June 2 , 2006
Texas leads the nation in the number of meat goats...and there's more to come!
By Bobby Horecka
Growing up in Wyoming, Judy Watson said she always knew she would someday be a rancher.
What she didn't know as a little girl was that dream would eventually land her in Texasby way of Arizona and New Mexico, no lessand take some 20 years in the making.
But what came as perhaps the biggest shock to her was the type of animals she'd be raising at her new home near Goldthwaite, the self-proclaimed "Meat Goat Capital of the United States."
With an operation that depends on typically about 150-175 meat goats, plus a herd of fallow deer, Watson is one of the reasons her home county of Mills leads the state in meat goat production.
According to numbers compiled by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, meat goat production has risen by some 383 percent over the last decade nationally, from about 590,000 head in 1995 to more than 2.26 million in 1995.
Texas rings in with about 1.08 million meat goats, making it the single largest meat goat producer in the United States.
Tennessee comes in second with some 103,000 goats and Georgia ranks third with 95,000 animals.
It's a trend that puts goat producers among the fastest growing agricultural sectors on the market, said Marvin Shurley, president of the American Meat Goat Association, based in Sonora.
Not that meat goats are a new staple to Texas agriculture, he said. They've been around about as long as any other animal raised for food purposes in the Lone Star State.
"But the industry is still in its infancy," he said.
As part of a study with Texas A&M in the late 1980s, Shurley developed a business plan that focused solely on sustainable meat goat production.
Meat goats have typically been a secondary production field for most ranchers, Shurley said, often run with cattle or sheep to diversify ranching products.
But until recently, few had relied solely on meat goats, he said.
And it wasn't long until he put those business plans to work in his own operation. Shurley today runs some 970 head of goats on leased land near Sonora, having left behind the cattle business in the mid-1990s.
The attraction to goats is not hard to comprehend, Shurley said.
Given the animals adaptability, minimal labor requirements are required. Unlike sheep and angora goats, ranchers don't have to concern themselves with shearing. And unlike cattle operations, goats can be tended with far less manpower.
Equipment savings are also a plus, Shurley added. Working pens aren't a necessity as they are with other species. Nor do producers have to purchase all sorts of equipment to move their stock from place to place.
He recently hosted a gains test field day on his land near Sonora where many of the participants brought their animals via makeshift cages in the backs of their pickups.
"You really don't need much else," he said. "That one fact lends itself to even beginning ranchers."
Plus, people can run a lot more goats in a lot less space. Shurley estimated he could raise as many as nine goats per unit of land, whereas cattlemen might be able to sustain one animal in the same area.
And markets have literally boomed over the last few years.
"Think about it," Watson said. "What other countries make use of goat meat as a regular staple?"
The answer: Most of them.
And producers are far from filling those needs, Shurley said. In fact, the majority of meat goats eaten in the United States (primarily among ethnic cultures such as Hispanics, Muslims, Africans and Caribbeans) are imported from places such as New Zealand and Australia.
Watson estimated that domestic goat production amounts to less than 30 percent of the overall consumption in the country.
All across southwestern Texas, live sale markets for meat goats have blossomed in places like San Angelo, Junction, Uvalde and Goldthwaiteall situated in the heart of Texas goatland.
"The first cattle ranchers did what they did primarily for one purpose," Watson said. "They wanted to make money. And in today's day and age, I seriously believe the best way to do that is with goats."
Given the maturity of cattle raising in Texas, Watson contends that ranchers have to be the cream of the crop in today's marketplace to make a go at it in cattle raising.
"That's why we chose goats on our operation," she says.
For others, though, the shift to goat production came at the loss of another animal market.
Lowell Spiller of Eden said he turned to meat goat production in the mid-1990s when wool markets took a dive. Farm bill changes eliminated many of the price supports that sustained wool and mohair industries.
"It got to where you couldn't make a go of it," he said.
Spiller, too, has gotten out of the cattle business, though for slightly different reasons, he said.
"Four bypasses will do that," he said.
Yet despite down-sizing his operations, Spiller said he had great confidence in the future of goat markets.
"They're looking like they'll be strong for quite a few more years," he said.
Raising animals for their meat versus their hides seemed a natural shift for many operators, Shurley said. Production practices were already in place for similar animals, and much of the Texas Hill Country lands employed by goat raisers don't really lend themselves to other types of production.
Shurley added that meat goat producers pride themselves on being absent from government farm policies.
"We've basically been able to make it on our own," he said.
But one change could make the domestic market a lot stronger, he added.
Imported goats brought into the United States for slaughter are required to get a USDA stamp of approval for meat quality.
But that's also the same designation meat packing plants place on the locally raised animals.
"I'd personally like to see country of origin labeling practices stepped up for our products," he said. "I'd like to think our products are a lot better than those coming from overseas. But as it stands, there's no way to distinguish the two by the time they get to the end consumers in most places."
And as breeders developer heartier and heavier animals, Shurley said he expects domestic meat goats production to only improve with time.
Internet options have also opened a wide array for meat goat producers, Watson added.
Producers can do everything from buy stock to sell their animals and even come up with better husbandry practices via the World Wide Web.
"It's a tool that goes with our industrynew and growing," she said.
To learn more about meat goat production, visit the American Meat Goat Association's website at www.meatgoats.com.