Breed Profile: Poitou Goat
The Best Goats for Cheese are a Rare Breed Goat
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Breed: Poitou goat, Poitevine goat, or Poitevin goat. In French, the female is chèvre Poitevine, while the male is bouc Poitevin.
Origin: Poitou goats are known in France as native to the Marais Poitevin, in the ancient province of Poitou, western France. Poitou goats are emblematic of the region. There is a popular legend that goats were left by Arab warriors after their defeat in 732 at the battle of Poitiers. However, in 1878 renowned animal science professor André Sanson maintained that Poitou goats were part of the gradual migration of early nomadic farmers from the Middle East (where goats were first domesticated) across the Mediterranean, then up into France, and across the Massif Central to the western lands. Here they adapted to the oceanic climate and landscape. Poitou goats are closely related to the indigenous breeds of the Massif Central. The discovery of goat bones in archaeological digs suggests that they have been present in the area for at least 5,000 years. Genetic evidence confirms the possession of an ancient gene for alpha-s1 casein, the original allele of the species, suggesting an intact descent from ancient lines.
History: Originally kept as a backyard goat or in small herds with sheep, in 1830 there were approximately 43,000 noted in the region of Poitou-Charentes. In 1876, vine crops failed due to disease caused by phylloxera and farmers turned to dairy production for income. In 1906, the first cooperative was formed to collect milk from farms with a total of 500 head. Local cheeses began to enter the market. The cooperative sought to define a standard for the breed, preferring polled lines. Similar cooperatives formed, and in 1924, there were more than 58,000 Poitou goats. Disastrously, the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in the 1920s seriously diminished livestock numbers. The cooperatives helped the farmers affected to restock with Alpine goats from the southeast of France. Consequently, many breeders switched to Alpine goats, and Poitou numbers continued to drop to 10,000 in the 1940s.
Efforts in the 1940s to establish a herdbook, set a standard, improve performance, and modernize methods did not improve numbers of Poitou goats, despite excellent results and the growing renown of the local Chabichou cheese. Breeders remained local, while the renown of the Alpine goat and the Saanen goat as dairy goat breeds spread over the country. This trend increased during the 1960s with the intensification of commercial production. In an effort to increase numbers, the herdbook started to accept the offspring of non-registered mothers if they fit the standard, and allowed non-standard colors and breeders from other regions. In 1972, herdbook administration moved out of the area and interest in the Poitevine breed waned, resulting in only 500 animals registered. Although Alpines and Saanens did not yield more milk than Poitou goats in 1970, by 1985 improvement of commercial breeds had increased their yield and suitability for intensive farming. The long hair of Poitou goats was seen as inconvenient for indoor systems.
In 1985 came the shocking news that the major local agricultural college at Melle planned to replace a prime herd of 80 Poitou goats with Alpines. An outcry from local breeders prompted Jean Christophe Sauze, a teacher at the college, to found a heritage breed protection society, the Association pour la Défense et le Développement de la Chèvre Poitevine (ADDCP). The association aims to reunite the efforts of breeders, register animals outside cooperatives, gather genealogies, prevent inbreeding, and make bucks available for artificial insemination. Soon 29 breeders joined, providing 1,000 goats and numbers have been on the increase ever since.
In 1992, the French agricultural research institute INRA studied genes involved in producing alpha-s1 casein, an important protein in cheesemaking. They found the Poitevine gene pool rich in variants which induce high levels of alpha-s1 casein production. This important news boosted the importance of the Poitou goat, seeing that Alpine and Saanen gene pools consist mainly of variants that produce less of this protein. Finance is offered in France to encourage new breeders to set up Poitevine goat dairies.
Conservation Status: Endangered — approximately 3,600 in France in 2015. Current breeding goals focus on preserving genetic biodiversity while maintaining the standard and dairy quality.
Biodiversity: The Poitou goat gene pool contains several variant genes for alpha-s1 casein. Variant A and four B variants (high production) are found in four percent and 36 percent of the population respectively, the E variant (medium production) in 38 percent, and the F variant (low production) in 11 percent. In addition, 21 percent carry the original B allele of the ancestor, indicating descent from ancient lines. Similar proportions of B alleles are found in Mediterranean breeds, supporting Sanson’s proposal of breed origin.
Standard Description: Medium-sized frame, long straight back, medium-length hair along the back and hind legs, deep chest, slim legs, strong black hoofs, long supple neck, straight nose, erect ears, and normally horns, beard, and wattles in both sexes.
Coloring: Dark brown to black, with white belly and inside legs, two white stripes each side of the head from ears to muzzle. Bucks are darker, their facial stripes fading with age.
Weight: Bucks 120–165 pounds (55–75 kg); does 105–140 pounds (40–65 kg).
Height to withers: Bucks 30–35 inches (75–90 cm); does 25–30 inches (65–75 cm).
Temperament: Peaceful, friendly, calm, easily dominated by other breeds.
Popular Use: Dairy and conservation.
Productivity: Milk yield averages 1,186 pounds (538 kg) over 249 days: butterfat 3.6 percent; protein 3.1 percent. High to medium volumes of alpha-s1 casein are found in 85 percent of the population (compared to 54 percent of Alpine and Saanen populations). This is the most important casein in cheesemaking: the milk is rich in solids and coagulates well, improving cheese yield, firmness, and texture. Cheeses made from Poitou goat milk are known to be original, flavorsome, and appealing to the senses. Local producers appreciate this breed as the best goats for milk for making goat cheese. Specialties appreciated in France are Chabichou and Mothais sur feuille.
Adaptability: Hardy browsers with a large intake. They thrive on average and rough pastures with a variety of plants. They have slowly adapted to an oceanic climate and are resistant to heat.
Quotes: A common expression in western France about the Poitevine breed is, “with the best goat we make the best cheese”: C’est avec la meilleure chèvre que l’on fait les meilleurs fromages !
Presented by Tamsin Cooper www.goatwriter.com.
Originally published in the May/June 2018 issue of Goat Journal.