NEWBURG, Pa. – After a few disappointments in other farm ventures, Sandra Miller and her partner, Ralph Jones, are developing a successful meat goat operation.
When she bought her 20-acre Civil War era farm in central Pennsylvania in 2000, she first planned to grow several acres of white peaches plus raise meat rabbits. But the Cumberland County area was then under a stone fruit quarantine due to the plum pox virus. And, the unheated barn limited rabbit breeding during the winter.
Then, a harsh winter devastated the black raspberry canes she had planted that first year.
Willing to try. Several software development associates from her information technology days in Southern California suggested meat goats. Experienced with livestock except for small ruminants, but ready for a new challenge, Miller did some research.
She learned that in 2000, the U. S. imported 450,000 meat goats. This potential market beckoned, so, in 2001, Miller started production with a pair of Boer goats.
Miller shared her experiences with a group of about 40 on a field day June 20 sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
Commercial herd. Purebred goats, Miller noted, can be quite expensive, and may not be the best producers.
While Painted Hand Farm has some pure Nubian and pure Boers, they have had more success with crossbred goats. The current herd numbers about 70.
She cautioned prospective buyers about auctions, and championed the Pennsylvania Meat Goats Association’s no-culls auction.
Miller warned about South African breeders’ attempts to breed goats with four teats (most female goats have two teats). Consequently, many goats offered for sale have malformed “fish teats,” in which the teats resemble fish tails. Since the does’ kids cannot nurse, they must be bottle-fed.
Health issues. Worm management is a big concern in goat herds.
“You don’t get rid of worms,” Miller said, “you manage them.”
In addition, since goats like to rub against things, they can get lice.
Improve your pasture. Miller urged farmers to take a class in soils to understand factors such as nutrient uptake. The pH in her fields measured only 4 when she arrived; it has reached the more desirable level of 6 today through her amendments.
Seven years ago, wild growth covered much of the diverse property that was a Christmas tree farm at one time. She showed the group an area that, prior to the goats, demanded a week of Jones’ time with a brushhog to gain control. Now, the rolling pastures reach forests, even a swamp area.
Lime, manure, compost, and trace minerals have contributed to the lushness.
Treasure, not trash. Miller counted 42 different weeds gracing the pastures, but many of Painted Hand Farm’s weeds, highly undesirable to most farmers, actually pack plenty of protein.
Broadleaf plants and brambles provide more protein than grass. Poison ivy is among those that goats savor with apparent pleasure. As the multiflora rose gets tamed by the goats, they move to another pasture.
Fencing critical. Miller warned that goats can be destructive, and she counseled new farmers to learn how to use electric fencing systems, and where to place the “hot” areas.
Some of her earlier fencing, although attractive, proved expensive. Two years ago, she tried a three-strand electric on T-posts, which contained the goats.
Miller sells USDA-certified meat at local farm markets, direct at the farm and through a Web site. She recommends testing markets, understanding customer needs, and learning about ethnic holidays.
Diversification. The farm’s heritage turkeys provide clients with an old-fashioned Thanksgiving bird and Miller plans to market yak butter from her yak in the future.
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