Goat and sheep numbers within Alabama and the United States have continued to decrease over the past 4 years. While this trend is not occurring in every state, it becomes obvious among many of the states when examining a report issued by the National Agricultural Statistics Service in February 2013. Only 15 states showed increases, which ranged from 1 to 16 percent, and the majority were in the North, Northwest, Midwest and Hawaii with a 56 percent increase (explain that). Mississippi was the only neighboring state to show an increase (four percent), our other neighbors showed decreases. If you take a look at Tables 1 and 2, you can see the trend for Alabama to which I am referring. The decline began after hitting an all-time high in 2008. This trend in Alabama requires particular consideration when NASS tells us the national trend for meat and dairy goats across the U.S is only a two to four percent decreaseover the past few years, and one to two percent decrease of sheep inventories across the U.S.
Table 1: 2007-2011 inventories taken from Alabama Agricultural Statistics 2011 Bulletin 53
Alabama Goat Numbers: Meat & Other (no dairy)
Years Inventories Change % Change
2008 70,000 17,000 32.08%
2009 65,000 -5,000 - 7.14%
2010 60,000 -5,000 - 7.69%
2011 56,500 -3,500 - 5.83%
2012 42,000 -14,500 -25.66%
Total Changes -11,000 -14.26%
Table 2: 2012 inventories from National Agricultural Statistics Service Report February 1, 2013. (Agricultural Statistics Board, United States Department of Agriculture.)
Alabama Goat Numbers: Dairy Only
Years Inventories Change % Change
2008 4,000 500 32.08%
2009 4,500 500 12.50%
2010 4,200 -300 - 6.67%
2011 4,000 -200 - 4.76%
2012 3,300 -700 -17.50%
Total Changes -200 15.65%
As you can read from the charts, Alabama has experienced a 14.26 percent drop in meat and other inventories over the past 5 years. And dairy goat inventories have decreased 15.65 percent during the same time frame. Of particular concern are the most recent 25.66 percent decrease of meat and other goats this past year, and the 17.50 percent drop in dairy goat numbers! The numbers reveal our inventories have dropped below 2007 numbers. In 2008, Alabama ranked 8th in the country compared to other state goat inventories. When 2012 Ag Census data is released, we are likely to rank significantly lower!
In the March 2012 issue of Goat Rancher, there is an article by renowned goat experts Frank Pinkerton and Ken McMillin pointing out these same trends had become evident to them. Their comments include, "…highs in 2008 to 2012. During this period, total goat numbers declined by 8.2%, while meat goat numbers declined 9.0%. Note the particularly sharp drop, 14.8, percent in numbers of replacement kid goats and also the 7.4 percent drop in kids on hand January 1. We suggest these figures do not show a lack of owner confidence in the future of the goat industry, but rather reflect a drought-induced sell-off in certain states in which kids and old or cull goats were dispatched disproportionately to ‘save’ does in prime production ages …. The widespread droughts in 2011 are thought by some to have precipitated abnormally large movements of slaughter stock to sale, most for slaughter, but some as replacements (to those areas with decent forage prospects)."
I concur with their summarization. However, if you will recall, in most of Alabama, we experienced 3 years of drought in Alabama from 2008-2010, and during the summer of 2012, putting many livestock producers in a bind for available forage and hay. In the past few years, I have noticed an overall decrease in the number of people raising goats. And I have received comments from many existing farmers who also have noticed a decline in fellow goat producers.
So, here is my speculation on the primary reasons this alarming trend is taking place in the small ruminant industry and particularly in Alabama. (1) Five years of insufficient rainfalls, resulting in reduced forage and hay availability, have forced producers (goat, sheep and possibly cattle) to reduce their inventories by selling unusually high numbers of animals to livestock sales facilities. (2) In the past few years, the U.S. experienced a severe recession likely having a negative impact on the ability of many small-scale and limited-resource producers to continue with limited-returns farming endeavors. (3) While mandated utilization and production of ethanol as a fuel supplement may have provided additional markets for corn producers, it took grains out of the mouths of people and livestock causing food and feed prices to rise, especially livestock feed which rose to all-time highs during the past several years, causing reliance upon grain-based feed to become economically unviable. (4) Many of the goat farmers I deal with are retired and choose goats and sheep because they are a smaller form of livestock. In recent times, as they continued to age, many of them have become physically unable to deal with day-to-day tasks and do not wish to risk health complications or injury from raising goats and sheep, despite their enjoyment of the animals. (5) Limited return on investments. Ever-increasing cost of production, limited land and financial resources, and lack of desire to risk losing retirement funds and pensions to a risky venture have a cumulative effect, causing people to re-evaluate their situation, make cost-cutting decisions, and sell their pride and joy. This has to be a tough decision for many, despite 3 years of high prices for meat-age animals. All the prior five reasons are speculation, but all-time high costs of production with limited or no financial return are not a practical form of risk.
Economies-of-scale production for larger goat and sheep operations are less likely to be as risky. Those smaller operations that continue farming because they enjoy the animals are understood. Those who recognize their situation and are not willing to risk losing their farm or financial resources are to be respected for making the appropriate decision!
Alabama Agricultural Statistics 2011/Bulletin 53
Robert Spencer is an Urban Regional Extension Specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.