The Milk Pail Diaries:
First lessons in milking goats...
And there she was... Bonita's a French Alpine doe, 3 years old with a black face and back and a brown body. She's the largest doe in the herd giving a gallon and a half of milk a day. The farm is happy to loan her over because they are getting a new doe from the community in Bellow's Falls Vermont and want their herd more uniform in size and production. Bonita is a great producer, but also larger than they prefer as far as children and families handling her. So they are happy to let me give goat owning a test drive. So am I.
I walked right into the pen and said hello to the fine lady. She did this thing were she showed me her upper plate and bottom teeth, lips curled back. I have no idea what this means since sheep only do this right before sex and I hardly know this woman. But she didn't try any moves, she just did the weird lip thing and sauntered around. I shrugged and scratched her ears. Then I checked out her teats. Two can play at this game.
Man, where they swollen! I started to feel a little doubt rise up in me. I mean, that entire fleshy milk container was packed with 2/3rds a gallon of warm milk and its my responsibility to get it all out in a quick and gentle manner in a way that doesn't cause mastitis or Lord knows whatever other goat-milking vapors I might cause through my clumsy hands.
Soon Yesheva and her children arrived, along with some other community members I know well. I've lived three miles away from Common Sense farm for two years now, sharing equipment, meals and conversations over hot mugs of tea. They've become good friends and farm co-conspirators over the years. We've bartered livestock for hay, built my sheep shed, and their landscaping team plows my driveway and has shoveled snow off my roof.
So when they ran this goat idea not only was I excited, but felt like I was in on something special. Bonita isn't just any Alpine, but a doe from a farm that cares for its animals so well their barn is usually in better shape than my living room (WHEN I have company over) so I feel both excitement and a little fear. I don't want to do anything wrong, or cause any harm.
Before I knew what was happening, a man opened the goat pen and let two out. Bonita and her pal Iris. They both bee-lined for their milking stands with such excitement I was shocked. Then I realized they were so used to the routine, the grain in the stands, and the relief of the empty bag...why wouldn't they run? It's like one wild date night in hyper speed. They get dinner and felt up in ten minutes flat.
With Bonita locked and loaded in the metal milking stand my lessons started. I was handed a warm, wet rag that smelled like lavender. It was a castile soap they use to clean and gently massage the teats before milking. This "lets down" the milk into the teats. It was a quick massage, and then on with the drying towel. Now that Bonita's swimsuit place was cleaned (and my own hands washed) a metal pail was set under her udder. I tried to recall the woman at Byler's Farm in Slatington Pennsylvania who taught me how to milk a cow on a family outing when I was. I used my thumb and forefinger to make an okay sign around the teat's base, pinched it off, and one finger at a time closed my fist.
Milk squirted into the pail!
Holy crow! I was doing it! I kept at it, and quickly learned how little pressure I was using. In the time it took me to get an 1/8 of an inch of milk in the pail my partner at the other stand was done and onto his next doe. So I have it some moxie, and a little more gentle force, and it came out faster and thicker. Okay, okay, I'm getting the hang of it. MY arms weren't used to it though. I got tired quickly, and had to switch hands. Eventually as the pail filled up I could feel her emptying out. When nothing came out of the back left teat I focused on the back right (which had plenty left). Yesheva praised my work, even if I was slow, because I wasn't causing milk to go "back up into the bag" a bad no no. This is what causes that scary mastitis disease.
In about fifteen minutes I had done the job. The milk pail was foaming with a happy half gallon of fresh milk and I felt like I just won a game of chess. I did some complicated and timeless, something people have been doing for hundreds of years. A dance between hunger and style. And the results were right there in front of me. Checkmate.
Tomorrow Cold Antler Farm turns into a micro-dairy!
P.S. Bonita will arrive early tomorrow morning. I'll get her milked outside the barn with a pail of grain and a tie out, and then walk her into a pen where she can meet Jasper through the safety of a closed stall door. I think having them side my side for a little will be good, in a way that Jasper can't hurt her if he is anti-goat. I don't think there will be trouble but better safe than sorry. Wish us luck and drama-free equine/caprine love.