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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.