By Anneke De Jong
It happened again yesterday— a question that I get asked all too often and never ceases to amaze me. “Do you milk your goats by hand? Or do you use machines?” Mind you, the question was asked on the heels of a discussion about the fact that we have a herd of 2,000-plus milking does.
Why is it that a society, which readily embraces technology in every aspect of their lives, is so unaware of the innovation and technology that is an integral part of modern agriculture? From Ancient Egypt to the Industrial Revolution, those involved in providing food have always tried to find ways to improve their production and efficiency. Modern innovation in the dairy industry began in the 1850s, when the first patents were issued for “milk machines.” In 1898, the pulsator milking machine was approved by the USDA and the era of automated milk began.1
Today automated milking is the norm, but technology is not standing still. In the 18 years that we have raised goats, improvements and innovation have allowed us to milk them more efficiently, with less labor and less stress on our goats.
When we began in 1999, we were milking 200 goats in an old rented cow barn that had been converted to milk 25 goats at a time. It was a pretty simple system and worked well until we grew. Soon we had doubled and then tripled our herd and our parlor became the model of inefficiency. Long hours of milking left little time for other chores and created an arduous milking process for our goats.
We soon decided to build a new dairy and milking parlor and in 2008 bought our current property. When we began to plan for our new facility, my husband looked forward to all the technology and innovation that could make our dairy much more efficient, more sustainable and less labor intensive. He visited goat dairies in New Zealand and in the Netherlands, two countries with well-developed goat dairy industries. After visiting numerous farms, he decided on a rotary milking parlor. It was a decision he has never regretted.
While the first rotary milking system was produced in 1969, it wasn’t until recently that it has become the first choice in milking systems for many large goat herds. The premise is quite simple. One at a time, the goats step onto what is basically a large merry-go-round. Their heads face into the center, with their udders facing outward. The platform continuously rotates around. (It can be easily stopped and started at any time.) Workers are stationed around the perimeter of the rotary and either provide udder care or hang milk machines. Automatic sensors remove the milking machines when the goat is finished. At the end of the rotation, the goats back off the rotary and are free to return to their pens.
This relaxed smooth milking system means our goats aren’t stressed by their time in the barn. Once they got used to stepping onto the platform, which didn’t take long, they were eager to get on. Like children on a playground, you will see them pushing to the front of the line for their turn. We have the option to provide feed as they are being milked and at each milking the goats enjoy a small ration of grain. A young visitor once commented that it was just like recess — the goats get to go to the playground and have a snack. Most important, shorter milking times give our goats more time to eat, drink and rest.
Relaxed goats aren’t the only benefit of our rotary. With 85 stations, we have the ability to milk over 750 goats an hour with only a few employees. When we spend less time milking, there is more time to attend to other chores on the dairy farm. The faster milking times create less wear and tear on the equipment. While we currently have down time in the barn, by building such a large rotary we can keep expanding our herd without any additional milking equipment or investment.
The rotary milking parlor has proven to be high quality and low maintenance. Trouble free milking equipment is vital when you have goats that need to be milked twice a day and cannot simply wait until the equipment has been repaired. Rarely have we had a breakdown. Automated cleaning systems help us sanitize the equipment easily and allow us to maintain high quality milk standards without a large input of labor. All these factors have an important economic impact on our business as our retailers and customers depend on a consistent supply of high quality milk.
In addition to milking goats in a relaxed and efficient manner and helping us produce high quality milk, rotary milking parlors have the ability to implement other advances in technology. Radio-frequency identification systems (RFiD) can be connected to the milk machines to monitors each individual goat’s milk production and feed intake. These systems can be expanded to include sorting options that allow the goats to automatically be directed to a different pen after milking. The options and improvements we can add to our rotary continue to develop and it’s exciting to see where the industry is going.
As the goats come into the barn each morning and evening, the cycle of milking continues on as it has for centuries. But the technology of automated milking machines and rotary parlors has increased our efficiency, decreased our labor and strengthened our production. Every time a milk machine is hung, we are so thankful that we do not have to milk our 2,000 goats by hand!
Originally published in the January/February 2017 issue of Dairy Goat Journal.