Herding goats with success

By Lillie Eisenbeis | May 1, 2017

The following article was featured in the Freeman Courier in March 2017 as part of the feature “Rural Alternatives”.

Life is abounding on the farm this time of year for Lee and Marilyn Brockmueller, whohave been taking turns checking for newborn lambs and calvesin the middle of the night. Sleep is an afterthought during the month of March. In fact, fifteen lambs were just bornin the span of fifteen hours, with more on the way. The Brockmueller farm,located near the gulches southeast of Freeman, is home to a variety ofanimals. But it is the goats, an animal considered unconventional in this part of the world, that Marilyn seems most passionate about.

Brockmueller first became interested in goats when she spent six years in Bangladesh, one of the top goat milk-producing countries. Whereas we typically use an animal for either its milk or meat, the Bengalese used their Black Bengal goats as a triple-purpose animal—for milk, meat, and leather. Inspired by what she saw, Brockmueller started a small herd of milk goats of her ownupon her return to Freeman in 1989.

Birth of the Boer

Dairy goatswere the only breeds available in the United States until 1995, when the Boer goat was first introduced. Bigger in muscle and heaver in frame, Boers originated in South Africa and were selected for meat production rather than milk production.“Boers are like Angus to the cattle industry,” says Brockmueller. Since she wasn’t keen onthe idea of constantlymilking goats, Brockmueller began crossing her Nubians with Boers to develop a herd of meat goats. Meanwhile, demand for goat meat in the United States has been growing along with the proliferation of ethnic and specialty markets.

Brockmueller’s herd swelled to fifteen at its peak. She would sell to the Sioux Falls Regional Livestock market in addition to filling some local demand, mostly from townsfolk who lived abroad and grew accustomed to goat meat. It takes only five months to bring a meat goat to the market weight of 60 pounds. Ethnic groups such as East Africans and Asians, often Muslim,are the biggest consumers of goat in the United States.

These days Brockmueller is down to four goats, scraggly in their shedding winter coats. “I’m slowing retiring.”

A Global Perspective

Given the fact that 63% of red meat consumed worldwide is goat meat and that more people in the world drink goat’s milk than cow’s milk, it seems odd to feature goats as a “rural alternative.” But the reality is that goats are just not usually sold in traditional marketplaces in the United States. Pork, chicken, and beef all rank higher in popularity than sheep or goat.

Goats are among the earliest animals domesticated by humans and they remain ideal for much of the world’s population.They are small animals who do well in arid climates. They provide both meat and milk and are easier less expensive to manage than cattle. Furthermore, goats are browsers—they eat broadleaf and woody plants in addition to grass—which is ideal for less-than-fertile patches of land.

Here in the Midwest, we like to do things big, including our agriculture. We like to specialize by having Holsteins for our milk and Cornish Crosses for our chicken breasts. We like to standardize. Goats have not seemed to fit the style or taste of American agriculture in many ways, but that’s beginning to change as goat meat and milk gain traction.

Goats in 4-H

Brockmuellerhas been promoting goats from the beginning, and nowhere has that been more evident than her quest to bring goats to par with other livestock species in 4-H.

Before goats appeared at the county level, she helped organize a regional goat show that rotated between counties in the area. At that time, all you could show were dairy goats, but in 2005, the regional show expanded to include boer meat goats. This new class of goats required an additional show division and a separate judge, but with goat popularity on a steady rise, there were enough entries to fill these new divisions.

The state extension service re-organized in 2012, and now each county is responsible for their own goat show every year. Brockmueller joined the Turner County Goat Committee to help get the Turner County Fair goat show off the ground. “We had to fight the fair board on a lot of things,” recalls Brockmueller. “People wanted to lump all the goats together. They didn’t understand the difference between milking and meat goats or breeding and market goats.” Some insiders thought that Brockmueller was promoting goats too much and that goats shouldn’t get the same attention as the more popular and established shows, like beef cattle or swine. All her persistence payed off, however, because now as many as 34 milk goats are entered between five families at the Turner County Fair on a given year. Because of their small size and social nature, goats have proven to make excellent 4-H projects for young people.

Challenges and Opportunities

Goats are often seen as hobby animals. While they do provide excellent company and a good deal of entertainment, the market is ripe to begin integrating goats into livestock operations at the commercial level. Between the growing ethnic food market and the swell of health-conscious consumers, these untapped markets provide promising opportunity. According to the president of the U.S. Meat Goat Association, “the U.S. market could support a herd of 15 million animals and the demand for goat meat will continue to grow.” There are currently only two million meat goats.

For beginning farmers with fewer resources, goats might be the perfect fit. A herd of six adult goats can thrive on the same area of land as one beef cow, and their feed conversion rate is much more efficient than larger-bodied animals. Furthermore, goats are a great tool for achieving self-sufficiency on the farm. They provide sustenance in the form of meat and milk, which can be converted to cheese, and they can be used as effective control for undesirable plants like leafy spurge and burdock. In fact, goats are often rented out to control invasive species in national parks or to mow down vacant lots.

These mischievous animals are not without their challenges, however. Goats require tight fencing. They will jump over any enclosure if they get scared, and a guard animal may be necessary to fend off predators if the goats are out on pasture. Another challenge Brockmueller has encountered is the lack of proper veterinary care. Many local vets are not trained to work with goats, so one must be prepared to do a lot of research in order to keep a healthy herd.

Despite these drawbacks, goats are catching on. Aside from theBrockmuellers, several community members have discovered the enjoyment and practicality of rearing goats. This worldwide staple has big potential to be the area’s next rural alternative for farms of every shape and size.