Kids for Sale

For the last several centuries, Texas was cattle country. Now, with worldwide demand for goat meat growing, and drought threatening to put cattle ranchers out of business, should Texas be goat country?
Thu October 17, 2013 7:15 pm
Boer kids mill about in one of the 630 pens in San Angelo's Producers Livestock Auction, the largest sheep and goat auction in the country.

On a recent Tuesday morning, a herd of red-headed young goats milled around in one of the 630 pens at Producer’s Livestock Auction, in San Angelo, the largest sheep and goat market in the country. These goat kids were among the more than 5,300 hooved animals that would be sold that day, bound for slaughterhouses as far away as New York. As Jody Frey, a stockyard employee, and I approached their pen on an overlooking catwalk, some of the bolder goats stared up inquisitively at us, though most of them clambered away to the opposite side of the pen .

I studied the animals. Boer goats, which are known for their stocky bodies and distinctive, floppy ears, have been dubbed “the Cadillac of meat goats.” They first touched down on U.S. soil in the early nineties, when an agricultural extension agent from Glasscock County imported the first Boer goat into Texas from New Zealand. Twenty years later, they’ve revolutionized the American goat business and pretty much everyone accepts that these kids are the future. The past could be seen nearby, in a pen where a herd of rangier black and tan goats was clomping around. “Those are Spanish goats, which was the typical kind you’d see in Texas until recently,” explained Frey, who was wearing a crisp, cream checkered shirt and a cowboy hat.

San Angelo is the historic heart of sheep country, but now goats make up 60 to 70 percent of the total 300,000 ruminants sold at the auction barn each year. When I was there, a group of 20 or so buyers, mostly older white men in jeans and cowboy boots, leaned back in brown rolling chairs drinking soda and watching keenly as groups of goats and sheep were shuttled into the pen at the front of the sale barn, escorted by a so-called “Judas goat,” an older animal trained to put its hoofed kin at ease and lead them, eventually, to slaughter.  

The day was routine and low-key, nothing compared to that frenzied morning in late 1994 or early 1995 when Boer kids came up for sale for the first time. Frey, who has worked at Producers Livestock Auction for 21 years, reminisced on that hectic day: “The kids were so small they were climbing through the pipes,” he said. And buyers were so eager to snap up this new breed, convinced it could fundamentally change the American meat goat industry, that they were spilling out the exits, peering down at the auction floor.  

Goats and sheep have a long history in our state. The animals —compact sources of protein accompanied the Spanish explorers to Texas, and more of the ruminants were brought over by subsequent settlers, according to the Texas State Historical Association. But goat ranching did not take off in the state until the late 1850s with the arrival of Angoras, a Turkish breed prized for their long silky hair. The goats flourished in the Edwards Plateau, and by 1900 there were 100,000 of them, making Texas the country’s leading producer of mohair.

In 1965, the industry’s peak, more than 31 million pounds of mohair was shorn from some 4.6 million Angoras in Texas. Then during the first year of the Clinton administration, the federal Wool and Mohair Subsidy, a program created in 1954 that imposed a tariff on imported wool and distributed money to farmers, was phased out, a move which proved disastrous for wool and mohair production in the state. The industry’s decline is evident when you look at the numbers: in 1943, Texas was home to 10 million sheep and 3.5 million Angora goats, numbers that have dipped to 700,000 and 72,000 respectively today.

Boer goats now fill some of that void. By the mid-twentieth century, Afrikaner farmers in South Africa had developed this breed by crossing indigenous goats with European dairy goats. The resulting animal was prized for its ability to rapidly pack on pounds and to thrive in scrubby country. (And farmers thought that the distinctive red heads made them “easier to see and easier to manage in thorn-bush country.”) By the 1990s, American farmers wanted in, but geopolitics got in the way. A U.S. ban on trade with South Africa’s Apartheid government meant these goats couldn’t be plucked up at the source. But the USDA had an existing import protocol with New Zealand. So, in 1993, the West Texas Goat Syndicate—a rather ominous-sounding moniker adopted by the six families that pooled their money to get some Boers—went to get one. His name was Booger. All it took to bring him back was “$2,500 and an airplane,” Norman Kohls told me when I recently visited him at his ranch outside Eldorado.

Kohls, who was an agricultural extension agent for Glasscock County (he now breeds prize-winning Boers), flew to New Zealand and traveled to Keri Downs, a state-owned farm, in Northland where Booger and more than 2,000 other goats were being quarantined behind a double fence for five years. These beauties were the descendants of twelve goats that had been brought from Zimbabwe. Kohls spent seven days at the ranch in New Zealand, “walking those hills and looking at those goats. I’d write numbers down of ones I liked and come back and track their genetics,” he explained. 

“My daddy almost had a stroke when I told him I spent that much on a goat. I could have bought any meat goat in America at the time for $100,” Kohls told me as we drove out in his blue golf cart to see a herd of nannies. “I took a big chance but it was well worth it.”

Once imported, the Boers were crossed with Spanish goats—the offspring of animals brought to Texas by explorers in the 1500s—creating a local hybrid. Lines of pure-bred Boers were also created, using embryo transfers and in-vitro fertilization techniques. “You used to seldom see a red-headed goat, but they were in every state within ten years,” Kohls said. “There’s never been

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