I get a lot of questions about purchasing a milking machine for goats. While milking machines are a fantastic tool, they are a big investment that may or may not make sense for your farm. If you have the extra cash, by all means, run right out and buy one! But if you’re budget-conscious (like most of us!), then I encourage you to keep reading and evaluate whether the investment makes sense for you.
Do I really need a milking machine for my goats?
Grab a scrap of paper and jot down your answers to the following questions:
- How many goats will I be milking daily?
- How much time do I have every morning and evening for milking?
- Do I have any physical challenges that make hand-milking difficult?
- What is my level of technical/mechanical know-how?
- What is my budget?
How many goats do you milk daily?
Consider how many goats you are going to be milking daily for the upcoming year. Do you plan to retain or purchase any does to expand your herd over the next few years? If so, how many does will you be milking daily over the next five years?
Here’s an example from our farm:
- 2016: 1 doe in milk
- 2017: 1 doe in milk
- 2018: 3 does in milk
- 2019: 5 does in milk
- 2020: 6-7 does in milk (projected)
Be careful to reign yourself in and make reasonable projections based on your breeding plans, plans to retain does in upcoming years, and any plans to purchase does from other herds. I tend to dream big and think, “Someday I’ll run a full-blown goat creamery operation with 50+ milking does!” … which is great, but is it realistically in the 5 year plan? (For me, NO.)
How much time do you have to milk in the morning and evening?
Once their kids are weaned, goats need to be milked twice daily (every 12 hours). If you work a day-job or have a lot of commitments, sometimes it can be challenging to fit this into your schedule.
Calculate the time it takes to hand-milk each goat.
As a first step, I recommend timing how long it takes you to milk out each goat in your herd individually, over the course of 3 or 4 days. Then average your times. Add in the amount of time it takes you to set up your milking supplies, and clean up afterward. Now you have a good idea of how long it takes you to hand-milk, as well as an average per-goat milking time that you might expect if you plan to expand your herd in the future.
For the purpose of simple numbers, let’s say that it takes you 5 minutes to get ready, 5 minutes to clean up, and 10 minutes to milk out each goat. For this example, let’s say you have 3 goats in milk now, and plan to have 5 next year. So this year it takes you 40 minutes to hand milk every morning and evening. Next year (adding two more goats, at 10 minutes each), you’d be up to 1 hour and 10 minutes. Do you have that amount of time available every morning and evening? How early would you have to get up to get the job done?
There’s a common misconception that milking machines are always faster. Yes, they typically speed up the actual milking-time and you can buy a milk machine that allows you to milk two or more goats at once, which is a huge time-saver. HOWEVER: It’s very important to note that it almost always takes longer to clean a milking machine than it takes to clean hand milking supplies. This is something that people often overlook. In order to have healthy, safe milk, it’s absolutely vital to keep your milking machine clean.
This means that you must clean your milking machine every single time you use it without fail, whether you’re late to work, the kids missed the school bus, or anything else comes up. Milk that is left in milk lines is extremely difficult to clean out and breeds bacteria, mold, and other nasties that you don’t want coming into contact with your milk. On the other hand, if you’re running late and in a pinch, you can toss your milk pail in the sink and wash/sanitize it later when you get home, and it won’t be any worse for the wear.
Do you have any physical challenges that make hand milking difficult?
This is a big issue that I see people bring up quite often. Carpal tunnel, arthritis, injuries, or other issues with wrist or hand strength and dexterity can make hand milking challenging. Some would argue that if you are able to power-through it, that milking can be a wonderful exercise for your hands that can actually BUILD strength and improve conditions. However, you should know your own body and respect your limitations. If hand milking causes you pain or discomfort, a milking machine may very well be a good investment.
What is your level of technical and mechanical know-how?
Milking machines come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and price-points. If you’re handy (or know someone who is), you might be able to piece something together by buying used vacuum pumps and parts from dairy farmers getting out of the business or upgrading their systems. If you have an understanding of all the parts needed and how to assemble or repair them, then you can save yourself quite a lot of money!
If you’re like me, though, you have NO CLUE what parts you need or how to make it all work together. Because of that, I decided to purchase a setup that came with everything in a kit. This was certainly more costly, but I didn’t have the technical or mechanical skills to piece something together on my own. If you’re in this same situation, I recommend either a Simple Pulse system or a system from Hamby Dairy Supply. Both sites have complete kits available and support people to help you determine exactly what you need.
What’s your budget?
Milking machines are expensive. Expect to pay at least $600 if you’re buying a complete setup new. More elaborate or commercial-grade setups can costs thousands of dollars.
An IMPORTANT Note About “Cheap”, Non-Pulsating Milking Machines
When you start browsing the internet, you may come across milking machines for under $200. Some are operated by a hand-pump, others use small battery-operated vacuum pumps. The common issue these machines typically share is that they do not pulsate. This means that they apply a constant suction on the teat without letting up pressure. Higher-end machines pulsate to mimic the suckling of a baby goat. This tends to be a controversial issue, but I am of the opinion that constant suction (no matter how careful you are) can damage udders and cause pain (or minimally discomfort) to your goat. If you value the health of your animal and specifically care about their udder condition, do not use a non-pulsating milking machine.
The least expensive milking machine that I would recommend (based on personal experience as well as friends’ recommendations) would be a Simple Pulse system. Their most basic set up that includes a vacuum pump starts around $585.00 (you can find it on their site here) plus shipping. (Note, this is not sponsored; I am just a very happy Simple Pulse customer!)
So, should I buy a milking machine?
Look over your responses to the five questions at the top of the article. Your answers to questions 1 through 3 will determine your level of need. Your answers to questions 4 and 5 will determine feasibility of it working within your budget.
Here were my answers to those questions in 2018:
- How many goats will I be milking daily? 3 this year, 5 next year, 6 or 7 the year after that
- How much time do I have every morning and evening for milking? 30-40 minutes ideally, 1 hour maximum (because of work)
- Do I have any physical challenges that make hand-milking difficult? No
- What is my level of technical/mechanical know-how? Low/none (not able repair or piece together from used parts)
- What is my budget? Under $1,000
I determined that I could set up, hand-milk 3 goats, and clean up in about 30-40 minutes. In the mornings, for me, that means getting up at 6 AM to milk and still have enough time to get ready for work. So I was pretty much at-capacity for my time limits with having 3 goats in milk.
Because I planned to continue expanding our milking herd, I knew I would have to either wake up earlier, or get a milking machine to speed up the process. I frequently work late nights, so I knew I wanted to avoid getting up before 6 AM if at all possible. (If you’re a morning person, kudos – go for it. I am NOT.) So, I saved my tax return and purchased a milking machine.
The setup I purchased enables me to milk 2 goats at once, but because I only have one milk stand right now, I have it set up for a single goat. I find that milking 3 goats (one at a time), plus the set up and cleanup of the milking machine takes me only slightly less time than hand milking does. However, I anticipate with having more does in milk this year (and particularly when I set up the second set of inflations to milk two does at once), I’ll see a greater time-savings.
Other “Pros” of the Milking Machine
- My milk is cleaner. I still filter my milk through a strainer (you can buy an inline milk filter for your machine oftentimes, but I don’t have one), but overall my milk is much cleaner because there is no open bucket for hair or dirt to fall into. Clean the udder well, attach the inflation to the teat, and the milk flows directly into the container in a closed-system!
- Milk stand training went better. I had a first freshener last year and I wasn’t looking forward to milk stand training. I wound up starting her out on the milking machine, and it worked great! I attached the inflations and had my hands free to hold her, pet her, and keep her calm till she got used to the process. Later in the year, I started hand-milking her (she was the last doe that I dried up) and she had excellent manners on the milk stand for hand milking as well!
I need a milking machine, but I don’t have the money in my budget
Sometimes you are 100% justified in needing a milking machine, but the money is just not in the budget. Here are some additional thoughts to make it easier to power-through hand milking:
- Downsize your herd or the number of does in milk. I hate this answer, because it’s so hard to give up your favorite goats. However, if the number of does in milk exceed your ability to hand-milk, then change up your breeding plans so that less does are in milk at any given time, or consider selling some of your milking does.
- Get a helper. This isn’t an option for everyone, of course, but if possible, try to recruit a friend or family member to help you milk. Kids can do a great job milking! You might even have a neighbor that would be interested in learning to milk. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
- Be selective about your breed. How much milk do you need for your family? One full size dairy doe (Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian, Oberhasli, Saanen, Toggenburg, or a mix of these larger breeds) oftentimes produces the same volume of milk that 2-4 miniature-breed goats would. Save time by milking one large goat instead of several small ones.
- Select breeds based on your physical abilities. If you experience pain in your hands or wrists when milking, then you’re likely better suited to milking a full size dairy goat because their teats are larger. If you have your heart set on a Nigerian Dwarf or mini-cross, make sure you are extremely selective about buying only does with exceptional teat size and placement.
- Keep and breed only the best of the best. When you are limited to how many does you can milk, be very choosy about which does are bred and what buck they are bred to. Always seek to improve your lines by breeding to bucks that come from good milking lines. Look for good udder attachment, large, well-placed teats, and large orifices. (Large orifices milk out more quickly and easily than smaller ones.) Use these principles to guide your decisions when selecting bucks to breed to, so that you are constantly improving your lines for better milk production.
Don’t Discount Hand Milking
While this article might sound like a sales-pitch for a milking machine, it’s truly NOT. I love my Simple Pulse, but there are plenty of days that I choose to hand milk, even though the machine is available.
Some days I just don’t feel like dealing with the whole setup and cleanup of the machine. It’s not HARD to do, but sometimes I just feel like grabbing a bucket and keeping things simple.
Milking time tends to be my “me” time away from kids, work, electronics, and other chaos and distractions. The rhythm and routine of hand milking is very soothing for me, and when I have the time, I love to take it slow. It’s a great way to start and end your day on a peaceful note!
Whether you do it with a machine or by hand, try not to think of milking as a chore. Finding a little bit of joy in it makes the time a lot more worthwhile!