|By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky is celebrating the goat industry - and rightfully so. Since 1997, the business of raising goats has grown by more than 300 percent in Kentucky, and the numbers are still rising.
An estimated 5,000 Kentucky farms raise goats to the tune of 74,000 head with more than 46,000 marketed goats since 1997, an astounding 661 percent increase, according to the 2002 Agriculture Census. The Kentucky office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated the state’s goat population as of Jan. 1 at 6 percent higher than the previous year - placing it fifth in U.S. goat production.
Most of the growth can be attributed to the growing demand from the U.S. ethnic population. Goat meat is popular among many throughout the world; still, 50 percent of what is consumed in the United States comes from imports.
Tess Caudill, an ag marketing specialist with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA), said U.S. demand is too great to fill from domestic producers.
“We do not export goat meat, but we do import as much as we produce because we simply can’t meet the demand,” she said. “Many farmers have become involved due to marketing efforts by KDA and the tobacco settlement money used for diversification purposes. I see the demand stabilizing, and I tell new producers to start small with no more than 20 does. After the first year, if they get through it, the sky is the limit. There is money to be made, but you have to enjoy it.”
Ray Bowman, director of the Kentucky Goat Producers Assoc. (KGPA) and Kentucky Regional Coordinator of the American Meat Goat Assoc. (AMGA), has found his way into the goat market and helps others.
“Getting started is not at all difficult or expensive, but potential producers should do their homework and understand completely what they’re getting into. Some individuals, me included, didn’t fully understand what was needed to start a goat operation and many were frustrated and didn’t stay in,” said Bowman.
“Adequate land and good fences are a must. Start out slow and make sure you fully understand the carrying capacity of your land and forage base and always buy your production animals from a reputable producer who backs up the sale.”
Charles Smith, a producer from Glasgow and a KGPA board member, came from a traditional farming background and took the slow road into his goat operation, which has grown into one of the largest in Kentucky.
“Our farm is about 235 acres; and until 1994, we had a dairy operation of about 125 cows, and we also raised tobacco,” he said. “We started with goats in 1998 as a way to get back into farming after leasing the farm for a while. I started with 19 bred does from Texas, and from that we’ve grown to about 450 head.”
Smith said there are big differences between goat farming and more traditional farming endeavors, but the experience he had coupled with less overhead in goats helped him become successful.
“Compared to other types of farming, it’s a different world. There’s a tremendous investment in livestock and equipment for a dairy operation and tobacco’s the same with labor cost, but one thing that drew me to goats was the fact that 99 percent of the work I could do myself,” he said. “It’s only been in the last few years that we’ve had a lot of information about goats and I drew heavily on my background in livestock to help. The meat goat business is a numbers game but if you do a good job, there is a small margin of profit so you have to have a large herd. The gross dollars won’t compare to a milk check but I don’t have nearly the same overhead.”
Smith said new producers may have a tough time making goat farming a full-time job, but said it could be 100 percent self-sufficient for those already on the farm.
“It’s a viable option for those who have a farm because you work goats on land you couldn’t use for anything else,” he said.
Goat popularity has grown so far in Kentucky that Gov. Ernie Fletcher proclaimed October as Goat Production Month, honoring the state’s fastest-growing ag industry.
“Kentucky has become a national leader in goat production,” Ag Commissioner Richie Farmer said.
“Kentucky already is well-known for the quality of our goats. Congratulations to our goat producers for this well-deserved honor.”
Some Kentucky farmers have turned to goats as an alternative to tobacco production. KDA led the way in establishing regional goat markets and Tel-O-Auctions to spur goat sales. The Kentucky Agricultural Development Board has awarded $318,918 to the Goat and Sheep Diversification Program this year, and the Goat Diversification Program received $3,219,784 from 2001-05.
Bowman said goats are good for farm diversification and they are compatible with cattle when it comes to sharing grazing land.
“Goats are an excellent way of diversifying. Cattle producers will find they are very complimentary when companion or rotationally grazed. Goats thrive on the abundant forages of Kentucky farms and since there is only about a 20 percent overlap in the dietary preferences of cattle and goats, the two species do not compete for food,” said Bowman. “Goats actually improve pastures for cattle by readily consuming plant species not favored by cattle, thus opening more pasture land for the production of desired grasses. Additionally, cattle producers will find the sale of market meat goats to be a welcome addition to their bottom line.”
The KGPA had its annual meeting last week with producers coming from across the state to hear experts discuss ways to make their herds better and more profitable. Terry Hutchens is the goat extension specialist at the University of Kentucky and gave the group an overview of the meat goat industry.
“Even though there are people coming in and out of the business, we’ve seen two to three percent growth each year and those that have been in the industry are solid and they’re going to stay in,” he said. The demand is there and that makes the market fairly predictable.”
In a state that is trying to get its footing after “king tobacco” gave up its reign, Kentucky’s goat industry is making a place for itself in the agricultural world.
“It is widely held that no single crop will produce an income at the levels traditionally associated with tobacco,” said Bowman. “High product demand and good prices for live animal sales have demonstrated that meat goats are an attractive option. Kentucky is gaining national recognition for its strong market infrastructure in the form of regional graded sales and Tel-O-Auctions where farmers have been receiving top prices for their market animals.”
For more details about Kentucky’s goat industry, visit the KGPA’s website at www.kentuckygpa.com
This farm news was published in the Oct. 25, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.