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Research center hosts goats for unique test

February 06, 2007|by SUSAN SCHOENIAN

Sheep and Goat Specialist

Western Maryland Research & Education Center

Last summer, 35 goats from as far away as Georgia and Oklahoma were brought to the University of Maryland's Western Maryland Research & Education Center near Keedysville for a rather unique experience.

What was happening? For about four months, we were conducting a pasture-based meat goat performance test to begin determining what genetics are best in goats for the nation's rather new meat goat industry.

The meat goes almost exclusively to an ethnic market, which is increasing as more immigrants come from countries where people are used to goat and lamb in their diet, or they associate them with important religious holidays.

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People who raise goats for market vary. You get the small producer with some acres, somebody that's retired or families with children in 4-H. But you also get some big farms in Maryland and elsewhere where people have hundreds, even thousands, of goats.

Here in the Tri-State area, we sit in the perfect place for marketing meat goats. Just think of all the big cities near us: Washington, Baltimore, and New York City.

Indeed, slaughter plants in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey account for about 50 percent of all the goats that pass through USDA-inspected slaughter plants.

To be profitable in their operations, meat goat producers need to have animals that perform well. Performance can't be measured in a show ring. Just because a goat is "pretty" doesn't mean it's going to be a good meat producer. So our test here at the research farm is to help determine which meat goats perform better. Other than a range test in Texas, our test is the only pasture-based performance test for meat goats in the U.S.

A lot of other performance tests for livestock, including meat goats, confine the animals and feed them mostly grain, out of feeders. These animals usually grow very well.

But commercial meat goats are seldom raised in confinement, so we needed a performance test to determine which goats do best when raised on pasture. So meat goat producers from six states brought goats to our 491-acre research farm for our first test. To have someone bring goats all the way from Oklahoma and Georgia, you know that they are interested in this test.

The goats in our first test were a mixture of Boer, Kiko, and Boer x Kiko. They were managed together as a single herd on pasture for 119 days. They did not receive any supplemental feed, only free choice minerals. They were rotationally grazed among five 2-acre paddocks. They always had access to a central laneway containing port-a-hut shelters, water troughs, mineral feeders and a handling system.

If you're trying to develop a profitable livestock business, it's performance that you want. You want your animals to grow fast, to tolerate diseases and to produce the most meat. That's what we're trying to test here.

And since a goat's biggest health problem is usually stomach worms, we collect data on that, too.

Every two weeks, we handled the goats to determine their FAMACHA eye anemia scores. FAMACHA is a new system for determining whether a goat or a sheep needs to be treated for worms. It uses a card that has different eye colors for the animal's lower eyelid. You match that to your live animal, and score them based on how close a color shade is to what you see in the animal. Based on the score you give your animal, that helps determine whether you give your animal treatment for worms. The idea being, what's the point of giving a healthy animal a treatment? Less frequent deworming also helps to keep the worm population susceptible to the drugs being used to control them.

During our testing period here, we dewormed the goats 51 times, for an average of 1.65 treatments per goat, as compared to a monthly treatment regime, which would have resulted in four treatments per goat. Some goats did not require deworming for the entire summer grazing season. These are the ones we want!

Fecal samples were also collected from the goats and are being analyzed to determine worm egg counts. This is the only performance test in the U.S. that evaluates an animal's ability to resist parasitic infection. Worms are the primary health problem of goats and sheep, and they can be a significant challenge when animals are intensively grazed.

We weighed the goats every 28 days. We used ultrasound scanning to measure the size of their rib eye muscle and also, how much fat they had over their ribs.

Ironically, the goats gained the best when it was dry and the pastures were not actively growing. They did not gain anything during the last four weeks of the test, probably due to their male friskiness.

For the whole test, the goats gained an average of 0.19 pounds per day. The top-gaining goat was a high-percentage Boer that gained 0.286 pounds per day. However, this goat required two treatments for internal parasites.

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