When you live off-grid, you needn’t give up homegrown dairy products if you milk the old-fashioned way—by hand. Doing so is better than machine milking in a lot of ways. You don’t need expensive equipment. Cleanup after milking is easy. You get to spend relaxing time interacting with your favorite animal. And you can have sweet, creamy milk, cheese, yogurt and butter.
Dairy: Do or Don’t
If you’re considering adding a dairy animal to your farm, understand the commitment before you commit. Dairying, even on a micro-scale, is a huge obligation. Someone has to milk dairy stock twice a day, around the same time of day, throughout lactation. Sometimes low producers and animals nursing offspring can be milked once a day. However, howling blizzards, sizzling heat and humidity, days when you’re sick or exhausted … it doesn’t matter. Dairy stock must be milked.
In most cases, to get milk, you need to breed your animals once a year. This means finding a “boyfriend” or having them artificially inseminated. You might borrow or rent a bull, buck or ram, or haul your female to someone else, which isn’t an easy task, especially when dealing with cows. The exception is milking through. Once they’ve produced offspring, some goats continue lactating over a long period of time without rebreeding, but this isn’t the norm.
All species require a timeout prior to giving birth when they aren’t milked. Two months is typical. During this time, you won’t have fresh milk, and freezing a supply to tide you over isn’t practical in many off-grid situations.
You need to be there when your livestock gives birth, too. Yes, cows, does and ewes have given birth without assistance since the dawn of time, but many of those animals or their offspring died.
You also must let your ladies raise their offspring and then start milking when babies are weaned, or sell or separate and bottle raise them yourself. Modern dairy animals produce considerably more milk than their offspring need, so when calves, kids and lambs are a few weeks old, some folks separate them from their mothers at night and milk once in the morning. This works, too, but it requires protected overnight facilities for mothers and babies.
It takes good feed and plenty of it to produce good milk. This means quality hay or good grazing and, for higher production, supplementary grain or a bagged, species-specific commercial feed. Sufficient housing and decent fences are also musts. Finally, find a species-savvy large-animal veterinarian, then program that person’s number into your phone. You’ll need it.
To start hand milking, you’ll need some specific equipment. First, you’ll need a stainless steel bucket or bowl to milk into; a large kitchen bowl works fine. Some folks milk into a bowl and periodically dump its contents into a larger container, an especially good idea when milking nervous or fractious animals. Plastic containers are out because you can’t sanitize them properly, and glass containers break if kicked or dropped. A scrupulously clean, damp cloth or unscented baby wipes to cleanse teats and udder before milking.
The first few squirts of milk go into a strip cup with a fine screen in it or into a dark bowl, to check for clumps or lumps that could indicate problems. After milking, a commercial teat dip in a teat dip cup or a small, disposable paper cup, or an aerosol product such as Fight Bac, help close teat orifices in a timely manner.
Back in the kitchen, strain the milk into a glass or stainless steel container, through a commercial milk filter nestled in a stainless steel strainer. At this point, if you choose to pasteurize your milk, do so. Otherwise, cool it as quickly as you can, immersing it in icy water, if available. Then use it to craft cheese, yogurt or your other favorite dairy treats, or store it in glass containers in the refrigerator or your springhouse. Lidded canning jars work well.
Sanitize utensils after milking by thoroughly rinsing them in cold water, washing them with warm soapy water, immersing them in a 10-parts warm water, 1-part chlorine bleach solution for 60 seconds and upending them in a draining rack. When they’re dry, pack them for the next milking or leave them in the draining rack and cover with a towel.
The best way to learn to milk is watching an experienced milker. But it’s relatively easy, and if you have a well-behaved dairy cow, sheep or goat, you can teach yourself.
Goats and sheep are generally milked on a stand fitted with a feed cup and a stanchion to secure their heads. It’s nice to have a stanchion or head gate for your cow, but it’s not necessary. Cows and goats are milked from the side, but because sheep’s udders are set farther back, plan to milk them from behind.
Secure your animal, sit on the side of the milking stand or on a separate stool, wipe the animal’s udder and set your milk bucket or bowl in place. Grasp a teat in each hand. Don’t pull. Pinch each teat between your thumb and forefinger, and then close your hand: middle finger, ring finger and little finger in sequence.
Milk should shoot out of the teat. Alternate teats or squeeze both at the same time; either method works well. Be sure to grasp just the teats and not pinch a piece of the udder between your thumb and forefinger. That hurts and your animal, and she will let you know.
Be careful not to push milk back up into the udder; once it’s in the teat, it needs to come down and out. Continue until milk flow slows, then massage the udder or gently bunt it with your hands to bring down the rest of the milk in the udder. Milk until teats are flaccid and, even with bunting, you can’t coax out any more milk. Don’t leave milk in the udder. This tells the animal’s system that there’s enough, and her production will fall.
Getting Good Stock
Home dairying can be rewarding, but you need the right milking partner for it to be fun. Dealing with sick, spooky, cantankerous animals takes the joy out of milking. Here’s how to avoid that.
- Understand the behaviors of your chosen animal: Find a mentor to teach you how to milk and what to look for in a dairy cow, goat or sheep. Barring that, join forums and social media groups where you can ask questions. Buy or borrow books. Educate yourself before you begin.
- Plan to buy from an individual, not at a sale barn: People tend to dump sick or unruly livestock at sale barns, where animals are exposed to diseases that you don’t want on your farm.
- Get a good udder: In all species, a good udder is soft, smooth, roomy and well attached, with teats big enough to be comfortably milked by hand. Cows should have four teats; goats and sheep, two. Pendulous udders as well as tiny teats, extra teats, lumps and thickenings that indicate past bouts with mastitis or hardbag signal trouble now or in the future.
- Arrange to see prospects milked: Take a turn yourself, to judge ease of milking. Taste the milk. Some individuals consistently give off-tasting milk. If that’s the case, you don’t want that goat, sheep or cow.
- Buy from health-tested herds and flocks, and ask to see proof of testing: If you pay for registered stock, ask to see registration papers and make certain they’re in the seller’s name so that person can transfer ownership to you.
- Expect to pay the going rate for healthy, productive, well-trained milkers: Bargain animals generally are bad purchases. There’s a strong market for quality milkers, so if the price quoted is a low one, ask why, and proceed with caution.
Increase Your Knowledge
Here are sources where you can learn more about dairy livestock.
- Keeping a Family Cow
- Keeping a Family Cow (forum)
- Keeping a Family Cow by Joann S. Grohman
- The Backyard Cow by Sue Weaver
- The Family Cow Handbook by Philip Hasheider
- Fias Co Farm
- Goat Milk Groupies
- Small Farms—Goats
- The Backyard Goat by Sue Weaver
- Holistic Goat Care by Gianaclis Caldwell
- Mini-Goats by Sue Weaver
- Dairy Sheep
- Homestead Dairy Sheep
- The Backyard Sheep by Sue Weaver
- Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep, 4th Edition, by Paula Simmons and Carol Ekarius
Cow, Goats or Sheep?
Which species is right for your farm and your needs? Here are some pros and cons.
Have a Cow
A cow gives a lot more milk than the average family drinks—depending on size and productivity, typically 3 or 4 gallons a day. However, you can use the excess to make dairy products or feed pigs, chickens and bottle calves.
Because it contains larger fat globules than goat or sheep milk, cream rises in cow milk, meaning you can skim it off the top and use it to make butter. But large fat globules also make it more difficult to digest than the others. Cow milk contains less total and saturated fat and more vitamin D and selenium than goat or sheep milk. Although homegrown milk doesn’t taste the same as store-bought milk, it has a mild, familiar taste most of us are accustomed to and, well, it simply tastes better.
Cows require more barn space and bigger pastures than the other species, but standard farm fencing keeps them in. They prefer the companionship of other cows, horses or other farmyard creatures, but a family dairy cow handled twice a day for milking can be content on her own. They eat grass; your cow can mow your yard—if you watch where you step.
A cow can be intimidating because of her size, but trained milk cows are generally sweet, laid-back creatures. They are, however, expensive to buy and maintain. Depending on where you live, expect to pay $1,200 to $2,500 for a full-size, trained dairy cow. Miniature breeds such as Dexters, Kerrys and Miniature Jerseys produce less, eat less and take up less space, but they’re rare and cost more.
Get Your Goat
Goats are gentle, intelligent, sweet and loving but sometimes annoyingly independent, mischievous, determined and frustrating. They’re escape artists, so keeping them contained is a chore. Get goats only if you have a good sense of humor.
A typical, well-fed, standard-size dairy goat produces at least 1 gallon of milk a day; some produce a lot more. Goat milk is said to be tangy, but properly handled, quickly chilled milk from healthy goats is anything but. It’s whiter than cow milk but tastes much the same. Smaller fat globules make it more digestible than cow milk, but very little cream rises in goat milk, so you need a separator to make butter. It contains more vitamins A, K, E and B6 than cow or sheep milk. Goat milk has more milk solids than cow milk, making it a decent medium for crafting cheese.
Goats are social creatures, and each needs the company of at least one other goat. They’re browsers rather than grazers, so they won’t mow your yard, but they’ll clear your pastures of brush, tree sprouts, poison ivy, brambles and more.
You can feed four or five dairy goats for what you’d pay to feed a single cow, and they take up less space. The down side is that unless you have tall, secure fences, your goats will escape, and predators can get in and kill them. You can’t tether a goat without exposing her to harm. If you don’t have strong fencing, forget keeping goats.
Some goats can be milked through, meaning as long as you keep milking them, they milk year-round and needn’t be bred to keep producing. Production gradually peters out, though 2- to 4-year lactations are relatively common. The Swiss breeds, especially Alpines and Saanens, are your best bet if you want to milk through.
Quality dairy goats, especially bred does or does in milk, are expensive. Expect to pay $350 and more, sometimes a lot more, for a registered doe. Be sure to taste a doe’s milk before buying, as some does consistently produce funky tasting milk. Examine udders closely; udder anomalies are fairly common.
Don’t Shun the Sheep
If you want to make rich, tasty cheese, think sheep. Sheep milk contains a lot more butterfat and milk solids than cow or goat milk, so it takes less milk to make more cheese. It’s richer in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, conjugated linoleic acid and vitamins A, B, and E than cow’s milk. Its fat globules are smaller, making it easier to digest, but you need a separator to make butter.
Dairy sheep are friendly. They take up about the same space as goats, but they aren’t escape artists and they’re grazers, so they need grass rather than browse, to eat. Like goats, they’re prone to predation by coyotes, dogs and the like, so you need good fences to protect them.
Sheep are strongly wired to flee when scared, so handling sheep requires tact. Even mildly frightening a ewe on the milk stand makes her hold back her milk. Sheep are also extremely social animals, and they stress easily, so you need two, and better yet, three or more.
On the positive side, dairy sheep breeds are strongly built and produce meaty lambs for the freezer. The most popular breed, the East Friesian, typically produces about 1,000 pounds of milk during a 220- to 240-day lactation and also shears a nice, 9- to 12-pound, 30- to 35-micron, low-luster fleece with a staple length of roughly 4 to 6 inches.
Depending on where you live, finding specialized dairy ewes can be a chore, as can be finding a purebred ram for breeding. Expect to pay at least $500 for a trained East Friesian or East Friesian-Lacaune dairy ewe. Prices increase from there.
Cow, goat, or sheep, milking can be fun and rewarding. Which type of dairy queen will you choose?
This article appeared in Living Off the Grid, a 2018 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. Aside from this piece on milking by hand Living Off the Grid includes stories on permaculture design, renewable energy, growing plants without seeds and long-term produce storage. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such as Best of Hobby Farms and Best of Urban Farm by following this link.