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Spanish goats right at home in Vernon Hill

With the growing popularity of meat goats in Halifax County, one producer in the Vernon Hill area is adding a new breed to her farm, a breed known for its hardiness, ease of kidding and natural resistance to parasites.

“We had heard a lot about the Spanish goats,” said Bonnie Brown, who with her husband, Mike, own a 42-acre farm in the western part of the county, “especially about them being easy to care for. They’ve been living in the south for over 500 years, so they’ve really adapted to the conditions of the area.”  

The Browns were especially pleased to learn that Spanish goats are more resistant to parasites, as this is a particular problem in the area.  But there were other factors, too, that helped in their decision to add this line to their herd.

 “What we really wanted were goats that have no problems with their kidding and are independent with their birthing,” she said, explaining the couple had had a terrible experience last winter when one of their favorite Boer goats had a long, difficult delivery, and both mother and kid died in the process.

“Spanish goat characteristics are desirable,” she readily admits, adding that her goal is to have a pure Spanish herd as well as other breeds. “We also plan to crossbreed with our Boers and other goats. Spanish goats are not quite as meaty as the Boers or Savannas, so a lot of people like to buy a pure Spanish goat to cross with whatever they have, so they will have hardier goats but still maintain the good carcass weight when they sell or butcher them.” 

Brown discovered that “full blood” Spanish goats are hard to come by, and there isn’t really any registering or registration per se for Spanish goats. Looking at the Spanish goat association’s website, Brown learned that the association has, through interviews and DNA testing, identified different “bloodlines” from large isolated ranches where owners had the original “old” Spanish goats and never crossed them with imported breeds. The association verifies which breeders have “full blood” Spanish goats and includes them on their website. 

“I also found out pure Spanish goats are dwindling in number because of so much cross breeding, and that they are classified by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy as a ‘watched’ heritage breed that needs to be conserved,” Brown added. 

 She explained that when Christopher Columbus’ second voyage took him into Central America, they brought the first goats to North America.  

“They did their exploring along the coast, and seeded the coast with goats so they would be there for future explorations,” said Brown. “And when the missionaries set up missions in Mexico, and what would be the southern U.S., the missions had goats, and they were all Spanish goats. Spanish goats were the only goats in this country until the colonists came with European dairy goats. In contrast, Boer goats and most other meat goat breeds did not start arriving in the U.S. until approximately 20 years ago.”

Although Spanish lines have various colors and sizes, some traits stand out. One primary distinction is the shape of their ears. Spanish goats’ ears hang somewhat horizontally, and the tips of the ears curl inward toward the goat’s face. Also, as they have bred, they have adapted to their environment and naturally “selected” the features that best help them survive. 

“Most Spanish goat bloodlines developed on ranches that were really isolated,” Brown explained. “Goat breeders on these ranches couldn’t breed with any other herds and didn’t have access to other types of goats, so they just bred their own. They were line breeding for specific characteristics such as meatiness, hardiness and productivity, and, because their goats already had such a broad genetic makeup, inbreeding was not a problem. 

“Certain characteristics became prominent for different ranches, and as a result, Spanish goat bloodlines are named after specific ranches. Today, there’s the Smoke Ridge, Baylis, Kensing and about a dozen other bloodlines.  Mine are from the Valera line.”

Brown will be talking about Spanish goats and other breeds at the Southern Virginia Meat Goat Association Goats Galore Field Day, Saturday, Sept. 15.  

She and three other Southern Virginia Meat Goat Association members will be part of a panel of goat producers who will discuss best practices and answer questions for those interested in getting started in the meat or dairy goat business.  Plus, speakers from Virginia Tech and N.C. State, also will be featured during the free, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. event, to be held at the Halifax County Agricultural Marketing Center, 1001 Fairway Lane, 3.5 miles out of the Town of Halifax on 360E. 

“I’ll be providing information about other breeds such as Myotonics and Savannas and I guess for those who don’t know what a Boer goat is, I’ll talk about where they came from and their hardiness,” said Brown. “Kikos are also an interesting breed. They came from New Zealand where they were actually feral goats. They are really hardy and outshine the Spanish in some respects such as birth rates.” 

Brown and other panel members will have some advice for those just starting out. Brown said she will stress the importance of good fencing and pastures that can support the number of goats a grower plans on having.

“And, it’s good to learn what kind of goat will fit into the farming operation they already have,” added Brown. “Your infrastructure is important as well as having enough pasture or browse. Goats need good shelter and good fencing, and you need to be realistic about how many goats you can actually support for the amount of land you have.”

Some farmers can’t wait to get started, as they are aware of the rising prices for live goats and the growing demand for goat meat and goat products. Each doe generally produces two kids at birthing and sometimes triplets. Kidding can take place as often as three times in a two-year period. 

“You can save yourself a lot of problems if you don’t overpopulate,” said Brown. “We don’t plan to have a big herd. We’ve got nice pastures, but realistically, we can’t put 50 goats out here. Then the pastures go downhill and you have really bad parasite problems. So, in order to keep this a low maintenance operation here, we are not planning to have a huge herd. It’s expensive if you have to feed them grain, but if you keep the herd small enough and don’t have to grain them, you don’t have that problem. I think the guideline is six goats per acre.”

“I like to look for local goats if you can, because they are used to the climate,” advised Brown. “You should look at more than one herd and visit the farms. The one thing you have to look out for is to make sure they are not diseased. We once drove a long, long way to get a buck, and when we got there it had lumps, or CL, and all of them had lumps, so we just turned around.”

“And I think it is important to start out small. We started out with just four, then purchased more after we learned more about them.  So many go out, buy 35 or 40 goats and think they will immediately be right in the business. But they haven’t learned just how to look for body condition or watch for signs that something might be a problem and can experience, sometimes, catastrophic losses. After you do it for a long time, you will notice as you drive by or walk by, when something doesn’t look right about that goat, and you go check it out and see what’s wrong. Or you drive by and think, ‘oh that goat doesn’t look good’.

“Just learning the tricks of the trade,” she said, “is really important. And to network with other people who have goats because that’s where you are going to learn. If you can find a mentor, that would really, be great, too.”