GOAT MEAT IN OUR FUTURE?
By: Clair E. Terrill, Ph.D. - USDA ARS (Retired)
I am very optimistic about the future of production of meat goats as the demand for goat meat, both domestic and foreign, is certain to increase. Meat goats in the United States are quite a minor food crop now, because goat meat is generally unavailable at retail stores over the country. Furthermore, goat meat, although low in cost because of high efficiency of production and low feed costs, has generally been concentrated in the Southwest where they are a byproduct of mohair production and where Spanish goats are often needed for brush control. Now with a decline in feed grain production in the U.S., total meat production is also starting to decline and if feed grain increases in price or is reduced by drought, the decline in meat production may be rapid. Production of meat from forage is the most reasonable alternative but current low market prices for farm animals discourages meat production on family farms.
Meat from Forage, Not Grain
The bulk of meat from forage is produced by beef cattle but they have not increased in reproductive efficiency in recent years and generally go through a feedlot before slaughter. Current low net returns from cow-calf production generally result in no pay to the producer for risk and management and it is now generally unprofitable to produce finished beef cattle on forage alone.
Goats in Texas are increasing at the rate of 9% per year. These increases may reflect an increase in demand for goat meat but whether these rates of increase can be maintained is quite uncertain. Certainly there is a tremendous opportunity for increased meat production from sheep and goats if their high reproductive efficiency can be increased at a more rapid rate. We know this can be accomplished by selection research.
Prices and supply of feed grains have decreased in the U.S. since 1980. During this same period prices received by family farmers have declined and prices paid by family farmers have increased so that family farms are now declining and feed and food surpluses are generally disappearing. Family farmers are generally not quitting until they die but often then their offspring have left the farm long ago. This means that the loss of family farms may signal a permanent loss of food production. Meat, milk and eggs, possibly the only perfect foods, may be affected most. Similar declines in family farm production and income seem to be occurring in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, indicating that future food shortages may be world-wide.
One answer to the future food shortage problem will be to find ways of making meat production from forage more profitable by reducing the cost of production. This can best be done by increasing reproductive efficiency, especially with small ruminants, particularly sheep and goats. Research has been very helpful in the past, especially at Dubois, Idaho, where the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station has been so successful in increasing the rate of progress from selection (Ercanbrack 1989, Terrill 1989). This has been accomplished by applying genetic principles such as selecting directly for increasing lamb production of the mother, by breeding ewe lambs, and by turning ram generations every year, thus shortening the generation length and by increasing the selection differential for litter weight of lambs weaned per ewe. The same principles can be applied to selection for feed efficiency (Ercanbrack 1989) by taking the male offspring from the highest producing mothers and adequately testing them for feed efficiency to identify those which are not only highly superior for reproductive efficiency but also superior for feed efficiency. Thus rapid improvement can be obtained in rate of gain with a minimum of fat deposition. Care must be taken to avoid selection for individual body weight rather than litter weight as individual body weight may be in confiict with prolificacy. Selection research of this kind should be done through research facilities, as at Dubois, with the genetic gains being passed on to farmers through sale of males and to a limited extent by sale of females. This research has been done with sheep rather than goats but the same principles would apply.
Every experiment station which maintains herds of goats in excess of 50 head should carry on a selection program as just outlined as very little extra effort is required beyond maintaining individual identification and there would be no interference with any other research for which the animals might be used as the essential data are obtained at weaning time. Genetic gains could be passed on to breeders and farmers (Terrill 1989) as animals with merit above the breed average are sold for breeding. Gains from such selection research at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, Dubois, Idaho, gave net returns to sheep producers in the 10 Northwest states over and above returns from the other 40 states, in excess of the cost of all research at Dubois since the Station was established. This selection research was not the traditional kind, but rather had the objective, not in proving that selection works, but rather to increase the rate of progress. Now Ercanbrack (1992) has found that the rate of progress from such research also actually increases with time.
Now that predators will be taking food, and money also, from people, it seems the time has come to legalize the use of single lethal dose baits to quickly reduce coyote predation and thus loss of human food to predators. In addition, no predator species which might reduce the future human food supply should be protected as an endangered species. Family farmers should organize to reduce the loss of human food to predators by supplementing control efforts of APHIS with winter hunting and denning, especially denning. Support of predator control by APHIS should be greatly increased to provide more effective control in all of the 50 states. Guard dogs and other nonlethal methods may help some individual producers but may have little impact on total losses as losses are shifted from one farm or ranch to another. Now is the time to give the people precedence over nonessential or useless wildlife. This is necessary not only to increase farm income to permit farmers to survive, but also to permit more rapid increase in production of both sheep and meat goats.
A great deal of research is needed to improve pastures and forage for sheep and goats. More attention has been paid to increase yields of coarse forages for cattle which are often less palatable for sheep and goats. High yielding legume shrubs and fine legumes are needed for the temperate zone which are plentiful and nutritious earlier in the spring and later in the fall, as well as through the summer. A greater variety of fine growing plants that are highly palatable to sheep and goats are needed, especially those which provide a dense groundcover to prevent erosion on hilly land where erosion is often more prevalent than on cultivated land. More effective pasture improvement through more productive species and more effective methods should be developed. Pasture improvement on poor and marginal land that has been abandoned for crop production or where crop production on marginal lands is becoming unprofitable should be emphasized. Small trees and other shrubs which could grow quickly in gullies and on other highly erodible land only to be largely consumed by small ruminants and then to quickly regrow when it rains should be developed. Management methods for goats in humid areas could probably be improved as meat goats have generally not been kept in humid areas of the U.S.
Improved meat goats such as the Boer goat of South Africa, possibly some breeds of Cashmere goats, and possibly others should be imported and tested for adaptability over the U.S. as well as for efficiency of meat production, namely, reproductive efficiency. This might need to be done through research both for importation, testing, and introduction as well as for selection for improvement of reproductive efficiency. All existing goat breeds could be improved for reproductive efficiency for meat production which could often be done without much decreased efficiency of milk or fiber production. Specialized production of single products such as milk, mohair, cashmere, or meat may no longer be most profitable. The selection of mohair goats for reproductive efficiency might permit more slaughter, for meat, at younger ages before the yield of fine mohair has shifted to coarser adult mohair. Research to determine the optimum age of slaughter for production of both kid mohair and meat should be increased. Some reduction in total mohair yield might be acceptable if highly valuable meat production was increased. Research at Dubois, Idaho (Ercanbrack 1992) indicates that only slight declines in fleece weight accompany increases in litter weight per ewe.
Emphasis on goat meat quality is essential for increasing consumption of goat meat whether for domestic use or for export. Selection for improvement of flavor, tenderness, and optimum fat content should accompany selection for reproductive efficiency on research stations. Use of embryo transfer, embryo splitting and/or nuclear transfer should provide identicals for early slaughter and testing of the meat, leaving other identicals for use in breeding, thus to provide an ample selection differential for meat quality even though secondary to reproductive efficiency.
The development of family farm cooperatives to not only provide a market outlet for goat meat and lamb but also to develop rural small or moderate-sized processing plants that would not only be sanitary, safe, and efficient but would provide the family farmer control of meat and meat products through wholesale and possibly retail and export. Research should be involved not only in improvement in production and reproductive efficiency but also in improvement of marketing, processing, and in production of value added products from goat and sheep meat.
Development of lean, boneless cuts, even though high priced, should be emphasized for consumption by affluent people through supermarkets, both domestic and foreign. Then the remainder of meat both from kids and adult animals should be deboned and used for the development of highly nutritious and palatable meat bars which would keep at ordinary temperatures to be consumed by pre-school and school children in all countries, but especially in developing countries, to be made available at or below cost and which would largely be paid for with public funds.
The possible future of goat meat production in the U.S. is tremendous on forage alone, providing production and efficiency of production can be rapidly expanded. Returns to farmers or ranchers should steadily increase and the cost of the meat to consumers might even decrease. Meat, the perfect food, from goats and sheep may maintain an acceptable level of meat consumption in North and Central America. Selection of buck kids on their mothers' production in litter weight, turning buck generations every year, and keeping emphasis on quality of products are all essential keys to rapid progress which will even increase with time. Such a program should be carried on experiment stations as well as on farms and ranches as the records required are obtained on experiment stations anyway. Predator losses should be quickly reduced by greatly increasing lethal control. All wildlife species preying on goats or sheep should be removed from endangered species lists and there should be no attempts to increase their numbers or to encourage their production in new areas. The time has come to give people precedence over wildlife, as has been done in most of the rest of the world. Research to improve pastures, ranges and winter forage should be expanded although the principles of range management are already well known. Importation of meat goat breeds such as the Boer goat should be accomplished. Cooperative processing and marketing should emphasize meat quality and should develop value added products to be sold almost directly to consumers, both domestic and foreign. Americans need to eat more meat, and we can produce far more goat meat than we do now. How?
Ercanbrack, S. K. 1989. Results of applying basic principles for maximizing genetic progress from selection at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station. Proc. Saddle and Sirloin Seminar, North American Livestock Exposition, Louisville, KY.
Ercanbrack, S.K. 1992. Unpublished data.
Ercanbrack, S.K. and A. D. Knight. 1988. Selection for efficiency of postweaning gain in lambs. Research Progress Report, U.S. Sheep Experiment Station and University of Idaho, Dubois, ID.
Terrill, C.E. 1989. Impact of selection research on efficiency of production of lambs and wool. Proc. West. Sect. Amer. Soc. of Anim. Sci., Bozeman, MT, pp 39-42.
Proceedings of the International Conference on Meat Goat Production, Management and Marketing, Laredo, Texas, July 8-10, 1992. $10.00 - Joe Paschal, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, Rt. 2, BOX 589, Corpus Christi, Texas 78406-9704.
About the Author
Clair E. Terrill, after having been raised on an Iowa livestock farm, received his B. S. degree from Iowa State University, and thereafter a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 1936. He served briefly as an Animal Scientist at the Georgia Experiment Station and then in sheep breeding research at the USDA, U. S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho, and as Director of the Station from 1953-1955. He then served as Chief of the Sheep and Fur Animal Research Branch of the Agricultural Research Service from 1955-1972, and at the time of his retirement from the USDA-ARS in 1980, Dr. Terrill was National Program Leader for sheep and other animals.