If you're into supplying a market demand, then fence in those neglected, underbrush-choked acres out back and buy some goats. No kidding, goats are a hot commodity — especially in Arkansas.

“A goat can thrive in a place where a cow would starve to death,” said Jack Black, a goat rancher near Jacksonville, Ark. “You can put a goat on some raggedy hill and he'll think he's in heaven.”

Asked to name a faster-growing agricultural enterprise and Black comes up empty. “This isn't a pot-bellied pig fad — it's been going on for a while now. The current upswing in the markets began around 1994, when the South African Boer goats were brought in. That created a tremendous amount of interest. Boers are a heavy-meated goat and they sold for high prices. About the last decade, the goat business has been on a steep rise.”

For the last two years, the price for young goats hasn't dropped below a $1 per pound. Right now, Black said, the price is around $1.35. And people, especially in Arkansas' hill country, are paying attention.

“The market seems to be picking up even more steam,” said Jodie Pennington, Arkansas Extension dairy specialist. “Until a couple of years ago, we were a bit hesitant to recommend meat goats as a venture because markets were a concern. But now, markets appear to be expanding and demand is more than keeping pace with the supply.

“We have a number of cattle ranchers who have gotten into the goat business. Almost all of them tell me goats are more profitable than cattle.”

Black said demand is so high it's difficult to find breeding stock in the state. Several weeks ago, Black's friend traveled to Kansas to pick up some goats.

“Lots of folks are going out of state,” said Black. “I could probably sell my whole herd out with one phone call.”

Over the last 5 years, Pennington suspects that goat numbers in the state have quadrupled to “at least 60,000. But the markets are increasing everywhere. The United States still imports 50 percent of the goat meat we consume. Primarily, the market is driven by ethnic populations on the coasts.”

Arkansas' goat producers — sandwiched between the top two goat-producing states in the nation, Texas and Tennessee — typically work smaller operations with fewer than 100 nannies. While Pennington sees no end to the goat boom, there are still only a handful of producers in the state with large operations of 500 or 600 goats.

A checklist

When a perspective goat rancher approaches either Pennington or Black, the men have several points of advice. Among them:

Get breeding stock from a reputable producer.

“Lots of people just go to the local stockyard and buy whatever they see — and sometimes they get lucky and purchase great stock. But that's iffy. I advise folks to make sure and get goats from a source who will provide sound, healthy goats at a reasonable price. Don't spend a bunch of money right off the bat.”

Many Arkansas operations go to Texas for goats. But when bringing in animals from outside the state, you have to be careful, warns Pennington. “Often those goats haven't been exposed to the parasites we have in Arkansas. That can sometimes lead to dead goats.”

Make sure you have a good herd health program that includes de-worming.

The biggest problem with goats in Arkansas is parasite control.

“Parasites are a problem for goat owners across the nation, although they're more of a problem in the South,” saidPennington. “Parasites tend to be more trouble where it's warmer, wetter and humid.”

Most commercial goat operations de-worm at least three or four times per year.

“Some folks use the ‘Famacha method’ where the color of a goat's eye mucus is checked. In anemic goats, the mucus tends to be whiter, indicating parasites. If they find that condition, those goats are treated.”

The reason to use the Famacha method is to prevent overuse of de-wormers. By using a de-wormer too much, resistance can develop — “just like using herbicides or antibiotics.”

Decide how to market your goats and set up a breeding season accordingly. You want your goats kidding at the correct time.

“I kid in the wintertime, when the parasites are less bothersome,” said Black. “Any buck kids (none over 3 months old) we truck to Conway 12 days before Easter. Those goats are then taken east for Passover celebrations. This year, we got $1.20 per pound and they pay you on the spot.”

Black actually times his operation to the 12-days-before-Easter delivery date. “Since the gestation period is 5 months, I back up 8 months from there. So I put my bucks in with my does in July.”

Coyotes can be a problem

When raising goats, you must have a guard dog or a good fence to keep predators out. Some operations keep donkeys or llamas to protect the goats.

Shelter

“Some people don't worry with shelter,” said Black. “But goats do better with it.”

Black has been raising goats for over 20 years.

“Man, I was raised on goat's milk. I began studying goats back in the 1970s until 1980 before I bought our first goat. We've been raising meat goats for 15 years. Mainly, we run a mixed herd of about 35 young does on about 6 acres of good grass.”

Black said the secret to having a good, healthy goat — particularly in the winter — is to give them all the hay they can eat and just enough grain to keep their protein needs met.

Herds under timber?

Whenever he proposes the idea, Black said “lots of people look at me funny.” Still, he foresees major paper companies owning — or leasing — herds of goats.

“They can use the herds to go through those acres and acres of pine timber we have in the state and eat out the briars and honeysuckle and hardwoods. They'd eat the forest floor down and it would prevent forest fires. It would work.”

Wouldn't the goats also eat the pines?

“In my experience, one thing goats don't like to eat is pine trees. The only pine tree damage I've ever seen are from big bucks rubbing their horns on them. And that damage was only minor.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com