Linda Sparks is at the forefront of transitioning the meat goat business from backyard hobby to a strategically focused enterprise comparable to the best beef cattle operations.

Near Porum, Okla., a half-hour or so south of Muskogee, Linda runs a Kiko seedstock operation in addition to a herd of commercial does. In both cases, the emphasis is on the traits critical to meat goat profitability.

“Kikos are known for their parasite resistance, mothering ability and having vigorous kids that grow fast,” Linda observes. “So those things are what we focus on in our breeding and selection.”

Anyone in the goat business knows that parasites are the 800-lb. gorilla in the room. With dramatic health issues arising from parasites and very high potential for developing resistance to dewormers, parasite control may very well be the number one issue in meat goat production.

And even though Kikos have a high level of resistance in general, the issue commands Linda’s constant vigilance.

At Goat Hill Kikos, she checks bucks and does for parasite problems every two weeks, using the FAMACHA test to eye score for indication of anemia which is directly related to parasite burden.

“Most of our goats never need to be dewormed,” Linda says. “In our herd, a doe can get dewormed once. That’s when she’s nursing and her immune system is little down. If she needs deworming more than that, she’s done. I won’t think twice about putting a $1,000 doe in the freezer because I will not sell her to become somebody else’s problem and I sure won’t keep her in my herd.”

Requiring more than one deworming a year is one of Linda’s “big three” culling criteria. The others are poor mothering ability and bad udders and any of the three mean the animal is destined for goatburger.

Sparks also checks fecal egg counts and employs multi-species grazing to reduce parasite buildup in pastures. Running goats with cattle not only optimizes forage and browse utilization, it helps keep the parasite infestation down. Cattle are not impacted by the same parasites that affect goats. As cattle consume goat parasites in grazing, those parasites are eliminated.

Goat Hill Kikos is cooperating with the Kerr Center on a research project to measure that effect and a field day at the Sparks’ farm on May 8 will examine the topic. (Call the Kerr Center at 918-647-9123 to make a reservation by May 8).

The operation also relies on an intensive grazing system to balance pasture condition in order to maintain adequate forbs for the goats and grass for the cattle.

Checking eyes on close to 200 goats every two weeks sounds like a lot of work but Linda is set up to handle it. Her in-barn handling facility starts with a crowding tub leading to a segmented alley with guillotine gates. In a section of the plywood-sided alley, an adjustable side squeezes to accommodate any size of animal and holds four head in a row, as does the staging section behind it. Linda does the eye tests in the front alley from where goats can be directed to scales, holding pen or the working chute which is used for hoof trimming and preg-checking.

And in about an hour and a half, Linda can check 100 head of goats. Streamlining the workload is important at Goat Hill Kikos. Linda’s husband, Dave Sparks, is an Oklahoma State University Extension veterinarian whose schedule puts him away from home a lot so she handles most of the day-to-day chores herself with occasional help from a local high school student.

Growing up on a Chautauqua County, Kan., dairy farm, Linda has been a stockman her whole life, with extensive stocker and cow-calf experience. She likes the goat enterprise because she can do most of the work herself and because goat meat has become one of agriculture’s hot ticket items.

“We don’t produce enough goat to meet demand in the U.S.,” Linda, who is treasurer of the American Kiko Goat Association, points out, “and that means there is a need for high-quality seedstock as well as for goat meat.”

Goat Hill Kikos primarily sells breeding females. Their seedstock herd includes 100 percent New Zealand Kikos—DNA traceable to the first imports—as well as purebreds that are 15/16 or more Kiko.

Kiko does from the Sparks herd have found there way to Oregon, New York and a whole lot of states in between. Known for their parasite resistance and mothering ability, Goat Hill Kikos are also making a reputation for gain and growth. At the 2009 Oklahoma Meat Goat Forage Buck Performance Test, sponsored by the Kerr Center, a son of their lead herd sire, Iron Horse, was the grand champion and the farm earned the champion breeder award for having the top group of three bucks on test—all three Iron Horse sons. The test is based on an index that considers eye scores and fecal egg counts in addition to gain.

In the breeding stock herd, Linda has concentrated the genetics of the Moneymaker line, crossing with the concentrated lines of of Generator and Tasman Zorro, to produce top animals.

The commercial doe herd consists mainly of 50 percent Kikos and Linda will use Kiko bucks on them for another generation before using Boer bucks as terminal sires and Kikos for replacement does.

The meat goats are sold at 60-80 pounds, reaching that weight with a forage diet at 8-10 months of age.

“The meat goats include half to two-thirds of the buck kids from the purebred herd because we cull them pretty hard,” Linda explains. “We use an index based on growth and other factors and the buck candidates go through three cullings before we consider them good enough to be breeding animals.”

The business of building a better meat goat has a lot of similarities with the beef cattle business, Linda says, but there’s one part she especially appreciates.

“Just imagine if you had a cow that could wean off her body weight at 90 days and give you a product that’s worth $2 a pound,” she concludes. “Not all of our does can do that yet but many of them can—and each year we have more that accomplish that goal.”

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