Goat farming is increasing in Alabama, and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System is working to educate small-scale and limited resource farmers in the state and around the nation on how to improve and manage their operations.
Dr. Maria Leite-Browning, an Alabama Extension animal scientist based at Alabama A&M, and Robert Spencer an urban regional Extension specialist, believe education on marketing and sustainability is the future of their work.
“In my opinion, the missing link regarding any aspect of goat and sheep production is a strategy for marketing these animals in a consistent fashion to obtain ideal prices at ideal locations,” Spencer said.
“The challenges so many small-scale and limited resource farmers face is excessive cost of production and inputs.” These inputs include food, fertilizer and feed.
Economics of scale – cost advantages that result from higher output – is a challenge for farmers because most farms have fewer than 100 animals.
“Some are reliant upon fertilizer for forage production, and feed as a significant source of nutrition for their animals,” Spencer said. “Planting legumes replaces the need for fertilizer while cutting back on number of animals and rotational grazing reduces pressure on forages and minimizes need for grain-based feeds.
“If livestock farmers would focus on year-round, quality forage production, and use their animals to manage these forages, they will become more efficient in all areas and sustainability will be an added bonus to them and their families,” he added.
Leite-Browning and colleagues have created a number of resources to assist farmers who are raising goats. “We have all kinds of farmers,” she said. “Hobbyists have animals as a hobby or for show. Commercial breeders breed with meat goat production in mind.”
She and others involved with Alabama Extension have been collecting and recording data for several years now.
Years before, she sent out the same survey when she was working in Tennessee.
Tennessee is the second largest goat producer in the nation, topped only by Texas. This high production has bled over into North Alabama, where most of the meat goat production in the state is located.
“I wanted to know about the state before I developed any program,” Leite-Browning added. “The same survey I applied in Tennessee I applied here.”
Using the survey results, methods and programs were developed to help the farmers. For example, the survey showed parasites were the largest problem farmers faced so Leite-Browning has developed programs and publications to help goat producers handle parasite issues.
Because there were many non-traditional farmers – people who have never worked on or owned any other sort of livestock – many had knowledge gaps when it came to proper care for the animals.
“A lot of farmers have no experience,” she added. “They are teachers, doctors and engineers. They do this on the side.” A third of the farmers she surveyed are over the age of 60, with many using money from retirement funds to run their farms.
A major problem for American farmers is competing with meat imported from Australia and New Zealand. Though this meat is of lower quality, the price difference is substantial.
“The meat comes here frozen,” Leite-Browning said. “It costs $1 per pound versus $3.99 per pound for local meat.”
“Australians have the open land to let the goats go. They don’t have high production costs. They don’t even vaccinate. Our market is open for them. There is a challenge for the industry as it moves from show to commercial.”
Spencer himself is a goat farmer, with interest sparked after meeting Leite-Browning and seeing her enthusiasm for her work.
“At that time I decided to personally venture into meat goat production, and my wife wanted dairy goats; so we compromised and ended up with both,” Spencer said. “It was there I began to experience the challenges associated with any type of goat production.”
Spencer’s work as of late has been to help farmers create more sustainable and economical farms. He works with farmers and potential farmers interested in small animal production – sheep, goats, rabbits and poultry – to explore various aspects of production, management, marketing and natural resource efficiencies.
“Farm diversification is an important aspect of sustainability,” Spencer said. “For the past five years I have worked with Alabama Agricultural A+ Marketing Association, the only formal sheep and goat producer cooperative in Alabama.”
A+ is also working with a company to “secure year-round processing and purchase of lamb and goats.” This meat is then sold to high end restaurants and stores.
“By working with Northwest Alabama Resource Conservation and Development Council, A+ has developed a pricing strategy that pays higher than any regional livestock sale barn,” Spencer said. “Their plan is to keep a running inventory and purchasing plan. This will keep specialty meats moving smoother and make for happy producers as well.”