Goats: An overlooked pasture-raised animal

Goats grazing in Ethiopia (iStockphoto)

Goat meat is already very popular around the world – the Washington Post claims that goat makes up almost 70 percent of the red meat eaten globally – and its popularity could increase in the U.S. because of the convergence of several things:  renewed interest in grass-fed animals; openings of new butcher shops or revitalization of old shops (such as Avedano's in San Francisco's Bernal Heights), and increasing numbers of U.S. residents from Latin America and South Asia. With a bit of education and experimentation by farmers, butchers, chefs and home cooks, this adaptable animal could become a key part of a return to meat raised on pastures.

Goats were the focus of a recent one-day festival at the Rockridge Market Hall in Oakland – an upscale European-style collection of food shops with a bakery, butcher, fish shop, and more. The "Go for the Goat!" festival included tastings of goat milk ice cream, goat milk caramel, goat cheese, a butchery demonstration, and a panel discussion about goat cheese, milk and meat. I attended the panel, which was moderated by Sibella Kraus, director of Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE), and comprised panelists Bob McCall, Sales & Marketing Manager for Cypress Grove Chevre (maker of the legendary Humboldt Fog); Lynn Huntsinger, Professor of Rangeland Ecology & Management, UC Berkeley (and owner of two goats); David Evans, owner of Marin Sun Farms.

Pasture's little helpers

David Evans, who raises grass-fed cattle in northern California, depends on lush pastures to put weight on his animals and keep them healthy. Goats can play a part in that by improving the quality of pastures, he said. While cows and sheep are basically biological lawnmowers – eating grass almost exclusively – goats are browsers, eating bits of grass, bits of brush, bits of trees.  And since goats happen to like consuming certain problem species for rangelands, herds of goats can be deployed to areas of pasture that are being overrun by milk thistle or poison oak, giving grass a fighting chance to return.

Goats don't like water, so they cause little damage to stream beds, according to Evans, and therefore can be released close to waterways.  Although Marin Sun Farms’ lease with the federal government (through the National Park Service) doesn’t currently allow goats on their lands in Marin County, through co-production arrangements, Evans sources goats from a partner in Dixon, CA, that follows Marin Sun Farms’ strict protocols for animal and ecosystem treatment.

Meaty matters

Goats and humans have been working together for about 10,000 years, so it's not surprising that we've developed particular breeds for particular purposes: the La Mancha and Nubian breeds excel at producing milk; Boer goats put on weight quickly, making for a superior meat breed, and other breeds have highly efficient digestive systems that make them excellent for vegetation control. (Goat World says that “a brush goat is generally a goat that has been produced by breeders experimentation with mixing different breeds, or, a goat that is just a goat that has never been registered, or, a goat that is just a goat.”)

Although goats make up a tiny fraction of the U.S. meat market – data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) shows that there are less than half a million milk goats and about 2.5 million meat goats in the U.S., compared with the upwards of 90 million cattle and calves and more than 60 million hogs and pigs – Evans said that supply can't keep up with the demand in the Bay Area. Part of this demand is from ethnic communities that have long traditions of eating goat (e.g., Mexico, the Middle East, South Asia) and part comes from high-end goat-loving restaurants such as Camino and Pizzaiolo in Oakland. (A 2008 San Francisco Chronicle article also mentioned such places as Oakland’s Oliveto, Berkeley’s Café Rouge, and Kokkari in San Francisco.)

We eat goats at various stages of their life cycle. One source is what Cypress Grove’s Bob McCall called the “male surplus” – the male offspring of milk goats – animals that are sold to processors before they reach one year old, mainly for a Mexican stew called birria and for Muslim communities (at the goat and sheep slaughterhouse in Dixon, one day each week is dedicated to halal slaughter). In general, however, McCall said, it's hard to find a market for the male surplus, and they're money losers.  For goats that are meat breeds, the main market is also animals that are less than a year old that have been given a diet that allows them to develop plenty of fat (pasture with supplements of grain).

Yet another another supply is milking ewes at the end of their productive years. Evans said that the taste is pleasant if the animal has been well fed, a bit like venison. The sheep-derived name he's been using – “mutton” – is problematic, as most people have negative opinions of that product, so he's looking for a new name.

Why don't we eat more goat?

So why is demand for this meat outstripping supply, even with the "male surplus" from California’s robust goat cheese and milk industry? The panel gave a few reasons.

Evans said that goats present an economic challenge for butchers and restaurants because they are generally available only as whole animals – there is no "boxed goat" supplier from which a retailer or chef can order a box of shoulder, a box of legs, and so forth. Therefore, butchers and restaurants need to know now to sell every part of the animal. Or they need to know how to cook a whole animal, using a tool like La Caja China, as a segment of KCRW's Good Food recorded at Tender Greens in West Hollywood recounted (audio is available for streaming or download).

An article in the Washington Post called “Goat meat, the final frontier” offers an additional bit of complexity: “Goat is still the Wild West of butchering in this country. While other animal carcasses are cut up based on standardized charts, goat has, by and large, escaped the bureaucracy. One butcher’s goat roast can be another’s goat steaks. ”

In some regions, it can be hard to find a slaughter and processing facility.  The Post article notes that the small size of a 6-to-9-month goat might yield only 40 pounds of meat, which can be an impediment to operations that normally handle much larger animals.  The Bay Area and Sacramento area don’t have that problem, Evans said, because goats are processed in facilities set up to handle the large number of sheep raised in the region.

Professor Huntsinger, who grazes two elderly goats in her backyard in Oakland, provided two additional reasons that goats that aren't more widely adopted as meat animals: they need really good fences and are a favorite prey of coyotes. For protection, some ranchers use llamas, some use a certain breed of dog (no one on the panel could remember the name), and others use donkeys.

The panel didn't have much to say about cooking goat meat, but from my reading and listening, I learned that one key element is that the very low fat content of the meat means that you can't just substitute it in a recipe designed for another meat. The above-mentioned article in the Washington Post gave some tips, as does one from the San Francisco Chronicle.

More about goats and goat meat

18 Responsesto “Goats: An overlooked pasture-raised animal”

  1. Melissa says:

    I bought a whole young goat and it was only about 23lbs of meat (hanging weight was 35 is so). That can actually fit in a normal freezer. It was surprisingly delicious and not gamey like some lamb I buy. It actually had a fair amount of very good tasting fat. Plus it was affordable! I definitely recommend locavores consider purchasing whole goats.

  2. Commercially we found they couldn't pay the mortgage and the reason was the processing cost so much yet yielded so little meat.

    Goats, and sheep, have a huge problem in that they are so small and have a poor yield. Consider that in the same time it takes to produce 20 to 30 lbs of goat meat I can grow 200 lbs of pork on the same pastures. Not only that but our pigs produce 20 to 30 offspring per year making that about 4,000 lbs or more of meat a year produced per sow. Sheep and goats don't come close - and we're pasturing our pigs without commercial pig feeds or grain so that isn't the issue. Sheep and goats just don't put on much meat. They're a lot of guts and bone.

    All that said, I enjoy grazing the sheep, and plan to add goats soon, along side our pigs and poultry as they are an excellent co-grazing animal. The way the different animals graze different things is very valuable. Plus I like to eat them. I just wish we had more market for them. Once we have our own butcher shop completed the processing angle will be easier making them a little more financially viable.

  3. Bill says:

    Goats can survive (and thrive) on pasture that could not support cattle. It is also not necessary to put up nearly as much hay for the winter. And if a goat dies, the financial impact isn't nearly as significant as the loss of a cow. Goats are also much easier to managage than cattle.

    We sell our goats at about 11 weeks. It is true that they only bring $80-100, but the cost of raising them is negligible.

    The dog breed commonly used to protect the goats is the Great Pyrennes.

  4. Carla Brauer says:

    I've worked with a number of small scale goat ranchers, and this is what in my experience are the biggest stumbling blocks / concerns about the goat meat industry:

    - Lack of USDA approved slaughterhouses within a reasonable distance

    - Lack of consumer acceptance of goat meat (often thought of as "gamey" or tasting like an old buck... not true!). Goats do not marble fat (excess fat collects around internal organs, so getting "fat" goats should never be a goal - muscle is what we eat), so they will always have a lean meat. A lot of people aren't used to cooking with that.

    - The worlds best meat goats (going by meat-to-bone ratio) are Myotonic (aka Tennessee Meat Goats or inaccurately "fainting" goats) are being overlooked by ranchers because they are seen as novelties or pets. They are in my experience vastly superior to any other meat breed, for a lot of reasons.

    - Goats are high maintenance animals. They are very susceptible to internal parasites, require a lot of pasture, and preventative health care in order to prevent severe losses. If you're wondering why there are no goat factory farms and why the mainstream meat industry hasn't embraced this very healthy, appealing animal, this is it - you *cannot* feedlot them. If you stick them in small spaces and give them high grain diets the way we do cattle, disaster is sure to follow.

    - The idea that you can run a successful business raising a dual purpose goat (for milk and meat and/or fiber). You can get plenty of milk and meat from one breed if you're just doing a small homestead or raising your own animals, but if you want to make money off one of these products, you need to pick one purpose and breed for it. Dairy animals haven't been raised for muscling, so it's no surprise that people get disappointed when they slaughter them. But a properly raised meat goat can be around a 4:1 meat-to-bone ratio. Goats eat as a percentage of body weight, so there is no "weed control" breed. If you want a goat that can digest more brush, heavier meat breeds make more sense.

    - Predation is only a problem if you let it be. Any farm that raises prey animals needs to provide protection, usually being several Livestock Guardian Dogs working together to protect their herds. These dogs are not pets, but have been bred for centuries to live with and bond to the individual animals in their herd and defend them with their lives. Most common are Anatolians, Maremmas, Pyrenees, and Akbash, but there are others. I've heard mixed reviews about llamas (remember they're prey animals too!).

    Ok, that's my little rant. Goats *can* be excellent meat animals, but they are high maintenance creatures and there is a lot of misinformation about them out there. If we want to create a market for goat meat, we must breed great meat goats and show folks how wonderful they are! :)

  5. bruce king says:

    Ruminants of all sorts are great at converting forage into meat; I keep goats and sheep as part of my farm and have found them to be an easy keeping situation. I do have to supplment their forage while they're pregnant, and again in the winter (via hay put up in the summer) but they're low care animals...

    ...with the one BIG BIG exception. Fencing. You have REALLY got to be on top of your fencing to consider keeping goats. a 5' fence in good repair with a hotwire strung inside it is a good start, but goats in particular will climb on things and jump over fences and will instantly detect weaknesses in your fencing.

  6. bruce king says:

    Walter, you feed thousands of pounds of dairy products to your pigs, as well as tens of thousands of gallons of whey. It's misleading to state that "...pasturing our pigs without commercial pig feeds or grain..." without including the primary source of your pigs nutrition; dairy products. Yes, pigs will eat plants on pasture, but without some sort of supplemental feed, most pigs will never reach the weight that americans like to butcher them at, 250-300lbs, and whatever weight they reach will be very slow compared to pigs that are fed, as yours (and mine!) are.

    Goats, sheep and cows, however, can do very well on strictly pasture, and can be raised in ways that do not require any prepared feed, unlike your pigs that require pretty extensive feeding.

  7. pat says:

    I'm lucky in Toronto -- there are a number of smaller butcher shops that carry goat, and even the major supermarket chains do. Part of our multiculturalism dividend! 3 lbs of stewing goat with 750ml of retsina in a long slow braise: opa!

  8. No bruce, it is not missleading at all. You are very hung up on this and keep misconstruing things and spreading lies. The primary source of our pig's food is pasture/hay. The next source is whey. Facts. You can lie all you want but you're still wrong. You've been doing this for years. Give it up.

    The reality is, just because you are failing doesn't mean other people can't succeed at pasture farming. You're just jealous.

  9. Bob Hayes says:

    Where can we buy goats here in southern NJ? I'd like to see some more and without CAE too. I'm looking to contact vacant land owners and the huge areas under the powerlines too. Does anyone near Hammondton already do this? - Thx

  10. bruce king says:

    Walter, I've offered you $10,000 to raise 4 pigs on pasture or hay alone as you've claimed per your published guidelines, and you've declined. I can't speculate on why you won't back up what you've said, but I will say that tons of cheese and cream and thousands of gallons of whey do a lot more for your pigs overall nutrition than anything they manage to eke off your pastures.

    Goats do very well on pasture and scrub brush, and would probably do well on your pastures during the short growing season that you have, but pigs don't have the same ability to convert pure forage into meat in any realistic commercial sense without supplemental feeding. But in the harsh winters found in many parts of the country, even goats would need some sort of food put up for them, and you'd have to watch the nutritional value of that hay more closely than you do for pig bedding.

    Heck, if you fed your pigs rocks and dairy they'd gain weight.

    For more background on the $10,000 offer, look here.

    http://ebeyfarm.blogspot.com/2009/11/10000-sugar-mountain-farm-challenge.html

  11. No Bruce, I didn't decline, I ignored you because you publish lies, you misquote people, you change words to suite yourself. You'll just twist things into more of your lies so I ignored you. You pretended we actually had a discussion but it was just you playing with yourself. You like to distort things and I do not believe for a moment that you would ever pay up. The fact is, I raise pigs on pasture all the time, hundreds a year and we take pigs to market every week.

    I state quite clearly that I don't buy or feed our pigs commercial grain or commercial hog feed and that pasture/hay plus dairy is the vast majority of our pig herds' food. That is the fact. I've been doing this successfully for a long time. I make money at it by using the resources I have - grazing land. Farming is how our family earns almost all of our money. Farming pays our mortgage. The fact that you fail at it (you've said your farm has never made a profit) and then lash out at other people is your problem. You need to grow up and get a life.

    We must be doing something right if we have so many customers with standing orders at local area stores and restaurants that have been buying from us for years.

    Back to goats and sheep - they make great co-grazing animals with pigs, chickens and sheep. I've experience with sheep, not goats but my brother has a goat herd. Sometime, perhaps as early as next year, I'll add goats. I have about 400 acres I'm thinking of re-clearing as haying land and goats would be a good way to help make the conversion. Long ago it used to be hay fields and pasture for sheep.

  12. Oops, typo in that last paragraph. It should be "with pigs, chickens, ducks and geese."

  13. bruce king says:

    Walter, would you like to take me up on my challenge now? $10,000 to raise 4 pigs on hay and forage alone, as you've claimed you have done, in the timeline you've claimed it can be done at, using the parameters you've claimed.

    Every parameter backed up by what you've written and advised other folks to do.

    You can squeal about it all you want. How about you put your bacon into it?

  14. No bruce, I'm ignoring your challenge because it isn't real. Once again you are lying about what I have said. You take people's words, not must mine, and you distort them to make your lies. I'm not interested in playing your games. You wouldn't pay up when you do lose. You have proven you are not to be trusted.

  15. Bruce king says:

    Either you stand behind what you said or you don't, Walter.

    I'll leave it to the reader to decide what it means.

  16. I stand behind what I do and what I said.
    You distort what I said and you tell lies.
    It's that simple. It's in writing.

  17. bruce king says:

    Every single element of the challenge is based on either quotes in interviews you've given, statements you've made on your blog, or comments made in response to the challenge.

    You're absolutely right -- it's all in writing. Your writing.

    You've claimed I've lied or distorted what you've said. Here's a summary of the challenge points. Which one do you dispute?

    1) We use 4 of your pigs so that any "genetic advantage" or breeding that you have is taken into account.
    2) We stock them at 20 pigs per acre, which was your stocking rate for years.
    3) We use a field or pen that has similar fertility to your land.
    4) You pick the hay fed to the pigs.
    5) You pick the month that hte challenge starts on.
    6) The pigs get .8 lb of hay per cwt per day per your written statements
    7) That the growout is 10% longer or less from a fed pig
    8) The weight at the end of the growout should be standard butcher weight, 250-280lbs live weight.

    Your pigs. Your hay. Your method. Where's the lies or distortions?

    All of this other stuff is just noise, Walter. You can squeal all you want.

    Bruce / ebeyfarm.blogspot.com

  18. Evilcyber says:

    Goat meat has quite a strong taste, which may not be to everyone's liking. Therefore, for the consumer, where is the advantage in choosing goat meat over others?