GOAT: THE NEW KID IN TOWN
"Montgomery, Ala." When Jim Cassidy got his first goats more than six years ago, they were mainly used to help keep the brush and vines under control in his pasture. Today, they're putting money in his pocket and a smile on his face.
|Jim and Shelia Cassidy check out the latest addition to their Butler County goat farm.|
Cassidy is among a growing number of goat producers in the state who are benefiting from Alabama's recent rise in Hispanic population as well as other ethnic groups from around the world who consider goat meat a staple in their diet. With that increase came a new demand for goat meat. Many ethnic groups eat goat as a matter of tradition and taste, not health. But the meat is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in protein. Some people called it the chicken of red meats.
Cassidy, who serves on the Butler County Farmers Federation Board, is chairman of the county's Sheep and Goat Committee. He said he began goat farming in earnest about six years ago. He and his wife, Shelia, admit much of it has been a learn-as-you-go proposition.
"When I started, we had no fencing, so it will take me longer to make a profit," Cassidy said. "But for someone who already has fencing established, the profit time will be quicker."
The Cassidys intended to raise show-type goats when they began their farm, but that market probably has reached its peak, Cassidy said. Instead, they've found more success in raising meat goats for public auction and some breeding stock for other farms.
The Cassidys herd has grown to 40 goats, and with new kids arriving almost daily this time of year, that number should increase by 20 within weeks. They expect another 30 kids this fall.
"The market for meat animals has grown and will continue to grow," Cassidy said, "but I don't expect you to be able to go into the grocery store and buy goat meat any time soon."
Goats were once thought of as four-legged lawn mowers. As the profit potential for goat meat increases, the number of farmers willing to go into the business is likely to grow, too. But Cassidy warns that goats, like other livestock, do require special attention. Nutrition, breeding management and parasite control all play a big role in profit potential for goats, he said.
Raleigh Wilkerson, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation Sheep and Goat Division, said he's pleased that more farmers are interested in raising goats. Like Cassidy, he said farmers need to be aware of the pitfalls in a goat operation.
"Predators and parasites are two of the biggest problems you'll face as a goat farmer," Wilkerson said. "Wild dogs and coyotes can literally eat up your entire profit in just about no time. An electric fence is a good tool to help keep goats in and predators out."
Wilkerson said another major obstacle that goat producers face is a steady market. Some meat goats are sold live and are slaughtered by those who will eventually cook and eat the meat at home, although there are a few processing plants in the U.S.
David Sumners of Boaz saw the need for a steady market for goats in his area and after converting an old chicken house into an auction barn, he's selling as many as 600 goats a month at the Alabama Goat Auction.
"The demand has increased and the supply has decreased, nationwide," Sumners said. "But as for Alabama, we've probably got more folks with meat goats right now than we've ever had."
Some of the best goat meat comes from Boer goats, originally from Africa. Those goats usually are crossed with Spanish goats, what some people refer to as briar goats, and the offspring produces a lean, meaty carcass.
"At the goat auction we see a lot more very high quality animals coming through these days," Sumners said. "The ideal weight is 40 to 60 pounds on as young a goat as you can get. Now days, we can grow a goat to that size in three months, and there's a profit in that. In six months, that same goat can weigh 90 to 110 pounds, and that becomes a very high-quality product as well."
Sumners has sold as many as 600 goats in one day at the sale, although more typically he averages 350 to 400 goats at the auction which operates the first and third Saturday of each month.
Many of the goats sold at the auction are sold to buyers from New England states, Miami and the Atlanta area, Sumners said.
Increased profits are changing the image of goats and goat farmers.
James "Dewitte" Griffin of Montgomery County said years ago when someone mentioned goat farming, people turned up their nose. Now that the venture is so profitable, things have changed.
"Money will get their attention," said Griffin, who's been raising goats commercially for about 15 years. "Just this past week I was contacted by a slaughter facility in New Jersey that wanted to buy 800 pounds (carcass weight) of goat meat a week from Alabama. I had to tell them that we couldn't fill the order. Eventually, I think we will have that capacity as interest continues to rise and when more people find out that there's money to be made with goats."
Typically, a goat that weighs 40-60 pounds will bring from $1-$1.20 per pound, Griffin said. "With good management, you can get a goat to that weight in about three to four months. You can usually run about five nannies (mature female goats) on one acre of land, and you can expect them to produce an average of 1.7 kids per year each. The upkeep for each nanny will be about $40 a year, and if you sell the kids for $40-50 each that's more profit than you can make with cattle."
Griffin said it takes about an acre and a half of pasture to maintain a cow-calf pair and a producer can expect to net less than $100 a year from that unit.
"An ideal situation is where you can graze cows and goats on the same land," Griffin said. "Goats keep the underbrush eaten down and will graze in areas that the cattle won't. You can see a big difference in appearance of your pastures when you graze the two together."
Griffin, who is state chairman of the Alabama Farmers Federation State Sheep and Goat Committee, also serves as president of the Alabama Meat Goat Association. Both groups have worked to create steady markets and provide educational training for producers and potential producers.
"I plan to keep all my nannies, and I recently purchased 65 more," Griffin said, "that's how sure I am that this industry will continue to grow. I want to get my herd up to 100 or 150 this year."
But what does goat meat taste like? Griffin said caucasian Americans are about the only group in the world that doesn't eat goat meat.
"I grew up eating goat meat, and I love it," Griffin said. "No, it doesn't taste like chicken -- or any other meat for that matter. Like most things, it depends on how it's cooked as to whether you like it or not. My mother bakes it with onions, tomatoes and a gravy that's really good.
"With the goat market as good as it right now, and as good as it looks like it's going to get, it really tastes delicious these days."