Breeds and Breed Characteristics
One of the first decisions about raising goats is which breed or breeds to raise. As a beginning goat producer you need to identify specific breeds by name, appearance, and general characteristics. Note that the characteristics listed are what the breed is known for, but within each breed there is a great deal of individual variation. For instance, some individuals within a fast-growing breed will actually grow more slowly than some individuals of a slow-growing breed. Therefore, it is very important to select stock by their individual merits and not simply by the breed.
Although any breed of goat is a meat goat because most end up as meat, there are four major meat goat breeds that are raised in large numbers specifically for the production of meat. These are the Spanish, Boer, Myotonic and Kiko. Angora and cashmere goats are raised for their luxury fibers, but also provide meat. While most dairy goats provide meat, the Nubian breed is used to improve milk production and frame size of meat goats. Pygmy goats are also used for meat. There are some newer breeds such as the Savannah and Scandinavian ridgeback, but currently they have limited animal numbers. Crosses of any of the above have value in meat production as well.
The Spanish breed has developed through natural selection from goats first placed in Texas in the early 1540's by Spanish explorers. Survival of the fittest insured that the breed became hardy, good foragers, and good mothers. Living in the wild gave an advantage to smaller stock, because they needed less food. These goats have been referred to as "brush" goats in some regions, because of their use in controlling brush. Some producers have improved the stock by selecting for better muscling, more milk, or other criteria. These improved Spanish goats are much larger and meatier than the average Spanish goat. In terms of productivity, there is a lot of variation in the growth rate of Spanish goats. Selection is key to improving that trait. Producers appreciate the Spanish goats for their toughness and their ability to thrive in a low-input situation. Spanish goats come in many colors and patterns.
Boer goats were developed in South Africa and are easily recognized by a white body, red head, and large, muscular frame. The breed was first imported into the United States from Australia and New Zealand in 1993. Boer goats are in high demand because they grow fast and produce desirable carcasses. Breeding animals have been very expensive due to the limited numbers originally imported, but recently numbers have increased sufficiently that prices have become more reasonable. Due to their scarcity and high demand, some animals were kept for breeding purposes that should have been culled because they were not hardy. Also, some of the animals were pampered because of high prices at the time and as a consequence some Boer goat individuals in the U.S. are not as hardy as Boer goats raised in South Africa. Boer goats are the largest of the goat breeds with a mature doe weighing as much as 200 pounds. They have been selected for growth rate and may gain in excess of 0.4 pounds per day under feedlot conditions.
The Kiko breed was developed in New Zealand by crossing feral does with Nubian, Toggenberg, and Saanen bucks. Kiko goats are usually white and fairly hardy. Data from a study conducted at Tennessee State University in 2004 indicated that Kikos may be more parasite-resistant than other breeds and have less problems with foot-rot. In that study, Kikos weaned more pounds of kid per doe as compared with Boer goats. However, Boer goats are preferred by buyers at sale barns. For this reason, many breeders will use a Boer buck on Kiko does.
Myotonic goats are often referred to as Wooden Leg, "stiff-leg", or Tennessee fainting goats. These goats have a recessive gene that makes their muscles lock up when the animal is startled, causing them to fall over ("faint") briefly. The breed is one of the few breeds indigenous to the United States. The Myotonic goat is heavily muscled in the rump and deep in the chest, but is smaller than the other three major meat breeds. They have good potential for crossbreeding. Since breed numbers are not great, breeding stock may be expensive. The myotonic characteristic makes them easier to keep in fences, but may also make them more susceptible to predators.
The Savanna breed is relatively new to the United States, having been imported in the late 1990's. The breed is a large framed, extremely well muscled goat with white color containing a few black pigments found on the ears. The body characteristics resemble those of the Boer goat.
Pygmy goats are small goats of African origin. They are considered meat goats but are mainly used as pets. Pygmies are bred to be "cobby" and heavy boned. All body colors are acceptable but breed-specific markings are required.
Angora goats originated in Turkey and are raised primarily for their luxurious mohair fiber. They also provide considerable meat in the U.S. They work well in a cross-breeding program; however, the value of the mohair clip is lost. Angoras can be raised in cold or hot climates, but lack hardiness. They do not have much parasite resistance and do better in dry or open-range conditions. Angoras are more likely to have single than twin kids and have a tendency to abort under stress. Their first kidding is generally at two years of age rather than as yearlings, resulting in a low reproductive rate. If there is a good market for mohair and if production costs can be kept low, Angoras can be profitable. Be aware that Angoras must be sheared every six months. The breed has a small body, but produces a good quality carcass.
All goats, except Angoras, produce cashmere to some degree; however, some groups in several goat breeds have been selected for increased cashmere production. The difficulty in processing and selling the fiber has prompted some producers to focus on cashmere goats solely for their meat. "Cashmere" goats are not a distinct breed, thus there is considerable variation in body size, shape, color, and productivity.
Dairy goats are used for meat, but dairy kids tend to have more bone and less meat on their frames. Nubians and LaManchas cross well with meat breeds, and the result can be a very good carcass on the kid, one that grows fast due to the milk production of the mother. Other dairy breeds may also be used in a cross, because the improvement in milk production results in a heavier weaned kid. Dairy does are also readily available and affordable in many areas.
Crossbreeds allow commercial producers to choose desirable traits from two or more breeds and gain increased vigor in the resulting kids (known as "hybrid vigor"). But crossbreeding does not always yield desired outcomes, sometimes blending the less-desirable traits of the parents, rather than expressing the best. If many breeds are used, uniformity may suffer. Usually, however, crossbreeding results in a stronger and healthier herd that is easier to maintain.
Producers should evaluate individual goats on their own merits and not assume that all animals of a particular breed will fit the breed standard. Selection of superior individuals, whatever the breed, is much wiser than choosing a breed and taking whatever is for sale. In selecting breeding stock, there are several important considerations: the market for kids, your personal preferences, availability of stock raised with management similar to yours and in your climate, conformation, and most importantly, health. In the next section, we will explore each of these principles.