Originally published in the January-February 2009 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.
Click to read “Teasel and Me”, a sidebar I wrote for this article.
When Christopher Columbus’ fleet of 17 ships sailed from Cadiz on September 25, 1493, it carried 1200 settlers and everything needed to colonize the New World that Columbus discovered on his first voyage, including dogs, cats, chickens, horses, donkeys, cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats . When the fleet reached Hispañola (the island that now comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the goats that Columbus’ crew unloaded became the first to set foot on New World soil.
Goats played a primary role in Spanish exploration and colonization. Spanish sailors salted islands along nautical routes with pigs and goats, knowing they’d survive and multiply, the better to provide fresh meat on subsequent trips, and goats accompanied land route explorers as a walking meat supply, escaping, at times, to establish feral populations. Spanish colonists loved the hardy goat. While other species like cattle and sheep required grass to survive, tough, adaptable goats grazed brush, scrub, and stickers and they thrived.
In 1539, Don Francisco Vázquez de Coronado marched north out of Mexico with 83 wooden-wheeled wagons, 336 soldiers and settlers, five Franciscan padres, 552 horses, 600 mules, and 5000 sheep and goats, to settle Nuevo México. Fifty-six years later, Don Juan de Oñate rode north with more soldiers, settlers, and livestock including 2517 churra sheep and 846 goats.
Then in 1691, Don Domingo Teran de Los Rios led an exploratory expedition to East Texas, bringing with his party some 1700 sheep and goats. He was followed in the spring of 1721 by a colonizing party led by the Marqués de San Miguel de Aquayo, who recruited 500 settlers and collected 2800 horses, 4800 head of cattle, and 6400 sheep and goats to settle East Texas.
During the mid-1700’s, the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church established missions in Texas, as well as a series of 21 missions stretching north and south along the coastline of California. Each mission maintained a herd of goats. In 1832, the California missions collectively owned 1711 goats, but it was in the harsh, arid Southwest that Spanish goats truly thrived. By 1767 Father Gaspar José de Solis reported 17,000 head of sheep and goats at the San Antonio mission alone.
Meanwhile, Spain dispatched explorers and colonists to Spanish Florida, and with those parties went stalwart Spanish goats. Spanish Florida included parts of modern-day Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, an area and climate alien to goats from arid Spain, but they adapted—and quickly—to the hot, steamy American Southeast.
Until the Mayflower landed at Cape Cod in November of 1662, the only goats in all of North America were Spanish goats.
The Brush Goat Era
Ranchers in the Southwest call them Spanish goats but in the Southeast they’ve gone by many different names: wood goats in Florida, briar goats in the Carolinas, hill goats in Virginia, and scrub or brush goats everywhere throughout the South.
As time passed and even after other types came on the scene, Spanish goats remained the goat of choice in these regions. Always tough, hardy, and infinitely adaptable, they didn’t demand the pampering and supplemental feeding European goats needed, and they were kings at what they did best: clear brush.
Spanish goats flourished from the Pineywoods of Florida through the rugged Appalachians and west across the Upper South to Texas and beyond, and they didn’t need man’s help to do it. Ranches in the Southwest covered thousands of acres that untended, ran to cactus and brush. To keep it open and productive for cattle and sheep, brush control was (and is) an ongoing process and that’s where Spanish goats shine
While most Spanish goats were kept for brush control, their hides were used for leather and the goats made fine eating, too. Cabrito, kid goat barbeque, is still a favorite festive meal in the Southwest, and most ranchers who kept goats also ate them.
Angora goats took Texas by storm in the late 1800’s. Ranchers who were already involved in raising sheep found fiber goats even easier to raise. A lot of Spanish goats lost their jobs to Angoras but only for awhile, until ranchers discovered Spanish goats were better brush grubbers than their long-haired kin, whose locks liked to tangle (and get ruined) in the scrub.
The Golden Age of the Angora lasted until 1993, when Congress passed a bill implementing a three-year phase-out of the Wool Act of 1954, a program that helped subsidize the fiber industry. Over the next few years, large-scale breeders phased out thousands of fiber goats and began casting around for something to take their place.
At the same time, United States demographics were changing and a new group of goat-eaters emerged. Middle Eastern immigrants, Asians, North Africans, Latinos from around the globe, all were used to eating goat meat, especially on religious holidays and special occasions. To supply their needs, in 1989 alone the United States imported 1,200 metric tons of frozen or chilled goat meat valued at $1.7 million. So why not supply that demand here at home?
Overnight brush goats became meat goats. Some ranchers already selected for muscle and meatiness within the Spanish goat population, so Spanish meat goats filled an existing market. In the Southwest, where they’d always been the goat of choice, ranchers began raising them on a grander scale: herds of thousands graced many a Texas ranch.
Spanish goats were the only meat goats in America, save meaty-type Myotonics (fainting goats) in a few parts of the United States, until 1993, when the first North American-born Boer goats were released from quarantine in Canada and sold to breeders throughout Canada and the United States.
Right from the start, Boers were big—very big. Soon, breeders and ranchers mortgaged the farm to pay astronomical prices for the red-headed white meat goats from South Africa. Many bought a Boer buck (or a partbred Boer buck if a purebred wasn’t in their budget) and took him home to “upgrade” their Spanish herds. Boer-Spanish kids were meatier than their mothers and hardier than their South African dads; soon red-headed kids brought a premium at every sale barn.
Meat goat ranchers bred first generation and second generation does back to Boer bucks—and then something odd started happening. As the percentage of Boer in each generation increased, offspring lost the hardiness that enabled ranchers to raise Spanish goats with minimal intervention. Parasite resistance was all but lost, does began experiencing kidding problems, and trimming hooves became a routine chore. So, many large-scale goat ranchers went back to crossing low-maintenance Spanish does with Boer bucks to create fast-gaining, first-generation hybrid meat goat kids for the terminal market.
Predictably, as Spanish billies were replaced with Boer bucks, fewer Spanish kids were born. In 1990, there were 280,000 of these goats in Texas alone; in 2007 when the Spanish Goat Association was formed, only an estimated 5000 to 6000 remained in the entire USA.
What is a Spanish Goat?
In some parts of the United States, the term “Spanish goat” is used to describe any rangy goat of mongrel breeding. However, “purebred Spanish goat” is not an oxymoron. A handful of ranchers and breeders in Texas and the Southeast maintained closed herds for decades; these are today’s true Spanish goats. Others in those regions outcrossed to other breeds to some degree, but the goats they produced are of interest to Spanish goat breeders, too; the old blood runs in their veins, so they’re prime candidates for upgrading programs.
The purebred Spanish goat is a very old landrace breed shaped by natural selection and geographic isolation, so Spanish goats vary from one region (and even one ranch) to another. However, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy* in conjunction with the Spanish Goat Association established the following guidelines.
Head – Profile is usually straight or slightly convex. The ears are moderately long, and usually fall horizontally, but close to the head and alongside the face rather than out to the side. Long ears out to the side are more typical of Nubian crosses, which is a common cross with these goats.
Horns – These are usually long. On bucks they usually flare up, out laterally, and then twist at the tips. The large size and lateral twist are very typical.
Body – Spanish goats are usually somewhat rangy and large-framed rather than compact and cobby. In selected lines the rangy frame is well-filled so that meat conformation is good on those lines.
Feet and Legs – Usually the feet are strong with upright, strong pasterns. Legs are generally straight from front and rear view, with some tendency toward low degrees of “cow hocks” in some animals.
Hair Coat – Usually short; some have longer hair, especially on lower body and thighs. Some lines produce heavy cashmere coats.
Color – All colors are acceptable. Some colors that occur in pure examples can resemble the colors in other breeds, but are no indication of crossbreeding unless accompanied by other conformational evidence of crossbreeding.
Evidence of Crossbreeding – This varies with the type of goat introduced.
Nubian cross – Large horizontal or drooped ears straight out to side of head. Thick, heavy, but short horns.
Boer cross – Similar to Nubian.
Angora cross – Ears similar to Nubian crosses, excess hair.
Alpine or other Swiss dairy crosses – Shorter ears, usually upright rather than horizontal. Heavy, long horns with less twist than pure Spanish goats.
What Spanish goats of all shapes and sizes have in common is the rawhide-tough ability to survive. Kept on the rocky soil of the Southwestern states, Spanish goats’ hooves rarely (if ever) need trimming. They’re parasite resistant, even on today’s small farm. Does kid twins and triplets with ease and raise their young without assistance. This breed survived for centuries with very little help from humankind, making it America’s best choice for minimal-intervention goat production programs.
Spanish Goats Can Do
And, Spanish goats are productive. Between September 2003 and August 2005, researchers at Tennessee State University exposed 81Boer, 64 Kiko (New Zealand’s equivalent of the Spanish goat), and 59 Spanish does to bucks of their own breed in a study designed to assess doe reproductive performance on southeastern United States pastures. The does were managed together under semi-intensive conditions and kids were weaned at three months. Only 82-percent of the Boer does delivered at least one live kid, while 96-percent of the Kikos and 93-percent of the Spanish does produced at least one living kid. Litter sizes (1.9 kids each) and litter weight (6.03 kg) were the same across the board for all three breeds. However, only 72-percent of the Boer does weaned at least one kid (with a litter size at weaning of 1.55 kids), while 88-percent of the Kikos and Spanish does weaned at least one kid, with litter size at weaning of 1.65 for Kiko and 1.8 for Spanish does.
But that’s not all. More than one-fifth of the Boer does (21.50-percent) died or were culled for infertility or chronic health problems; Kikos enjoyed a survival rate of 99.1-percent and 93.9-percent of the Spanish does survived. All of the does were dewormed twice a year, but based on fecal testing, 50-percent of the Boer does required additional worming (their samples averaged parasite egg counts of 523 eggs per gram) compared to 17-percent of the Kikos (at 331 eggs per gram) and 24-percent of the Spanish does (only 233 eggs per gram). Almost three-quarters (71-percent) of the Boer does were treated for hoof scald or hoof rot, compared to 31-percent of Kiko and 39-percent of Spanish does.
The figures don’t lie: Kiko and Spanish does are considerably more parasite resistant, less prone to lameness, and more likely to raise their kids to weaning age.
Saving the Spanish Goat
Recently, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, concerned about the dwindling number of purebred Spanish goats, placed the breed on its Conservation Priority List and encouraged a contingent of long-time breeders to form a breed association and registry for Spanish goats. Formed in August of 2007, the current mission of the Spanish Goat Association is to locate America’s remaining purebred Spanish goats and to encourage the conservation breeding of America’s own meat goat breed. So far, the organization has located and documented about 5000 purebred goats and 12 bloodlines within the Spanish goat population. A registry is still evolving as members determine what type of herd book will best serve the breed.
At this writing, 16 farms and ranches and two universities are listed on the Spanish Goat Association’s breeders’ list**: 11 in Texas, two in Tennessee, and one each in Mississippi, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Montana, and California. Additional (dedicated) conservators are needed.
When we asked association founder, Justin Pitts of Ellisville, Mississippi, what advice he would give prospective conservators, he said, “Start with purebred goats and buy as many as you can. Try to breed within established bloodlines but if that’s not possible, it’s okay to cross bloodlines within pure Spanish lines. Contact the registry for a breeders’ list; we can steer you to the kind of goats you need and we’re also here to give advice.”
If you love goats and you’re looking for a conservation program that needs your hand, this is a good one. Visit the Spanish Goat Association’s information-packed Web site for an in-depth look at the breed and the old-line ranchers and farmers that kept it alive. When you do, we think you’ll be hooked.
** As of June 21, 2017, there are 194 listed breeders, with most states including Hawaii represented.