by Sally Colby
When Jeff and Nona Cullen retired from careers in the military — Jeff with 27 years in the Marine Corps and Nona with 22 years in the Navy — the couple wanted to enjoy their retirement but also wanted to become self-sufficient.
The Cullens found 20 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains and thought about what kind of livestock to raise. They started with cattle, but the property wasn’t suitable for more than a few head. “I talked with Jeff and suggested we try meat goats,” said Nona. “We started doing research, and found out that with the terrain we had, the option for meat goats was better for us.”
After considering Spanish, Myatonics and Boers, the Cullens settled on the Kiko, a breed developed in New Zealand as a meat goat. “We had to figure out which breed could deal with the temperatures we have up here,” said Nona. “Even in summer, it doesn’t get hot, and winter is brutal with winds and snow.”
Jeff says Nona’s experience as a Navy corpsman translates well when it comes to working with the goats. “When a goat is sick or hurt, she knows what to do,” said Jeff. “Even though her medical experience was with humans, it transfers to livestock. We learned about parasites common in our area, and she reads up on all the medical aspects.” To learn more about animals and how to most effectively manage them, Nona furthered her education and became a veterinary assistant after retiring from the Navy.
Once they decided to raise Kikos, the Cullens knew there was more to learn. The couple took advantage of goat-based Facebook groups, where they learned through reading questions and comments. Since the Cullens didn’t know others who were raising meat goats, they relied on their own online research, then contacted breeders and visited farms. “Once we got our farm, our military background helped us look at everything,” said Nona, describing their visits to various goat farms. “We were always very aware of everything around us, not necessarily just what was put right in front of us. Learning what a good goat looked like was a process and learning experience. We tried to go by what we read on websites and talking with people about goats, looking at paperwork and health records. We averaged it all out, and agreed on which goats to buy based on that.”
Thanks to their extensive research, the Cullens were aware of diseases such as CL (caseous lymphadenitis), CAE (caprine arthritic encephalitis) and Johne’s disease; and sought out goats from breeders who maintained testing programs for these diseases. The Cullens continue testing for these diseases every six months until an animal has two years of negative results, then animals are tested annually.
The Cullens’ first purchase was three Kiko wethers, which may not seem like much of a start to a breeding program, but Jeff and Nona had a plan. “We got them to test our fences and to see if they could make it through the winters,” said Jeff. “They made it through -23 degrees for three days in a row the first winter, and all they had was a run-through for shelter. That’s when we were sold on Kikos and started buying females and bucks for breeding stock.”
Although Jeff and Nona didn’t know a lot about Kiko bloodlines until they began to purchase purebred goats, they knew they wanted healthy, sturdy animals. “I knew I wanted a taller, longer mama goat,” said Jeff. “It’s easier for the babies to nurse from her. As we got into it, we learned about different bloodlines. For us, the number one thing is that it’s a meat goat, but if we have some really good offspring that we think it breeding stock quality, we’ll sell it as breeding stock. If it’s something I would buy, I will sell it. If I wouldn’t buy it, it goes to the meat market.”
Jeff noted that purebred breeders have different breeding and management programs, so he and Nona examined the stock and programs of various breeders to determine how those goats would fit in their program. “Both of us are frugal and we didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars up front and have all the goats die,” said Jeff. “I try to take care of my herd as best I can. I don’t over-baby them, but make sure if there are any injuries or illness we take care of it right away.”
Goats in a mountainous area mean predators, so Jeff used game cameras around the property to see what he was dealing with. He says the farm’s high-tensile fence was keeping predators at bay, but he knew they needed more protection. They tried using donkeys as guardian animals, but the donkeys ended up being a nuisance due to their hoof care requirements.
“Everyone else we knew had livestock guardian dogs,” said Jeff. “We learned of a farmer who was selling out and he had an older Great Pyrenees named Brutus. Brutus had been raised around sheep and chickens, but we brought him here and he transitioned well. Then we got two male puppies, and it was amazing to watch Brutus teach the younger puppies what their job was. Then we got two young females, but we had to put Brutus down this year so we have four guardian dogs now.”
Jeff says they still see predators, including coyotes, on the game cameras and he hears them nearby, but the dogs have been very effective in keeping them out of the pastures.
The Cullens’ parasite management program includes eyelid checks for FAMACHA scores, but body condition and other factors are also considered before an animal is dewormed. “We’ll take into account stress if they just came from another farm,” said Jeff. “But if I have to start deworming them on a regular basis, they go to the meat market. We keep track of fecal egg counts. Each goat is tested at least once a quarter and we keep the counts on a spreadsheet.”
The Cullens employ the most recently recommended practice of using a combination of two dewormers. Nona does a follow-up fecal egg count after deworming, and if count proves the dewormer hasn’t been effective, she’ll switch products.
Jeff says with constant fecal testing of the animals and strict culling, they’ve eliminated the worst offenders. Their two herd sires have maintained counts of around 600 (eggs per gram of feces) since the Cullens brought them to their farm, and counts have remained low even during stressful periods such as breeding season.
Through attending various Kiko sales in several states, the Cullens have continued to acquire bloodlines that are hardy and parasite resistant. They now have enough does and bucks to maintain a closed herd. “We’ve sold breeding stock at breeder sales, and will also sell privately from the farm,” said Jeff. “This year we only have six that we think are the quality that we’d be willing to sell to other farms.”
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