Goats: An overlooked pasture-raised animal

From MARC R.
The Ethicurean

Goat meat is already very popular around the world – the Washington Post claims that goat makes up almost 70 percent of the red meat eaten globally – and its popularity could increase in the U.S. because of the convergence of several things:  renewed interest in grass-fed animals; openings of new butcher shops or revitalization of old shops (such as Avedano’s in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights), and increasing numbers of U.S. residents from Latin America and South Asia. With a bit of education and experimentation by farmers, butchers, chefs and home cooks, this adaptable animal could become a key part of a return to meat raised on pastures.

Goats were the focus of a recent one-day festival at the Rockridge Market Hall in Oakland – an upscale European-style collection of food shops with a bakery, butcher, fish shop, and more. The “Go for the Goat!” festival included tastings of goat milk ice cream, goat milk caramel, goat cheese, a butchery demonstration, and a panel discussion about goat cheese, milk and meat. I attended the panel, which was moderated by Sibella Kraus, director of Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE), and comprised panelists Bob McCall, Sales & Marketing Manager for Cypress Grove Chevre (maker of the legendary Humboldt Fog); Lynn Huntsinger, Professor of Rangeland Ecology & Management, UC Berkeley (and owner of two goats); David Evans, owner of Marin Sun Farms.

Pasture’s little helpers

David Evans, who raises grass-fed cattle in northern California, depends on lush pastures to put weight on his animals and keep them healthy. Goats can play a part in that by improving the quality of pastures, he said. While cows and sheep are basically biological lawnmowers – eating grass almost exclusively – goats are browsers, eating bits of grass, bits of brush, bits of trees.  And since goats happen to like consuming certain problem species for rangelands, herds of goats can be deployed to areas of pasture that are being overrun by milk thistle or poison oak, giving grass a fighting chance to return.

Goats don’t like water, so they cause little damage to stream beds, according to Evans, and therefore can be released close to waterways.  Although Marin Sun Farms’ lease with the federal government (through the National Park Service) doesn’t currently allow goats on their lands in Marin County, through co-production arrangements, Evans sources goats from a partner in Dixon, CA, that follows Marin Sun Farms’ strict protocols for animal and ecosystem treatment.

Meaty matters

Goats and humans have been working together for about 10,000 years, so it’s not surprising that we’ve developed particular breeds for particular purposes: the La Mancha and Nubian breeds excel at producing milk; Boer goats put on weight quickly, making for a superior meat breed, and other breeds have highly efficient digestive systems that make them excellent for vegetation control. (Goat World says that “a brush goat is generally a goat that has been produced by breeders experimentation with mixing different breeds, or, a goat that is just a goat that has never been registered, or, a goat that is just a goat.”)

Although goats make up a tiny fraction of the U.S. meat market – data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) shows that there are less than half a million milk goats and about 2.5 million meat goats in the U.S., compared with the upwards of 90 million cattle and calves and more than 60 million hogs and pigs – Evans said that supply can’t keep up with the demand in the Bay Area. Part of this demand is from ethnic communities that have long traditions of eating goat (e.g., Mexico, the Middle East, South Asia) and part comes from high-end goat-loving restaurants such as Camino and Pizzaiolo in Oakland. (A 2008 San Francisco Chronicle article also mentioned such places as Oakland’s Oliveto, Berkeley’s Café Rouge, and Kokkari in San Francisco.)

We eat goats at various stages of their life cycle. One source is what Cypress Grove’s Bob McCall called the “male surplus” – the male offspring of milk goats – animals that are sold to processors before they reach one year old, mainly for a Mexican stew called birria and for Muslim communities (at the goat and sheep slaughterhouse in Dixon, one day each week is dedicated to halal slaughter). In general, however, McCall said, it’s hard to find a market for the male surplus, and they’re money losers.  For goats that are meat breeds, the main market is also animals that are less than a year old that have been given a diet that allows them to develop plenty of fat (pasture with supplements of grain).

Yet another another supply is milking ewes at the end of their productive years. Evans said that the taste is pleasant if the animal has been well fed, a bit like venison. The sheep-derived name he’s been using – “mutton” – is problematic, as most people have negative opinions of that product, so he’s looking for a new name.

Why don’t we eat more goat?

So why is demand for this meat outstripping supply, even with the “male surplus” from California’s robust goat cheese and milk industry? The panel gave a few reasons.

Evans said that goats present an economic challenge for butchers and restaurants because they are generally available only as whole animals – there is no “boxed goat” supplier from which a retailer or chef can order a box of shoulder, a box of legs, and so forth. Therefore, butchers and restaurants need to know now to sell every part of the animal. Or they need to know how to cook a whole animal, using a tool like La Caja China, as a segment of KCRW’s Good Food recorded at Tender Greens in West Hollywood recounted (audio is available for streaming or download).

An article in the Washington Post called “Goat meat, the final frontier” offers an additional bit of complexity: “Goat is still the Wild West of butchering in this country. While other animal carcasses are cut up based on standardized charts, goat has, by and large, escaped the bureaucracy. One butcher’s goat roast can be another’s goat steaks. ”

In some regions, it can be hard to find a slaughter and processing facility.  The Post article notes that the small size of a 6-to-9-month goat might yield only 40 pounds of meat, which can be an impediment to operations that normally handle much larger animals.  The Bay Area and Sacramento area don’t have that problem, Evans said, because goats are processed in facilities set up to handle the large number of sheep raised in the region.

Professor Huntsinger, who grazes two elderly goats in her backyard in Oakland, provided two additional reasons that goats that aren’t more widely adopted as meat animals: they need really good fences and are a favorite prey of coyotes. For protection, some ranchers use llamas, some use a certain breed of dog (no one on the panel could remember the name), and others use donkeys.

The panel didn’t have much to say about cooking goat meat, but from my reading and listening, I learned that one key element is that the very low fat content of the meat means that you can’t just substitute it in a recipe designed for another meat. The above-mentioned article in the Washington Post gave some tips, as does one from the San Francisco Chronicle.

More about goats and goat meat


I’ve heard Turkish Kangal dogs are great livestock protectors. They were bred to protect sheep herds from Asiatic lions and wolves, and will take on cougars, bears, wolves, coyotes, etc. In Africa they’re being used to protect goat herds from cheetahs now so that farmers don’t shoot the endangered animals. There’s a neat video about it on youtube. Basic info at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kangal_Dog

I come from a southern european country that has a very strong of eating goat but this tradition is also associated with times when meat consumption was extremely rare so all recipes follow this celebratory and very rare yearly occasion: it normally consists of cooking the whole animal.

Nowadays we have the exact same problem selling goat meat- restaurants take a chance of wasting the whole animal (which is expensive), if that sunday/holiday roast doens’t attract as many patrons as they were expecting.

The strategy one regional agriculture agency proposed is a curious and effective one, which could also easily work in California: they challenged chefs to prepare dishes that used the whole animal in different recipes and also reciped that used leftovers from the roast the day before.

This allowed them to attract foodie attention to different goat dishes; get restaurants to be more inventive in using goat and increasing orders of goat meat from local shepperds.

They basically proposed a culinary solution to an agriculture problem.

After the chickens and hogs we got our first goats. I have Kinder goats, a Pygmy/Nubian cross that is a fine dual purpose meat and milk goat. I love them, especially the milk and cheese. My girls kid in a couple weeks. We will keep a doe for a new milker and a wither to grow for meat next year. It will be hard to kill the little guys though. We will sell the rest to pay for feed.

I’ve been cooking with various goat cuts since I found a local grass farmer who carries it. It is delicious, especially in Mediterranean dishes. I heart chevon!

I noticed that in the picture there is virtually no room for ground-nesting wild birds and no hedgerows or fencelines with habitat. This is a problem with intensive grazing in general.

    The photo is a random one off the internet…

    As stated earlier, it’s a vineyard but I agree that there could have been a more thoughtful design of the operation. Perhaps it’s in the long term plan.

    Yes, the photo looks like monocropped wine grapes.

    Goats do need access to shrubs and trees for browse. But if given free access, they can destroy a hedgerow. So we fence ours out of hedgerows, and then cut and bring browse to them. Or we “harvest” it from conservation groups who go around pulling invasive plants that would otherwise just get burned.

    In western North America, Scotch Broom is good for this. It’s a nitrogen fixer related to alfalfa, rich in protein, and contains lots of tannins that help to keep intestinal parasite loads down. I’d plant it if I didn’t think the neighbours and conservation groups would shoot me! Another good one is Sericea Lespodeza, but again, classified as an obnoxious weed in several western states.

They are now grazing in NC on the Evil Kudzu strangling the south, but I would hate to see Commerce get a hold of goats as something to mass market – you just know they would be feeding them corn to get them fat enough to kill in 3 days after having chained them in a dark closet for their whole short life. Let goats be the undiscovered secret!

Lovely to see a posting on goats!

A few minor nits: A female goat is a “doe,” not a “ewe.” Goat meat already has a name: “chevon.” Goat guard dogs — also called “LGDs” or “Large Guard Dogs,” are commonly Great Pyrenees, which were bred for the purpose.

Finally, it was noted that fencing is a problem. While it’s been said, “If a fence won’t hold water, it won’t hold a goat,” the key to fencing any animal is to keep it more attractive to the animal inside the fence than outside the fence. If you put your goats right next to your vegetable garden, of course they’re going to get through the fence! Rather, make sure you can rotate them in paddocks — they get bored, and fancy the stuff that grew since last week — and put them in an area with a natural buffer — a driveway, stream, barren land, etc.

We control our goats with two strands of electric, knee and hip high. In fact, they are so smart and pain-sensitive, that only about 1/10th of our fence around their home is “hot,” but the paddocks are not even electrified.

I have to second everything Deb said — thanks for saving me the trouble! Especially the part about their intelligence and personality being good and bad. Our new bucklings are so sweet and affectionate! It is hard to send something off to the butcher that runs up, jumps in your lap, and rubs their face against yours!

Hurrah for goats!

Goats have a lot going for them. They are easier to handle and manage than sheep or cattle. You can put a goat in a collar and lead it. They don’t run flat out like sheep, so are easier to manage on foot or with a stockdog. They are smart…mine follow the ATV when we go grazing and come when called (at least as well as the dogs do!) Wethers can be trained as pack animals or cart animals as well–something I keep threatening to do if gas prices keep going up. The mile to town would be doable with a goat team and cart.

But they are more fragile than sheep or cattle. Parasites bother them more…perhaps because we have not bred goats for parasite resistance as we have sheep? Feet need trimming more than sheep. We don’t have good lines of polled goats, so disbudding is a chore. Dairy wethers don’t carry much meat, so are even a greater challenge than butchering meat goats. Goats are susceptible to the same health issues as sheep (CL, soremouth, footrot, scrapie) plus CAE is a problem and eradication requires testing and bottle feeding all kids with pasturized milk in affected herds..

Goats also have personality (like pigs do, from what I’ve heard). This is a plus and a minus. They are entertaining and intelligent, but you run the risk of liking them too much to eat them. Goats have gathered a following much like purebred dogs (at least the dairy breeds I’m familiar with have), which means some of the best stock is priced like high-dollar pets, rather than commercial livestock.

I would rather have a goat than any other ruminant, though. Milking is a pleasure with one or two good goats. The milk is top notch and one goat provides plenty for a small family. Supplies are readily available online for goat care, milking, cheesemaking and other dairy pursuits. If the goats get out, you don’t have to comb the countryside. They will either be eating your fruit trees our lounging on the front porch.

The American Dairy Goat Association (http://adga.org) has lots of info on goats. Personally, my favorite breed is the Oberhasli– a medium sized Swiss breed that gives about a gallon of milk a day. Beautiful, quiet, easily handled animals that have done pretty well in our Ohio weather.

One question, Gene…what is that fence that is shown in the pictures? I can’t quite tell, but it looks interesting.

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