At this week’s G-8 ag data conference in D.C., there was no shortage of game-changing applications on display. But when rumors started going around about a “public database that is a nexus for all open source data on goat performance,” everything fell by the wayside. It’s impressive scientists created a tool for assessing all the world’s water risks, but … goats.
Dr. Tad Sonstegard with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service was happy to indulge us. He’s been working with a team of international researchers, compiling reams of data on goats — genetic variations, performance, climatic adaptability — to create the first global goat database. Sonstegard grew up on a cattle farm, and has spent years researching cows, sheep, and water buffalo.
But goats are his new darlings. We get it.
MF: So, why goats?
Dr. Tad Sonstegard: We see goats as the most sustainable, highest-impact livestock for bringing global food security.
MF: Why is that?
TS: Ninety percent of the world’s goat populations are in hunger zones. Cattle are the rich man’s livestock, but goats feed our poorest populations. They can adapt to virtually any climate, and can eat just about anything. Even salty rocks.
MF: Salty rocks?
TS: We have collaborators in Kenya that have gone out to visit goats in these barren pastures. They tell us there is literally nothing to eat but salty rocks. But they’re surviving! And we have no idea how.
TS: Goats evolve to suit their environments; that’s what makes them so great. But right now you see a lot of random breeding, without much science. If you take a goat native to your area and breed it with an outsider, you are wiping out everything natural selection has helped fix. We want to learn what makes different goats suited to their environments.
MF: What are some consequences of poor breeding choices?
TS: Sometimes well-meaning NGOs will provide goats to a community, with no sense of which breeds make sense. These goats won’t have the germ plasm that’s adapted to their environment. You can’t let them outside to graze. They probably won’t survive.
MF: Do you think goats are more valuable for their meat or their dairy products?
TS: Depends who you ask. We recently polled small, medium and large goat owners and got very different answers. Ask the woman with a handful of goats and five kids, and she’ll tell you it’s dairy; that’s how she keeps feeding her family. But the guy who owns 500 goats will tell you it’s all about the meat.
MF: So the meatiest goats fetch the highest prices?
TS: Yes, even if they aren’t adapted to their environments. Also, lots of goats get cross-bred with Boers, in some locations the most popular or valuable breed. However, it seems Boer cross goats often don’t make it to the slaughterhouse. Their perceived value to produce more meat makes them valuable for resale. Therefore, it seems they’re not consumed but rather resold to the next producer down the line. It’s like a pyramid scheme.
MF: What do you hope to do with your data?
TS: There are cultural sensitivities about telling people “These are the goats you should be breeding” so we’re hoping to educate people through community-based breeding programs. These are places where more progressive farmers will come voluntarily to learn.
MF: Last question. We know you grew up with cows, but you can tell us: do you like goats better?
TS: Now I do! Goats are my new favorite animal; cows are somewhat limited in their potential for sustainability. Besides, the dairy industry makes plenty of money without us. They can process their own data.
Photo credit: Dr. Curtis Van Tassell, USDA ARS