It’s our time together every morning, just the two of us. We meet at the milk stand, each of us arriving at the rendezvous with our own agenda. She’s in it for the grain, and I’m in it for the milk.
She is a three-year-old Oberhasli goat named Lillian. She is tall and lithe with a beautiful face, and full of vivacious personality. Lillian gave birth—or “freshened,” in dairy-speak—in early June, and has been lactating nicely since.
We have our routine fairly down pat. She talks to me while I shoo the other goats out of the room, open the supply cabinet, and remove the cement block that barricades the door to the grain pen. She doesn’t vocalize a lot generally, but anything to do with food is the exception.
I retrieve the grain bucket down from the shelf and scoop Lillian’s morning rations of organic dairy pellets with a topping of whole oat kernels. She waits impatiently, dancing around on the milk stand, stretching her long neck out toward me as if to say “Come on! Come on!”
When I plunk the bucket down into its holder on the milk stand, Lillian is on it. She slams her head between the bars of the stanchion and dives into her grain, and I slide the bars closed around her neck because I know she will be done with her breakfast before I am done with milking.
And therein lies the rub. If Lillian wrote the script for morning milking, she would be free to jump off the milk stand and go about her day as soon as the feed bucket was empty. Get a long cool drink, let the kids nurse a little, lead the herd off into the forest edge for a few hours of intense browsing, and finish out the morning chewing her cud while she lies in the sunny barn doorway.
But that’s not how we do things. I am determined to finish milking, with an empty udder and a full milk pail being my goal.
This summer, she is mostly agreeable. She likes to bang her head around in the stanchion and make a lot of noise, riling up the kids in the adjacent pen and creating general bedlam, but I can live with just noise.
Last year, though—aye-yi-yi. Lillian had so many tricks up her sleeve that I spent every milking session on high alert. I learned to keep one hand on the milk pail while I milked with the other, and be ready to yank the pail away from a flailing hoof or an unsavory bodily function.
I donated many bucketsful of milk to my cousin’s pigs last season. I filter all my milk and pasteurize it for cheesemaking, but there is just no redemption for milk that has made contact with a goat hoof or even been near other goat emissions.
Through it all, I learned to predict her behavior. I sit close by her side on the milk stand, and I can feel it when her muscles tense up to move. I can see it in her body language, too. That certain subtle sway or the barely perceptible way she leans away from me are often the precursors to a good swift kick. A shift of her weight from one leg to another lets me know that a change might be coming. Sometimes the flex of her tail or the slight rise of her rump are the early warning signs of trouble, too.
I don’t win every battle. Not that there are many battles waged between us anymore—Lillian and I have a pretty cooperative relationship these days. But every now and then, she feels the need to remind me that she still has the power to ruin my morning, or least ruin my pail of milk. And I feel the need to stay one step ahead of her. In my constant vigil, I know what to look for–there is just something in the way she moves.