Owner and Farmer
...Because if you want it raw, organic, grass fed, corn- and soy-free, you'll be hard-pressed to find it at the grocery.
Step 1: Buy a female goat
Well, actually, you need at least two goats. They will drive themselves, and you, crazy if they are alone. Make sure your goat is free from diseases like CL, CAE, Tuberculosis, Johnnes, parasites, and Brucella. Make sure her feet have been kept trimmed. Make sure you can catch her, handle her, and get her on a milk stand. Oh! Make sure you have a shelter for your goat (they can't stand the rain), a way to keep her safe from predators, and solid fencing. Otherwise she will go exactly where you don't want her to go and ruin all the nice things you used to have.
Step 2: Feed your goat
This entails some combination of the following options. Option 1: Buy seed. Put it on the ground. Spend an afternoon loading up several wheel barrows full of the compost you've made from your goat's bedding and spread it over your seed as mulch. Water the seed, twice a day in the beginning. Repeat every weekend. Rest your sore muscles this year, because next year you won't have time for such luxuries. Repeat in the Spring and Fall. Pay the water bill each month. Cry a little when you do. Catch said tears to use as irrigation (every drop counts!) Option 2: Track down the best-priced organic alfalfa you can find (Spoiler Alert: It will cost twice as much as the not-organic stuff). Order it in bulk so you save a little money, Write out a big check (cry a little, catch said tears...). Unload 2 tons -- literally -- of alfalfa into a building you've built or purchased for storage. Feed it to your goat everyday, AM and PM. This option repeats about every month.
For either of these options, you'll also want to include OMRI-certified minerals, baking soda, lots of fresh water, and spend some time doing research on other supplements and natural treatments that will keep your goat healthy.
Step 3: Breed your goat
Most goats will only breed in the Fall. If you were lucky enough to buy a pregnant goat, you can skip this step. But yes, in order for goats to produce milk, they have to have babies. So you'll need to find a nice healthy buck, free from all the diseases described in Step 1, and either buy him and keep him yourself (and be prepared to shower twice a day in the Fall) or transport your lady goat to him when she's in heat and ready for a "play date." You'll pay a stud fee and probably boarding for this. You'll come home stinking and so will your goat. And if you're lucky it will "take" on the first try and you won't get peed on.
Step 4: Wait 5 months
That's the length of a goat's gestation period. You won't know for sure that she's prego unless you do a blood test. They typically don't show signs of pregnancy until months 3 or 4. In the meantime, learn all about kidding and milking. And keep feeding your goat. Keep raking out her bedding and cleaning her stall. You need to maintain her in top condition so that she's prepared for the stress of delivering and caring for kids. You should also start training her to get on the milk stand at this point. It's a process.
Step 5: Buy or build a milk stand and equipment
The most affordable stand you can buy is $300. If you're just going to milk by hand, you need at least one stainless steel bucket, a cup for stripping milk, udder wash, and teat dip. Oh, and lots of paper towels. Lots. Also some kind of strainer for your milk. Now is a good time to start working out your hand muscles too. You're gonna need 'em.
Step 6: Deliver babies!
Hopefully you know when your goat was bred, so you know about when she is due. You'll watch her like a hawk for a week prior to her due date. Make sure she has clean bedding all the time. After all this, she will still wait for the second you aren't around to deliver babies. Hopefully she does this on her own with no hangups. But you should be prepared to "glove up and go in" or call a vet if needed. Make sure babies nurse from mom and get colostrum (and have some on hand in case they don't).
Step 7: Take care of babies
Make sure they are warm enough. Dip their umbilical cords. In about a week, you will have to decide if you want to disbud them, which means using a hot iron to burn off and cauterize the spot where their horns grow from. So, plan to spend hours researching whether or not it's best to disbud them given your situation and circumstances. If you decide disbudding is best (most people do), you can do this yourself or pay someone. If you have boys, you'll have to likely wether them. So plan to spend hours researching (a) what that means, and (b) how you do it (spoiler alert: it means removing their testicles). If you're bottle feeding babies, you need to buy milk and teach them to drink it from a bottle. Be prepared! It's messy. If you haven't already designated a drawer full of "farm clothes," now is the time. Kids need to be fed every 2-3 hours in the beginning, and you can gradually increase the time between feedings. Do this every day for at least 12 weeks. And then try to sell the babies to good homes.
Step 8: Start sprouting grain
Find an organic source of whole grain (see step 2 above). Soak some for 24 hours, drain it for 24 hours, sprout it for 7 days. Repeat daily.
Step 9: Milk your goat
Yay! You have milk! Well, almost. Hopefully your goat is trained to get on the milk stand by now. So each morning (and night, if you need more milk -- remember, the goat kids need milk too!), sanitize all your equipment, bring her to the milk stand, offer a mix of your sprouted grain/fodder and alfalfa, clean her udder, dip her teats, dispose of the first few squirts and then milk her into the bucket. Dip her teats again. Filter the milk, chill it as quickly as possible, wash everything really really well. Repeat. She WILL put kick the bucket over. She will put her foot in the bucket. She will kick you. Your hands will cramp. You will cry over spilled milk. You might get placenta on your face. Keep going. It will get easier. Either way, if you want to keep getting milk, you have to keep going. Here's how we do it.
Step 10: Repeat step 9. Every. Day.
You have to milk every day. It works on a supply and demand basis. Your goat will produce as much as you milk. If you don't milk, she'll stop producing. She'll also probably get mastitis, which can be caused by any number of icky bacteria that creep up into the udder, through the opening in the teat and feed on the milk that you left in there. She could get it anyway, even if you milk everyday, so you'll have to constantly be on the watch for it, testing for it, and making sure you are prepared to treat it. Her production will peak at about 3 months and then gradually slow down after that until the fall. She'll come into heat again, and her production will drop even more, and you'll have to decide whether to milk through (meaning you don't breed her but keep her in milk by continuing to milk every day), or breed her and dry her off at least two months before she kids again, giving both of you a break.
You can find a farmer who you trust to do all this for you.(and so much more -- this is such a facetious simplification of the whole ordeal)
I started milking our goats in January, 2015. And then instead of drying everyone off last Fall and having them kid again, I didn't breed them, and I "milked through." Most goat dairies breed in the Fall, dry off in the winter, and take a much needed few months off. Like most food, dairy is seasonal. You might think, "Sheesh! Must be nice to take a few months off!" But consider that the months "on" mean working 7 days a week. No weekends off. No holidays. No sick days.
Every. Damn. Day. I love how we say, "Yep, 7 days a week." As though there are other days of the week. There aren't. It's every day.
This means, as of today, I've been milking goats every morning for 678 days straight. Six hundred and seventy eight. For almost two years, I've been providing dairy to families in our community, including my own. On the rare occasion that I've had to leave the farm to attend a family member's wedding or take the brief holiday vacation, I've paid someone to milk. So much for "paid vacation leave." Oh no. Vacations get a lot more expensive when you tack on the costs of a farm-sitter (although, I cannot overstate the value of a capable farm-sitter. You know who you are, and I love you. Please don't ever leave).
I spend two hours every morning milking goats, cleaning equipment, managing our fodder system, feeding pigs, turning out chickens, and making sure everyone has fresh water. The milking process takes the majority of this time. And then I start my actual work day. Because, yes, I still have a real world job that I rely on to pay the bills. Imagine your busy work day, and then start it 2 hours later than you probably should.
It costs my $25 a day in feed alone to keep this place running. That means I have to make $25 a day to sort of break even. That is, if you're not counting the money spent on water, equipment, chemicals for cleaning, or my time.
I'm not telling you all of this because I want sympathy or pity. I'm oversharing because I want you to have some context for what I'm about to say next.
There is good news and bad news.
We are ending our season. I've made the very tough decision to dry off all the girls. I've put milk, cheese, and yogurt in the freezer for ourselves, and we are taking a few months "off." And when I say "off," I just mean from milking. The animals still have to be fed and watered each morning and night. Their poo still needs to be managed. But we will also use the time I can free up from daily milking to complete some other projects, including a new barn (yay!) and building out a portion of the workshop as a production space for soaps and skincare.
We will be back in the Spring.
Following this much-needed break, 10 goats will have babies in the Spring, which means 10 goats will be producing milk. I've also found a more affordable source for our alfalfa, and so we will be able to reduce our prices a bit, which feels amazing.
So we will have plenty of milk available, but we are also going to change how we make it available.
The specifics of this are to come, but suffice it to say, we will be asking for more of a commitment from our customers. If I am going to commit an animal to producing milk, commit to milking it every day so as to sustain a regular supply, we need, in turn, a consistent demand. We are small. We don't get government subsidies to carry us through the lows of the boom and bust cycles that define this industry. When a new customer shows up and says they want to buy 20 quarts a week, I hustle to meet that demand. So it hurts us, financially and in so many other ways, if that customer disappears. Because we're small, one regular customer is a large percentage of our business. If you want a farmer to commit to producing safe, healthy milk for your family, you in turn have to commit to your farmer. We just can't survive as a business any other way.
We will be rolling out the details of this new model as the Spring approaches. But the gist is this. We will be asking people to commit to owning a share of the herd for the season. With lowered feed prices allowing us to lower our milk prices, we hope this will be a more feasible option for more people. Shareholders will pay us to milk and board their animal(s) and in turn they will receive an equivalent proportion of what the herd produces each week (in milk, cheese, kefir, yogurt, etc.). Some weeks this may be a lot! And in that case, we recommend freezing anything extra for times when production is lower. This is how real food works.
The amount of commitment we get will determine how many goats we keep to milk and how many we sell. We look forward to building a community of like-minded individuals who are willing to commit to real, healthy, whole foods.
For those who feel the commitment is asking too much but still want fresh goat milk, I refer you back to steps 1 through 10. : )