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Milk animals can bring a lot of value to the homestead. But where do you start? How do you choose what milk animal to bring home? And how do you prepare for having a milk animal around?
Are we ready for a milk animal?
Purchasing a milk animal for your homestead is a long-term commitment. Make sure your family will have the time, the equipment needed, the resources to feed the animal, and the patience to weather the “dry times”. If the animal isn’t in milk yet, you will have to breed her, then wait for her to give birth before getting that sweet, fresh milk.
Milking an animal can be time-consuming. While you are trying to figure out your “time budget”, take however long you think it will take you every day, and double it, just to be on the safe side. Every time you milk, you have to wipe the udder and teats down, milk, wipe down teats again and dip them, then empty and rinse the machine (if you use one), strain and chill the milk. Jars and bottles should be sterilized, and the machine needs a very thorough cleaning at least once a week.
As a point of reference, in a team of two, we finally got down to about a half hour in the morning and at night to milk our cow. The weekly machine cleaning would take another half hour or so.
The milking area needs to be kept very clean, to make sure your milk is sanitary. Dirty milk areas are breeding grounds for flies, other nasty pests, and bacteria. So plan for frequent milk stall cleaning as well. A milk barn with a sloped, concrete floor is the most ideal location to do your milking, as it makes it easy to clean out with a hose.
Make sure you have some wiggle room in your budget for surprise vet visits and routine vaccinations and medications. It isn’t a good idea to take on a milk animal if you’re on a very tight budget.
Some milking equipment can get expensive. When we bought our milk cow, we also bought a portable milk machine. That machine alone was $500.
A quality milk animal is expensive too. If you actually find a “cheap” milk animal, you should question the quality. Good lines produce the most milk, and these good lines aren’t budget lines. Our milk cow was $1200, and we had to drive 5 hours to get her.
A quality milk animal is an investment. You want to make sure your milk animal will be worth that investment. Calculate the rough cost of the milk and dairy products your family consumes in a year. Make sure the animal in question doesn’t cost more than that. Milk animals don’t typically produce for a full year without needing a break.
Before purchasing your milk animal, you should consider your land, fences and barns. A pasture is best to keep your milk animal in, so you don’t have to feed them hay year-round. The fences need to be secure enough to keep said animal in. And you will want to have some kind of structure to milk in, so you aren’t out in the elements milking.
You also might want to keep in mind, that milking is best done with two people. If you get really good at it, you might be able to do it yourself, but I find that it just gets overwhelming doing it solo. Most animals like to be comforted a little bit while milking, so it’s nice to have someone give her attention while the other is doing the actual milking.
What equipment do we need?
If you are going to get a milk cow, I would strongly suggest getting a milk machine. Milking 1-4 1/2 gallons at once by hand can get painful on your hands. If you have a couple smaller animals, you can at least take a break in between them so it’s not as bad.
If you are milking by hand, stainless steel milk pails are great. You can get different sizes, so you can pick one that goes a few inches below the teats. This will discourage the dreaded “foot in the bucket” that inevitably will happen at least once or twice.
Whichever animal you choose to get for your milk needs, you will need a lead rope to take them to the milking area, and to secure them so they don’t run off. Some animals, of course, will be friendlier and easier to milk, but you may find yourself fighting with others.
If you get a shorter animal, you will want a milk stand. Bending over a lot while milking can be very hard on the back. If you get a cow, though, you will only need a head stall in the milking area. A good head stall just helps keep their head in one place, so they are more likely to cooperate.
Teat wipes and dip are somewhat optional, but a very good idea to have to get the cleanest milk and maintain the healthiest teats. Wiping the teats both before and after milking gets rid of bacteria that may be on the udder or teat. Teat dip helps close the teat orifice so that bacteria doesn’t enter and cause mastitis.
Glass jars are wonderful to store your milk in the fridge. You can get them in various sizes, depending on how much milk you get. And if they have a wide mouth, it’s much easier to skim the cream off the top.
Again, milk filters aren’t absolutely essential (we’ve used clean pillowcases with good success), they are certainly helpful. These filters ensure the cleanest milk possible, and are disposable so you don’t have to worry about cleaning or sanitizing them.
What kind of milk do we want?
Milk comes in a pretty big variety of tastes, textures, and consistencies. Some milk has more cream, and thus, is sweeter and has a higher fat content. This is all personal preference, but keep these things in mind:
Do yourself a favor. Before you decide on your ideal milk animal, make sure you enjoy the taste of their milk. Some people think that goats would be a perfect animal to get for milk, then find out they don’t like the taste.
Do you need a lot of milk? A dairy cow will obviously give more milk than a goat. That being said, you could get a few goats to give you a lot of milk. Sheep typically give less milk than goats, but a small herd will provide you with plenty of milk to spare.
Will you just drink the milk, or do you want to make dairy products out of it? Cow’s milk is easier to turn into butter or ice cream, as it’s easier to separate the cream from the milk. Goat’s milk often needs a cream separator to get the cream off properly. So keep that in mind when making your decision as well.
How much milk do we need?
There are huge variations on how much a milk animal will produce. Even within each animal species, different breeds will produce widely different amounts. You will want to do some thorough research into the breed you want, after you decide which type of animal you want.
Determine how much milk your family drinks per day. Try to get an animal that gives a little more milk than that every day, so you can have some to make your own dairy products (butter, cheese, yogurt, etc.) as well. You don’t necessarily want an animal that will give you a lot more milk than your family needs, but there are some things you can do with some extra milk.
If you raise any other animals, you can give them the extra milk. Pigs love milk, especially milk that is “past its prime”. Baby animals do better on real milk than they do with milk replacer. We raised 4 lambs on about half of the daily milk we got from our cow. Extra milk can be frozen to use later, as needed.
Please don’t go assuming that you can just sell the extra. Most states have very strict regulations on milk sales. If you market it for “animal use only”, you might be able to sell some extra milk, but don’t count on it.
What milk animal should we get?
Deciding what kind of milk animal you should get is a big decision. It is a long-term commitment. Dairy cows can produce anywhere from 2-9 gallons per day, depending on the breed. A dairy goat will produce 1-4 quarts per day, also depending on the breed. A dairy sheep will produce about 2 quarts per day.
If you have a smaller pasture space, it’s a good idea to stick with smaller breeds. Cows need quite a bit of feed, and their pastures need to be pretty good quality. Goats can be kept in smaller pastures, as long as you don’t have too many. And they are happiest eating weeds and shrubs. Sheep are grazers also, but not too picky on the quality of the pasture. I’ve seen sheep thrive in a desert environment.
If you are leaning toward a milk cow, you can find information on 6 breeds of dairy cows here. Thinking of goats? You can learn all about the milk from goats here. Or what about sheep? You can find lots of info about sheep milk here.
Should we pasteurize the milk?
This is entirely personal preference. Pasteurizing the milk kills the dangerous bacteria, but it also kills the beneficial bacteria that is in milk. We personally just drink our milk raw. If you’d like to check out the benefits of drinking raw milk, go to realmilk.com.
If you do decide you want to pasteurize your milk, this is a very good article on proper pasteurization.
What will we do with the babies?
When you have milk animals, you will have babies every year. You should decide on some kind of plan for what you will do with those babies.
Keeping your babies can help you maintain a sustainable herd, but it will cut back on your milk supply for at least a little while. You will have to “milk share” with the babies until they are old enough to be weaned. For some people, milk sharing can be very helpful. You can actually get away with only milking once a day. Which, when you are busy, or when you don’t need all the milk the animal produces, can be a very good thing!
Another option is to sell the babies for a little bit of homestead income. Or, maybe just help you break even! You can sell them as bottle babies so you keep your milk supply, or you can milk share with them until they are old enough to wean. Either way, selling babies can be a good way to help pay for your farm’s needs.
Are we ready?
Do you think you are ready to add milk animals to your homestead? What kind of animal are you leaning toward? We personally like our dairy goats. They are easier to handle, give an adequate amount of milk, and are lots of fun. Please share in the comments if you are adding milk animals, I’d love to see pictures!
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