After two years, the Sand Mountain Meat Goat Project is about to end. The demonstration project which took place at the Sand Mountain Research and Extension Center (SMREC) in Crossville was made possible by administrative support from the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Stations and two consecutive grants from Alabama Mountains, Rivers and Valleys RC&D Council.
The project was designed and managed by former SMREC Director Tony Dawkins (now retired) and Alabama Cooperative Extension System specialist Robert Spencer. They decided to utilize two breeds of meat goats including crossbreeds. During the first year, the project evaluated a variety of forages and year two evaluated sustainability. The project and facilities at the Research Station were host to numerous Extension educational programs and hands-on training.
The project was the first of its kind between Alabama A&M University and Auburn University. Keep in mind, this was a demonstration project and not a research project, and grant monies are what helped make the project possible.
The goats were allowed to graze on slightly less than eight acres, fenced and cross-fenced, and utilized one barn. Forages established in the various paddocks included alfalfa, chicory, clover (red and white), entophyte-free fescue, sericea lespedeza and rape. One of the paddocks offered all seven forages to evaluate grazing preference. It became apparent the goats had a preference for (in order) alfalfa, sericea lespedeza, red clover and chicory; their least favorite was the rape. Given the nutrient and tannin values of the alfalfa, sericea and chicory, they were very beneficial. While clovers are high in nutrient value, they are not high in tannins. Due to its high maintenance requirements, alfalfa was not re-established for the second year. Goats were never allowed to graze on pastures when forage height was less than six inches and always rotated to new pasture on an as-needed basis.
The only hay the goats received for the two years was sericea lespedeza. The only supplemental feed they received, and very little of it, was soybean hull pellets. They were occasionally provided mineral blocks and tubs. There was rarely any need for supplementary hay, feed or minerals due to the fact a variety of grazing material was generally abundant. The only time nutrient supplementation became necessary was during winter when forages were limited or during times when nannies were lactating because they needed the extra nutrition.
For containing the goats, a combination of woven wire and electric wire were used; the combination was successfully used to keep the goats in and potential predators out. Guard dogs were utilized for the first year but not for year two. The reasons being three-fold: (1) the dogs were bad about escaping under the fence, (2) there were not any predator problems and (3) it was quickly realized maintenance and feeding the dogs was a major portion of project-related expenses.
The project began with five Boer-cross does, five Kiko-cross does, and a Boer and Kiko bucks. By the end of the first year one Boer doe, four Kiko does and a Kiko buck were culled. The decision to cull was based on managerial discretion. At the beginning of year two, five more Boer-cross does were purchased. During the two years there were approximately three kid crops. Rarely did any single births occur, mostly twins and occasional triplets.
The first set of kids were taken to the Boaz Goat Sale; the second set of kids were taken to the Tennessee Livestock Producers Goat and Sheep Auction in Columbia, Tenn. It was there a few of the Research Station staff learned the advantages of Boer influence over Kiko and dairy-influence. Boer influence generally graded best; Kiko and dairy-influence generally graded worst. The check received and payment breakdown confirmed this. The final kid crop will be sold as the project winds down.
Year two of the project took a closer look at the feasibility of sustainability of meat goat production. The initial costs associated with establishing a barn, fencing and cross-fencing, gates, watering lines, feeders, and minimal handling equipment (working stations which proved unnecessary) were almost overwhelming (slightly under $20,000). Entire purchase of goats during the two years was less than $3,000.
During the course of the second year, major expenses were hay and chemical wormers. Hay was produced on the grounds of the Research Station, but a value of $30/bale was placed on each bale fed to the goats; which, given the quality and the fact it was sericea lespedeza, was a very reasonable value. To better understand the finances associated with the project, see expenditure summary.
What was the "take home" message of the project? (1) Raising meat goats in reality is a lot different from raising meat goats in theory (by the book) and raising goats is not like raising cattle. (2) Despite following recommendations of rotational grazing and ideal forages (high in protein and tannins), goats can still be susceptible to gastrointestinal parasite infestation (barberpole worms) which can lead to mortality in adult and young goats.
Keep in mind this problem is also facilitated by feeding hay on the ground and feed in troughs the goats can walk in. (3) Where predators are not a problem, guard animals are not necessary and an unjustified expense. (4) The rumors of a specific breed being more hardy and lower maintenance is not justified by the initially higher acquisition price and generally lower values at sale barns. (5) And, most important of all, sustainable meat goat production may be possible, but possibility will vary from farm manager to farm manager. Most of its potential (and profitability) lies in practical management.
To be effective/efficient, a small ruminant (includes goats or sheep) manager requires resourcefulness with available resources, frugalness with expenditures, continuous pursuit of quality, practicality, thorough record-keeping, and ongoing reviews and evaluations of production and financial performance. As typical of most farming ventures, profitability is primarily dependent upon management and marketing skills, and a whole lot of timing/luck.
Robert Spencer is a contributing writer from Florence.