HOLDINGFORD, Minn. - When Melissa Czeck opens the gate to the pen housing her milking goats, the nine Saanens inside know just what to do. In two groups they walk/run single file to the five-stall milking stand 10 feet away. There, the caprines happily munch on grain while being milked.

"They milk basically the same as cows," Czeck said while pre-dipping, stripping and attaching a claw to one of the does.

When each group is done milking, they are post-dipped before contentedly returning to their pen.

To Czeck, milking goats comes second nature. But it was not always so for the Delano, Minn., native.

Czeck did not grow up on a farm and did not get involved in the dairy goat industry until her junior high school years when she joined 4-H. She began working on a nearby farm in return for leasing rights to the farm's horses and goats.

"It started as a 4-H project that never went away," Czeck said of her passion for dairy goats.

Czeck purchased her first goat in the late 1980s through a rent-to-own agreement. Although she attended the Medical Institute of Minnesota in Bloomington - now Argosy University in Rosemont - to earn her degree as a veterinary technician, she did not have to give up her goats.

"When I went to college, I had an older friend who was a [goat] breeder and she kept my goats for me," Czeck said.

Twenty years later, Czeck's caprine passion has not diminished. If anything, it has grown with her herd. Today, Czeck owns 25 registered does, kids and bucks, all of which trace back to her very first 4-H project with the exception of the bucks she purchased for breeding.

Her breed of choice, Czeck said, has always been Saanens, although she has also raised LaManchas.

"I started with Saanens," Czeck said of how she became interested in the breed. "I like them because they're very business-like. They come [to the milking stand], milk, go back [to their pen] and eat. There's no whining from them. LaManchas are nice and very personable. They are a lot of fun, but Saanens work. [Saanens] are comparable to Holsteins with production."

For many years, Czeck kept her herd very small, freshening only four or five milkers each year. Aside from her goat hobby, Czeck works part time for Freeport Veterinary Services managing the clinic where her husband, Tom, is a veterinarian and partner in the clinic. She and Tom also have four children - Cassie (10), Katie (8), Quinn (7) and TJ (5) - who keep her spare time to a minimum.

Another reason for keeping her numbers down was the labor involved.

"I use to keep only small numbers - four to five milkers each year - because I was milking all by hand," Czeck said. "I kept only the very best."

One and one-half years ago that changed when Czeck had a five-stall milking stand custom made to fit her large goats and put into the old dairy barn on Tom's home farm, next door to the Czecks. The rest of her milking equipment is a mix of cow and goat gear. The two claws were specially made for goats but the buckets, vacuum pump and pulsators were left over from Tom's family's dairying days. The only adjustments needed were to increase the pulsation due to goats' fast release of their milk, Czeck said.

Czeck milks her goats twice each day. All her milkers are on regular DHIA and DHIR testing, helping Czeck keep track of their production records. Her herd averages 12 to 13 pounds of milk per doe, per day at peak production and her last test showed a rolling herd average of 3,104 pounds. One of Czeck's goats, a yearling doe named Keeper, peaked at 20 pounds per day, which has put Keeper in the running to be named one of the top ten Saanens in the nation for production.

"I was very surprised," Czeck said of Keeper's record.

Generally, the milk produced by Czeck's herd stays on the farm, going to the kids and being used by the Czeck household. Occasionally, however, she does sell some to people raising bottle fawns and foals.

Goats are seasonal breeders; hers typically freshen in March and April. Czeck raises all her babies, taking them away from their dams immediately and feeding them pasteurized whole milk. Because her herd is primarily show and breeding stock, the kids are kept on milk longer than normal and are allowed to drink as much as they can.

Because Czeck does a lot of showing, she is very selective about which young does stay within her herd.

"If they're not show quality they don't stay," Czeck said. "Everything has to be show quality, in the upper one-half of their class."

The same standards apply to the bucks she raises. Only those that she deems eligible are sold as breeding stock, with the majority of them going into commercial herds.

These stringent cull practices - in place since her early years when she kept her numbers to a minimum - have shaped Czeck's herd into one of champions. This has been proven throughout Czeck's show career, and especially in the last few years.

Aside from Keeper, who is currently in the running for top ten in production in the nation, Czeck bred and raised Hillary, the No. 1 Saanen in the nation for butterfat in 2007. This year alone five out of the 13 does she freshened were named permanent champions. A goat becomes a permanent champion if it is named the champion of its class three times if the class meets certain stipulations. Once a permanent champion, always a permanent champion.

This year, Czeck traveled to 12 shows across Minnesota, all of which were sanctioned by the American Dairy Goat Association. Next year, she plans to attend the national show in Louisville, Ky., where her goats will compete against the top Saanens in the country.

"It will be fun to see how they do against the nation," Czeck said.

Czeck's involvement in dairy goats isn't limited to her own herd. She is a member of the Minnesota Dairy Goat Association and recently finished her term as president of the organization.

Through the Minnesota Dairy Goat Association, a monthly newsletter is sent to the approximately 150 members, youth shows are sponsored as well as various sanctioned shows. The main event, however, is the annual goat breeder conference that takes place at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus each year. This year, the conference was held Nov. 6 and goat breeders across Minnesota had the opportunity to attend workshops and listen to speakers on health issues, reproduction, genetics and management practices, among other topics. For more information on the Minnesota Dairy Goat Association, visit their Web site at www.minnesotagoats.org.

With show season ended and her goats nearing the end of their lactation, Czeck is looking forward to some off time and contemplating the future of her hobby.

"I'm in the process of expanding," she said. "But I don't know if I want to milk commercially. For now my goal is to freshen 20 per year. I think I can stay profitable at that size."

"It's a hobby," Czeck said. "It's nice if it can pay for itself."

For more information on Melissa Czeck's dairy goats, visit her Web site at www.centuryfarmdairygoats.com.