On the Farm
Goat milking mysteries revealed
A few weeks ago two bright new spirits, the goats Jessup and Buttercup, arrived at the farm. I was interested to see what milking a goat really entailed, so I joined Matthew at the farm on the evening of their arrival to help settle them into their new home.
Jessup, the Alpine goat, was regal in appearance with her straight white beard, her bright white coat with coffee-colored patches, and her alert, pointed ears. Buttercup, the Nubian goat, with her rich brown coat with white patches and her bright eyes, was both inquisitive and mischievous. Her floppy ears adjusted constantly as she familiarized herself with the acoustics of the barn.
The barn changed with their arrival. Lemon and Lime, our Angora goats, peered out of their pen as they attempted to catch a glimpse of their new farm-mates, and periodically bleated hello. Jessup and Buttercup replied in kind, and with that, two new voices joined our FARM Institute chorus.
I wonder what those first few moments in the barn were like for them. What new sights, sounds, smells, and flavors met them, and did they notice the absence of more familiar ones? A newcomer to the Island myself, I attempted to reassure them by responding to their seemingly worried bleats with a calming chatter and a few gentle pats.
I felt slightly embarrassed when Matthew asked if I had ever milked a goat. No, I had not. I have bottle-fed baby opossums, raccoons, and deer, and cared for numerous exotic animals at the Trevor Zoo in Millbrook, N.Y., which my father directs, but my goat knowledge was limited at best. Thankfully, my lack of goat experience did not dissuade Matthew the teacher from encouraging me to try, or from offering instructions and assistance when needed. He demonstrated, and the milk came spurting out into the shiny stainless steel milking bucket. His steady rhythm seemed straightforward, but my first milking attempt was cautious and awkward, to say the least. With patience, practice, and a few more instructions, I started to add to the fresh white liquid that he had started to collect. Buttercup, the trickster, demonstrated her bossy and independent streak a few times throughout the milking, kicking to test our reflexes.
Approximately two weeks and seven milking attempts later, I have acquired a comfortable and more confident rhythm that produces fresh, sweet milk. There are four major tricks to the trade. First, you must establish a rhythm that works for you and the goats. Second, try to finish milking before they finish their feed. Third, have quick reflexes because otherwise that pail full of milk could tip into your lap or onto the floor, if the playful kicking occurs. Finally, these are intelligent creatures, and we must earn their trust. I attempt to do this by talking to them and patting them for a few moments each day, even if it is not my day to milk them.
I am sure that Jessup and Buttercup have more lessons to teach me this summer, but these first few will get me started.
These goats display an impressive array of emotions and aptitudes that one would be hard pressed to overlook. For example, the other day I started to play my guitar near their paddock. At the sound of the guitar and song, they emerged from their indoor stall and followed me with their gaze as I strolled across the barnyard. The pigs had no apparent reaction, and Lemon and Lime and the sheep continued to graze. Perhaps the instrument just looked to Jessup and Buttercup like something good to chew on, but I would hazard a guess that the tones produced by the instrument had prompted their response. I have seen guitars have a calming effect on dogs, but had no idea that the same would be true of goats. Perhaps if we serenade them at milking time the music will soothe them, quell any kicking, and maybe even increase milk production. I remember hearing about a study that concluded that cows that listened to Mozart produced more milk. Could a live performance for the goats produce more milk? We will leave it up to our summer campers to test it out.
Bridget Meigs lives in Tisbury. She is a farmer and teacher at The FARM Institute, which is based at the Katama Farm in Edgartown. The FARM Institute's goal is to reconnect children and the community with the culture of agriculture and to promote local and sustainable agriculture.