A fairly significant annual milestone in my life came and went without fanfare a few weeks ago. The weekend before we went away to California, I made the decision to stop milking my goat, Bella. Though my brother in law was housesitting while we were gone, and he has milked my goat before, I thought it was kind of a lot to ask him to do such a scheduled and labor-intensive (with all the dishwashing and sanitizing) chore. Plus, the weather was getting pretty cold and wet, the mornings were dark, and I was ready to sleep in occasionally and have a little more time to get other things done, so I called it quits.
From what I’ve read, the best way to dry off a goat is to just stop milking cold turkey. A milking doe may be uncomfortable for a few days, and in some extreme cases, she might need to be milked out a little to ease the pressure, but a hard stop is supposed to carry fewer risks than a gradual tapering off. Though they can get it at any point in the lactation cycle, goats are most prone to mastitis (a sometimes serious infection in the udder) right before and after kidding and as they’re drying off. Because of this, I was a little worried about going out of town right after I quit milking, so I gave her four days off milking before we left. Fortunately, she didn’t have any trouble other than a little discomfort.
The quantity of milk that an individual goat can produce varies widely depending on her breed, her age, her conformation, whether or not she’s kidded before, and at what point she is in her lactation cycle. In the beginning, a doe goat will begin to “bag up” a few days or weeks before kidding, but during the time immediately after kids are born, she won’t produce a huge amount of milk. For a few days, she’ll make only colostrum, a nutrient-and-antibody-rich, thick substance that is necessary for strengthening the immunities of her kids, and then later her udder will swell with milk. A doe’s milk production will start out fairly low and increase until about four months after kidding. Eventually, she’ll start to taper off (the exact timing depends on many variables), often around six months after kidding. Some goats if they’re not rebred can produce milk for a year or more, but others will dry up after only a couple months.
This year, Bella started off producing about 5-6 cups per milking (once per day), and after a few months, that increased to about 7 and sometimes 8 cups. In the early fall, her production started to taper off back down to about 6 cups, but then she voluntarily weaned her kids, and her production went back up to almost 7 cups every day.
Now that we don’t have an overwhelming quantity of dairy products in the fridge, I’m kind of out of sorts. Spending money on milk and yogurt seems strange, but it’s SO much easier that starting in the barn and making everything from scratch. Toward the end of the milking season, I had literally gallons of fresh chèvre on hand. We ate what we could and gave away a lot. It just didn’t seem very special anymore, but I kept making it because I didn’t know what else to do. Unfortunately, my grand plan of testing out some hard cheeses never happened, so now, we’ll just have to wait another four months before we eat goat dairy again. Hopefully by that time, we’ll have reinvigorated our excitement about creamy chèvre and rich milk.
Because of her kidding complications this past spring, Bella is now officially retired and will spend the rest of her days bossing the other goats around and eating clover. I won’t have any milking duties again until early May, which is about a month after my goat now-pregnant goat Minnie is due.
At this point, both Bella and Minnie are each getting a daily ration of grain to supplement their hay consumption with a little extra protein. I still haven’t quite decided how we’re going to divide up the goat herd when we have new kids this spring because they won’t all fit in the little barn and smaller-than-ideal yard. I’m thinking that maybe Bella and Kai will be put out to pasture somewhere a little farther from the house where they can eat blackberries and roam around a bit more, but there will be some fencing issues that need solving before that happens.
What I should be doing now is taking my wild goat Minnie out of the barn every day, picking up her feet, touching her udder, and getting her used to being handled and guided around. The reality is that things have been busy around here, so I haven’t spent as much time in the barn as I should, but as life mellows after Christmas, Minnie will get bumped up on my priority list.
Speaking of Christmas, Happy Holidays (whatever they may be) to you and yours. I hope that everyone has a few days with family or friends to celebrate and reflect on the good things in life.