Ohio farmers convert former hog farm into intensive goat herd

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John Barnhart
John Barnhart renovated a set of unused hog facilities near Wapakoneta, Ohio, to raise meat goats. He designed and built this hay feeder to hold large square bales. The pan at the bottom catches fines to reduce waste. (Photos by Gail Keck)

WAPAKONETA, Ohio — When John and Barbara Barnhart decided to expand their meat goat herd, they didn’t build new fences or facilities. Instead, they renovated a set of unused hog barns that had been left vacant after Barbara’s father scaled back his hog operation in 2012. 

The Barnharts moved goats into the renovated barns in 2015 and have built the herd to about 400 head. The goat barns are located near Wapakoneta, Ohio, in Auglaize County. The Barnharts also farm land in Putman County, where John grew up. 

Conversion

To adapt the former sow gestation and farrowing barn, the Barnharts re-built one end wall to install a door big enough for a skid loader. They also used stone and gravel screenings to fill in the shallow pits that had been used for a gravity-flow liquid hog manure system. 

Goat manure’s low moisture content and pelleted texture doesn’t lend itself to liquid manure management. Instead, the Barnharts use straw for bedded pack pens. 

The Barnharts continue to use the barn’s sidewall curtains to provide ventilation during warm weather, although they have most of the curtain area insulated and they open only the top few feet. Otherwise, too much rain might blow in, John explained. 

While goats are adaptable animals, they don’t like being wet, he said. “Goats love to be dry.” 

Besides protecting goats from the weather, using an indoor production system has virtually eliminated parasite concerns, John said. Changing the bedding breaks their life cycle. 

The barns aren’t heated, although the animals do warm the air somewhat with their body heat. A few years ago, when winter temperatures dropped to -18 degrees Fahrenheit, the main room of the barn was at 0 and the solid-walled room used for a maternity area was at 41 degrees, John said. 

The most difficult part of the renovation was putting in pens. John designed and built the fencing and gates as well as hay feeders to accommodate large square bales. 

“There was a lot of fabrication involved,” he said. 

Lifelong interest

John’s interest in goats goes back to his childhood, when he helped his dad take care of a few dairy goats.

“We basically lived on goat’s milk when I was a kid,” he recalled. 

As an adult, Barnhart worked in construction for 20 years before returning to farming. When he started raising goats again, he got some Boer breeding stock to raise meat goats, but he wasn’t impressed with their performance. 

“It was a disaster,” he said.

His Boer does frequently needed assistance kidding and the newborn kids weren’t vigorous enough to survive without help, he explained. 

After he and Barbara were married, she became interested in goats as well, and the two of them started researching better options for meat goat production. They decided to sell the Boer goats, but they were still interested in raising meat goats because demand was strong. 

Breeding

Savanna and Kiko goats
The Barnharts keep a mix of Savanna and Kiko goats, chosen for their mothering ability.

After doing some research, John settled on the Savanna breed and Barbara became interested in Kikos. Their herd now includes both breeds as well as some crossbred animals. 

They’ve found both breeds do well with minimal intervention at kidding, John said. “They’re a very, very hands-off animal.” 

Another advantage of the Savanna and Kiko breeds is that they will breed year-around, not just in the fall like some breeds. Goats have a five-month gestation period, and the Barnharts breed does all year to get a continuous supply of goats to market. 

“We get three cycles in two years if everything works appropriately,” John explained. 

For breeding, they keep a group of about 20 does with one buck. In the barn, the pens are separated with solid paneling so the groups can’t see each other. Otherwise, the bucks will try to fight through the fence, John said. 

Animal spacing

The breeding, gestation and feeding area of the barn is set up with a center aisle and pens along the outside walls. Each pen is about 36 to 40 feet long and 16 feet wide. That gives the goats room to run, John pointed out. 

When he was researching barn layouts, John looked at animal spacing guidelines for sheep, since they are similar in size. The guidelines recommend about 25 square feet per animal, but square footage is not the only consideration. 

A 7 by 7-foot pen might have the square footage needed for two goats, but it wouldn’t give them enough room to move around. Goats don’t digest their food well if they don’t have room to roam, he explained. “That rumen’s got to be moving, and for that rumen to move, they’ve got to move.” 

Although goats have a reputation for being escape artists, John said it doesn’t take anything special to keep them in.

“What does it take to hold a goat in? Food,” he explained. “They’re not going to get out if they’re not hungry.” 

After breeding, the bucks stay in with the does, as long as they are all getting along, said John. When the does are close to kidding, they are moved into individual pens in the birthing room. 

Ordinarily, the does kid without any help from the Barnharts or their full-time employee, Jessica Lemly. Someone is working in the barn eight to 10 hours every day, but they don’t need to keep watch around the clock, said John. 

Twins or triplets

The Barnharts want their does to have multiple kids, but not too many.

“They need to at least have twins for this to work,” John explained. 

Keeping a doe through a gestation for a single kid isn’t cost effective. 

“Twins are good, triplets are great, but quads are bad,” he added. 

Does have a hard time raising four kids at once; they lose too much condition during their lactation, and they are more likely to need extra attention, he explained. 

The does and newborn kids stay in the birthing pens for only a few days and then move together into group pens. 

Finishing

Jessica Lemly
Barnhart Farms employee Jessica Lemly is bottle feeding this newborn kid, but it is rare for kids to need this extra help, according to farm owner John Barnhart. His Savanna and Kiko does typically kid without assistance and get their kids up and eating quickly.

The kids will start eating grain about a month after they’re born, but the Barnharts don’t wean them until they’re about 2 and a half to 3 months old. It’s more cost effective to let them drink milk than to buy starter feed for them, John said. 

“I found out that, at the price of feed, I might as well leave them on the does. It’s the best feed there is.” 

The breeding goats and growing market goats get a grain and mineral ration along with alfalfa and grass mixed hay. The Barnharts buy the grain, but they grow the hay themselves on their land in Putnam County.

Kids go to market at 4 to 5 months when they weight 59 to 79 pounds. Smaller animals typically bring a higher price per pound, so it doesn’t pay to feed them to heavier weights, John explained. 

Bucklings don’t need to be castrated because they go to market before they mature, he added. 

“My buyer says as long as they’re not smelling like a billy goat, they don’t have to be castrated.” 

They sell mature cull animals through the local stockyard, but they take all the meat kids to Brewer Livestock, in North Vernon, Indiana, about 180 miles away. They haul loads of 30 to 60 animals, about a ton at a time. 

Specialty market

Brewer Livestock is a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspected meat processor that processes about 2,000 goats and lambs every week. The company employs Muslim butchers to process the meat following Islamic dietary rules, explained Donnie Brewer, owner of the company. 

“Everything is Zabiha Halal.” 

Most of the meat is sold to Mom and Pop retail markets that specialize in ethnic foods. Brewer Livestock also sells some meat to restaurants and to individuals.

“Goat meat is one of the largest consumed meats in the world,” Brewer noted.

It’s popular in Middle Eastern dishes as well as African, Mediterranean and Hispanic foods, he explained. 

“We serve a very varied clientele.” 

Brewer Livestock ships meat to customers within about a 250-mile radius of the processing plant. However, they draw from a larger area to get the supply of animals they need. 

Brewer buys animals from as far away as Texas and the Dakotas. American production falls far short of meeting demand in America and recent shipping delays have disrupted imports from New Zealand and Australia, Brewer added.

 That strong demand offers an opportunity for American producers, he pointed out. “It’s a growing market.”

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Gail Keck writes from her family farm, near Raymond, Ohio, where she manages the hog and cattle enterprises. She has extensive experience writing about Ohio agriculture and is a graduate of Ohio State University. She can be reached at editorial+gkeck@farmanddairy.com or at 937-578-8534.

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