Field Day Recap: Grazing Goats from Pasture to Market
“Goat meat is the primary red meat consumed by the majority of the world population,” Cheryl began with, citing a Cornell University source. Although many American’s prefer beef, populations from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Caribbean – as well as many specific religious traditions – rely heavily on goat meat over other red meats.
Considering that the foreign-born population in the U.S. has doubled since 1980 to nearly 13 percent of the total population (US Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey), Cheryl and Mike Hopkins saw an opportunity. “They’re bringing their dietary preferences with them,” she explained.
So, how do Cheryl and Mike Hopkins of Frog Hollow Farm raise and market their goats? Nearly 40 people showed up to their farm near Walker, Iowa, on a comfortable August morning to find out.
They began their 30-acre farm in 2010, where they rotationally graze Boer and Kiko goats on pasture. After retiring from careers in other industries and with kids now out of the house, Cheryl and Mike describe this new venture as their dream job. But don’t be fooled by the description of a post-retirement dream job: this is an income-generating farm and every decision the Hopkins’ make is calculated. In their seven years of operation, they’ve made many adjustments to their production and marketing in order to increase efficiency and quality.
“We started out doing direct meat sales and market kids. We were selling through the Iowa Valley Food Co-op, which is basically an online farmers market. We were selling retail cuts of meat, so we had to have a grocery license in order to store that meat and then ship it and sell it through the co-op.” After spending time and effort building their direct sales accounts, their local meat locker discontinued small private label accounts. This is when Frog Hollow Farm shifted their focus from direct markets to producing market kids. “We produce and sell 60 pound market goats, primarily for Muslim markets. That’s what we do here, we do it well, and we can produce a lot of them.” The goats are sold live, between five to six months old.
The Hopkins aim for a 60 pound live market weight for their kids because they’ve found their primary market in the Muslim community will pay less for heavier kids. Cheryl’s understanding is that in these families, the carcass is often purchased whole and processed at home. Muslims don’t eat leftovers, so a 60 pound goat yields a manageable carcass size at an affordable price to feed a family.
They sometimes work with a Halal slaughter plant in Shannon, Illinois, who pays based on hanging weight. But over the last couple of years they began to take many of their goats to the local sale barn in Kalona, where a handful of buyers get orders for the Eastern US, and can pay more competitive prices. “You can hit a nice price bump if you target ethnic holidays,” added Cheryl.
Cheryl then explained how they’ve come to raise both the Boer and Kiko breeds. Boer goats traditionally have a white body with a red head and long ears. She says they get a premium for Boers because the buyers like their red head—sometimes as much as $.25 to $.30 more per pound. It’s an arid-region breed originally from South Africa and is relatively new to the US. They require routine hoof trimming, and are susceptible to parasites (which is a common problem in goats), but are very efficient at putting on muscle.
The Kiko is a production goat breed developed by extension research in New Zealand. Contrary to the Boer goats, Kikos were bred based on qualities like parasite resistance, hoof health and udder structure. “We added the Kiko because they are very well known for their maternal traits. I call them the tiger mom. They really push their kids to get up and nurse and they’re right there taking care of them, so we don’t worry about the Kiko mom,” she explained. “Don’t get me wrong, the Boers are good moms, but these are tiger moms.”
For the past couple of years they’ve been working on genetics using what Cheryl calls “very classic breeding schemes,” hoping to get some of the qualities from their Kiko goats with the distinct red heads found in the Boer goats. “Our goal is to have the cross-bred doe herd for maternal traits, low maintenance, herd health, the hooves and parasite resistance, and then use our Boer bucks to breed back and have market animals.” They’ve been happy to find that the Kiko –Boer crosses so far have retained their maternal traits.
The Hopkins production system begins in the winter with kidding in December and January— to capture the highest market prices in the spring. The kids are weaned at around 90 days (Boers around 27 pounds, Kikos slightly smaller) and will head to market anywhere between 100 and 150 days (60 pounds) in springtime.
Winter-time kidding involves high labor, as Cheryl and Mike check on the kidding barn every four hours. Newborns are moved to kidding pens for nursing and bonding with does for one to three days. When asked when winter-time kidding was worth the labor, Cheryl pointed out that winter is traditionally a slower time on their farm, and due to lower parasite pressure in winter the kids tend to do better. They use a deep bedding system throughout the barn with an insulated kidding room split into smaller pens. Lactating does have access to free-choice hay and are supplemented with soy hull pellets and shell corn. Once the kids have been in the nursery for a week or more they join the herd.
The Hopkins balance the doe’s rations for raising twins, “so if she has more than twins we’re going to take the extra and artificially rear them,” adding that if a doe has a single, she’s not earning her way: “The rule of thumb that I was always taught was the first kid pays the doe’s bill, the second kid is where you start making money.”
“We have 15 paddocks set up, thanks to our conservation project through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). We were able to subdivide our pastures into paddocks and put in what we call a three-season watering system.” It’s a one-inch water line on top of the ground, and just before freeze-up they can disconnect and drain for winter.
John Bruene, district conservationist for Linn County NRCS, described the technical and financial assistance they provided Frog Hollow Farm through EQIP starting back in 2012. The process involved several meetings and farm visits, building on the Hopkins’ goals and priorities and what they determined is appropriate for the land. Prior to Cheryl and Mike buying the farm, the land was in the Conservation Reserve Program. The ground has a 60 CSR (Corn Suitability Rating), with a mix of sand and clay soil, which lends itself well to permanent pastures.
Once a conservation plan was agreed upon, the Hopkins were able to implement the plan and get cost-share. The rate of cost-share changes each year depending on data for the value of the equipment, but for Mike and Cheryl it included $137 for each portable watering tank and $.35 per foot for portable electric fencing, among other things (see map image).
“The first thing I think every farm should vaccinate for is called “C, D and T”, she said, referring to clostridium type C, type D, and tetanus. Kids are vaccinated at 4 weeks old, and given a booster at 8 weeks old. In addition, they vaccinate for pneumonia, and does get an annual booster about 6 weeks before having kids.
“With goats and small ruminants in general, parasites are a common issue. And we’ve found that grazing management is one tool to help control parasites, as well as certain forage types have both physical and nutritional benefits.”
Through a research project in PFI’s Cooperators Program (Goat Grazing to Reduce Parasite Loads), they frost seeded forages such as sericea lespedeza, birdsfoot trefoil and chicory, which act as natural dewormers. They also moved the herd to new paddocks every 3-5 days, making sure not to allow goats to graze below 4 inches, where larvae are found.
“Worm larvae use dew and moisture to climb up grass blades. They generally don’t climb much higher than four inches, so we don’t want to graze our pastures shorter than that.” She’s also found that the worms can’t easily climb up different types of non-grass forages like legumes or forbs, which is another benefit of diversifying their pastures.
Frog Hollow Farm also participated in a research project looking at alternative free-choice minerals for goats, which Cheryl says led them to use loose mineral and has helped enhance their overall herd health. Ultimately they’ve found these pasture and mineral techniques have decreased parasite loads, resulting in a 24% reduction in dewormer use.
“The takeaway message I hope everyone can go home with, in terms of herd health, is there’s no one single thing that’s going to be magic. It’s putting these different techniques together.”
Thank you to everyone who attended the field day and asked great questions, major thanks to Mike and Cheryl Hopkins for opening up their farm, and also thanks to the field day sponsors: Linn County Soil and Water Conservation District, Premier 1 Fence, and the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust.