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 proteinaccompanied 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 anything else that moved so fast in agriculture.”

Dr. John Walker, a professor and the resident director of research at Texas A&M's AgriLife Extension Center in San Angelo, agreed. “It’s amazing how fast those Boer genetics were integrated into the goat population. I’ve never seen that in any other livestock breed,” he said.

In short, the Boer breed revolutionized the American meat goat industry, making it unrecognizable from the one that existed in the early nineties. Before the arrival of the Boer, meat goats would sell by the head. Now, goats are sold by the pound. “Boers totally changed the dynamics of the meat goat industry in the U.S.,” Kohls said. A 60-pound goat kid meant for consumption can cost $160, and the price for breeding stock can stretch into the thousands. “These goats have paid for every penny of this,” Kohls said, gesturing around his ranch. “You can’t get your eyes on anything here that goats didn’t pay for.”

A big reason why Kohls’s goats command such high prices is because they’re as close to the platonic ideal of the Boer goat as you can get. He and his peers have been using in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfer technology to genetically engineer the animals that are near-locks for winning grand prizes at livestock shows. “There are some real important goats still here, stored inside those tanks,” Kohls said, gesturing to two white cryogenic storage tanks sitting in the barn. 

Ann and Hugh Schafer, two original members of the goat syndicate, have been raising Boer crosses on a plot of land outside Big Spring for twenty years. “I was just about to wash and dry these goats,” Ann told me cheerfully after I drove up to her property on a hot afternoon in August. She wanted these particular goats—males intended for use for breeding 4-H goats—to look their best for Sunday’s auction. Working in a peach shirt with a gray bandana around her neck, she herded the seven young goats into a narrow chute in her barn. “Sometimes I wish I didn’t love them so much because they’re a lot of work,” Ann said a few minutes later, just before introducing me to Jazzy, a particularly friendly four-month-old kid who nuzzled at my leg with her tiny nose. I was tempted to bring this tiny Weed eater home with me.

The Schafers formerly raised dairy goats, but these days, her farm is home to 300 crossbred Boers. “I get calls every week from people in all different states who want a contract to buy 50 head per week. Or they say ‘we’ll take as many meat goats as you can provide,’” she explained.

Worldwide, more people eat goat meat than any other meat. The United States is the thirtieth largest producer of meat goats in the world, sandwiched between Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, according to data from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service and the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization. (Notably, with 2.32 million meat goats, the U.S. now surpasses South Africa—the source of our now-ubiquitous Boer goat—with its 2.15 million meat goats. Texas is home to 850,000 meat goats, meaning that it is tied with Libya for 54th place). And demand for the meat is only growing in the U.S., dictated by the palates of recent immigrants. This means domestic goat raisers are currently unable to meet the demand and about 750,000 goats are imported into the U.S. each year. If production was upped to meet demand, that could bring millions of dollars to the industry.  

Texas is well poised to snap up a fair share of that money. Ranchers in the state, long considered cattle country, might find that raising goats could be a cash cow.

Sheep and goats were sold in record numbers during the epic 2011 drought, which caused an estimated $5.2 billion in agricultural losses to the state, including $2.06 billion in livestock losses. The drought forced the Schaefers to send 200 goats to San Angelo to be sold for meat. And cattle, which require much more water than their caprine counterparts, fared even worse during this period. “When it got so dry, the weather was too much for cattle,” said Frey, the stockyard employee. Many ranchers, of course, are getting out of the cattle business entirely, after generations, due to the harshness of the drought in recent years and the arrival of other revenue streams—income from wind turbines, new oil drilling, and hunting leases. “I don’t think cattle ranching will ever come back to how it was,” Frey said.

But there are advantages—both from a land conservation and efficiency perspective—to maintaining herds of cows, sheep, and goats on your land. “Most land will always benefit from having multiple species of livestock—each species has its own preference,” Walker, the researcher, explained. (Cows eat grass, sheep eat forbs, and goats are browsers, meaning they eat nearly everything else.)

It’s unlikely goats will be replacing cows in Texas anytime soon, but they could be the answer to combat cedar spread. When cattle arrived in the 1700s, they overgrazed the scrubby, arid land along the Edwards Plateau loosening the thin soil. This, combined with the decreased number of fires, allowed cedar, as Ashe juniper is commonly called in Texas, to creep in—a plant that LBJ biographer Robert Caro noted in the opening chapters of the Path to Power “grows so fast that it seems to gobble up the ground.”

“In the 1870s livestock increased, but it took as a long time to learn what the real carrying capacity of the land was,” Walker said. “We overgrazed the Edwards Plateau, took out the herbaceous vegetation—grasses and forbs—and left a place for mesquite and juniper to invade.” Cedar remains a huge problem 150 years later. With this in mind, scientists with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension are now using selective breeding to create lines of “super-juniper eating goats.” And to determine which goats are eating the most cedar, scientists collect goat dung, dry it, pulverize it into a powder that looks disturbingly similar to eye shadow, and examine it in an infrared spectroscopy machine. They then select the animals that eat more juniper and breed them together. Rinse and repeat. This experiment, which has been going on since 2005, has produced goats that eat fifteen percent more juniper than the control group. But it’ll be a few years yet before farmers can have them: scientists are looking for a genetic marker for this trait.

Until then, goats with a normal-sized appetite for cedar can still help curb the shrubby invasion. “Cedar can completely take over your ranch—if you don’t also have goats that’s all you have soon enough. We need goats in this country, we can’t go without them,” Kohls said.

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