Goats … quirky and useful

In Ohio, cows cover hillsides and pasture land. Traditionally, goats here have been synonymous with 4-H projects, but with changes in the American economy, demographics and lifestyle, more farmers are taking a new look at a very old domesticated animal.

Thought to be the first animal domesticated by humans, the goat is in the family Caprinae with the sheep and antelope. Artifacts and remains in the Middle East and western Asia dating back 10,000 years show that goats had become a part of society’s diet and culture at that time. Most likely, goats were the first animals used for their milk, and then became one of the most versatile animals in history, used for its meat, wool, bones and manure, used to pull carts and as a pack animal, and whose hide was used as parchment and to carry water and wine. They also make good pets.

Christopher Columbus brought goats to North America in 1493, and today goats are the fastest growing livestock segment in the United States, fueled by increasing ethnic populations and trends toward localized food production.

It was the new market for goat meat that sparked Nathan Taylor’s interest. Taylor lives on his great grandfather’s farm in Key and wanted to utilize the land and carry on the family tradition without being overwhelmed by full-time, labor-intensive farming. His mother suggested looking into goats, and Taylor’s research revealed that it’s the number one red meat in the world. He bought two Boer goats from a local breeder in 2005 and has been developing the herd and the property since. It’s family-run by Taylor, his wife Misty, and his parents, Kathy and Don Taylor. Taylor thinks the farm experience will be good for his two-year old daughter, Khloe, as she grows up. At the end of the 2011 spring breeding season, the herd consisted of 12 brood does (females,) one billy as the herd sire and 20 kids (babies.)

Boer goats were brought to the States from South Africa in the mid-1990’s. The meat is considered to be premium meat because of its consistency and high yield. In addition, much of the meat in Ohio is sold to accommodate ethnic populations familiar with the flavor of Boer meat, though in general the flavor of goat meat is likened to the taste of lamb. New consumers are trying goat meat as a red meat alternative because it is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, pork or lamb with more nutrients than poultry. Goats, like Taylor’s, can be purchased at local auctions for meat, breeding and pets.

Health concerns led Connie and David Morris to goat farming. They had been dairy farmers when she found out she had high cholesterol and was lactose intolerant. Having given up the dairy, Connie says her husband was “too young to retire.” She read about goat’s milk being lower in cholesterol and easier to digest than cow’s milk, so they purchased a Nubian (milk) goat from a local breeder for their own use (regulations prohibit the sale of raw milk.) It’s naturally homogenized, therefore more easily digested by humans in as little as 20 minutes, whereas cow milk may take up to one day to digest. Goat milk is also higher in calcium, Vitamin A and niacin than cow milk. That was a year and a half ago, and the Morris’ have since added another Nubian, a Boer and two Angoras which have produced eight kids.

Connie is a licensed cheese maker and uses both cow and goat milk, including a Cojack cheese that combines both. She sells them at the farmers markets in St. Clairsville and Bellaire. David, though he milks the goats twice daily, enjoys milking and likes having the goats around. “They do clean up the fields,” eating brush and weeds that other species don’t like.

Contrary to rumor, goats are very clean and selective about what they eat. Their digestive process breaks down almost any botanic material into usable nutrients. They prefer shrubs and bushes, but need to balance that with grasses and weeds. In fact, it is said that coffee was discovered when a shepherd noticed his goats had more energy after eating a particular bush. Their stomachs are able to break down wood, but not anything like tin cans, clothes or garbage. Short of starving to death, goats will not eat food that is rotten, soiled or lying on the ground.

Quirky and useful, goats have appealed to the likes of Abraham Lincoln (who had two at the White House) and Carl Sandburg (who insisted on posing with his for Life Magazine in 1938.) Taylor laughs about his herd’s personalities, “some are skittish; some are like having a dog,” but aside from the auctions and the products, he says watching the new crop of kids in spring, gamboling and playing, provides its own rewards.

Valenti can be reached at gvalenti@timesleaderonline.com.