As Jack Black looks on in the afternoon’s fading light, a flock of guinea fowl fords tall pasture grass pecking at insects and weaving through 30, or so, multi-hued goats. Smaller kids frolic on the herd’s edge as does keep their heads down, looking for especially tempting sprigs.
The meat-goat breeding season has almost reached central Arkansas. June 21 — with the most daylight hours during the year — is the key date. After that, the days begin shortening and that triggers hormones in the does, preparing them to breed.
The bucks need no such sunlight push. No matter the time of year, if a doe is ready to breed, “it doesn’t take much for the bucks to get going,” chuckles Black, a goat rancher when he isn’t working maintenance on C-130s at the Air Force base in Jacksonville, Ark.
Black, who runs a mixed breed herd, says does from different breeds start their cycles later than others. Angoras won’t begin cycling until around September. Some dairy goats are also later. The Spanish/meat-type/pygmies are liable to breed anytime during the year.
But June 21 is the “magic day” says Black. His bucks — a young, white Kiko and “Skunk,” a veteran, black-and-white Tennessee myatonic (or “fainting”) meat goat currently kept in a backside pasture — will be turned into the does’ five acres shortly after.
The does will largely control what happens from there.
“Folks have a hard time believing it, but the doe actually picks the buck it wants to breed to,” says Black, who has worked goats since the early 1980s. “First time I watched this process was a July 4 weekend. I’d turned three bucks in with a bunch of does.
“The bucks went to different trees and set up shop. The does actually lined up — I’ve seen as many as four or five lined up — waiting to be bred by their buck of choice. Each doe nuzzles around on him and gets him riled up.”
When that doe leaves, up walks another to begin the nuzzling ritual again.
Black runs about 30 grown does and breeds primarily for the Easter market.
“I believe that’s the best market for young, 20- to 40-pound kids. They don’t have to be dehorned or castrated.”
The Easter kid sale is promoted through the Arkansas Goat Producers Association and “involves a guy out of Wisconsin, Daniel Constadine. His family runs a commercial goat dairy up there. He’s been doing the hauling for 30 years, or so.”
In a large truck, Constadine hits several Mid-South towns — his central Arkansas stop is usually around Conway — about 12 days before Easter. He weighs the goats and pays for them on the spot.
Pickups made, he then drives non-stop to a market in New York or New Jersey. By the time he arrives, the animals are already sold.
While it is known as the Easter sale, the goat market is actually tied to the Jewish Passover celebration. And Jewish customers typically want small goats.
“Their religious beliefs say the Passover meal has to be totally consumed. So they don’t want any leftovers.”
With an expanding immigrant population in the country, the demand for goat meat is undiminished. Goats are selling for $1 to $1.20 per pound.
“If the U.S. increased herds at the (current) pace, it would take 25 to 50 years to build goat populations enough to fill demand. Even with all the expansion in the industry, we’re importing at least 50 to 60 percent of the goat meat consumed.”
The quality of U.S. goats is better than what’s coming from overseas, insists Black. And the meat is fresh, which is an added draw.
Aiming for the Easter market, Black will put his bucks in with the does sometime before mid-July. Goats have a five-month gestation; the kids will drop in late November or early December. That allows them some time before any bad cold weather arrives.
There are several advantages with such a set-up, says Black.
“One is it almost totally removes the need to de-worm the youngsters. We have them to market before we’re in the parasite season.”
Other ranchers don’t like to have kids in the coldest part of the year. Black doesn’t dismiss such concerns.
“It is tough on the kids if there’s no shelter. For me, though, the advantages far outweigh the problems.”
Last year, with extreme heat and dry weather, the does didn’t cycle normally.
“Look at this pasture,” says Black gesturing towards shaded acreage with many large oaks. “There’s plenty of natural shade. The meat-type does will breed very well in this pasture in July. However, put them in a field with a barn but without trees and you’ll get almost no conception. It’s just too hot.”
In the past, Black has had over 100 goats in this five-acre pasture and the acreage is capable of handling such a herd. But Black is unlikely to do it again because “when numbers get that high, you begin defeating your operation because of parasites.”
With so many animals, grass is clipped especially low and in the morning damp parasites move a couple of inches up the grass. The goats eat the grass and ingest the parasites.
Now, with fewer animals and taller grass, “unless they begin patch grazing, the goats won’t pick up many worms.”
Last year, Black seeded this pasture with some grasses, “but nothing other than that. Eight years ago, this pasture was grown up into a thicket. I rented it, bush-hogged it that first year and got most of the unwanted saplings down. Then, the goats moved in and you can see what it looks like now: clean.”
As in row-crop agriculture, skyrocketing input costs have also hit goat ranchers. As he moves through a shaded maze of self-developed equipment — including several low-slung trailers, small pens, outbuildings, a handful of quacking mallards and exotic chickens — Black keeps up a steady, educational patter. He stops by a set of V-shaped, aluminum hayracks.
“My friend builds these out of extra exhaust pipes for $175. They easily hold two or three bales of hay.
“Input costs are rising so quickly, this really helps. Previously, we’d put a bale on each side of the barn in the morning and another bale at night. The goats would tramp a lot down into the ground, walk on it and wouldn’t eat it. And doing that increased the chances they’d pick up parasites. It was just wasteful.”
Since using the racks, “we’re feeding the same two bales every other day — or even every third day. We’ve saved at least a third our normal hay input. Plus, they aren’t picking up parasites. So we saved on hay costs, de-worming expense, and time.”
Just inside the barn is a row of containers holding a pale, custom feed containing oats, soybean meal, brewer’s yeast and vitamins. Black is also happy to provide the recipe for his custom mineral mixture: 4 cups of kelp, 0.5 cup of sulfur, 1 tablespoon of copper, 1 cup of garlic powder, 1 cup of dolomite and 2.5 cups of mineral mix.
Asked how much additional feed he provides the does, Black says not much. “Everyone thinks a fat doe is a healthy doe. But that isn’t really true. There’s a condition called ketosis that can occur. Essentially, the mother goat can’t eat enough for themselves plus two or three fetuses. That leads to the mother burning body fat and they’ll be dead before you know it.
“That’s why you don’t want to overfeed the does. I prefer them to deliver a smaller kid than to feed them too much and have problems.”
That approach means Black almost never has complications with kid births. “This year, all I’ve had to pull is one kid.”
Out back, the Kiko buck rears up, ready to playfully butt the Tennessee meat buck. Despite being taller, the Kiko would stand little chance if the bulky Skunk was inclined to fight.
“Skunk would push him around, no problem,” says Black, closing a gate behind him. “Man, they love to butt gates if they can see through them. I guarantee if you put up a gate with slats, it wouldn’t last one night. They’d enjoy splintering it into little pieces. But if they can’t see through it, they won’t butt against it. That’s why there are no gaps between the gate boards.
“You either figure these things out or find something else to do.”