A variety of meat goat breeds and crosses are represented in the Western Maryland Pasture-Based Meat Goat Performance Test.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Susan Schoenian.
Meat goats are one of the fastest-growing segments of livestock production, and the demand is rising. Producers who raise cattle or sheep are adding meat goats to existing enterprises, and some producers are starting from scratch. Right now, nearly any healthy goat will command a decent price at auction, especially goats sold prior to ethnic holidays. As more breeding does are retained and the nation's goat population increases, good herd sires will mean the difference between profit and loss. Performance tests help livestock producers determine which sire is the right match for their herd.
In describing the purpose of performance tests in livestock production, Dr. Dan Waldron, Texas A&M University, says, "A central performance test is where animals from different herds are brought to one central location where performance is recorded. The rationale is that observed differences are more likely due to genetic differences, which will be passed onto offspring, rather than environmental differences, which will not be passed onto offspring. The goal of a central performance test is to identify genetic differences among animals."
Until the Western Maryland Pasture-Based Meat Goat Performance Test began six years ago, nearly all performance tests for meat goats were based on rate of gain while on feed rather than on pasture. Dr. Susan Schoenian, University of Maryland Extension sheep and goat specialist, says that the Maryland test was initiated because of the need to fill the pasture-based production niche. "Several other universities have been conducting buck tests," she said, adding that the Maryland test is patterned after the range test conducted in Texas. "But none were keeping bucks exclusively on pasture. We're not testing the diet as much as we're testing them in the environment. The goat that gains the most here is not necessarily the most efficient."
This year, the Maryland test attracted about 70 young bucks from 22 producers in 11 states. Both purebred and crossbred bucks are on test, representing variety of breeds including Spanish, Boer, Savanna, Myotonic and Kiko. Schoenian says that because Kiko breeders tend to be more production-oriented, over half of the goats on test are Kiko and Kiko crosses.
One of the main goals of the test is to evaluate the performance of the young bucks managed in a group on pasture without additional feed. Another important goal is determining internal parasite resistance (the animal's ability to resist the effect of parasites) and resilience (the animal's ability to tolerate a parasite load). "In our tests, the correlation between resistance and resilience has either been low or no," said Schoenian. "We try to help producers understand that low egg count and not needing to be dewormed are both important traits. The best bucks in our test are both - they didn't need to be dewormed, they aren't contaminating the pastures, and they're growing the best."
After the initial weigh-in and health evaluation, the young bucks are turned out and managed exclusively on pasture, with some access to browse. "Browse isn't where we have parasite problems," said Schoenian. "Larvae don't have wings. The best way to get a goat infected with parasites is on cool-season grasses." Schoenian definitely wants the young bucks exposed to parasite larvae, she says it's the only way to determine resistance and resilience.
Meat goat bucks in the Western Maryland Meat Goat Pasture-Based Meat Goat Performance Test can access water, minerals and shelter via a central laneway.
Goats are maintained in six 2-acre paddocks, each of which has access to the central laneway where Port-A-Hut shelters, minerals, water and handling facilities are located. Pasture species include Max Q tall fescue, orchard grass, clover, chicory and pearl millet. Goats are moved based on forage availability and potential exposure to infective parasite larvae rather than on a rigid schedule. Every two weeks, the bucks are gathered and evaluated. "They're weighed, then we do a FAMACHA score, body condition score, coat score and dag [fecal matter on the hindquarters] score," said Schoenian. "If they show signs of any other issues, such as external parasites or respiratory issues, we deal with it."
Goats are dewormed (or not) on an individual basis determined by FAMACHA score, body condition, coat and dag scores. A pooled fecal sample is sent to the University of Georgia, where parasitologists hatch the eggs and identify the larvae - the only way to positively identify parasite eggs. Individual fecal samples are sent to Delaware State University for fecal egg counts. The goal of deworming throughout the test is to achieve a 95 percent reduction in egg count.
Although the test does not index or place goats according to performance, animals offered for sale must achieve minimum standards for gold, silver or bronze ranking, a concept patterned after the Oklahoma meat goat test. "Goats have to meet minimum standards for functional aspects such as structure and reproduction along with growth, parasite resistance and parasite resilience," said Schoenian. "We can't compare breeds; we can only compare one buck to the next buck. The buck that does the best on our test did the best during those 100 days on those traits. If a buck has an exceptional carcass didn't perform well, the trait he has is an exceptional carcass. We might have a buck out of a good dam and had a good weaning weight but [he] doesn't do well on our test, he still has good maternal traits. We're just taking 100 days out of their lives and looking at certain traits."
In addition to the buck evaluation, the committee is conducting a companion study in which pastured goats will be compared to pen-fed goats to evaluate carcasses. Shortly after the test is completed, the goats in the carcass study will be slaughtered at a USDA facility.
Throughout the test, Schoenian maintains a blog at www.mdgoattest.blogspot.com that offers buck owners, potential buyers and interested followers information on pasture conditions, group progress and individual performance data including weight, fecal egg counts and average FAMACHA scores. Toward the end of the test, goats will be scanned for back fat and rib eye area, and that information will be added to the blog. A field day scheduled for September 24 will feature Dr. Ken Turner, research animal scientist at the Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center in Beaver, W. Va., and a youth skill-a-thon. Twelve bucks from the test will be offered through silent auction at the field day; other goats from the test will be available through private treaty.
As an extension educator, Schoenian's goal is to help producers understand concepts in livestock production so they can make their own educated decisions. She says that the quality of goats in the test has improved over the years, which means that people are paying attention to what's important. "This is a real-world test," she said. "The goats face the realities of the environment, and the test faces the realities that farmers face."
The author is a new contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania.