Not so long ago, admitting you were a goat farmer in livestock producer circles, if you did admit it at all, meant enduring a lot of stifled laughter—if not outright teasing.
“Used to be, everyone thought goats weren’t worth anything. Maybe $20, $30 a head was what you could get for them,” says Bobby Watts, who with his wife, Michelle McAfee, manages Watts Farm in Harrodsburg.
That was then. Folks aren’t laughing so much anymore.
In less than 10 years, goats have gone from the sidelines to the mainstream in Kentucky—in a very big way. According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, as of January 1, 2005, Kentucky’s goat population ranked sixth in the nation at 70,000 head, a fourfold leap from the state’s estimated 1997 goat herd of just over 16,000. It’s estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 Kentucky farms now include goats.
Many of them raise full-blood or crosses of the Boer meat goat breed. First introduced to the United States from South Africa in the early 1990s, the Boer is broader and more muscular than your grandfather’s billy goat. It’s bred to be a high-quality meat producer, and the prices show.
These days, Kentucky goat farmers are fetching anywhere from $1.15 to $1.70 per pound for their 60-80 pound animals. That’s no small return, considering it takes only 3-1/2 to 5 months for a goat kid to reach marketable size.
But perhaps best news of all: meat goat producers in the state don’t have to bother with marketing slogans or advertising to sell their animals. “Every goat that’s born in Kentucky has a market waiting for it,” says Ray Bowman of Frankfort, past president of the Kentucky Goat Producers Association.
“We’re in such a unique and enviable position. The industry grew out of a demand for the meat,” Bowman says. “Our biggest issue right now as far as marketing is finding enough goats to meet the demand. When you’re in a position like that, you’re in the driver’s seat.”
Leader in Goat Production
According to The Economist, consumption of goat meat in America rose by 64 percent between 1999 and 2003, with predictions of a 10 percent growth each year thereafter. The growth in demand stems from an influx of immigrants into the United States within the last decade—primarily Hispanics, but also Muslims, Middle Easterners, and others—for whom goat meat is a dietary staple.
While many Americans may never have had a chance to try goat meat, 80 percent of the world eats it regularly, Bowman says. Those who’ve tasted it, like Pattie Barrett, a goat producer in Scottsville, say “it’s excellent”—in every shape, from jerky to barbecue. And with low cholesterol and little saturated fat, “Goat is one of the healthiest meats,” says Marion County Extension agent Ed Lanham, who advises the Central Kentucky Meat Goat Association.
The new market for goat meat is so large that the United States could double its current production and still not meet demand, Bowman says. Much of the goat meat consumed in America currently must be imported in frozen form from New Zealand and Australia.
The goal, of course, is to raise U.S. goat meat production numbers to a point that importing is no longer necessary. Helping lead the way are Kentucky’s goat producers.
While the official KDA estimate places Kentucky’s goat herd in the sixth spot nationally, Bowman believes the state’s herd may have been undercounted, and that Kentucky may actually have between 100,000 and 125,000 goats—perhaps the second or third largest herd in the U.S., following Texas.
“Generally, when people are talking goats, they’re talking Texas, or they’re talking Kentucky,” Bowman says.
What no one denies, though, is Kentucky’s pre-eminence in the success of marketing its goats to a national arena.
As early as 2001, just when the goat industry was really catching on, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture organized a system unique to Kentucky to help make goat sales more efficient. At each of the KDA’s monthly goat sales, held at several locations across the state, goats are grouped into lots by grade—either 1, 2, or 3, with 1 being the highest quality—and by weight. The graded system allows buyers a quick means of purchasing large groups of goats that are similar in size and quality, says Tess Caudill, the KDA marketing specialist who helped devise it. It’s a sort of “one-stop shopping” that has helped attract buyers from Chicago, Detroit, New York, and other urban centers with large ethnic populations demanding goat meat.
Also unique to Kentucky are the monthly KDA-sponsored “tel-o-auctions,” which allow far-flung buyers to bid on the state’s available goats via phoned-in conference calls. Other states contact Caudill routinely, asking for insight into modeling their goat sales on the success that Kentucky has seen.
“A lot of states would love to have the markets and the market infrastructure that we have,” Caudill says. “I think our quality is as good as anybody’s in the country, if not better. I think we are a leader. And we are going to work to continue to be a leader in goat production.”
A Piece of the Puzzle
David Travis was a tobacco and cattle farmer until four years ago, when he thought he’d try his hand at goats.
“I decided tobacco is going out in Kentucky, and I thought I’d diversify with goats,” says Travis, whose Taylorsville farm is now home to about 80 goats, alongside his herd of 50 beef cattle.
Travis is just one of thousands of producers across the state who have found goats to be an ideal choice as they transition away from tobacco production and look for other means of income.
For one thing, because goats don’t need a lot of room—you can easily put four to six to an acre—they can do well on even the smallest farms. For another, as Travis attests, goats coexist well with cattle since their grazing habits do not largely overlap.
“Goats are good to run with cattle. The cows will eat the good clover, while the goats are more of a browser. They like to eat wild rose bushes and scrub bushes,” Travis says.
Others are drawn to goats for their ease of handling and their affectionate, docile personalities—a trait that makes them a good fit for farmers in their later years, as well as for younger children who may be looking for an animal to show.
“Goats don’t run over you and trample you like cattle do,” Travis explains. Travis’ own grandchildren have begun showing goats at local fairs, and his wife, Sue Carolyn, has made pets of six or seven of the herd. “They’re just about like a dog. If you fool with them, they’ll come up to you and chew on your shirttail,” he says.
Charles Smith, a former dairyman from Glasgow, was looking for something manageable to do with his farm. Goats seemed to be the answer. With a “minimum amount of labor,” he was able to remodel and scale down his dairy barns himself, putting in partitions and lowering the feeding troughs, to make an ideal home for his herd of about 380 goats.
Another incentive helping give the goat industry a boost across the state is the availability of start-up funds through the Goat Diversification Model Program sponsored by the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy. The program helped provide some matching funds to offset Travis’ investment in breeding stock, for example, to get his herd started.
Still, while some have seen goats as a get-rich-quick scheme, they’re not, cautions Lanham. “They can be profitable, but they’re a lot of work,” he says. Bowman agrees, noting that while goats are not the total solution in the quest to replace tobacco, “They are a very critical piece of the puzzle. Diversification is going to be the key to replacing tobacco,” Bowman says, “and goats can be a very significant part of that diversification.”
A LOT OF WORK BUT WORTH IT
With more than 1,000 goats, Michelle McAfee and her husband, Bobby Watts, run one of Kentucky’s largest goat herds on the farm they manage in Harrodsburg. Their farm has been used by Kentucky State University and the University of Kentucky as a satellite educational facility. Since the couple began raising goats 10 years ago, they’ve learned that the animals take “quite a lot of work.”
“They’re not cattle. They’re not sheep. They’re not horses. They’re not pigs. They are goats, and they are different in their own way,” says McAfee. “They don’t like to be wet. They don’t like to get muddy. They don’t like dirty feed. They are very susceptible to parasites.”
Groups like the Kentucky Goat Producers Association and county and regional goat producers associations throughout the state (go to www.kentuckygpa.com’s Goat Associations for a listing) routinely offer workshops, newsletters, and educational field days to promote tips on positive goat management for those who may be considering getting into the industry.
For starters, here are a few bits of advice:
• Be sure to have secure perimeter fencing, whether electric or woven wire. “If the goats can get their heads through, they’ll figure out a way to get the rest of their bodies through,” says McAfee. Also, beware of threats from coyotes and neighborhood dogs. —Bobby Watts and Michelle McAfee
• Watch out for two major problems affecting goats: foot problems and parasites. To keep foot problems at bay, trim the goats’ feet regularly, use medicated foot baths, and provide a rocky area for them to climb and play on. To keep parasites in check, don’t allow goats to graze below eye level. Doing so encourages the intake of parasites found on grasses close to the ground. Practice rotational grazing so their browse is never shorter than 6 inches. Also, be vigilant about performing “strategic deworming.” Deworm only when necessary, or parasites may become resistant to medication. —Ray Bowman
• When buying breeding stock, try to purchase Kentucky goats. This way, you’ll know you’re getting goats that are predisposed to do well in Kentucky’s climate. —Ray Bowman
• Goats absolutely hate being out in the rain. Provide a shelter, so they can avoid both the rain and the cold weather in the winter, and for birthing. Also, they’re very picky about their water, so be sure to provide clean water. And they like feed troughs that are high off the ground and free of manure. —Ed Lanham
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: MORE ABOUT THE GOAT INDUSTRY
For a listing of Web sites on the goat industry and info on the dairy goat industry in Kentucky, including how to get help in switching from tobacco farming to raising goats, click here: goats