by Sally Colby
Anyone who has dealt with dairy or meat goats for any length of time knows they aren’t the easiest livestock to raise. But Dr. Steve Hart, Goat Extension Specialist of Langston University, says there’s a need for more goats in the U.S. livestock production system, and that goats can be profitable for those who are willing to learn how to raise them properly.
The dairy goat segment has seen its share of challenges, including lack of goat milk processing plants. “Most goat dairies are small, cottage industry size units with owners supplying all the labor,” said Hart, noting that about 80 percent of goat milk is processed into cheese. “However, there has been an increase in the number of commercial-size goat dairies (200 to 400 head).” Hart added that the cost of harvesting goat milk is about four times the cost of harvesting cow milk on a hundredweight basis, and shipping cost is also higher.
Much of the available information on dairy goats is outdated, reflecting mostly as a cottage industry of yesteryear rather than the commercial scale industry that it’s becoming. “Very few universities work with goats anymore,” said Hart. “Male dairy goats are typically discarded after birth due to lack of value, but a number of producers are working on cost-effective methods of growing these kids into saleable meat goats. Producers need to share the tricks they use to make raising male kids profitable.”
Enter the meat goat, and the entrepreneurs who have been willing to try raising them. Hart says some livestock producers acquire goats for co-species grazing — adding goats to existing cattle or sheep enterprises. “There’s tremendous potential for this use of goats due to increased regulations for herbicides,” he said. “Goats prefer to browse (rather than graze) but will eat tall grass. Goats consume predominantly woody vegetation; sheep like broadleaf weeds and cattle prefer grass. Co-species grazing requires modifications of pastures and facilities to incorporate goats. The biggest problem in co-species grazing is overcoming the stigma of goats and having your beef buddies ridicule you for having goats.”
One bonus for those interested in raising meat goats is steady market demand. Domestic meat production doesn’t meet demand, and the difference is made up with imports. Currently, domestic production satisfies only 35 percent of the demand for goat meat.
Hart says many new goat producers have little or no agricultural background and are excited about getting into the business, but quickly find out that there’s a steep learning curve. Most small-scale goat producers stay in the business for about five to six years, which results in lost overall production.
“If you’re looking to get into the meat goat business, start looking for animals early,” said Hart. “Don’t buy show animals or animals that are fed regularly if you’re looking for animals to control brush. Check producer references and find out who he has sold goats to.” Hart suggests starting small, purchasing goats from as few sources as possible, and increasing numbers as knowledge and confidence increases.
Hart discusses the topic most people who have raised goats already know: parasites are the number one cause of goat mortalities and dewormer resistance is an equally big problem. “Anyone raising goats needs to learn FAMACHA; a system of matching the color of the lower inside eyelid to a chart to determine if a goat needs to be dewormed,” he said. Hart noted that while dewormer resistance is a major deterrent to long-term success with goats, combination dewormers help reduce this problem, and internal parasites are less of a problem when goats are allowed to browse rather than graze.
Hart says Dr. Tom Craig, parasitologist at Texas A&M, teaches that anyone who’s raising goats needs to know more about their worm farm than their goat farm to successfully raise goats. Hart recommends the American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Control (ACSRPC) at wormx.info as an excellent resource for parasite management.
Data from the Auburn Diagnostic Lab shows that internal parasites are responsible for more goat deaths than the sum of the next three most important goat diseases. “The problem continues to worsen,” said Hart. “The American Consortium for Small Parasite Control has done a lot to develop new information about parasite control and disseminate it on their website. They’ve done collaborative research on Sericea lespedeza (a perennial pasture species that may help in parasite management), copper oxide wire particles and FAMACHA. Genetics and pasture management play a large role in parasite problems.”
Unfortunately, many new goat producers are unaware of the importance of pasture management, and when pastures become overstocked or there’s an exceptionally wet year, goats’ parasite burdens rise dramatically and producers frantically give dewormers that are most often ineffective. This is often the last straw for producers, and many choose to sell out after losing a number of animals to parasites.
Hart says although the information on wormex.org can help avoid such a problem, most producers don’t find it until they’ve had a major wreck. “Preventive management will keep most of these producers in the business,” he said. “However, when you’re in the enterprise for fun, you don’t want to think hard. When you haven’t had farm animals before, the unknown unknowns will kill your goats.”
Finishing goats in a feedlot situation works for some producers, including reduced parasite problems and the ability to use economical commodity feeds. However, goats are highly susceptible to enterotoxemia (aka ‘overeating disease’, caused by several clostridial organisms) and vaccines don’t provide the same level of immunity in goats that they do in sheep. Most ethnic consumers don’t like fat on goats, so feedlot goats should be fed for steady growth rather than for maximum gain.
Hart says one problem in all aspects of the meat goat business is lack of good record keeping, and producers not knowing where their costs are and how much they’re actually making. He believes the meat goat industry needs business-minded people to raise goats, but those don’t generally come from within the goat industry. Hart suggests that perhaps business-minded cattlemen could start co-grazing goats and help move the industry forward.
“Why aren’t people are jumping into the goat business?” said Hart. “It’s better than the cattle business. It’s more responsibility, but goat meat prices are good at close to $2/pound. Goat production is highly profitable, even better than cattle or sheep. There’s a great abundance of brush and weeds that could be controlled with goats.”
Retired baby boomers have great potential for entering the goat business, and often have the capital, time and ability to manage a farm. However, retirees may not want to become involved with an enterprise that involves a lot of thinking and planning. “The meat goat industry has a tremendous market at a good price and is a lucrative enterprise,” said Hart. “How can we get people interested in being producers, and end up being successful producers?”
Hart believes the meat goat industry can move forward in an economically sound manner if there is more focus on genetic improvement, performance measurements and research for large-scale operations.
An outlook on meat goat production
by Sally Colby