November 2012 Issue

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Subscribe FREE now! Monthly issues with new articles and other educational information on meat goat health, nutrition, and management written by Suzanne W. Gasparotto of Onion Creek Ranch and Pat Cotten of Bending Tree Ranch. In all cases, it is your responsibility to obtain veterinary services and advice before using any of the information provided in these articles. Neither Suzanne Gasparotto nor Pat Cotten are veterinarians. None of the contributors to this website will be held responsible for the use of any information contained herein.

CAN GOATS BE RAISED ORGANICALLY?

Providing goat meat to the customer who seeks "organically" or "naturally" raised animals is a specialized niche market that some producers want to fulfill. Let's explore what these terms mean before we delve into how to meet this market.

What does "organically-raised" actually mean? "Organic" and "natural" mean different things to different people, and in some places, the definitions are spelled out in law. For purposes of this article, I will use the terms interchangeably.

"Organic" or "natural" can mean raised without the use of dewormers, antibiotics, or pharmaceutically-manufactured medications of any kind. It can mean that the goat is raised completely on forage/browse, without the input of any processed feed or feed additives. It can mean both. Or it can mean whatever the state or other jurisdiction in which you raise and market goats says it means. If you think that selling goats raised "organically" is a good market for you to pursue, first determine what these words mean in your area by finding out what laws, if any, have been passed defining these terms and regulating the sale of goats that meet these criteria. Just as the word "kosher" has specific meaning, so do the words "organic" and "natural," but the definition of "organic" and "natural" may vary from city to city or state to state.

Because goats are very susceptible to stomach worms and coccidia, they have adapted to protect themselves from worm and coccidia infestation by eating "from the top down" and constantly moving over many acres of land. This behavior keeps the internal parasite load low by reducing their exposure to them. Think of goats as "first cousins" to deer in how they live and eat. Under managed conditions, goats need to be rotated into fresh pasture at least every three weeks (the average life cycle of a stomach worm).

Raising goats with minimal ethical pharmaceutical (AKA "chemical") input is difficult but not impossible; however, you must have many acres of suitable land (forage/browse) that is properly

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fenced and cross-fenced for goats. The key to raising healthy goats is lots of space and rotational pasturing. This is even more true if you are trying to raise them "organically/naturally." Modern agricultural practices have produced feedstocks, chemicals, and equipment that have allowed producers to raise more on less acreage, bringing per-unit costs down dramatically. The "organic/natural" producer must go back to practices that were used when these products did not exist in order to accomplish his goals. Much more land is required, and both the cost of labor and the amount of time expended are increased. Product selling prices must be significantly higher to justify increased production costs incurred when using alternative medications and feedstocks.

If you don't have lots of suitable forage/browse, then trying to dry lot goats in large pens in smaller groups is your only option. Goats cannot survive , reproduce, and thrive on a diet of grass hay alone in a feed-lot situation. They will have to be supplementally fed. The stress induced by such crowded conditions can lead to illness and death. Overcrowding and uncleanliness lead to stomach worm and coccidia loads. To accomplish this, you must be focused daily on maintaining clean pens and water/feed troughs, and the goats must be given lots of grass hay free-choice (24/7) to keep their rumens functioning at peak efficiency. Fresh, clean water is essential on an around-the-clock basis. You would be wise to employ the services of a caprine nutritionist to ensure that the grain ration or alternative nutrient source is appropriate for confined living conditions. A loose mineral made especially for goats is essential, since vitamins and minerals that goats normally get from forage/browse won't be available to them. Special attention must be paid to selenium and copper intake. The availability of a daily exercise area is important. All of these things are true if you raise goats under any managed conditions. They become even more important (and more expensive) if the management practice used is "organic" or "natural." The question becomes "Can the organic producer make any money raising goats in this manner?"

With one exception cited below, there is currently no scientific evidence that any "natural" or "organic" product, including Diatomaceous Earth (DE), is effective against internal parasites in goats. Producers regularly encounter claims of the effectiveness of "natural" dewormers and should know that in addition to being unproven for effectiveness, these products have the additional drawback of being dangerous because effective and toxic levels are very close. Example: Wormwood is a plant-based "natural" product believed by some people to have deworming properties. In order for wormwood to achieve a level approaching effectiveness, the dosage has to be so high that it may kill the goat. Plants protect themselves from pests by producing high levels of toxins. Everything contains chemical compounds. Because a substance has been untouched by human hands does not mean that it is safe. Arsenic is a good example; there are many more. Unlike products made by pharmaceutical companies, "natural," "organic," "herbal," and "homeopathic" products are not required to submit to Food and Drug Administration examination for safety or effectiveness, so product composition can and does vary.

There is a plant that has been proven somewhat effective in controlling wormloads in goats. Sericea lespedeza, also known as chinese bush clover, is a warm season perennial legume that, when consumed by goats, has helped control stomach worms in tests run on goats eating it. It is considered an invasive species and has been designated as a noxious plant in Kansas and perhaps other states. Sericea lespedeza requires significant amounts of water to grow well; unfortunately wet climates are stomach worm friendly venues that are not conducive to raising goats. Sericea lespedeza seeds are expensive to buy, and the forb has low palatability. If goats can be trained to eat significant amounts of it, sericea lespedeza may help control stomach worms. Fecal counts are always necessary to measure effectiveness. Since goats don't perform well on a monoculture diet, other more palatable quality nutritional sources must be provided.

Kids being reared for slaughter at weaning age may be able to be managed without using commercial dewormers and coccidiosis medications if you follow a strict management program as outlined above. Adults retained for breeding purposes will have to be commercially dewormed and medicated over their lifespans unless you are willing to let them die from pneumonia, kidding complications, heavy worm infestation, or other illnesses/diseases which afflict goats. Special attention to quality nutrition may help offset the problems encountered by raising goats "organically." A well-fed animal has a much better chance of warding off illnesses. You can't starve the profit out of a goat. Goats are highly susceptible to stress that often leads to illness and even death. Goats have a high mortality rate and are easy targets for predators. Livestock guardian animals (preferably dogs) are a vital part of your goat-ranching operation. Canine guardian animals will require the administration of man-made medications in the form of rabies, parvo, distemper, corona, and other vaccines. See my article on Livestock Guardian Dogs on the Articles page of www.tennesseemeatgoats.com.

The niche market of "organically/naturally" raised goats may be somewhat successfully targeted by interested producers if they have identified their markets, are aware of the limitations discussed in this article, and are prepared to follow recommendations made to avoid health and nutrition problems. Costs -- labor, feed, and hay expenses -- will be higher than with conventionally-raised goats, but higher product prices may be able to offset them. You should also be prepared to experience higher mortality rates as a result of the decision to use unproven treatments or no treatments at all.

My personal bottom line is this: I'm interested in raising healthy goats. I'm not opposed to developing and using new medication, nutrition, and management practices, but I want to be reasonably sure that these new methods work at least as well as those I am employing now. I don't want to experiment with the health and well-being of goats who cannot tell me what is wrong, who by living outside are exposed to bacteria/viruses/other organisms and predators that can quickly make them ill or dead, and about whom there is no where near enough knowledge available about how to maintain them in optimal health and nutrition. I have enough challenges daily in raising my goats that my motto is: If it isn't broken, don't fix it.

Suzanne W. Gasparotto, Onion Creek Ranch, Texas 11-14-12


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