EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT RAISING MEAT GOATS
If you are thinking about raising meat goats or if you are already raising meat goats and having problems, then this article may be for you. I am going to tell you what is involved in raising meat goats and what you need to have or acquire for this purpose. This is the information I give to people who call or email about raising meat goats.
Basic Truth: It isn't what you don't know that will get you; it is what you don't know that you need to know that will bite you in the butt every time.
You aren't going to make any money for several years because of start-up costs like buying land and animals (goats and livestock guardian dogs) plus installing pens, fencing, waterers, and other infrastructure. This is true in any business. If you don't have enough money to survive for as long as three years without taking money out of the business, you aren't likely to be successful. What you least expect will derail your plans -- droughts, abortion storms, predator strikes, floods, cold and heat stress killing kids as well as adults -- just to name a few. If it is easy or cheap, it doesn't work with goats. None of the financial projections of what you can earn raising meat goats takes these unexpected events into account while painting a rosy story of how easy it is to raise goats and how much money you can make. Both statements are outright lies; raising goats is never easy and ranching/farming is hard work that most of today's Americans aren't accustomed to or prepared to do. There are no holidays, vacations, or sick days. Animals eat daily, get sick at the most inconvenient times, and weather is a constant enemy. You have to live where the goats and dogs live and check on them daily; you can't raise them on an absentee basis. This is a lifestyle of days gone by, and you'd better be sure that it is what you want to do, because you can't escape from it once you start.
Goats are a dry-climate species. They can handle hot and cold but they don't do well in wet or wet and windy climates. Goats are not "little cows" and they should not be mentioned in the same sentence as sheep. Cattle and sheep are grass eaters. Goats are foragers/browsers -- not grazers; they move over acreage and eat like deer, "from the top down" to avoid stomach worms that suck blood that cause anemia and death. You can't deworm your way out of stomach worms either; frequent deworming simply builds super worms that are resistant to all classes of dewormers. Wet marshy climates are death to goats. I know that many people are trying to raise goats in such areas, but they are struggling with worms, hoof rot, coccidiosis, and a host of other problems that they can never totally overcome and their goats will never perform to their optimum because these conditions hold them back. I live in dry west Texas, which is goat country. Every year at GoatCamp™, Dr. Jim Miller, parasitologist at Louisiana University, has to bring goat pills containing worm eggs to use in doing fecals under microscopes because we simply can't find worms in the fecal pellets of my goats.
If you are going to raise goats for meat purposes and make money doing it, you must have sufficient land for goats from which they can feed themselves most of the year, supplementing only in times of bad weather. Bad weather is defined as all sorts of environmental stressors like extreme cold and heat, droughts, floods, high winds especially when coupled with rain, etc. You can't make any serious amount of money raising goats on less than 100 acres -- and even 100 acres won't allow much production. Meat goats can't tolerate crowding and the stress it brings; goats can't be feedlotted like cattle or sheep without significant mortality (death). Understand that I am not writing about highly-domesticated and heavily-managed dairy goats; they are totally different animals.
A-D-A-P-T-A-B-I-L-I-T-Y. Hardly anyone considers adaptability when they buy goats for breeding purposes. Goats need time to adapt to new environments. Dams need time to develop immunities to the bacteria, viruses, and other organisms that live on the land to which they have been brought and which are different from those to which they have been previously exposed before breeding them. Never buy pregnant does. Goats don't move well and often abort or reabsorb embryos. Does bred at their previous home will not be able to provide immunity to the "bugs" on your property to their newborn kids through their milk when they kid at your location. Kids are born without a functioning immune system and get all of their immunities through their dams' colostrum and milk. Adaptability is just as important to breeding bucks. Never buy breeding stock at commercial auctions; they are no surplus quality goats to be found this way. In fact, the number of goats in the USA is decreasing. At commercial auctions, you are buying other producers' problem goats that they have sold at auction in hopes of getting better than slaughter prices.
Goats are not the tin-can eaters of Saturday morning cartoon fame. They need top-quality hay and plant materials -- horse quality nutrition, to be precise. It is very easy to upset the rumen and kill the goat. Think "feeding the rumen, not feeding the goat." Goats can survive on plant materials that other ruminants can't, but they won't do well or thrive. Commercial producers need their goats to thrive in order to make money.
"Number of goats per acre" is not relevant to raising meat goats. There is no formula of "x" many goats per acre that works with raising goats. The plant materials available to eat do not determine animal load. The defining factor for raising meat goats is how well you can control the worm load. That means starting very small, culling heavily in every generation those goats who display bad traits (susceptability to worms, bad mothering abilities, deliver kids that are too large resulting in kidding problems, poor feet and mouth, etc.) and selecting those goats to keep that have good traits (ability to carry a reasonable worm load, good mothering traits, small kids that birth easily and grow well, good feet and mouth, etc.). If the goats that need culling are your children's favorites, this is going to be difficult to do but must be done because their weaknesses are threats to the overall health and safety of the herd. The goal is to develop an entire herd that tolerates a reasonable wormload and has other positive traits that contribute to minimal producer maintenance and maximum productivity.
Raising goats involves a great deal of common sense and a surprising number of people don't have it, particularly relating to livestock and agriculture in a time where most folks are city dwellers. I know this first hand; the first 42 years of my life were spent in a big city where as an adult I worked in an office and never owned a pet. If you don't have a gut instinct for what it takes to raise goats, you won't be successful. Pay attention to your animals. Notice how they move, eat, rest, get from location to location, and watch what they eat and avoid eating. Learn to think like a goat. When I first moved to my current location in West Texas, I would take one of my herds of goats to a north pasture each morning and bring them back to shelter at the south end of the ranch at night. One day I went to collect the herd from a pasture where the gate had been put at the north end. The goats were waiting at the south end of the pasture. For three afternoons, I herded goats north to the gate that accessed the center alley so that they could then go south. They looked at me like I was crazy. They knew that home was south. On the third day, I cut the fence wires and told the fence builders to have a gate on the south end of that pasture by the next afternoon. The goats were smarter than me about how to get home. Learn to think like a goat.
Don't blindly do what your friends and neighbors are doing; they are likely as confused or ill-informed as you may be about raising goats. Ask questions when someone tells you something that they insist is factual. They may be parroting what they've heard and perpetuating bad information. Listening to many voices will only confuse you. Don't take advice from people raising show goats unless you plan to raise show goats because almost everything they do is contrary to what you need to be doing with your meat goats. Choose your mentors carefully. Find a good goat vet or one who is willing to learn along with you; vets knowledgeable about goats are few and far between, even in West Texas goat country.
Goats are not easy to raise properly. Proper nutrition is the most difficult thing to get right in any managed herd -- no matter how minimal that management might be. Goats are high-mortality animals. Any species that has early sexual maturity, short gestation, and multiple births is going to experience a high level of mortality or it is going to overwhelm the balance of Nature and over-consume its food supply. If you work diligently, you are going to have a 5% mortality rate when kidding. If you do nothing, you will have anywhere from 12% to 100% kid mortality rate, the latter representing an abortion *storm* over which you have limited control. There will be times when you need to put a goat down because you can't save it. This is part of raising livestock. If you can't do dead goats, you can't do live goats. I've learned from these animals that there are far worse things in this life than dying. Goats aren't afraid of dying; this is part of life to them. They are afraid of being afraid; death is preferable to living in fear. If a goat knows it is its time to die, it will quit eating to hasten death. A weak or dying animal is a threat to the rest of the herd, and goats are very much herd animals. They have few natural defenses from predators, so the herd means safety.
When raising goats, you must have needed supplies and medications on hand because you will have no time to get them in an emergency, which almost by definition occurs at night during bad weather over a long holiday weekend. Goats are considered a minor species animal and almost everything we use as medications and dewormers is "off label," which means that you have a vast amount of learning ahead of you if you are going to raise healthy animals.
The problem isn't the breed; the problem is management. People tend to want to find a quick fix for their problems. Example: "If Boers can't tolerate our worm loads, let's try Kikos because they come from wet New Zealand so they will do well in our wet area." Nonsense. There is that thing called adaptability that dictates that goats must have time to adapt to their new environment and develop immunities to the organisms present at the new locale. Just because a goat survived well in wet New Zealand while roaming over thousands of acres in a largely unmanaged situation where "survival of the fittest" took out the weak and the strong survived does not mean that it will do well in wet Alabama on 50 acres when raised in pens or small pastures and fed rations by the new owners who don't cull because the goats cost a lot of money and therefore are all thought of as quality breeding stock. Adaptability has to start all over at the new location. There is no "quick fix" to problems encountered when raising goats.
Another attempt at a "quick fix" is to buy goats that are registered, assuming that registration means a quality animal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Registration provides only pedigree information. Genetics is a crap shoot. The best buck and best doe can produce terrific offspring one year and total junk the next year. You have to learn how to select quality breeding stock meat goats. Registration has nothing to do with quality.
With proper management, land, facilities, and nutrition, you can raise any breed of goat to healthy adulthood. However, this doesn't mean that the breeds or cross-breeds that you've selected to raise will necessarily meet the needs of the market in your area. That's an entirely different consideration. Market research is critical to your success. You will find that many producers are raising animals to weights that are far in excess of liveweights that bring maximum money per pound. Historically, maximum money has always been made for goats in the 45 to 60 pound range liveweight.
Now let's talk BREEDS. The purpose of this discussion is to objectively evaluate what people think of as meat breeds. I've been raising Myotonic goats since January 1990. I am the only person I know of in this country who has raised Myotonics and Boers side-by-side since Boers entered the USA around 1993-94. I've owned several different breeds of dairy goats and I've even raised Pygmies and so-called spanish goats. Every breed has pluses and minuses, and I will address both for each breed evaluated.
The phenotype (body conformation) of a MEAT goat is short legged, deep, and wide bodied, with udders that are tight against the body and produce milk on demand. This body type means more meat and less waste (bone, fat, internal organs) at slaughter and less likelihood of damage to does' udders when foraging/browsing over land covered with briars and bushes. On the other hand, dairy goats are long legged and long bodied so that the does can carry big udders that will likely, in a forage/browse or pasture situation, be damaged by bushes and briars. Dairy goats are like the typical West Texas whitetail deer in that they have very little meat on them. They aren't *meat* goats; they are the opposite of meat -- they are *dairy.*
Boers came into the USA in 1993-1994 from New Zealand. In the late 1980's-early 1990's, when apartheid still existed in South Africa and most of the world embargoed trade with that country because of its racial practices, embryos out of show-goat culls were smuggled out of South Africa into New Zealand and implanted into surrogate dams ("recipient" does) whose offspring were sold to US goat producers at hefty prices. People who paid lots of money for these goats heavily managed them to protect the value of their investments. An unfortunate side effect of this close management has been pampered goats that became feed bucket dependent and who were never required to adapt to their new environment. Very little culling for bad traits or selecting for good traits was done to a breed which is significantly Nubian (dairy) to begin with, and Boers that producers had problems with were not slaughtered for meat but were instead sent to sale barns to become other producers' problems. Americans also did their "if it is bigger, it has to be better" thing, completing the over-domestication of what had been a successful dual-purpose (meat & milk) breed in South Africa. As a consequence, Boers have gotten a bad rap as an unadaptable goat in the USA, but this isn't attributable to a breed deficiency because the goats weren't in most instances given an opportunity to adapt to locales, most of which were far wetter than the eight-inch annual rainfall climate from which they originally came. Most folks don't have enough land on which to raise commercial goats anyhow, so Boers have pretty much remained show goats in America. Serious commercial producers have been moving away from fullblood Boers for years.
Kikos were developed in New Zealand beginning around 1978 in an effort to raise a bigger brush goat. New Zealand is an island without predators and feral goats were overrunning the island. Toggenburg, Saanen, and Anglo-Nubian bucks (all dairy breeds) were bred to several hundred of the feral does and the outcome over about seven generations was named "Kiko." Like the typical spanish goat, Kiko has little meat on it and has retained the phenotypical long legs of dairy goats that are representative of the dairy bucks used to create the breed.
Despite some claims to the contrary, fullblood (pure) spanish goats don't exist as a breed anymore, having long ago been crossed with dairy goats to increase their size and later with Boers. I have personally seen many (but not all) so-called pure spanish herds, and if you know what you are looking at, you can see dairy-goat colorations and markings on what people today call pure spanish goats. So-called spanish goats' attraction to producers has been their hardiness and not their size or amount of meat. As you have read in previous paragraphs, this hardiness exists because the goats have adapted to their environment. Adaptation does not transfer with them to new locations but instead must take place over months and years at their new homes.
There are three true meat breeds in this country: Pygmies, TexMasters™, and Myotonics. Pygmies are considered to be pet animals by most Americans and are pretty much relegated to shows but they are in fact a decent small meat goat. TexMasters™ are a breed that I began developing in 1995, breeding my Tennessee Meat Goat™ bucks (larger and more heavily muscled fullblood Myotonics developed at Onion Creek Ranch in Texas) to Boer does and then changing the breeding protocol over the ensuing years to remove as much Boer influence as possible because I quickly learned that it didn't take much Boer to take the meat off the offspring. I developed TexMaster™ as a commercial meat breed.
The breed most maligned by producers who don't know goats and don't understand how myotonia works and its contribution to developing meat is the Myotonic breed. There are basically three types of Myotonic goats: (1) the smaller sized Myotonic that pet and show breeders have crossed with Pygmies and Nigerian Dwarf goats or have been line bred within the smaller Myotonics to create special features attractive to pet buyers, such as long silky hair, blue eyes, and unique color combinations; (2) small to medium-sized and occasionally larger sized goats that display myotonia but are not fullblood Myotonics. Within this category are producers who deny that Myotonics are a breed and instead view it as a condition, so they call any goat that displays myotonia "Myotonic"; and (3) the larger and more heavily muscled fullblood Myotonics developed at Onion Creek Ranch in Texas and trademarked as "Tennessee Meat Goats." Category (1) above -- the pet category -- has given the Myotonic breed a bad reputation by coining colloquial names for them (fainting, fall-down, scare, wooden-leg) that imply that the breed is defective and more susceptible to predation than other breeds -- neither of which is true. All breeds of goats are susceptible to predators; goats are sprinters, not long-distance runners, and can easily be caught by predators. Livestock guardian dogs are essential in any goat-raising operation.
If you see a goat with MEAT on it, particularly in the rear end, I promise you that it has the Myotonic breed in it. I've seen Kikos and Boers purported to be fullblood Kiko and Boer and I can see the Myotonic influence in those goats. If you know breeds, the Myotonic conformational traits will jump out and scream "myotonic" to you. The fullblood Myotonic goat has a 4 to 1 meat-to-bone ratio -- 25% greater than any other breed -- and Dr. Lou Nuti of Prairie View A&M University north of Houston, Texas has done meat studies that has proved that any goat that is at least 50% Myotonic has a 6-10% greater meat yield. This increased meat yield and higher meat-to-bone ratio more than make up for the slightly slower growth of fullblood Myotonics. Even the show-goat industry has recognized the value of breeding Myotonic into show wethers to give them that hard topline sought by many show judges.
If you've made it this far through this article and still want to raise meat goats, go for it. Here are some resources to help you: There is a lot of information on the Internet about meat goats, both good and bad. ChevonTalk, my meat-goat education group, has been on Yahoogroups since 1998 and has over 2900 subscribers. MeatGoatMania, the online meat-goat magazine owned by me (Suzanne Gasparotto of Onion Creek Ranch in Texas) and Pat Cotten of Bending Tree Ranch in Arkansas, is also on Yahoogroups and is published monthly. Both are free. My website's Articles page on www.tennesseemeatgoats.com has dozens of articles that I've written available for reading. If you want to be successful in raising and selling meat goats, heed the information in this article, choose your mentors carefully, and learn to THINK LIKE A GOAT.
Suzanne W. Gasparotto, Onion Creek Ranch, Lohn, Texas 12-12-11
Important! Please Read This Notice!
All information provided in these articles is based either on personal experience or information provided by others whose treatments and practices have been discussed fully with a vet for accuracy and effectiveness before passing them on to readers.
In all cases, it is your responsibility to obtain veterinary services and advice before using any of the information provided in these articles. Suzanne Gasparotto is not a veterinarian.Neither tennesseemeatgoats.com nor any of the contributors to this website will be held responsible for the use of any information contained herein.
The author, Suzanne Gasparotto, hereby grants to local goat publications and club newsletters, permission to reprint articles published on the Onion Creek Ranch website under these conditions: THE ARTICLE MUST BE REPRODUCED IN ITS ENTIRETY AND THE AUTHOR'S NAME, ADDRESS, AND CONTACT INFORMATION MUST BE INCLUDED AT THE BEGINNING OF THE REPRINT. We would appreciate notification from any clubs or publications when the articles are used. (A copy of the newsletter or publication would also be a welcome addition to our growing library of goat related information!)
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