This guest post comes from Wardeh of the awesome blog GNOWFGLINS. This article has been beneficial for us as we plan our homestead and I hope it is for you as well!
I‘ll begin this post with a confession: I’m not an animal person. Never have been. But here I am, the chief milk maid in my family. I started out by milking goats and now I’m milking a cow. I figure, who better to tell you all about it (both the wonderful and the icky) than someone who was won over to it in spite of herself?
Here is one of the most often-asked questions I get: what are the differences between milking goats and milking cows? And probably the second-most-asked question is: which do you prefer? I don’t claim to know it all, but I’ll do my best to answer. First, let me tell you the story of how we got into dairy animals. I hope you realize this is my story and my experience. Your mileage may vary.
I think we’re not the only family who read Nourishing Traditions and decided on the spot to raise dairy animals to produce our own raw milk.
"…the milk sold in your supermarket is bad for everybody, partly because the modern cow is a freak of nature. A century ago cows produced two or three gallons per day; today’s Holsteins routinely give three or four times as much. … All the healthy milk-drinking populations studied by Dr. [Weston A.] Price consumed raw milk, raw cultured milk or raw cheese from normal healthy animals eating fresh grass or fodder. It is very difficult to find this kind of milk in America." —Nourishing Traditions, pages 34 to 35
Goats or Cow?
My husband wanted to start with a cow. I wasn’t ready for that. I’d heard stories of how cows are bigger and capable of dealing a fatal blow to the head with one kick, how they’re harder to control because of their size, and how they always go to the bathroom during milking (ick, ick, ick).
On the other hand, I heard how goats are easier to control, being smaller and friendly, and how they’d never do that other icky going-to-the-bathroom thing. Whether or not any of these things were true remained to be seen. This is what I heard.
Our Step 1: Goats
We started with goats. For someone new to milking — or new to animal care altogether — starting with a smaller animal seems to be a good plan and one I don’t regret. We chose to raise Nubians because they make the creamiest milk. We got our first herd by buying a handful of goats already "in milk" (meaning they’d just given birth and were lactating). I learned to milk them through trial and error. So did my daughters.
Of the four milkers we brought home: two were easy milkers but their production went down when they moved to our place, one was a real trial (spooked easily), and one goat got sick the day she arrived at our place, never to recover. There were other ups and downs. Yet we learned to milk and that experience was good. But in terms of volume of milk, we never got quite enough.
Enough to drink, for the most part. Enough for daily batches of kefir. Enough for occasional batches of cheese. But even if we could have gotten the yields up — through more goats and better health — I couldn’t easily get the one thing we lacked. Cream. For butter and ice cream, of course!
You might be wondering: if the milk is so creamy, why couldn’t I get any cream? Well, goat milk is naturally homogenized; the butterfat doesn’t rise to the surface. Over four or five days of refrigeration in a shallow pan, some will rise. But who can wait that long — and who has that much refrigerator space? Or, there’s the $400 cream separator option. (Which I did buy with a craft haul one year, but we never installed it because we didn’t have a countertop to give up to it permanently.)
Our Step 2: A Cow
About two years after the goat-milking journey, we decided to try a milk cow instead. We wanted a Jersey cow because of the cream. And also because she’s a heritage breed that offers more nutritious milk on other counts. (If you want to read more about that, click here.)
At that point, I felt ready to take on a bigger animal, though truth be told, quite scared. You can read about my journey learning to milk Gracie, our milk cow, here and here. The first link is my cry for help and the second, my lessons learned about patience.
Adjusting to milking Gracie was harder than adjusting to milking goats. I guess it would have been even harder had I not learned the actual skill of milking first, given Gracie’s irritable temperament. There are slight differences in how you milk each species, but I think when you know how to milk one, you can easily milk the other. At least, that’s been my experience.
Gracie’s milk — both the volume of it and the lovely, luscious, sweet, thick cream it contains — has been a dream come true. Or rather, an answer to prayer! I couldn’t imagine what having that much milk would be like until I was swimming in it. We have plenty for everything I want to do with it. Drinking, kefir, cheese, butter, ice cream. Plus enough to share. All from one animal.
We share milk with some friends. Their son has a short gut and he needs nutrient-dense foods to keep his weight up and to get enough nutrition. From their weekly gallons, they give most of the cream to him. He drinks it straight. He is gaining weight. Of all the reasons to be happy about raising a family milk cow, I’m most thankful for that.
Truth and Fiction
Remember the things I heard about cows and goats? Some of them turned out to be true. Cows do go to the bathroom during milking. (The goats never did that.) One reason is when they’re unhappy or irritated. Gracie, brand-new to being milked, was understandably unhappy and irritated alot those first months. We kept a 5-gallon bucket handy for #1 and a shovel handy for #2. She learned to hold back because she didn’t like a bucket or shovel held up to her backside.
Another reason cows do that is because… they just do. When they have to go, they have to go. So we give her time to take care of that before the milking, and most often she does. She’s learned. Smart cow.
Here’s another thing that turned out to be true. Cows are dirtier than goats. On colder nights Gracie prefers to sleep in her you-know-what because it’s warm. Yep. Our goats were never dirtier than dusty.
What turned out to be fiction? Cows are not usually vicious. Our Gracie is guilty of being irritable, but not deadly. In fact, I believe she goes out of her way to not hurt me during milking. Harder to handle? Sometimes — but not impossible.
Goats, on the other hand, are at least as stubborn and much more mischievous. I mentioned our easily-spooked goat. I couldn’t even get a hobble on her without her totally freaking out. Her kicks hurt. And just try getting a goat to stay in one place when there’s food involved. If there’s a hole in the fence (or even the beginning of one), they’ll find a way through.
What I’ve Learned
There’s not one bright and shining better way. It comes down to what you prefer and the limits of care you can provide.
For me… I prefer handling a smaller animal like a goat. I prefer the cleanliness of goats. But I also prefer more milk. And of course, cream. So I’m on the cow side of the fence. For now.
Thanks so much for your perspective, Wardeh. We’ve got a lot to think about!