How well do goats grow on forage alone?

July 31, 2007|By JEFF SEMLER

The Western Maryland Research & Education Center, or WMREC as it is affectionately known, is nestled rather unobtrusively on Keedysville Road, just north of the historic Antietam Battlefield.

For those with a longtime history here in Washington County, it was known as Ritchie Site B.

This site was given to the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources in 1977.

The deal was that if the University adequately cared for the property, it would be deeded to the University after 30 years. In mid-June we celebrated that transfer.

The University not only cared for the site but has developed it. It is a research center, but it should not be confused with places like Area 51. There is nothing clandestine going on there.

Primarily, there are research plots of major agronomic crops such as corn, wheat, barley and soybeans. In addition, there is work being done on wine grapes, forage grasses and a meat goat performance test.


I am involved in the forage grass and meat goat research.

The forage grass plots are a variety trial for perennial varieties of orchard grass, fescue, brome grass, ryegrass and annual ryegrasses and cereal grains.

These plots are managed as grazing plots using a flail mower to harvest instead of grazing livestock.

We - Stan Fultz, Extension agent in Frederick County, and I - are collecting data on yields, persistence and heading dates. At the end of the three-year study, we can feel more confident of the types and varieties of grass that perform well in our climate.

Of course, as for now, these grasses are suffering for lack of moisture just like other crops in the area.

The goats enrolled in the Meat Goat Performance Test are the only domestic animals on the research center. This project is a collaborative effort by me and Susan Schoenian, who is the regional small ruminant Extension specialist, and Dr. Jeanne Dietz-Band, a local goat breeder and our research associate.

This test, in its second year, was the first of its kind in the United States.

Those of you that have conjured up images of goats holding pencils and filling out forms, can rest assured it is not like that. The test is a pasture-based performance test.

In other words, how well do these goats grow on forage alone, no grain?

A goat's natural diet is browse. Just like a deer, the goat prefers to dine on plants that grow above the knee, which makes them wonderful weeders.

Goats make wonderful companion grazers with sheep and cattle because they don't compete for the same plants as food.

Back to the test - the goats arrived on June 9th from as far away as Kentucky and as close as Keedysville. Last year's test boasted goats from Oklahoma and Georgia.

Where are those goats this year? They stayed home.

Why? Because in the truest form of flattery, those states have started their own tests this year patterned after ours.

Pennsylvania and West Virginia also have tests but they are not pastured-based; the goats in those tests get the bulk of their diet from grain.

Why make it a forage-based test?

Because that is the predominate environment these goats are asked to perform in back on the farm.

Breeders often get disappointed with animals they buy when they bring them home and they fail to perform as advertised. The issue is probably one of differing management systems.

My advice is buy animals from people whose management system is as close to yours as possible.

Management systems are personal and make sense for the people involved based on their specific set of circumstances. It does not make one system superior to the other, just different.

So now you know just a little of what goes on at WMREC. It is also an education center, so watch the Ag calendar for opportunities to participate in a workshop there, as well.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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