes it takes to be milked. This prevents a goat from walking off before you’ve emptied its udder of milk.
“They don’t stay there forever,” Shepard said. It takes her between 5 and 8 minutes to milk each goat.
Just under the headpiece, within easy reach, most milking platforms also feature a tray for grain and other goat-appropriate treats. This encourages the goat to get on the stand and in the right position, and it occupies and rewards them during milking.
Handle your goats early and often
Spending time with your goats and familiarizing them with your touch, especially early in their lives, will naturally make milking an easier experience.
“When they’re young, teach them to get on the platform in your milking area,” Shepard said. “That way it’s not a wrestling match or rodeo [when they get older].”
Kay Holloway, who serves as milk chair for the Nigerian Dwarf Goat Association, also supports this practice. Though she no longer owns goats, she has years of experience raising and milking goats. At one point, she was milking 12 Nigerian dwarf goats, twice a day.
“When they’re babies, put them up on the milk stand and let them have a little grain when they get older, five or six months old,” Holloway said. “Pretty soon they’ll just jump right up on it.”
Once the goats mature, Holloway recommends rubbing their udders while they’re on the stand so they become accustomed to you touching their udders before they’re first milked.
Your attitude matters
Many farmers hold the belief, based on personal experiences, that goats can detect negative emotions and will respond to them by becoming nervous or acting out. But this theory is supported by more than just anecdotal evidence. A 2017 study conducted by researchers from Scotland and France found that dairy goats reacted differently to images of human faces displaying different emotional states.
For this reason, smiling and speaking in gentle tones could help your milking routine run more smoothly.
“Be patient. Enjoy the Zen of milking,” Shepard said with a laugh. “When I’m in a rush or a bad mood or whatever and I don’t want to be out there, then you what what? The goats kick the bucket over.”
Establish a routine
“Goats like a routine,” Shepard said. “They don’t like to be surprised.”
Milking your goats the same way every day will allow your animals to anticipate and even look forward to the chore (especially if they receive a reward, like grain). A routine will also train the goats to behave a certain way, and a predictable goat is much easier to handle than an unpredictable goat.
A routine is defined as a sequence of actions regularly followed, but in this case, it can also include the materials you use (such as the type of bucket or machinery), the time of day you milk, whether or not you wear gloves, where you milk, and the order in which you milk your goats.
“They’re such creatures of habit,” said Hope Hall, owner of Sunflower Farm Creamery in Cumberland, Maine, where she currently milk 26 Nigerian dwarf goats by hand. “I have a broom propped up against the wall in the milking room, and if I move it, no one will come in. They’re fascinating creatures in that way. They look so spontaneous because they’re so playful and silly, but when it comes to things like food and milking, they really like that things stay the same.”
Pinch, don’t pull
For those who haven’t hand-milked an animal before, it takes some practice. Unlike a cow, which has four teats, a goat has only two. To milk them, you usually use both hands — one per teat — and move your fingers in a specific way that coaxes the milk down and into the bucket.
“You take your thumb and forefinger and you reach up to where the teat attaches to the udder and you close your forefinger and thumb together,” Holloway explained. “Then you use the rest of your fingers to squish the milk out of the orifice. In one motion, you push the milk out of the teat.”
Often, people’s first instinct is to pull the teat, but that can actually hurt — and in some cases, injure — a goat.
“You can’t help but pull a bit, but you don’t want to yank them down,” Holloway said. “I think that would be the most important thing. You don’t want to cause any more distress or soreness on teats while milking.”
Shepard describes the motion in a similar manner.
“Pinch off the [teat’s] top with thumb and your forefinger, and roll the rest of your fingers down the teat,” Shepard said. “Usually what happens is pretty disastrous the first few times until you get that motion down, but once you get it down, you won’t forget it.”
To get the most milk out of a goat’s udder, farmers will often wait until no more milk is streaming into the pail, then they’ll bump the udder with their hand.
“That’s what the babies do, they bump their mom,” said Mandy Wheaton, owner of Wheaton Mountain Farm in Bucksport, Maine, who is currently milking four of her Nubian goats twice a day.
This motion — pressing up against the udder with the palm of your hand quickly several times — will often cause the goat to let down more milk, which can then be milked into your pail.
Some goats are easier to milk than others
Young goats that are new to being milked can be more challenging to milk, Holloway said, because the process is new to them and their udders can be especially sensitive. In addition, some goats — young or old — just cause more of a fuss about milking.
“Sometimes they just want to jump around and kick the bucket,” Holloway said. “I had a couple of does [a female goat] that, their whole life, I had to use hobbles.”
Hobbles are soft straps that connect the goat’s back legs, which prevents them from lifting one foot to kick or step in the milk pail or trample a milking machine.
In addition, some goats are more difficult to milk because of their anatomy. Goat teats vary somewhat in shape and size, Shepard explained, and the amount of milk each goat produces can vary dramatically.
“Getting to know your goats is a big part of it,” Hall said. “Some like to be milked one side at a time, and some like you to get go really fast and don’t stop. [It’s important to] actually look at the size of the goat’s teats and what they prefer and what bothers them.”
Consider a milking machine
While many farmers prefer milking their goats by hand, some choose to use a milking machine for a variety of reasons.
The decision may be influenced by the size of your herd, said Holloway. Hand milking a few goats can be easily and quick, but it can be a daunting task for owners of larger herds. Many milking machines allow you to milk two or more goats at once.
Milking machines are also a good option for people who have trouble using their hands, such as people with arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome. And milking machines can help prevent milk from being contaminated.
Milking machines vary from a simple hand pump that milks one animal at a time to an electric pump that can milk two or more goats at once.
To transition her goats from being milked by hand to being milked by a machine, Holloway turned on the machine while milking them by hand, then eased them onto the machine over time.
Establish a cleaning routine
Milk can be contaminated with harmful bacteria in a number of ways, including contact with animal feces or dirt (both of which exist in abundance on farms) and unwashed equipment. Milk can even be contaminated by bacteria that live on the skin of animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For this reason, keeping your goats and your milking area clean is important.
“People have different ways of cleaning and prepping before they milk, and after they milk,” Shepard said. “[For example] gloves are a matter of preference. I find I prefer using gloves for a little extra sanitation.”
A common practice is to wash a goat’s udder with a special solution — which can be homemade and natural — before and after milking. This will get rid of bacteria that could make its way into the milk. And after milking, washing will help prevent a goat’s udder from becoming infected.
“You’ve opened up a conduit when you’re milking,” Shepard explained, adding that she feeds her goats after she milks them so they don’t lie down in dirt or feces right after being milked, which could also open them up to infection.
Chill the milk immediately
“Refrigeration is the single most important factor in maintaining the safety of milk,” according to a fact sheet on the safe handling of milk and dairy products by Clemson Cooperative Extension.
According to The Dairy Practices Council, goat milk should be cooled quickly to between 36 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, then maintained at that temperature until and following pasteurization, which is a process that involves heating the milk to a certain temperature to kill bacteria. Some dairies choose not to pasteurize their milk, producing what’s known as “raw milk.”