Posted February 16, 2006: Kentucky State University’s
215-acre Research and Demonstration Farm just outside of Frankfort
is a hotbed of activity these days, as farmers in the poverty-stricken
state flock to educational events designed to help them make
the transition from tobacco. The land grant university’s
“Third Thursday Thing”—partially funded by
SARE—is a farmer training program that’s been around
since 1997. It draws upwards of 400 people, and has covered
a diverse range of topics including aquaculture, beekeeping,
grain storage, goat production and marketing, organic fruit
and vegetable production, sustainable forestry and warm-season
grasses. (Visit www.kysu.edu/land_grant/thursday2.cfm
for a current schedule of events.)
On a brisk January morning,
we travel by tour bus the hour or so to the research farm
from Louisville for an optional field trip on goat production
that was part of Southern SAWG’s fifteenth annual Practical
Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference
The diversity of the training programs the farm is able to
offer is reflected by the variety of ongoing project here.
In fact, two concurrent workshops—one on pastured poultry
and another an overview of KSU’s sustainable agriculture
research and demonstration—are taking place concurrently
as we tromp out to the goat barn.
Room to grow
According to the president of the Kentucky Goat Producer’s
Association, the U.S. currently meets only about 50 of percent
our nation’s growing demand for goat meat (Check out
his letter to New Farm here).
Much of the market generating this demand is concentrated
around specific ethnic populations in urban centers around
certain holidays. Most of Kentucky’s meat goats are
finished for export to other states—areas like Chicago,
Detroit and larger East Coast cities. The USDA Census of Agriculture
reported 500 percent growth in Kentucky goat production between
1997 and 2002.
Ken Andries, PhD, an animal science specialist at KSU, leads
us to a pen where the fall kids have been rounded up—but
not before we each take a turn dipping the soles of our shoes
in a sanitizing solution—parasite and hoof problems
are major challenges in humid Kentucky, and there’s
no sense taking chances, even if it is the dead of (a particularly
Dr. Andries and other farmer educators like him have their
work cut out for them. While goats are certainly a viable
part of the puzzle for small farmers transitioning from tobacco
production, many of these farmers have never kept goats before,
or any livestock for that matter. That also means they haven’t
formed any bad habits, and Andries stresses that disciplined
management practices can prevent many of the common health
problems in goats.
The kids in front of us will be weaned at 90 days, Andries
says. Sixty days would be better, he says, because that would
improve doe condition and improve conception for three kiddings
within a two-year cycle. But pulling that off would depend
on a number of favorable factors, Andries says, noting “The
hay quality is poor this year because of the drought conditions
we’ve been experiencing.”
Blessings and curses
The dry weather also means fewer parasite problems. Parasite
resistance to meds is a huge problem in the goat industry.
For this reason, Andries says, he avoids using prophylactic
medications whenever possible, relying on the FAMACHA®
system of detection and only treating infected animals.
This involves checking the animals’ eyes for signs of
anemia and carefully monitoring fecal egg counts in order
to zero in on animals that need treatment.
“This year we went from the first part of May until
Katrina without rain, so I didn’t have parasite problems,”
Dr. Andries says. “You gotta have moisture to have parasites.”
There’s one exception to selective de-worming program,
he says. “At kidding time we’ll de-worm all the
With goat production, the goal is to have every doe throwing
twins (or better). “This past fall we had a 185-percent
kid crop out of 56 goats,” says Dr. Andries.
“Our goats are in pasture, because I don’t have
access to browse,” he says, elaborating that he takes
great pains to be a good neighbor to colleagues, such as keeping
his goats away from a nearby paw-paw research project. The
pasture is a mixture of fescue and other cool-season grasses
and forage crops—chicory, lespedeza, alfalfa, red clover,
white clover, Bermuda (started as plugs) and gamma, Indian
and blue-stem grasses are being evaluated. “They can
start grazing at the end of March or early April,” Andries
says. “It’s mostly a matter of whether the soil
is dry enough so they don’t tear it up.”
In the wintertime, round bails of fescue hay sit aboveground
in cradle feeders. Free-choice loose minerals, which the goats
“seem to like better than blocks,” Dr. Andries
says, are also distributed out of feeders scattered around
the pasture. Guard donkey keep foxes and coyotes at bay.
Andries says he’s heard stories of other farmers having
problems with goats on fescue—aborted kids, thickened
placentas—due to the presence of toxic endophytes, but
he hasn’t experienced such troubles himself. “It’s
all anecdotal; we need the research,” he says, adding
that perhaps the addition of clover keeps the feedstock more
vegetative and helps minimize the problem.
The blessing and curse about goats is they’ll eat practically
anything. “They really like standing sweet corn,”
Andries recalls of moving his herd onto the farm. “They
ate the rose bushes along the fence line first, but they really
liked the sweet corn.”
The kids are alright
The barn where the goats are penned in is open on two sides.
Where siding was put up green and has now cured, sunlight
and brisk air come streaming through. A concrete slab floor
was poured because, Dr. Andries explains, “You can’t
The kids here are a mixed bag of breeds, but all are half
Boer. “It’s the most popular meat goat breed right
now,” Dr. Andries says. Boer goats, a South African
breed historically brought in from southwest Texas with tobacco
buyout money, began to develop parasite and foot problems
in the challenging new climate, Dr. Andries explains. Selecting
for goats that show resistance to these problems can help
to minimize their impact, he says. Boer goats are fussier
and need more care that the brush (Spanish) goats Kentucky
farmers might be more familiar with, Andries says, and they
require more room to thrive—about an acre for every
four to six goats.
Neil Hoffman has been raising goats in Owsley County the
mountains of eastern Kentucky for 34 years. “I like
to say my farm is good, flat land—it just tilts up on
edge,” he quips as he warms into his presentation. He
characterizes his soil as silt/loam “and a lot of clay.”
First off, Hoffman says, goats have a lot of personality
and are very active, which makes them a good choice for some
farmers and a poor choice for others. Unlike cattle, he warns,
goats can get through barbed wire and they can chew through
Hoffman, president of the Eastern Kentucky Goat Producers
Association, milked Nubian dairy goats for 25 years before
entering the meat goat market. He also raised feeder pigs
and some vegetables. The association educates breeders and
helps them find markets for their products. Hoffman sees a
lot of room for growth in the Kentucky goat industry. Most
producers still sell their animals through local collection
sales and the animals are shipped out of state, but the number
are growing enough to make in-state processing more economically
Best of both worlds
Just like a good plant breeder would do, Hoffman looks for
the best attributes of different breeds of goats and tries
to put them together. Boers gain weight easily and are gentle
enough but they tend to have the parasite and foot problems.
Kiko goats are great mothers, tend to give birth easily, have
some parasite resistance and fewer foot problems.
But Kikos are slower to gain weight than Boers, and they
have less width in the chest and hindquarters and less muscling
and meat in general compared to Boers, all potential negatives
when it comes to grading them at market (meat goats are graded
on a scale of one to three; one fetching the best price).
Buyers in faraway metropolitan areas depend on the reliability
and consistency of this grading system as they are typically
buying these animals site unseen.
“It will be interesting to see how they grade out and
whether we’re going to take a little bit of a hit in
grading,” Hoffman says. Though they might be smaller,
Hoffman says, Kikos have a greater muscle-to-bone ratio than
Boers, which somewhat makes up for their smaller size in total
carcass value per pound.
Hoffman takes his breeding practices seriously.
“The single most important day in a nanny’s life
is when she kids,” he says. “It amazes me how
nonchalant some farmers are about this. I’ve got 20
nannies and I want to see 40 kids.” Hoffman says he’ll
let a nanny goat deliver a single kid two times before she’s
taken out of the herd.
One of the beauties of having Nubian genetics in the mix,
Hoffman says, is that they tend to throw more triplets and
even quadruplets (while Boers seem to be one of the least
likely breeds to birth more than twins).
The day of a kids birth is also a critical time for the kid
itself, Hoffman says. “You absolutely have to make sure
that kid is drinking milk,” he says. “Boer goats
are particularly stupid. You have to make sure there’s
a good bond, that the udder is out and that there’s
no plug.” You should be able to pick up a 12-hour-old
kid and literally see and feel the milk, Hoffman says.
Kids can become easily dehydrated and will just lay down
and die, he says. If there’s a problem, the farmer has
to intervene by squirting milk into the kid’s mouth
to show it how things are supposed to work and then making
sure the kid gets on the teat. “You have to be observant
and you have to be diligent,” Hoffman says. “Within
about two hours they should be getting some milk.”
Hoffman’s goats are on pasture much of the year with
supplemental grain rations when the weather dictates. He plants
drought-resistant sorghum-Sudangrass in May—at a cost
of about $35 to $40 an acre—and starts grazing his animals
in June. “Even when it gets big, the goats will strip
the leaves off and eat the tops” he says. The prolific
forage crop presents a parasite-free environment that’s
good for the young animals, Hoffman says.
Once the sorghum-Sudangrass is plowed down—usually
August—Hoffman plants winter wheat for grazing in the
cooler months and rotates the goats to a hillside pasture
of white clover and fescue. He says it’s critical not
to let them eat too low to the ground because “it’s
not natural.” And it’s through mimicking natural
systems that Hoffman says he avoids parasite problems. Prophylactic
medications only take you so far, he says, and they eventually
lose their efficacy.
“The number one reason people get out of the goat business
is they can’t fence them,” Hoffman says. “Number
two is parasites.”
To tackle the first problem, Hoffman runs two strands of
barbed wire around the perimeter of his pastures; the bottom
one is light gauge and the top strand is about nose height.
Both are electrified. “Goats are naturally curious animals,”
he says. “A goat is two weeks old and it touches that
fence with its lips and it becomes imprinted on its brain:
‘Don’t ever touch that wire.’ It’s
not the fencing; it’s the training in the goat’s
Consistency is the key, Hoffman says. Never go to bed at
night if that electric fence is not working,” he counsels.
“Not one day.”
Hoffman has a Great Pyrenees on the premises—dogs,
llamas and donkeys are all popular guard animals—but
says he has never had a problem with predators. “Maybe
I’m just lucky, or maybe it’s the electric fence.”
On that note, he recommends a fence charger that can “throw
some juice,” something a $79 hardware store special
won’t do. He also cautions to use ground rods; he’s
got three for each active fence.
Hoffman breeds in May and takes his goats to market in February
and March “because that’s when nobody else has
any” and the price is higher, he explains. His target
finished weight is 75 pounds for a 5-month-old goat.
Hoffman attributes a strong herd to diligent management,
including frequent pasture rotations, hygienic animal husbandry
like keeping animals’ feet out of feeders, and vigilant
monitoring of herd health. “Just normal meds aren’t
going to cut it; you’ve got to manage properly,”