Increasing viability of meat goat farms
United States goat meat consumption has more than tripled since 1991. Much of this consumption is centered in the Northeast, where half the goats in the U.S. destined for meat are slaughtered. Despite this regional demand for goat meat, only about 4.5% of the goats in the U.S. are actually raised in the Northeast. Extension educators and meat goat associations increasingly report norteastern farmers transitioning into meat goats.
New and expanding meat goat farms are important for building enough year-round market supply to keep buyers interested in getting their slaughter goats locally. However, not all Northeast meat goat farmers meet with success. Many have difficulty matching market demand with quality animals, and several new farms fail either because of poor preparation for kidding season or unrealistic expectations of the financial returns and labor demands of livestock farming.
This grant has four components aimed at helping farmers improve the viability of meat goat farms. These components are
1) initiating grading and market readiness workshops;
2) developing a kidding season mentoring curriculum;
3) creating sample budget spreadsheets and farm business summaries for meat goat enterprises based on actual figures from operating farms; and
4) studying 4 to 6 herd management practices on-farm to develop fact sheets evaluating the cost and benefits of these herd practices.
The herd practices to be studied include creep feeding, flushing does at breeding, out-of-season breeding, feeding locally grown or locally milled grains and byproducts, and switching to hayfields, brush pastures, or woodlands in late summer and fall to control internal parasites.
Of approximately 1300 Northeast goat farmers contacted:
1) 100 will attend “evaluating goats for market readiness” workshops and 50 will improve health and market quality of their goats, 20 will attend “advanced grader” workshops and 10 will use certificates earned to more confidently grade goats for market pools/graded auctions, thus increasing grading availability and quality.
2) 40 farmers will contribute income/expense information modeled on federal tax farm business forms, 12 will provide in-depth information for sample budgets while 200 prospective or active farmers will access web or paper versions of the resulting financial spreadsheets and summaries of which 25% will complete these forms to improve survivability of their goat farms.
3) 200 farmers will request fact sheets on specific herd management practices based upon real-farm comparisons and 25% will adopt at least one practice resulting in improved herd performance.
4) 200 people will request kidding season mentoring notebooks, 50 will engage in informal mentoring, and 12 beginning farmers will formally mentor with experienced producers resulting in improved kid and farm survival through their early years.
Preliminary performance targets of being contacted and participating in activities will be verified by 1) mailings returned by post office, 2) number of people requesting hard copies of the materials or accessing them through the ESMGPA web site (we will have a counter on these pages), 3) number of people attending workshops, and 4) number of farms contributing information.
Actual adoption of information and improvement in knowledge base or performance will be verified by 1) follow up mail surveys and annual electronic ESMGPA herd profile forms and surveys, 2) before and after questionnaires for people participating in the workshops and/or accessing our educational materials, 3) phone interviews of producers who participate in advanced grading workshops and/or formal mentoring during the kidding season.
We met total attendance targets for our “evaluating goats for market readiness” workshops by December 06. We hoped to hold two more workshops in 2007. However, the cooperative extension educators we set them up with were unable to find the diverse group of slaughter goats required for these hands–on workshops.
We conducted condensed, lecture-style “evaluating goats for market readiness” workshops at Penn State with 32 attendees on April 28, 2007, at the Vermont Grazing Conference on Jan 20, 2007 with 42 attendees, and at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Farmer-to-Farmer Conference on Nov 3, 2007 with 25 attendees.
At Penn State, farmers rated their knowledge from a score of 1 (low knowledge) to 4 (high knowledge) as 1 (20 participants), 2 (6 participants) and 3 (3 participants) before the session and as 3 (16 participants) and 4 (16 participants) after the session. However, I suspect that people probably did not learn as much as they think they did in these passive teaching workshops.
Farmers at Vermont graded the workshop as 1.7 on a score of 1 = excellent to 5 = poor with criticisms centering on “too fast paced and technical for beginners”. We sent a questionnaire to all previous participants in our hands-on workshops in July 2007 asking how useful they viewed the workshops in retrospect.
We updated our goat extension data base to get rid of obsolete addresses, identify whether farms raised fiber, milk, miniature and/or meat goats, and include Northeast U.S. members of various state and national meat goat associations during the winter of 2007. Approximately 1435 meat goat farmers and cooperative extension educators received mailings in March 2007 containing both a herd profile survey for 2005 and 2006 and a survey of farm expense and income based on the Internal Revenue Services Schedule F for Farm Businesses. These surveys help chart changes in herd management practices.
Thirty-six anonymous meat goat farms returned the survey on income/expense information based on federal tax income forms. However, closer inspection revealed that although all respondents filled out Part 1 of the survey, which attempted to classify or group farms (herd size, years in business, etc.), only 50% of respondents completed Part 2, which was the more pertinent section on actual expenses and income.
The information from the 18 farms that filled out both parts has been inputted into an Excel spreadsheet and will be made available on the web in February 2008. Preliminary results indicate that most of these farms were new and were operating at a loss. Some farms that did not fill out Part 2 indicated that they lumped all their farm enterprises together when calculating income and expenses while others indicated that they did not report their farm as a business to IRS and others indicated that they did not keep track of income and expenses. We also suspect that some farmers did not turn the survey over and realize that there was a second part to it.
One New York meat goat farm collected information on the efficiency of flushing as a herd management tool to improve litter size. This herd kidded in May 2007 and their data has been analyzed and a fact sheet prepared. A first draft of the fact sheet was published in the ESMGPA Winter 2008 newsletter. The goat herd at SUNY Cobleskill was again unable to do a creep feeding study. The Learning Farm at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County attempted a creep feeding study but had to stop and recombine their animals because of unrelated health problems. We therefore gave up on any more creep feeding studies and created a fact sheet on creep feeding based on our 2005 study comparing a farm that creep fed to a similar farm that did not.
Nine New York farms representing 23 breeding groups participated in our 2007 study of out-of-season breeding. A PowerPoint slide show on three different methods for breeding out-of-season that have been used successfully by New York meat goat farms was created and presented by three farms at an out-of-season breeding workshop attended by 140 people during the 2007 Cornell Sheep and Goat Symposium. This slide show and the herd management fact sheets are available on CD for interested meat goat farmers.
The second draft of a “Kidding Season Mentoring Notebook” was piloted by nine mentoring teams in 2007. There were more than nine mentees because some mentors took on multiple mentees. New drawings have been added to the booklet to give it a more professional look and make it available for purchase in future years regardless of whether people are participating in a mentoring program. Currently, the booklet is available for free.
Results from our internal parasite studies for 2005 were incorporated into two PowerPoint slide show series presented at our Integrated Parasite Management Workshops and Managing Goats on Browse and Pasture Workshops. We held IPM workshops in Saratoga County, New York on May 19, 2007 with 14 attendees from New York and Massachusetts and in Greene County, New York on June 9, 2007 with 34 attendees from five states.
Results from our on-farm internal parasite studies were also shared at Managing Small Ruminants on Pasture and Browse workshops at the 2007 Vermont Grazing Conference (38 participants) and 2007 Cornell Sheep and Goat Symposium (130 participants), and at in-depth grazing field days at High Woods Farm in Tioga County, New York (12 attendees), Consider Bardwell Farm in Southern Vermont (20 attendees) and Claude Roberge Farm in Northern Vermont (10 attendees).
Empire State Meat Goat Producers had a very interactive website when we started this project. However, shortly afterwards, they lost their webmaster and switched to a web site with far less capability. The principal investigators on this project made a decision in 2007 to start a Cornell Goat Extension Web Site. The web site is at http: http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/goats/index.html .
Because the web site is new, it must conform to new template and accessibility policies for Cornell University and construction of the site has been slow while learning to work within these guidelines. All fact sheets and slide shows from our SARE project will shortly be available on the site with counters to measure their usage.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Herd profile surveys
Forty one meat goat farms returned the herd profile surveys for 2005 and 2006 as compared to the 42 herd profile surveys returned for herd information for the year 2004. Data was returned for both years (2005 and 2006), only 2005, and only 2006, from 26, 2, and 12 farms, respectively. Twenty three farms were based in New York, nine in Pennsylvania, three in Ohio, two in Massachusetts, two in Maine, one in New Hampshire, and one in West Virginia. Based on herd sizes reported, it appears that several farms with 25 to 50 goats that reported results for 2004 did not send in results for 2005 or 2006.
The most common farms reporting data for 2006 had been in business for three to four years and had 11 to 25 goats. Herd size in 2006 ranged from <5 (5.1%), 5 to 10 (23.14%), 11 to 25 (38.5%), 25 to 50 (20.5%), 51 to 100 (7.7%), 100 to 199 (2.6%), up to 300+ (2.6%) breeding age does. The trend for herd size to increase continued. In 2004, 75% of the herds reporting indicated that they had expanded since the previous year as compared to 61.4% in 2005 and 75.7% in 2006.
One series of survey questions dealt with specific herd practices the farms were using. Creep feeding continued to be more common than flushing or out-of-season breeding. The percentage of farms using out-of-season breeding that had 50 percentage or better conception rates went from 35.7% in 2004 to 33.3% in 2005 and 50% in 2006.
The percentage of herds purchasing all their concentrate as individual bags of a commercial brand went from 53% in 2004 to 56% in 2005 to 40% in 2006 with the remainder of concentrate coming from 1) purchases of commercial brands in bulk, 2) purchases from local mills using mixes formulated by either the mill or farm, 3) purchases of whole grains, ground grain or grain byproducts direct from local farms, mills or breweries, or 4) their own farm.
In 2004, only 15% of the farms indicated that they switched to clean pastures, browse, hay fields or woodlands in late summer and fall to control internal parasites in their goats rather than rotating through the same pastures continuously for the grazing season and at least two of the six farms were new farms that appeared to do it inadvertently as they got more land fenced in rather than out of any attempt to control internal parasites. However, this was one herd practice that did appear to change substantially in 2005 and 2006. In 2005, 31% of the farms indicated that they switched in late summer/fall to pastures that had not been grazed by small ruminants for six months (four farms), pastures that had not been grazed by small ruminants for two months (one farm), hay fields (three farms) or browse, woods, or vacant lots (five farms) to control internal parasites. In 2006, 41% of the farms indicated that they switched in late summer/fall to pastures that had not been grazed by small ruminants for six months (five farms), pastures that had not been grazed by small ruminants for two months (one farm), hay fields (eight farms) or browse, woods, or vacant lots (eight farms) to control internal parasites. These pasture management methods are taught in our IPM and small ruminant grazing workshops.
The remaining survey questions had to do with the marketing and health of kids. About 85% of kids continued to be marketed by farms in only one or two seasons of the year. A large percentage of farms indicated that they did not sell any suckling slaughter kids but only sold weaned market kids (78% in 2005 and 82% in 2006).
Mortality rates did not improve over previous figures reported for 2004. Average mortality rates for 2005 kids at birth, prior to weaning, and after weaning were about 7%, 3.8%, and .74%, respectively. Sixty-three percent of the farms reported that they experienced deaths at kidding (2 to 50% mortality), 44% of the farms reported that they had deaths prior to weaning (2 to 20% mortality), and 11% of the farms reported having deaths after weaning (3 to 4% mortality).
Average mortality rates for 2006 kids at birth, prior to weaning, and after weaning were about 5.5%, 2.9%, and 2%, respectively. Sixty-eight percent of the farms reported that they experienced deaths at kidding (1 to 25% mortality), 35% of the farms reported that they had deaths prior to weaning (1 to 22% mortality), and 18% of the farms reported having deaths after weaning (2 to 40% mortality). The reporting of 40% was an outlier and the respondent indicated that it was due to a coyote attack on a farm in New York.
We have worked with numerous farms over the three years of this project studying their success at out-of-season breeding and have identified three fairly successful methods. Does that have just been weaned from kids appear to be the easiest to breed out-of-season especially if they:
1) are in good body condition,
2) receive some concentrate at breeding time, and
3) either they and/or the breeding bucks are kept in pens adjoining “dawn to dusk” lights year round. This is especially true if at least one buck in the vicinity has a relatively strong odor.
Maiden does are far harder to breed out of season. The two methods that appear to reliably bring them into heat are the use of a vasectomized pygmy buck or the use of artificial lighting. A vasectomized pygmy buck introduced into a breeding group on Feb 16th for two months before the targeted breeding date resulted in a conception rate of 91% on the first heat after the fertile breeding buck was put into the herd on April 16th. In the previous year, conception rate had been 22% for maiden does at the same farm under similar conditions without the use of a teaser buck. The use of a teaser pygmy buck is probably effective by either extending the normal breeding season or increasing the “buck effect” because vasectomized pygmy bucks have excellent buck odor and libido. We are unsure if a teaser buck of a different breed would be as effective.
The other alternative adopted by some of our participating farms was the manipulation of day length using artificial lighting to cause maiden does to cycle out-of-season. Doelings had access to 50 to 60 candle feet of incandescent lighting for 24 hrs/day for 60 days and then were switched to natural lighting for 31 to 38 days prior to being put with breeding bucks while breeding bucks were housed 9 ft. under 60 watt fluorescent bulbs at one bulb per 10.5 sq. ft. of pen space for 20 hrs/day for 45 days prior to joining doelings. Conception rate was 81% compared to 0% for doelings without artificial lighting the previous year.
The sheer number of farmers involved in our out-of-season studies has resulted in lots of other farmers finding out the results by word of mouth. Today, fewer New York farmers appear to assume it will be easy to breed any doe year round or to obtain progesterone implants. Instead, most discussions of out-of-season breeding center around the reproductive status of the does you are attempting to breed (maiden or experienced, dry or just weaned) and the use of lighting or teaser bucks on the more difficult groups.
In the fall of 2006, a New York meat goat farm agreed to split their doe herd three weeks prior to breeding so that half the herd was fed extra concentrate while the other half was not. Does were randomly assigned to “flushing” or “no flushing” treatments after making sure that similar distributions of the factors that can affect litter size (such as age, body condition, genetics and service sire) were represented in each group.
Does were removed from pasture and dewormed at the beginning of the three-week study. Each treatment group was fed grass hay and some ear corn daily (< ½ lb of corn and cob per doe per day). In addition, the does in the “flushed” group were fed one pound each of a 16% crude protein (CP), high energy, pelleted feed. At the end of three weeks, the two groups were combined with one of two service sires and all does were fed one pound of the 16% CP pelleted feed on a daily basis during the breeding period. The bucks joined their breeding groups on December 1, 2006 and all does kidded within approximately 150 to 169 days later. Thus, it appeared that all the does were bred and conceived upon their first heat after exposure to the breeding bucks.
The data were evaluated statistically using analysis of variance method to determine if any of the differences in litter size among experimental factors were not due to chance. A Nubian doe was removed from the analysis because she was the only representative for her breed. All other does were high percentage Boers. The statistical model was:
Y = µ + BCS + Age + SS + ε
where Y = Litter Size, µ = herd constant, BCS = the fixed effect of body condition score, Age = the fixed effect of age and parity (the number of times the goat has already kidded), SS = the fixed effect of the buck the doe was bred to and ε = the residual variance including the random effect of the doe herself.
A data set with only 19 does is very small. Therefore, differences had to be extreme to detect significant differences in litter size. For example, even though does in Age Class 3 tended toward larger litters than did does in Age Classes 1 and 2, the differences were not noticeable enough in this small data set to render them statistically significant. Possible differences in litter size due to either service sire or body condition score were also too small in this data set to conclude that they had an influence on litter size.
In contrast, differences in litter size due to flushing were significant statistically (P < 0.05) with does that were flushed averaging 2.0 kids and does that were not flushed averaging only 1.4 (± 0.33) kids. In this meat goat herd under the environmental and genetic conditions for the year studied, flushing appeared to increase kidding rate from 140% to 200% or about six more kids for every 10 breeding does. Keep in mind that only one of the does observed in this on-farm study had a body condition score of 3 or greater.
This study leaves open questions about whether flushing would be as effective 1) for does in heavier body condition or 2) for situations where the additional nutrients used for flushing are in the form of shelled corn or extremely high quality pastures. Our observations indicate that flushing is an excellent tool to consider for any New York meat goat herd desiring increases in litter size. It also suggests that inadvertent flushing is counterintuitive for herds that are experiencing litter sizes that are larger than optimal for their management conditions.
Evaluating goats for market readiness workshops
A questionnaire was emailed to past attendees in July 2007 to see whether they felt they were using what they had learned. However, responses that were returned by email were not received despite farmers saying that they did send them. We believe they were identified by software as spam. Fourteen questionnaires were returned by surface mail. When asked how effective the workshop was in retrospect at helping them to better evaluate their own goats for health, body condition and selection grade, 12 respondents scored the workshop as “4” and two respondents scored it as “3” on a score of 1 (no help) to 4 (very helpful). Participants felt that the carcass evaluation and hands-on grading sessions were the most helpful activities at the workshops.
Six respondents indicated that since the workshop they have assisted other goat producers in evaluating their goats for market readiness. Five respondants evaluated slaughter goats when purchasing goats from other goat producers to meet a market order or when acting as a grader for a livestock auction or specific buyer. Three respondants taught or assisted with a presentation/workshop on either marketing or evaluating goats. Three respondants judged meat goats at either county or state level shows, respectively. One respondent provided contact information to be on lists to act as a market coordinator or grader for local meat goat marketing activities. Six respondants provided contact information to be on lists to teach workshops on marketing or evaluation slaughter goats, five respondants provided contact information to be on lists to teach workshops on the county level to meat goat youth on evaluating goats, and four respondants provided contact information to be on lists to judge goats at meat goat shows on the county level.
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