February 14, 2008

A devastating drought and rising feed costs made 2007 a tough year for goat producers across the state. But according to University of Kentucky experts, those producers who choose to stay in the business are indicative of the industry’s maturing.

“I think we’re at a turning point,” said Terry Hutchens, UK Cooperative Extension associate for goat management. He is referring to the shift from an industry built primarily on breeding stock to one that focuses more on goats for the meat markets.

“A lot of people sold lots of females off just to make it through the winter,” he said. “I think maybe 20, 25 percent of the does have been sold, and there will probably be a slow rebuilding period.”

UK Agronomy Specialist David Ditsch agrees that a tough production year has brought a change to the industry’s landscape.

“You’re beginning to see folks who see the potential and are willing to make the investment in capital and labor getting into it and doing a better job with it. Those who thought it was going to be something that didn’t require too much effort and management realized quickly that it is, and they’re getting out. So there’s a little shifting going on, but there’s still a huge demand in this country for goat meat. And as I understand it, half of the demand is currently being met by imports. So there is still a huge opportunity here in this country to capitalize on that.”

Ditsch expects the next big jump in goat numbers in Kentucky to come from beef cattle producers who start adding goats to their enterprises.

“I think, with more research and a lot of demonstrations, you will see beef cattle producers begin to consider the value of goats in their beef cattle operations,” he said. “Maybe it’s just for weed control, maybe it’s just trying to diversify and get the most out of their pastures that they can, so they can market another product.”

Ditsch, who is based at Robinson Station, has been studying companion grazing techniques using beef cattle and goats.

“The difference in weed control on this farm is amazing since we’ve had goats on it,” he said. “They’re basically eradicating multiple rose and honeysuckle and iron weed and some of those (types of weeds). They’re really putting some pressure on it without the use of chemicals or mowing equipment. I can see some beef cattle producers feeling like that’s to their advantage. They’re able to utilize an undesirable species, a weed species, and grow some goats that they can market.”

There are other aspects to take into account, however, he said. Fencing is an investment because it takes more fence to contain goats than it does cows. Predator control is also an issue to consider.

Hutchens said this is a good time for producers to consider their game plan.

“Over the past five years, we have been talking about the need for a more forage-based enterprise. Getting the correct number of animals per acre, buying better hay, hay testing, using more than one forage species in a pasture and getting more prepared for the future,” he said. “We’ve been talking about that, but this is the first time I think it’s really hit home (with producers). But that’s what can happen in a drought situation and in a high cost of feed situation.”

He and Ditsch recommend using the spring period to get things ready by evaluating the forage base in pastures and checking for potential problems brought on by overgrazing.

“It’s very common to overstock,” said Ditsch. “Too many goats for the amount of pastureland that is available; that’s the number one problem. Then managing the pasture that you have to keep your forage crop productive and coming back, persistent and offering it at its highest quality.”

He said that staying within the three to six head per acre range is a good idea. That number of head not only gives the pasture a chance to recover from grazing pressure, but it also reduces potential parasite infestations that arise from grazing short growth.

Besides taking the spring months to reevaluate the stocking rate, Ditsch says February and March are the months to do some reseeding of legumes such as white and red clovers.

“Goats are small ruminants and clovers are high quality forage, so producers really should consider making sure it’s part of their pasture,” he said.

And while he and Hutchens promote a mixed pasture of clover and grass, including some summer annuals such as sorghum-sudangrass or millet, Ditsch warns against some of the highly mixed seed blends that are being sold as goat blends.

“I’m really trying to caution producers because a lot of those blends will include species that just aren’t that compatible in terms of getting them established and trying to manage them,” he said, referring to different growth cycles between species. “Some are vegetative while some are at the seed head stage. And if you’ve got other weed problems you want to deal with, it’s hard to selectively take some weed problems out without damaging other species.”

Hutchens says that producers are starting to see the whole picture.

“Most of the producers that have gotten into it do not have previous livestock experience. They’ve been very animal oriented and they haven’t seen the pasture yet. But I think these weather conditions and costs are going to make them look at it in a broader way and see it more as a farming system, rather than as a specific animal production system.”

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