Small herds have trouble turning a profit, experts say
By STEVE BROWN
YELM, Wash. -- Though U.S. demand continues to grow for goat meat, small producers still have a hard time turning a profit.
Imported goat from Australia and New Zealand, where larger herds are raised on less-expensive land, costs less at retail than goat raised in the U.S.
Dan Di Cicco and his wife, Lynda Kofford-Di Cicco, are struggling with that equation.
"We've been seriously into goats for seven or eight years now," Kofford-Di Cicco said. "Goats are slow at being profitable."
"One week they pay for themselves, three weeks they don't," Di Cicco said.
On their 29-acre Toboton Creek Ranch, about 35 miles due west of Mount Rainier, the Di Ciccos have about 200 goats, with 100 in their breeding herd.
"We started in 2000 with two goats," Di Cicco said. "We're known mostly for our bucks, which are South African Boers. We also cross them with Nubians to get good meat goats and milk goats."
The Di Ciccos have been selling at a farmers' market in Seattle, where their primary clientele is Hispanic, Indian and African immigrants.
"It's a niche market in the U.S.," Kofford-Di Cicco said. "The rest of the world is eating it. But it's hard to produce it here at a price that's affordable to ethnic groups."
Since they can't compete at the imports' price point, the Di Ciccos aim for quality. "We have high-grade, quality meat because we invest in feed," Di Cicco said. "You can see we have more meat on these animals."
"Some people get into goats as a hobby, but it's a big learning curve, and it's easy to get discouraged," Kofford-Di Cicco said. "We've rescued several fallout groups."
She said if she had 400 or 500 acres, they could raise more goats and build the profit margin. The Di Ciccos watch the weekly Texas markets and see kids going for $1.60 a pound. "We can't get that here," she said. "We're almost giving them away."
Di Cicco said each animal has about $9 to $9.50 a pound invested in it by the time it's butchered, packaged and ready to sell. They get $11 for ground and stew meat, $14 for rolled roast and up to $19 for chops.
One way to counter the price competition is by forming a pool.
Diane Hunter, president of Oregon Meat Goat Producers, described her association as "not a co-op, but a pool."
"Joining forces is the only way," she said. "Individuals can't afford their own kill facility. The seller comes to pick up goats at different farms and takes them to a certified scale."
The group was formed in 2003 with a goal to promote, market, educate and network the successful raising of meat goats. It has grown to more than 360 members.
Hunter said prices are going up for both local and imported goat meat, but there aren't enough large-scale producers to meet the demand. "You can't make a living without at least 300 producing does," she said. " It takes a lot of land. There's always a market. That isn't the problem. It's the cost."
Aaron Gillespie, show coordinator at the American Boer Goat Association, said that in Texas, where he lives, there is seasonally strong demand for "cabrito," or little goat, among the Hispanic population, especially at Easter and other holidays.
The local sales barn in San Angelo sees 3,000 to 4,000 animals a week in the slow season, 8,000 to 9,000 at peak.
"Demand is on the increase," Gillespie said. "It's my opinion that the money is in wethers and meat goats. They have more value than breeding stock."
Nancy Hall, president of the California Meat Goat Association, said meat goats are not a strong business option for a small farm. "With a small herd, it would be tough to turn a profit.
"But this is the time to get into the business," she said. "When it started, it was expensive to get full-bloods. Now they're more common."
The Di Ciccos showed off their buck Smokey, a full-blood, registered South African Boer. "He's a good representation of a true South African Boer," Kofford-Di Cicco said. "The American style for show is for the bucks to look like lambs. 'Weenie-tubes,' we call them. ...
"But we're kidding ourselves right now," she said. "We're fighting a losing battle."
"Even if we are negative, this is what we're doing," her husband said. "We've got a little profit."
Kofford-Di Cicco smiled and watched several young kids scampering around. "Luckily, we like what we do."
Toboton Creek Ranch: www.tobotoncreekenterprises.com
Oregon Meat Goat Producers: http://omgp.org
California Meat Goat Association: www.camga.org
American Boer Goat Association: www.abga.org