Breed Profile: Somali Goat

Galla Goats Provide Somali Goat Meat, Milk, Income, and Cultural Benefits for Arid Grassland Pastoralists

Breed Profile: Somali Goat

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BREED: The Somali goat (formerly known as Galla goat) consists of regional varieties of a common gene pool extending over Somalia, eastern Ethiopia, and northern Kenya, whose classification remains ambiguous. Each community has their own name for the breed, either named for the community or a physical characteristic (for example, short ears). Recently, researchers have grouped these populations into two closely related varieties, as confirmed by genetic analysis:

  • Short-eared Somali goat of the northern and eastern Somali Region of Ethiopia, Dire Dawa, and in arid and semi-arid regions in Somalia;
  • Long-eared (or Large-White) Somali goat of the Somali Region and parts of Oromia (including the Borena zone) of Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and southern Somalia.

horn-of-africa-map
Map of areas native to Somali goats based on “Traditional area inhabited by the Somalis” by Skilla1st/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

ORIGIN: Archaeologists and geneticists believe that goats first entered the Horn of Africa from the north and east around 2000–3000 BCE. Over many centuries, animals adapted to the year-round heat and arid conditions. A nomadic pastoral system has enabled communities and livestock to find water and grazing in scrubby grassland that experiences very little rainfall within two annual rainy seasons. Centuries of human population movement has spread the foundation gene pool over a large area: the plateaus of Somaliland and the eastern basin of the Ethiopian Highlands. High levels of animal exchange between neighboring areas maintains the gene flow between herds. Consequently, there is a close genetic relationship between goats all over the zone.

The introduction of a lop-eared goat from north Africa or the Middle East (locally called Somali Arab, recognized as a Sahelian breed) by Arabian traders may be the source of the long-eared trait.

A Central Role in Pastoral Culture

HISTORY: Somali clans inhabit traditional grazing lands that extend across political borders into Ethiopia, northeast Kenya, and southern Djibouti. Traditionally, 80% of the Somali population are pastoralists, either nomadic or seasonally semi-nomadic. This tradition continues, mainly in northern and central Somalia and the Somali Region of Ethiopia. In southern Somalia, the lowlands are irrigated by two great rivers, which allow some crops to be grown alongside grassland in a mixed farming system. Somalia depends on its livestock export market (particularly of goats and sheep), which has suffered during the last seven years of drought. Approximately 65% of people in Somalia are employed in the livestock sector and 69% of the land is devoted to pasture. Domestic markets also bring important income from livestock, meat, and milk sales.

long-eared-somali-goat-herd
Long-eared Somali herd in southern Somalia. Photo by Tobin Jones for AMISOM.

Pastoralists keep mainly goats and sheep with a few cattle and camels. Animals are kept for subsistence and are the main source of income. Goats also have an important cultural significance, establishing cultural identity and maintaining social networks. Somali communities maintain strong clan-based relationships. Goats are mainly exchanged with relatives, clansmen, friends, or neighbors, although a few are purchased at market. Bucks are frequently obtained from outside the herd.

somali-goats

In Somalia herds mostly comprise 30–100 head. In Dire Dawa (eastern Ethiopia), herd sizes ranging between eight and 160 goats, and averaging 33 per household.

A study in Dire Dawa revealed goats as the main form of livestock. Families also average six sheep and smaller numbers of cattle, donkeys, and camels. Goats are mainly kept for milk, meat, and a source of income from sales by the Issa community, which extends beyond national boundaries into Djibouti and Somaliland. This border is characterized by arid grasslands and thorny brush. The Issa variety of Short-eared Somali goat is highly integrated into local culture. They are viewed as an investment and valued as gifts and payments. Females are kept within clans, whereas males may be sold at market. Therefore, selection criteria differ for breeding females and males destined for sale. Mothering ability, yield, kidding history, manageable behavior, and hardiness are most valued in does. However, in males, color, polledness, and body condition are more prized.

short-eared-Somali-goat-herd
Short-eared Somali goats in southern Djibouti. Photo by P. M. Fitzgerald for USMC.

Goats’ importance in multiple economic and cultural roles appears to be common throughout Somali communities.

Range and Diversity

CONSERVATION STATUS: Although population numbers are difficult to estimate, the landrace is very numerous in its native zone in Somalia, eastern Ethiopia, and northern Kenya. In Kenya, over six million were recorded in 2007.

BIODIVERSITY: Although salient regional variations in color, size, and ear-shape suggest distinct breeds, genetic differences are insignificant, suggesting common ancestry. More genetic variation is found between individuals of the same herd than between regional varieties. Being close to where goats were first domesticated, African goats generally have high levels of genetic diversity, allowing adaptation to different landscapes and conditions. As farmers keep the most tolerant animals that produce consistently despite harsh conditions, the genetic variation is perpetuated. Cultural practices have encouraged the circulation of herds, blending with neighboring landraces, and the inclusion of fresh bloodlines into each herd, maintaining low inbreeding levels.

boran-goats-kenya
Boran goats (a variety of Long-eared Somali), Somali sheep, and pastoralists of Marsabit, rural Kenya. Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun/flickr CC BY 2.0.

Somali Goat Characteristics

DESCRIPTION: Somali goats share a distinctive slim but well-muscled frame, with long legs and neck, straight facial profile, short spiral horns, and tail typically carried high and curved. Polled animals are common. The coat is short and smooth. The Short-eared Somali has shorter forward-pointing ears, while the Long-eared Somali’s longer ears are horizontal or semi-pendulous. The Long-eared variety also has a longer and taller body with a wider pin width, but the heart girth is similar in each type. Males have short beards, extending down the neck in the Long-eared type.

COLORING: Most have a bright white coat, sometimes with a reddish tinge or with brown or black patches or spots on head, neck and shoulders. The ground color may also be cream, brown, or black, as either a solid color or with patches or spots. Regional variations include the Boran goat (northern Kenya and southeastern Ethiopia), which has a white or pale coat, sometimes with a dark dorsal stripe, occasionally with spots or patches around the head, while the Benadir (southern Somalia) has red or black spots. The black skin is mostly apparent on the nose, hoofs, around the eyes, and under the tail.

benadir-goats
Benadir goats in southern Somalia. Photo by AMISON.

HEIGHT TO WITHERS: 24–28 in. (61–70 cm) for the Small-eared Somali and 27–30 in. (69–76 cm) for Long-eared.

WEIGHT: 55–121 lb. (25–55 kg). Long-eared Somali tend to be larger than the Short-eared varieties.

Somali Goat Versatility

POPULAR USE: Main use varies, but mostly multipurpose for subsistence or trade of live animals, meat, milk, and skins, making goats central to pastoral family income.

PRODUCTIVITY: Does are valued for their ability to provide milk and meat consistently in difficult conditions where water and forage is often scarce. Most produce a single kid at each kidding, but some varieties have recently been improved for increased twinning rate, fast growth, and meat yield. The Long-eared type yields greater quantities of milk and meat, averaging 170 lb. (77 kg/about 20 gallons) milk over 174 days (about one pint per day).

TEMPERAMENT: Friendly, easy to milk and handle.

drought-struck-somaliland
Girl tends surviving Short-eared Somali goats during the ongoing severe drought in Somaliland. Photo by Ilyas Ahmed for UNSOM.

ADAPTABILITY: Extreme aridity has resulted in hardy, thrifty, and drought-tolerant animals that can survive and produce in harsh conditions. Their small size and pale coloring help them to deal with the year-long hot climate. Black skin gives protection from the equatorial sun. They are agile, with long legs to walk long distances and reach the leaves of trees and scrub. Strong teeth avoid dental problems and promote longevity. Females up to age ten continue to breed and raise kids. Although long dry seasons may limit growth, they have the remarkable ability to compensate with accelerated growth as the rains return. Still, since 2015, severe droughts continue to devastate herds and families, due to climate change.

Sources:

  • Gebreyesus, G., Haile, A., and Dessie, T., 2012. Participatory characterization of the Short-eared Somali goat and its production environment around Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. Livestock Research for Rural Development, 24, 10.
  • Getinet-Mekuriaw, G., 2016. Molecular characterization of Ethiopian indigenous goat populations: Genetic diversity and structure, demographic dynamics and assessment of the kisspeptin gene polymorphism (Dissert., Addis Ababa).
  • Hall, S. J. G., Porter, V., Alderson, L., Sponenberg, D. P., 2016. Mason’s World Encyclopedia of Livestock Breeds and Breeding. CABI.
  • Muigai, A., Matete, G., Aden, H.H., Tapio, M., Okeyo, A.M. and Marshall, K., 2016. The indigenous farm genetic resources of Somalia: preliminary phenotypic and genotypic characterization of cattle, sheep and goats. ILRI.
  • Njoro, J.N., 2003. Community initiatives in livestock improvement: the case of Kathekani, Kenya. Community-Based Management of Animal Genetic Resources, 77.
  • Tesfaye Alemu, T., 2004. Genetic characterization of indigenous goat populations of Ethiopia using microsatellite DNA markers (Dissert., National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal).
  • Yami, A. and Merkel, R.C., 2008. Sheep and goat production handbook for Ethiopia. ESGPIP.

Lead and title photos by Tobin Jones for AU-UN IST.

Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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