The number of small ruminant animals (sheep and goats) on Kentucky farms has grown rapidly over the past several years as farmers look for a means to replace lost tobacco income. The response of Extension and other agriculture professionals has been primarily focused on production practices and techniques. This project is directed towards adding value to the production of these animals.
Until very recently, there were few Extension agents or other ag professionals in Kentucky who were familiar with the production of meat goats. Dairy goat production was limited to a backyard enterprise, with most milk consumed privately or sold unpastuerized under an obscure 1988 Kentucky law. The number of sheep in the state has dropped from well over a million to an estimated 20,000, mostly in small flocks.
We set out to identify the barriers to the entry of farmers into small ruminant based production and to the profitability of existing enterprise. There are several examples of barriers we wanted to identify and research. In the case of meat goats, there were until about three years ago (2001) only a few small goat markets in the state, and no coordinated efforts to market goats. There are still no goat milk processing facilities in the state, although there is a group of producers working to establish one. There are now (2004) several custom and at least three USDA-inspected facilities which will process goat meat, but at the time of our proposal there were very few. The disposal of offal from sheep and goats is still problematic due to scrapie and its suspected links to BSE (mad-cow disease). In this project we looked at composting as a disposal solution.
We wanted to identify new means of adding value to the production of small ruminants and various by-products of their production. We also wanted to explore some of the market segments many farmers were hearing about (ethnic groups,etc.) but were unfamiliar with. Finally, we hoped to publicize the results of our project to as many farmers, agents, and other interested parties as possible.
Most of the current interest in small ruminant animals in Kentucky, as in surrounding states, has been focused on the production of meat goats. This project will also consider means of adding value in the production of sheep and dairy goats. The number of sheep on Kentucky farms has shrunk steadily over the past five decades, and there are significant barriers to dairy goat production. It appears, however that there are real opportunities for profit in each sector. So, in this project, when we refer to small ruminant animals, we mean meat goats, dairy goats, and sheep, both meat and wool types.
We assume that adding value to the production of these animals involves a range of actions and strategies on the part of farmers, including: selling by some method other than the traditional price-taking auction setting, selling direct to the consumer, adding a production or processing step that increases the price received, selling additional parts or by-products that are usually lost to the primary producer, identifying new market niches, and eliminating barriers to production and/or marketing.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
Our primary training for agents and farmers was done at the Third Thursday meetings at Kentucky State University. The interest in goats in Kentucky has led to the appointment of an Extension Goat Specialist, who holds a joint appointment at UK and KSU. Goat field days have been a regular feature of the Third Thursday meetings. We have given presentations at the last two such meetings. We also have worked closely with Terry Hutchens, the goat specialist. Our findings on the feasibility of mortality and offal composting will be the subject of an upcoming article in the monthly bulletin distributed to goat producers across the state. We also have reached agents and many goat producers through our participation on the SMMART (Strategic Meat Marketing Alternatives in Research and Technology) committee. Through that committee and other connections, we have also worked closely with the goat marketing person in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Tess Caudill.
The interest in small ruminant animals in Kentucky has grown steadily during the course of this project. In the case of sheep, the trends of the past seem to have levelled off, with sheep numbers in the state holding nearly steady. There are new producers, however, and there is renewed interest in adding value. The consumption of lamb (meat) has grown in Kentucky (as it has nationally), and several farmers are marketing lamb directly to consumers. A custom slaughter plant in Cynthiana, Kentucky has been upgraded to USDA-inspected, and a new and very modern small-scale plant operating both on a custom basis and under USDA inspection has been built in Casey County, Kentucky. Both are primarily processing beef, but both are also available to sheep and goat producers.
A small but very well equipped wool processing facility has been operating in Bourbon County for about a year. They are able to wash, card, spin, and felt wool, as well as produce roving and batting from raw wool supplied by the producer. This allows the sheep producer to sell wool in an advanced stage rather than at the low commodity price. As part of our project we processed several pounds of wool into various products to use as displays in our presentations.
The production of meat goats in Kentucky has continued to explode. Production information has been developed in concert with this growth, but marketing has lagged behind. In this project we have worked with our Extension goat specialist at the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University, Terry Hutchens, and with the goat marketing person at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Tess Caudill.
Most goats in Kentucky are still being sold through the traditional auction market outlets, but many producers are now able to enter goats in a number of graded goat sales and tele-auctions. Goats sold in these sales usually sell at a substantial premium over the standard auction sales, but must meet grading criteria. Our project has focused mostly on direct sales. The lack of slaughter facilities, especially USDA, which would allow producers to sell individual cuts of meat, has stifled this approach somewhat.
We feel that our project has stimulated the interest of several producers in direct marketing, in spite of the barriers.
Another barrier to direct marketing of both sheep and goats is the offal disposal problem. Due to the relation of the sheep borne disease scrapie to BSE, renderers will not accept offal from sheep or goats. This problem requires sheep and goat producers to deal with offal disposal personally rather than relying on the processor. We experimented with on-farm disposal through composting. This is not a new process, as it has been used by poultry producers to dispose of chicken house mortality. It is a relatively simple process, and is easily adapted by the producer interested in processing either on farm or at a local facility. It does require extra handling, but the extra value received justifies the effort for most producers.
While we are certain that the interest in meat goats will continue to grow, we feel that there are also opportunities in the area of goat dairying and sheep. In the case of dairy goats, there are significant barriers in the lack of a marketing infrastructure which will probably keep a commodity type market (bulk sales) from developing. But for the producer interested in and capable of developing a value-added product (goat cheeses)on a small to medium scale, a ready market exists. There are goat dairies processing cheese in all surrounding states, but not in Kentucky, although the products are sold here.
There are also opportunities to be found in sheep production. Consumption of lamb has increased in recent years, both among ethnic and native consumers. The availability of slaughter facilities under USDA inspection has made direct sales of lamb both feasible and profitable, and our forage-based farming systems should lend themselves well to sheep production.