New to livestock, former tobacco farmers ponder the omnivorous option
Meat goat production is one of the many hands-on demonstration projects under way at Kentucky State University to help the state's farmers meet new market demands.

By Dan Sullivan

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 (www.ssawg.org/conference-.html). 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 mild) winter.

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 does.”

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 sanitize dirt.”

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 walls.

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 viable.

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 head.”

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,” he says.

Additional Resources

Meat Goat Marketplace
A list of the best resources for raising and marketing meat goats
www.newfarm.org/features/0704/meatgoat/resource.shtml

Kentucky Goat Producers Association
Organization addressing the issues of the growing goat industry in Kentuky
www.kentuckygpa.com