When Mike Henry began raising goats on his 5-acre farm north of Anchorage, he found the milking tough going. His hands ached, and the milk wouldn't flow. He tied a piece of leather loosely around his doe's back legs to keep her from kicking, but she didn't like that at all.
"She would kick loose and kick the milk bucket over and when she wasn't kicking, she was stepping in it. I honestly tried for two weeks because I thought I was out of practice," said Henry, 58, who had milked goats as a child. "I thought she would get used to my hands, and she just didn't."
Henry's frustration led to invention. The school administrator created The Henry Milker from auto and other parts and is using the Internet to sell it to farms worldwide as dairy goats become more popular. Many of his milkers are shipped to the world's dairy goat powerhouses: Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom.
In the U.S., Henry said his sales have been particularly good in New York, Oregon, Washington and Texas.
He said he loves to tinker and began "messing around" in his garage after discovering an electric, commercial milker would cost him $1,200. Spending that much to milk just one or two does didn't make sense, he said.
Henry had a rough idea of what was needed. He picked up a brake bleeding kit at a local auto parts store and discarded all the pieces except the hand vacuum pump. He found his first teat cup - a large mixing syringe - at Walmart and used a classic quart Mason jar to catch the milk. One plastic hose line carries the milk into the jar and another creates a vacuum to pull it in.
After putting together the prototype, Henry got his goat back up on the milking table, put down some grain to keep her happy and gave The Henry Milker a whirl.
"Sure as heck I got a little bit of milk one day, just enough to give me a little bit of encouragement," he said. "The goat, she didn't know what to think."
He improved The Henry Milker and sold the first one about a year ago on eBay for $45.
"I scrambled and put another one together and pretty much the same thing happened," he said. "I honestly just couldn't believe it."
He sold a dozen just like that. The first few units probably cost him money, he said, especially when considering all the gas to drive to the auto parts stores and Walmart, but Henry was ecstatic.
Sharp Growth in Farm Numbers
"I could see there was a real potential for it," he said.
The number of small farms grew by more than 18,000 from 2002 to 2007 and most of the growth was in farms with annual sales of less than $10,000 and owners who hold jobs off the farm, according to U.S. Census data. Sheep and goats were overwhelmingly the popular livestock choice for those farms.
The 13,000-member American Dairy Goat Association in Spindale, N.C., has seen interest increase during the nation's economic downturn, especially among part-time farmers. Goats are easy to keep compared to some other farm animals and cheese and other products made from goat milk command good prices, association manager Shirley McKenzie said.
"The dairy goat is a smaller animal providing enough milk for a family, also to be used in making cheese and yogurts, fudges, soaps and lotions, and it costs less to feed them and requires less area and space to browse," she said.
Henry doesn't sell goat milk or products made from it, but when he's not working as the executive director for the Anchorage School District, he's assembling, packing and shipping off The Henry Milker. His sales nearly tripled after he began advertising his invention on an Oregon website for people looking to buy goats. He estimates he's sold about 600 in all.
"It is going to get bigger. No question about it," Henry said.
He now buys $5,000 worth of supplies at a time and pays a high school student or two to help him put together his milking machines on weekends.
Greg Steiner, 38, who owns a cider mill in Oswego, N.Y., has nine goats, a cow and a menagerie of other animals on his 67-acre farm.
"What we were looking for was something that was economical in price and hopefully helps us get the job of milking done faster, and this satisfied both of them," Steiner said.
The easily digestible goat's milk was a blessing when Steiner's neighbor's mare died, leaving a hungry colt. Steiner supplied milk using The Henry Milker.
"They are really easy to use for somebody who has never milked before. It is something (people) can catch on to quick using his device there," Steiner said.
Henry's hoping the milker, now priced at $119 plus shipping, will provide a tidy retirement income. He mailed 10 off on a recent morning. One was headed to Israel where a farmer planned to use it to milk a donkey.
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