Goats: An overlooked pasture-raised animal

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Goats grazing in Ethiopia (iStockphoto)

Goat meat is already very popular around the world – the Washington Post claims that goat makes up almost 70 percent of the red meat eaten globally – and its popularity could increase in the U.S. because of the convergence of several things:  renewed interest in grass-fed animals; openings of new butcher shops or revitalization of old shops (such as Avedano’s in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights), and increasing numbers of U.S. residents from Latin America and South Asia. With a bit of education and experimentation by farmers, butchers, chefs and home cooks, this adaptable animal could become a key part of a return to meat raised on pastures.

Goats were the focus of a recent one-day festival at the Rockridge Market Hall in Oakland – an upscale European-style collection of food shops with a bakery, butcher, fish shop, and more. The “Go for the Goat!” festival included tastings of goat milk ice cream, goat milk caramel, goat cheese, a butchery demonstration, and a panel discussion about goat cheese, milk and meat. I attended the panel, which was moderated by Sibella Kraus, director of Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE), and comprised panelists Bob McCall, Sales & Marketing Manager for Cypress Grove Chevre (maker of the legendary Humboldt Fog); Lynn Huntsinger, Professor of Rangeland Ecology & Management, UC Berkeley (and owner of two goats); David Evans, owner of Marin Sun Farms.

Pasture’s little helpers

David Evans, who raises grass-fed cattle in northern California, depends on lush pastures to put weight on his animals and keep them healthy. Goats can play a part in that by improving the quality of pastures, he said. While cows and sheep are basically biological lawnmowers – eating grass almost exclusively – goats are browsers, eating bits of grass, bits of brush, bits of trees.  And since goats happen to like consuming certain problem species for rangelands, herds of goats can be deployed to areas of pasture that are being overrun by milk thistle or poison oak, giving grass a fighting chance to return.

Goats don’t like water, so they cause little damage to stream beds, according to Evans, and therefore can be released close to waterways.  Although Marin Sun Farms’ lease with the federal government (through the National Park Service) doesn’t currently allow goats on their lands in Marin County, through co-production arrangements, Evans sources goats from a partner in Dixon, CA, that follows Marin Sun Farms’ strict protocols for animal and ecosystem treatment.

Meaty matters

Goats and humans have been working together for about 10,000 years, so it’s not surprising that we’ve developed particular breeds for particular purposes: the La Mancha and Nubian breeds excel at producing milk; Boer goats put on weight quickly, making for a superior meat breed, and other breeds have highly efficient digestive systems that make them excellent for vegetation control. (Goat World says that “a brush goat is generally a goat that has been produced by breeders experimentation with mixing different breeds, or, a goat that is just a goat that has never been registered, or, a goat that is just a goat.”)

Although goats make up a tiny fraction of the U.S. meat market – data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) shows that there are less than half a million milk goats and about 2.5 million meat goats in the U.S., compared with the upwards of 90 million cattle and calves and more than 60 million hogs and pigs – Evans said that supply can’t keep up with the demand in the Bay Area. Part of this demand is from ethnic communities that have long traditions of eating goat (e.g., Mexico, the Middle East, South Asia) and part comes from high-end goat-loving restaurants such as Camino and Pizzaiolo in Oakland. (A 2008 San Francisco Chronicle article also mentioned such places as Oakland’s Oliveto, Berkeley’s Café Rouge, and Kokkari in San Francisco.)

We eat goats at various stages of their life cycle. One source is what Cypress Grove’s Bob McCall called the “male surplus” – the male offspring of milk goats – animals that are sold to processors before they reach one year old, mainly for a Mexican stew called birria and for Muslim communities (at the goat and sheep slaughterhouse in Dixon, one day each week is dedicated to halal slaughter). In general, however, McCall said, it’s hard to find a market for the male surplus, and they’re money losers.  For goats that are meat breeds, the main market is also animals that are less than a year old that have been given a diet that allows them to develop plenty of fat (pasture with supplements of grain).

Yet another another supply is milking ewes at the end of their productive years. Evans said that the taste is pleasant if the animal has been well fed, a bit like venison. The sheep-derived name he’s been using – “mutton” – is problematic, as most people have negative opinions of that product, so he’s looking for a new name.

Why don’t we eat more goat?

So why is demand for this meat outstripping supply, even with the “male surplus” from California’s robust goat cheese and milk industry? The panel gave a few reasons.

Evans said that goats present an economic challenge for butchers and restaurants because they are generally available only as whole animals – there is no “boxed goat” supplier from which a retailer or chef can order a box of shoulder, a box of legs, and so forth. Therefore, butchers and restaurants need to know now to sell every part of the animal. Or they need to know how to cook a whole animal, using a tool like La Caja China, as a segment of KCRW’s Good Food recorded at Tender Greens in West Hollywood recounted (audio is available for streaming or download).

An article in the Washington Post called “Goat meat, the final frontier” offers an additional bit of complexity: “Goat is still the Wild West of butchering in this country. While other animal carcasses are cut up based on standardized charts, goat has, by and large, escaped the bureaucracy. One butcher’s goat roast can be another’s goat steaks. ”

In some regions, it can be hard to find a slaughter and processing facility.  The Post article notes that the small size of a 6-to-9-month goat might yield only 40 pounds of meat, which can be an impediment to operations that normally handle much larger animals.  The Bay Area and Sacramento area don’t have that problem, Evans said, because goats are processed in facilities set up to handle the large number of sheep raised in the region.

Professor Huntsinger, who grazes two elderly goats in her backyard in Oakland, provided two additional reasons that goats that aren’t more widely adopted as meat animals: they need really good fences and are a favorite prey of coyotes. For protection, some ranchers use llamas, some use a certain breed of dog (no one on the panel could remember the name), and others use donkeys.

The panel didn’t have much to say about cooking goat meat, but from my reading and listening, I learned that one key element is that the very low fat content of the meat means that you can’t just substitute it in a recipe designed for another meat. The above-mentioned article in the Washington Post gave some tips, as does one from the San Francisco Chronicle.

More about goats and goat meat

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