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  • Kendra R. Shatswell

Misadventures in Milk Testing

Let’s cut to the chase immediately, since I am sure you’re all wondering – I had three does on milk test and zero does earn any production stars. Is that disappointing? Sure. Was it expected? Pretty much. Why? Well…read the title…I had a heck of a time my first year milk testing! Would I do it again? Absolutely. In fact, I am preparing for 2023 right now. I’ll tell you why farther down. Firstly, why did I have a heck of a time? Most issues were self-inflicted. I’ve primarily dam-raised since I had my first goat kids in 2014, and 2022 was no different.

Lemme tell you how well that worked for me. Not well. I didn’t start milking soon enough, for one thing. In part because I was worried about separating kids because I want them to have as much milk as possible. In part because I got very sick, was also in the middle of calving season – dad and I take care of something like 60 beef cow pairs – and because it is just the busiest time of year. Throw in a crap-ton of snow and ice (for us) and still trying to work off farm a bit, and I was running on fumes. Oh and the barn flooded right before the first test. So there’s that. All of this general mayhem and busy-ness is also why only some of the kids had been broke to a bottle and those were only done so out of necessity, not necessarily to make milk testing day easier.

Above are some post-flooding photos. The arrow shows the waterline. Debris had washed in from the neighbor's fields. Our bedroom and shed actually flooded, as well. An uncle with a track hoe made a new path for water that, so far, has rectified the issue! So no does were milked until MAY. Even though they freshened in the middle of February (Toot and Verbena) and the first week of March (Layla). I felt like I could finally take a breath in May, but it made such a late start that I wasn’t going to have kids on those does for as long as I needed to get all five tests in. By the time I was doing the third test, it was dadgum hot and humid. By the last two tests, we were in a severe drought.

Instead of separating overnight for the first time, I tried separating during the day by putting the does in the yard. Big mistake. The does spent the whole day screaming instead of eating. Not so much for their kids, who were on the opposite side of the fence, but for their herd members who went off foraging.

Eventually, the separating got easier. Until Verbena’s remaining buckling got the teat tape off and nursed one side, which turned into a whole fiasco – more on that momentarily.

I am a slow hand milker. I had three does on test, none of which had been milked save for once or twice during Verbena’s and Toot’s first freshenings. Layla was a first freshener this year. That understandably resulted in some inefficiencies like stomping does and such. Toot especially was a headache the first couple times – that brat was stomping a jig. I earned a busted lip from her hock – thankfully, she mellowed - but her small orifices and teats and firm texture still made her BY FAR the most difficult to milk. On the second test day, we were selling calves that morning and her udder was a little congested so I didn’t even milk one side out, shorting her amount by about a pound. Toot was only nursing a single buckling and so hard to milk that I dried her up after the third test, when I sold her buckling. On the second test, where Verbena’s buckling had gotten the tape off, I tried to explain to the lady at the lab what had happened. I only had the evening weight, not the morning weight. I knew her amount had dropped drastically because Verbena had gone from nursing quads to nursing two but still, she was already at nearly 800# at less than 150 days fresh. If one of my does had a shot to earn a production star, it was Verbena. We – the lab lady and I - had a miscommunication so the sheet came back with NO WEIGHT at all and NO SAMPLE ANALYSIS (no butterfat or protein). I was so tired of trying to get it all straightened out that I said crap on it. When I sold Verbena’s last kids, I dried her up. So she only had three tests done and the second one I got zero data from. Layla was the only one I did five tests on. She was easy to milk, like Verbena, and had anywhere from 3-1 doelings nursing the whole time. For the last couple of tests, she just had one doeling nursing since that doeling was being retained. Layla didn’t earn a star, either, but I felt like she’s the only one I did justice to. I started out trying to do all the sampling and weighing at the barn. I don’t have a light or a good working surface, so that was a nightmare. Instead, I started only taking my jar and pail out there, getting the milk, and then immediately coming in to weigh and sample after each doe. I wrote the amounts on a notebook instead of my barn sheet, which made it faster and easier to double-check before penciling it onto the sheet. I screwed up everything at least once.

I’m not exaggerating - on the first test, I was sobbing in the barn because I felt unbelievably stupid for having such a hard time doing something so simple – Milk the goat, weigh and sample, write it down.

I forgot to take a sample. I didn’t send all the right papers. I forgot to get a weight. I put amounts down in ounces instead of tenths of a pound. I lost my barn sheet. I wrote on my check in purple ink (FYI – unacceptable). I almost forgot to send in doe sheets after they were dry. I couldn’t remember how to fill out paperwork from one time to the next. I don’t know how many times I had to email or call the lab or the milk committee – who were all very patient and kind about it.

For all this headache, I am doing it again because I love the data. As a friend has told me – there’s no such thing as bad data.

I love that I learned about the milkability (or not – TOOT) of these does. I got to see that Layla’s butterfat and protein were initially trying to invert and saw the dramatic difference a change in diet made – those numbers are something I could never see just staring at a jar of milk. Layla consistently had the highest somatic cell counts, though I saw nothing that led me to believe she was dealing with clinical mastitis, and it varied a lot from test to test.

I got to see that Toot’s strength is quality, not quantity – she had the highest average in both butterfat and protein. (Granted, this could have changed in a couple more tests, but she had a good lead on the other two).

Verbena’s strength was quantity – she had by far the highest single 24 hour amount – but she was very dependent on demand. She had the lowest somatic cell count of the three, too. I am doing it again because I owe it to these does and myself to do a better job this time. Heck, I figure I can only get better! Milk testing while dam-raising is not ideal, but I have a better grip on it now. I only have a few does that will be on milk test. I will still be kidding around calving season and the heart of winter, but I plan to get my first test in MUCH sooner, this time. If the does have bucklings, then I plan on keeping them as long as I need to to get five tests in instead of selling them as they hit auction weight. I want to play with supplementing different feedstuff likes black oil sunflower seeds or adding a protein tub since I don’t have access to high-quality alfalfa and only feed any alfalfa after they kid. . As far as the actual DHIA stuff, I wish it were more streamlined. More specific to a small herd of goats instead of large dairies and cattle. There are columns you simply don’t use and a lot of papers that come back and forth with very little information on them. This is NOT anything to do with MDGA but just the DHIA program. I’ll say there is definitely a learning curve but it CAN be figured out. So. My first year milk testing didn’t go smoothly. But I STARTED. I got one year, no matter how wonky, under my belt. It gave me data. It gave me a plan for next year. It was progress. I highly encourage others to try it. Learn from my mistakes. You’ll make your own, too. But learn from those and get that data! I plan on writing another post on HOW to milk test. You can find the does' data on their individual pages.

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1 Comment

Dec 28, 2022

Life on the farm, huh? You made a good point that there's more to milk testing than just trying to earn stars. You learn a ton about quality of milk, what each doe is doing, etc. Thanks for sharing with humorous transparency! I did milk testing with our Nubians back in the '90s but things have changed a lot since then. I'll be watching for your next post.

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