You might say Mel Penner has goats because of his kids. Children, that is.
Goats are just the right size for Jessica, nine, Tyler, 11, and Joshua, 15, to handle. The same goes for Mel’s wife Nita.
But ease of handling is only a small part of the reason Penner and his family have 70 to 80 Boer does on a 40-acre parcel of land just north of the Canada- U. S. border. Their real aim is to develop a goat business. And it isn’t easy.
Although goats have probably existed on Manitoba farms since the early settlers arrived, a viable goat industry has never really taken off in the province.
According to the latest census figures, Manitoba in 2006 was home to 13,159 goats on 470 farms, fewer animals than in 2000. Most are meat goats. There is only one goat dairy in the province.
Most goats are sold out of province because the market for them is undeveloped here. There were only 241 goats slaughtered in Manitoba abattoirs in 2006. Goat meat and milk sales that year were valued at a mere $3.5 million.
So why have the Penners kept at it for 10 years?
“They’re cheaper than cattle,” Mel offers. “And they’re very interesting animals.”
In fact, Mel estimates it costs only $50 a year to keep a goat, not counting overhead. The Penners grow their own hay, of which a full-size goat will eat around four pounds a day. The main expense is a special Boer goat pre-mix ration containing grain and minerals. Another is electric fencing – essential to have because otherwise a naturally curious goat will range everywhere and climb up on just about anything.
Indoor facilities and maternity pens are also essential because goats are not adapted to Manitoba-style winters.
Otherwise, the family finds goats easy to raise. The problem is in finding them.
The last time the Penners obtained a good-quality buck, they had to go all the way to Regina to do it. Mel and Nita get phone calls from as far afield as Thunder Bay, Ontario asking if they have breeding stock for sale.
“We need more breeders,” said Mel.
The Penners breed and crossbreed most of their animals for seed stock. A few are slaughtered at a provincially inspected abattoir in Carman and the carcasses sold to an ethnic grocery store in Winnipeg, where the meat is cut and packaged.
Mel says he gets a better price selling to a private buyer than through Winnipeg Livestock Sales, where sporadic goat deliveries make price discovery more difficult.
But that doesn’t mean he’ll leave his plastic recycling business in Morden and go into full-time goat production any time soon.
Currently, the province requires more infrastructure to develop a full-scale goat industry, said Mamoon Rashid, a small ruminant specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives.
Producers need more information, better access to goat products (minerals, feed, drugs), knowledgeable veterinarians and improved genetics to develop their herds, Rashid said.
He said the industry was beginning to make headway before BSE appeared in 2003, sweeping goats and other ruminants into the same net as cattle. Exports dried up, prices fell and people stopped raising goats because there was no money in them.
Although the Manitoba Goat Association has roughly 80 members, people keep dropping in and out. Only a relative handful can be considered commercial producers. Many keep only a few animals as a sideline.
The good news is that more producers are becoming serious about production and herd sizes are gradually increasing, said Rashid.
“The one achievement we have is we’re coming out of the hobby phase. That’s a good thing.”
There’s more than enough demand for goat meat in Manitoba to meet the current supply. But until more indigenous Canadians eat goat, the primary market will continue to be within the ethnic community, Rashid said.
Globally, goat is one of the most widely eaten red meats. In Rashid’s native Pakistan, which has roughly eight per cent of the world’s goats, the meat is a staple food. That’s also the case in China (the world’s largest goat producer), India (the second largest), southeast Asia, Africa and the West Indies.
People from those communities flock to the Grocery Bazaar, a Winnipeg food store where owner Mazhar Ali can’t keep up with the demand for goat meat.
“When the meat comes, we sell it the very next day. Then we wait for the next week,” he said.
Ali currently receives 10 to 13 carcasses a week from Penner and another producer through the Carman plant. He believes he could sell at least twice as many.
Customers are willing to pay a premium for Manitoba-grown goat because they find its quality superior to imported New Zealand goat, said Ali.
Some people hesitate to try goat because of its allegedly gamey flavour. But Nita Penner says that’s not true of Manitoba goat.
“It tastes like pork.” [email protected]
– MAMOON RASHID, MAFRI