This article was first published in the November-December 2007 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.
A long time ago (in the early 1880’s, or so it’s said), an itinerant farm laborer named John Tinsley arrived in Marshall County, Tennessee, in the company of four goats and an animal he called his ‘sacred cow’. The old man wore unusual garb and he spoke with an accent but exactly where he came from no one knows. J. M. Porter of Caney Spring hired John Tinsley to work for him for a spell; before long, Tinsley’s goats were the talk of the hills because they stiffened and sometimes fell over when startled. They so piqued Dr. H. H. Mayberry’s interest that he offered to buy the goats. Tinsley initially declined the doctor’s offer but eventually sold them to Mayberry for $36. About a year later, Tinsley and his sacred cow left the hills, never to be heard from again. The buck and three does he left behind with Dr. Mayberry were the first known fainting goats in Tennessee.
Mayberry raised kids from his fainting goats and sold them to farmers in Tennessee and Kentucky. Gradually they spread throughout the Southern states, where they became known as Tennessee Fainting Goats, Nervous Goats, Stiff-Leg Goats, Scare Goats and a dozen or so additional, colorful names. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, they made their way to Texas, where they evolved as bigger, meatier goats. But over time, their numbers dwindled until in 1988 they were added to the American Livestock Breed Conservancy’s* Conservation Priority list and officially declared an endangered breed. There they remain, although an ever-increasing number of hobby farmers and goat admirers are embracing this unusual, all-American breed.
Fainting Goats Don’t Faint
While many Myotonic goat breeders refer to their animals as fainting goats, Myotonic goats don’t actually faint. They’re affected by a genetic disorder called Myotonia congenita that, when the goats are startled or frightened, causes skeletal muscles, especially in their massive hindquarters, to contract, hold, and then slowly release. Episodes are painless and the goats remain awake (they often continue chewing food they have in their mouths) until the stiffness passes. According to Myotonic Goat Description, 2005 by D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD, and Barbara Roberts, accepted degrees of stiffness in registered Myotonic goats include:
- Never observed to stiffen, but other type traits are consistent, as is pedigree
- Very rarely stiffens, never falls.
- Stiffens only occasionally, and rarely falls.
- Walks normally with no swivel. The rear limbs lock up readily, the forelimbs less so, and goats with this degree of stiffness rarely fall to the ground.
- Animal walks relatively normally, although somewhat stiff in rear and with a swivel at the hip. Rarely stiffens when startled or stepping over a barrier.
- Animal always moves stiffly to some degree, and readily becomes “locked up” when startled or stepping over a low barrier.
Levels 4 and 5 are typical. Level 1 Myotonics are called “limber goats’ or “limber legs”; they’re atypical and rarely used in breeding programs. Some breeders select for extreme stiffness, others don’t, but Myotonia is the primary hallmark of the breed.
Myotonic goats are stocky, muscular, and wide in proportion to their height. They range in size from 50 pounds to 175 pounds and more; the strains developed in Texas are typically taller, heavier goats. Myotonics’ medium-size ears are carried horizontally, they have prominent eye sockets, and their facial profiles are usually concave. Most are horned; horn styles vary greatly from large and twisted, to simple, swept back horns. The average Myotonic goat is shorthaired but some have longer, thicker coats; the coat should be straight, not wavy. The most common color is black and white but Myotonics come in all colors, patterns, and markings. They’re easy keepers, adaptable, and they tend to be parasite-resistant. Most breed year round and twin and triplet births are the norm.
Myotonic Goat Owners Speak
Mike Schmitz of Pine Acres, Pine City, Minnesota is among the legion of fainting goat fanciers who breed traditional, Tennessee-style Myotonic goats. When asked how he became involved with the breed, Mike laughs. “I got my first fainting goats in 2001. I was searching the Internet for an Angora goat to get as a gift for my friend who spins; then I came across fainting goats and really wanted some. At first I was attracted to them as a novelty, as many beginning fainter breeders are, but now that I’ve had them I love their docility, their curiosity, ease of handling, and easy confinement in fencing. They come in many colors, sizes, and coat lengths. They’re usually great mothers and very hardy.
“My goats are my hobby. They give me a reason to get going every morning in any kind of weather,” Mike adds. “I find it therapeutic to just hang out with them. I enjoy planning breedings, evaluating their conformation, watching kids be born and grow. Cleaning up after them and constantly working on fencing, shelter, and feeders gives me physical activity. Unlike some breeders, I don’t expect to make money from my goats; people whose hobbies are fishing or snowmobiling or gardening don’t expect to make money from those things. However, some breeders are actively promoting their practical uses, particularly meat production. Many are opposed to that but in my opinion having a practical use is what will help preserve this breed.”
Two breeders who agree with Mike’s observation are Lisa Johnson and Pat Cotten, both of whom raise improved meat-type Myotonic goats.
Lisa and Myron Johnson of Coyote Creek Ranch near Gaineville, Florida, raise a strain of colorful black-and-white Myotonic meat goats they call Tennessee Mountain Ghosts. When asked about their goats’ unusual name, Lisa replies, “In Tennessee, goats with these markings were once known as ‘Mountain Ghosts’ because as herds of these animals roamed through the mists and valleys of the mountains, folks swore they looked like ghosts moving in and out of the shadows.”
The Johnson’s’ Myotonic Mountain Ghosts are incredibly beautiful animals; short of leg and massively built, with sleek, wildly spotted hides. They are medium-size meat goats and that, Lisa tells us, is a very good thing. “We’ve been raising goats since 1976 and it’s not uncommon for us to have 400 goats here on the ranch at any given time. In 1997 we purchased our first fullblood Boer goats, as it was our understanding that 100-pound market goats were in demand. We thought the large size and fast growth of the Boer would fit this niche, but it turns out that our best market is for 40- to 60-pound kids. Myotonic goats are a moderate-growth breed; we need growth but don’t want our kids to outgrow every holiday. With that in mind, weight gains aren’t our major concern. We’re more interested with how much it costs to maintain does throughout the year and it costs less to maintain medium-size does.”
When asked what she likes about Myotonic goats, Lisa replies, “Myotonic goats don’t jump or climb and they aren’t escape artists! We can stretch one strand of hot wire 12 inches above the ground and they stay put. Myotonic goats have a high meat-to-bone ratio and they’re feed-efficient and quiet. They’re efficient browsers and require little supplementary feeding to maintain condition. The does are extremely maternal and they’re gentle with other does’ kids. Our mature breeding bucks are non-aggressive and easily handled–we move them from field to field on leads. These are hardy goats, not requiring extra care and pampering. As medium-size goats they require less feed and less de-wormer, they take up less pasture space and can fit in smaller shelters. A producer can run twice as many head on his land as compared to larger breeds. They’re happy, healthy, well-adjusted and well-adapted.”
Pat Cotten concurs. Pat and her husband, Clark, raise Tennessee Meat Goats, TexMasters, and Boer goats on their Bending Tree Ranch near Damascus, Arkansas. Their Tennessee Meat Goats are members of a massively muscled trademarked breed developed by Suzanne Gasparotto at Onion Creek Ranch in Lohn, Texas, where Ms. Gasparotto maintains the largest herd of Myotonic goats in the United States. Pat and Clark’s Bending Tree Ranch is an Onion Creek Ranch satellite operation.
“The Myotonic breed,” Pat says, “is listed as a rare breed with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy*, so there aren’t enough of them available to be considered a slaughter animal for the meat market. However, Myotonics have a very valuable contribution to offer the meat goat industry. Research done at Virginia State University reveals a meat-to-bone ratio of 4:1, significantly higher than other breeds. Dr. Lou Nuti of Prairie View A&M University’s International Goat Research Center has proven that a six-to-ten-percent greater meat yield is achieved by using a Myotonic buck on other-breed does. This means less waste and more money in the producer’s pocket.
“Recognizing that there are many facets of the meat goat industry and some markets require larger animals, in 1995, Suzanne Gasparotto of Onion Creek Ranch began crossing Tennessee Meat Goat bucks with Boer and Boer-cross does. After many generations of select breeding, always using Myotonic and Tennessee Meat Goats as sires, she trademarked her new composite breed: the TexMaster. TexMasters are significantly Myotonic with just enough Boer to add a bit of faster growth.
“We’re sold on Myotonics and truly believe the TexMaster is the answer to the commercial meat breeders market. These goats are more laid-back than any other breeds we’ve raised. They’re more intelligent and more alert to what’s going around them. It’s hard to get one to turn its back on you; they want to face you, watching you, and it’s hard to take photos of them because of this. The bucks are docile and the does are very protective mothers and easy kidders. Both breeds are good milkers and tend to have tighter-fitting udders than Boers or other breeds. Adults don’t jump on things or tear up fencing like other breeds of goats. Best, they consume less feed than my Boers but are just as profitable. That’s an important consideration for goat meat producers.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum are miniature Myotonics raised as pets. Traditional miniature fainting goats can stand as little as 17-inches tall measured at the shoulder and weigh no more than 50 pounds. And for miniature goat enthusiasts who prefer something different, there are Miniature Silky Fainting Goats with long, flowing hair.
Miniature Silky Fainting Goats with their lustrous, floor-length coats and eye-concealing bangs are intended to resemble Silky Terrier dogs. Renee Orr, who developed the breed at Sol-Orr Farm near Lignum, Virginia, tells how these wee goats came to be.
“In the early 1990’s, fainting goat breeder, Frank Baylis, and I met Gingerwood, a registered Nigerian Dwarf buck who had a long coat and a head full of hair including thick curly bangs. He was adorable! Later, Frank bought Gingerwood and crossed him with some of his smaller fainters. Frank produced some small, long-coated fainting goats but lost interest and sold the entire herd so he could concentrate on his traditional Tennessee fainters.
“Later, Frank bought a longhaired, polled fainting buck in Alabama and more long-coated fainters started showing up. I was already breeding Nigerian Dwarfs, so I began thinking about developing a new breed the size of my Nigerians but with the distinctive look of longhaired fainters; I also thought Nigerians would add more color to the mix.
“In 1998 two long-coated fainting bucks named Bayshore’s Rogues Pierre and Bayshore’s Napoleon were born into Frank’s herd. I began breeding Pierre and Napoleon to Nigerian Dwarf does with long hair and that I knew had fainters in their background. They immediately produced long hair and some of the first-cross animals fainted.
“The look caught on and in 2005 the Miniature Silky Fainting Goat Association was born. Now we have 49 registered breeders and more than 700 registered goats in the registry. We hope your readers will join us!”
And we hope so too. Myotonic breeders have developed sturdy, colorful fainting goats of every sort and size. As a result, there are Myotonic goats for every taste and purpose–maybe even yours.