First published in Goat Rancher Magazine, Feb 2007.
As a long-term goat producer having been involved in such as an owner-operator since 1990 as well as having been exposed to goat production for the preceding 34 years of my life, I count my blessings. Primarily because, were I a newcomer interested in getting started in goat production, I might not do it. One only has to look at all the articles written detailing extensive lists of equipment, medications, and attendant appurtenances needed to produce goats, as well as the conflicting advice from various experts as to breeds and management, to see that it would be easy to say no. So let’s look back at an operation that was run at a profit by someone who didn’t know we needed all this specialized equipment, feed, mineral, and other “stuff” to raise goats.
For years I was running close to 2,000 head of Spanish goats and left the billies in with the nannies year round. Twice a year I would gather the herd, castrate the male kids, ear mark all the kids, vaccinate them for soremouth, drench the nannies, spray them for external parasites, pull off the market size kids and turn the rest back out. About every second or third year new billies would be introduced into the herd and, believe it or not, things worked pretty well. I was doing on farm sales at that time and buyers showed up to buy the kid crop after I called to let them know I had some goats in the pen. As to medicines I kept on hand, zero; drench and soremouth vaccine as well as spray for external parasites were all purchased on an as needed basis. No special mineral or feed was needed, just sulfur salt blocks and cattle mineral along with a little corn in the winter months were all the feeds used. Other than fence, water, and facility maintenance I only had about eight days a year straight goat labor, the nannies kidded by themselves, raised a 125% kid crop and were healthy, even if a bit wild. It often took five men on horseback, along with dogs to get them in the pen and most of the time took more than one day to do that. The first order of business after penning the goats was to rope and tie the billies to a stout post as they could clear a six-foot fence easily. But if they jumped out of the pen and ran off it was no big deal because in a day or two they would find their way back to the nannies, regardless of how many fences separated them.
The goatherd was comprised of healthy, tough and apparently happy animals, and was a profitable ranch enterprise. We never gave any CD&T shots, dipped navels, weighed kids, tagged kids, worried about date of birth or who the sire was. In general things were simple, money was good, and other than occasional day help I didn’t have any ranch hands other than my wife Wanda and the kids; everyone was happy and we had spare time. Some of the most valuable equipment kept on hand at that time was a good horse or two, a saddle, a sharp mind and knife, and an even sharper pencil.
Then in 1993 I purchased some Boer goats and had my first set of fullblood twins born August 19, 1993. The nannie kidded in the dirt just like any Spanish goat on my ranch did and the two new little billies did just fine. But as I soon “learned” this wasn’t the “right” way to raise goats, so off we went on a whole new tangent leading to many adventures and mishaps.
Back at that time there weren’t a lot of meat goat production guidelines published anywhere, but the industry was quietly flourishing. Now though we have learned we were supposed to dip the navels in iodine to prevent joint ill, still don’t do that and have only seen maybe two cases in my herd over the years. But oh my gosh, now we needed to weigh the kids to record birth weights, so a set of digital fish scales was one of the first purchases along with some ear tags and a set of tagging pliers. Before this started, as to record keeping it was pretty simple as well, a tally book in the shirt pocket kept track of how many nannies, billies, and kids were in each pasture, along with rainfall records. As now predator control was necessary, the sale of furs taken off predators contributed to the bottom line as well as providing an entertaining hobby. In the past two days we have collected five bobcat hides which will fetch around $80.00 apiece plus the $40.00 bounty our county trapping association pays per cat, plus a few foxes thrown in.
Back then we never had to worry about going to goat meetings as there were possibly only three goat industry related meetings for producers held a year in the U.S. This left plenty of time for camping and fishing trips with the wife and kids, even when kidding season was going on, which was basically year round. We could leave knowing the goats were fine on their own. These new goats we bought though were special and expensive so they were kept in a pen or small trap and fed specially formulated goat feed and alfalfa hay. Then when kidding started we were there ready to help with newly purchased heat lamps, antibiotics if needed, ear tags, and those digital fish scales. Easily understood when you consider the prices Boer goats were bringing back in 1993 and 1994. CAE and CL were diseases I had never heard of before I got Boers, but other Boer producers told me about them, so I contacted my vet and we did some blood testing. Wound up testing all the Boers and the Spanish goats I had kept for breeding and had zero positives, so we were in good shape there.
This intensive management and feeding thing started causing some problems though, big problems like pregnancy toxemia. That problem took a while to solve. Oh yeah, I forgot about having to buy some more “goat stuff” like tattoo equipment since we had to tattoo kids to register the goats. And that tally book in our shirt pocket? Now we had to move up to spiral notebooks and three ring binders instead to record all this new information. Then next came the word “flush”, as in embryo transfer; before now flush to me meant what you did after using the toilet. Now we have go buy more goat stuff like marker harnesses for the bucks (I also have learned male Boers aren’t billie goats), plenty of syringes and needles, progesterone implants, follicle stimulating hormones, more ear tags and plenty of new notebooks, pens and pencils. We must now record implant dates, heats, breed dates, transfer dates, kidding dates, etc… Now we have these recipient does (female Boers aren’t nanny goats) so we need new feeders and a lot of feed for them, just like the donor does these recipients are now special goats. The more intensive our management gets, the more stuff we must have to raise goats, a lot more than just a good horse, saddle, knife and pencil.
We buy more feed now than ever before and then polioencephalomalacia hits; what is this and what do we do now?? Call the vet again (he and I are becoming good friends). I’m beginning to think goats have probably put more veterinarians kids than producers kids through college. Thiamine will fix this polio thing he says, so we get some. Snotty noses start to show up so we need some polyserum and an antibiotic, plus more needles and syringes. Because of all that good feed and hay made so easily available, the goats are now so fat they can’t jump a three-foot fence, and it is time to kid again and here comes pregnancy toxemia once more. Holy smokes this goat ranching is turning into real work, and I think I now know less than I ever did before! Pretty cold weather to be kidding in so we take shifts watching the does, everyone else does it, so it has to be the right way. Tag, weigh, vaccinate, tattoo, weigh at weaning (with our new $900.00 portable scales) and start to learn how to trim hooves. Seems the hoofs don’t wear down in the pen like they did the pasture, and the goats look like they are wearing elf slippers, so we get some hoof trimming shears.
Now we get to go to more meetings since it seems for all those years before Boers and Kikos came into the U.S. we didn’t know anything about how to raise goats. Here it was I thought things were going pretty good before all this new information and these new problems started coming out, just pen goats, wean kids, call buyer, sell kids, drench, spray, mark and turn the rest of the bunch back out to the pasture till next time. Now, instead of a maximum of a dozen days a year or so dedicated to goat production, with all the breeding, feeding, and kidding we are now tied up about 100 days a year. When we throw in all the vaccinations, tattooing, weaning, weighing, sorting, filling out registration papers and more meetings to go to, we are busy about 120 days out of the year minimum. The list of medicines we have learned we need to raise goats now fill a full size refrigerator, needles and syringes are bought by the 100 count, ear tags by the thousands, feed by the tons. And in the process we have cemented life long friendships with veterinarians, goat supply houses, and feed dealers along with a bit of indebtedness at times.
Costs to produce goats now include medications, new equipment and gadgets, above named needles, syringes, special feed and minerals, registration fees, plus registry membership fees. Then we have advertising cost, print and website, plus fees for participation in shows, sales and performance test as expenses, to assist in our marketing efforts which must be considered. Prices received for breeding stock are higher, but well offset by these higher production costs and is certainly more labor intensive than ever before. And health-wise the herd isn’t quite as hardy as it was before, or so it appears anyway. Relief is needed, but we have worked our way into a trap it seems so we have to figure out what to do now. Everything we see written in recent years is about how to more intensively manage a goatherd, even to the point of micro-managing each herd member as an individual, all in the name of maximizing profits. We now have developed herds of varying percentages of different breeds and sire lines, and created lots of paperwork and records to keep up with.
Due to the per animal value though we keep all the kids we can alive leading to more extra labor, bottle babies and such, and we may even be saving some with genetic predisposition to certain ailments, but we are making some money we tell ourselves so we continue along.
Then we wake up and think, “these are goats, why can’t they just live, breed and kid like goats are supposed to, without human intervention?” So we decide to bite the proverbial bullet and let them just be goats again. Does this work out well? At first, NO, as without the intervention and assistance in kidding we have contributed over the years, many kids are abandoned by their dams. The first year or two we pick these kids up and put them on a lamb bar, creating even more work and solving nothing. Then we decide Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory might have some substance to it, so we decide to adopt it as a management practice. No more picking up abandoned kids and does who abandon their kids are culled. Hardiness, self sufficiency, and production traits become our new focus. No more medical treatment other than the necessary CD&T vaccinations and maybe twice a year worming. We don’t trim hooves and those who show poor or excessive hoof growth are culled. Now things are getting simpler again, even though our breeding program is still tightly managed due to the genetic traits we wish to enhance.
A quick look at our “medicine chest” today shows a very limited selection of pharmaceuticals, CD&T vaccine, drench, spray for external parasite, and a few antibiotics (most of which show expired use by dates). We still have to control and record breeding and tag the kids at birth, but all that other stuff is (almost) out the window. And what about the goats? They can kid unassisted or they don’t get to stay, we haven’t seen pregnancy toxemia in several years, syringes and needles sit on a shelf gathering dust and yet the goats are still alive and thriving.
While we haven’t quite come full circle back to where we were in 1992, we have reduced our time and labor input in comparison to the 1993-2002 time period. And we are still working towards a lower input herd through genetic selection while maintaining adequate enough production to provide income. As long as we strive towards genetic improvement though record keeping requirements are going to be a fact of life, but so it goes. This article is written based on personal experiences and in a “tongue in cheek” manner. It’s neither an endorsement nor condemnation of any breed of goat or management style, as we all have to decide for ourselves how to best manage our business, our lives and our time. Will I ever just turn out my current herd of does/nannies and run them with bucks/billies year round like I did my Spanish goats and go fishing? Maybe.
Marvin Shurley is President of The American Meat Goat Association. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .